I hang my hat in Austin, and have for 26 years now, if you don’t count the two years I spent here in the mid-seventies. Although I’m a transplant from the Midwest, I consider myself an Austinite, having done my part, I feel, to keep it weird.
Here’s how I begin my day: Arise at 6 a.m. — Feed the cat. — Take my meds and brush my teeth. — Make a beeline to Caffe Medici for my first cappuccino. Flirt with the cute baristas who are young enough to be my children. —- Drive past Whole Foods and Waterloo Records, across Lady Bird Lake, past the Green Mesquite, and on to Zilker Park and Barton Springs, a.k.a. the fountain of youth. — Swim a mile. — Swing by JuiceLand to pick up a Soul Boulder (coconut water, banana, blueberry, cherry, almond, cacao powder, brown rice protein, coconut oil, vanilla, and cinnamon—hold the brown rice protein, sub in peanut butter). — Head home.
At this point, the best part of my day is over, and the tortured songwriter must face the lonely guitar and the blank page.
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The very first time I came to Austin, it was 1976 and I was twenty years old. I left southern Illinois and moved to Texas with a country swing band called the Dixie Diesels. We were sort of the Asleep at the Wheel of Carbondale, Illinois, and I was what people in that scene referred to as the “girl singer.” The truth is, I didn’t really know from country music. I was raised on folk music, like the Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger and Judy Collins, and when the age of the “singer-songwriter” hit its peak in the early seventies, I was on board one hundred percent. But I had fallen in love with an Illinois fiddle player named Willie, so I joined his country band, and the rest is history.
On our first night in Austin, Willie and I went to the Armadillo World Headquarters, where we heard Ry Cooder and ate jalapeño-loaded nachos. The next day, we dined at the Stallion on three-patty chicken-fried steak (more jalapeños) and took a dip in Barton Springs. That evening the Dixie Diesels played our first gig at the Split Rail, a dive with an asphalt floor, where I consumed even more jalapeños and got drunk on Shiner Bock.
I was falling in love with Austin: the way the light shone; the rich, fragrant, humid air; Town Lake; Matt’s El Rancho; the always-green live oaks; and the cast of musical characters that seemed to run the town. I’m put in mind of a scene in the movie Beetlejuice, after the family has moved from New York City to suburban Connecticut. The daughter, an uber-goth teenager played by Winona Ryder, feels displaced and disoriented until she spots a gigantic black spider hanging in its web from her bedroom ceiling. She declares, “I could live here.”
I became an Austinite. I learned to two-step at the Broken Spoke and discovered Texas greats like Willis Alan Ramsey and Uncle Walt’s Band and Joe Ely. I fell in love with country music, singing and playing classics by Willie Nelson, Merle, Bob Wills, and Patsy. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d found a place I could hang my hat, somewhere I might call home.
But the Dixie Diesels broke up. Willie—the fiddler, not that Willie—and I broke up too. I was 22 and I couldn’t imagine settling down anywhere, ever. I just wanted to sing. In fact, that’s all I knew how to do. There were plenty more dues to be paid, as it turned out. I knew that someway, somehow, I wanted to make a name for myself as a musical artist, and I was dreaming big.
In 1978, two years after I’d gotten to Austin, I left town and eventually ended up in New York City, because if you can make it there . . . you know. And I did. In 1987 I sang backup vocals on one of the biggest hits of the decade—yes, that’s me harmonizing behind Suzanne Vega on “Luka”—and a year later I got signed to Columbia Records. I was making albums and traveling the world and earning a decent living. And I began to think, well, hell, I can hang my hat anywhere I want now. I can choose a real home, a house with a car in the driveway and a garden and my own front door and a cat or two. Maybe even a kid. So I came back to Austin in 1994 for the light and the sky and the smell of the air and the live oaks and Rudy’s BBQ and KGSR and Barton Springs, the fountain of youth.
Ah, the fountain of youth. I just turned 64, so that ship has sailed. Having always been a wanderer at heart, I’ve been thinking about where I might live out my days, and in so doing, I’ve had an epiphany: “Home is not where you hang your hat / Home is where you scatter your ashes.”
Sure, I know I’ll be dead and I won’t care, but there’s something about having the last say regarding the final destination of my bodily particles that’s become a point of real concern, so much so that I’ve asked my Austin-born-and-bred daughter if she has an opinion about it. But my therapist told me it really needs to be my decision.
I guess you could say this issue began to creep into my consciousness one perfect April afternoon several years back, during a barbecue at my sister’s place, in South Austin. While our children frolicked in the pool and jumped on the trampoline in the backyard, while the men grilled burgers and dogs on the deck, while the women made pie and slaw in the kitchen and sports blared on the TV in the family room, I suddenly grew lightheaded and my stomach turned. I thought, “Oh GOD NO. IT has HAPPENED. We are DUG IN.” This was not the plan; what child of the sixties has fantasies of suburban bliss? “Pleasant Valley Sunday” indeed.
Read More: The Stories Behind the Music
As that moment of horror wore off, though, I took stock. I loved my kid. I loved my house. I loved my nieces and my sister. And I loved my town. I loved my car. I loved Threadgill’s (R.I.P.). Maybe being dug in wasn’t so bad. It was certainly age-appropriate. Following this train of thought to its conclusion, I landed on the ultimate bottom line—I will probably die here. And in that kitchen that afternoon, a song lyric came to me. It went, “I’m gonna die in these four walls.” Way to liven up a picnic, Shawn!
Today, my hat is hung. These four walls—my humble abode, my daughter’s heart, my guitar, my car, the city limits of Austin, Texas—they all hold me.
And in case you’re curious, my ashes will be scattered in Barton Springs, the fountain of youth, just across the road from Chuy’s, in the dead of the night, because it’s probably illegal. But that’ll be our little secret.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.
The Stories Behind the Music
Texas musical luminaries reveal the family histories, powerful influences, and big breaks that made them the artists they are today. Read more.