Clifford Antone

The Austin music impresario on life in prison, his reading list, and the rising stars of Texas blues.

You've made a career of discovering new talent at your club. Who do you like these days?

Two sets of brothers. First of all, the Moellers—Johnny, the guitar player, and Jason, the drummer. Johnny's the only one I've seen who has the heart to play like Stevie [Ray Vaughan]. Their daddy brought them here from Denton when they were teenagers and asked me to take care of them. People do that all the time. And then the Kellers—Mike on guitar and Corey on drums. They came out of North Dakota. They grew up with [young guitarslinger] Jonny Lang and played with him, then moved down here to pursue the blues. They're really as fine as they come.

What do you mean when you say you take care of them?

Whatever they need. If they need a guitar or help with their rent. If they need to get their cars fixed.

Why do you do it?

If they can play, if they have God-given talent, I just don't have any choice. I saw it with Sue Foley. Toni Price. Susan Tedeschi—I heard her sing for five seconds before I knew she had something you can't learn. Jimmie [Vaughan] and Stevie. Kim Wilson. Angela [Strehli]. A lot of people try, but if they have that God-given thing, I know it right away.

Anyone else you like?

This young pair, Gary Clark, Jr., and Eve Monsees. He's black and she's white. I started working with them when they were fifteen and got them hooked up with Jimmie Vaughan and all the old blues guys. They're such well-mannered kids. Eve's not just a cute young girl—she's a musician with magic. Gary has a new solo record out.

On the Antone's label?

No, an independent deal.

Is that a problem for you—that you helped him, but he's recording for someone else?

You can't worry about it. That's what I did with Stevie and Jimmie. I was their manager without being their manager. I never got anything out of it, nor did I care to. I don't do it for that reason. Maybe I should. Then I wouldn't have so much trouble in my life.

Speaking of which, you recently finished serving two and a half years at a federal prison in Bastrop on drug charges. What was it like doing time?

The hardest part of being away was not being able to work. It's not like I'm a kid. I'm 53. Every minute's precious in this world. To give up two and a half years of my life was torture.

How did you spend your days?

I swept up. I'd get a broom and sweep the compound every morning. And I taught classes on the history of blues and rock and roll. Other than that, I could have been lying around all day. But when you're there, you make the most of it, so I chose to read. I read everyone's life story: Ray Charles, Aretha [Franklin], Etta James. I got a book on Little Walter and three or four on Muddy Waters. A history of Chess Records. A history of Sun Records.

Tell me about the other people inside.

It's like anyplace else: You've got good people and medium people and bad people. You know, it's not what you see on TV. It's probably not as wild as being on Sixth Street at night. I'm more scared to walk down there than anything.

And now you're home and working at the club again.

Man, we just did a Pinetop Perkins-Gatemouth Brown show. Pinetop's ninety years old—he was Muddy Waters' piano player. He's been playing with us since '75. So has Gatemouth. He's almost eighty; he's the young guy. The show started at seven. It was packed. People came to show respect for Pinetop and Gatemouth, and they got to go home early. Then, after that, we had another young blues player, Nick Curran. This kid is phenomenal. Jimmie Vaughan told me about him.

Seems like old times.

Yeah, it's just like the old days.

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