Copyright © 2014 by Michael F. Scully
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, physical or electronic, without written permission of the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages within a critical article or review.
To Griff Luneburg, who built it,
And to Doreen, Colin, and Kara, with love
Let the Revolution Begin
"For a half hour after I heard the news, I kept asking myself, 'Why would the University of Texas close the Cactus?’” The speaker is Slaid Cleaves, an Austin-based singer-songwriter, who'd performed many times on the stage of the Cactus Cafe. He was reacting to a university press release, issued near sundown on a winter Friday, that announced the impending closure of the cafe, which had hosted some of the greatest songwriting-performers of the prior three decades. Once and future stars, an astonishing number of legends, and countless hopefuls, had graced its miniature stage or, on rare occasions, larger rooms upstairs or down the hall. Billboard magazine, the music industry's commercial bible, had called the Cactus an "institution," and "an influential songwriters club," and included it in a list of fourteen "solidly respected, savvy clubs; the kinds of stages from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces."
There's no adequate way to summarize a three-decade legacy in a few paragraphs, but some summary is needed to convey the flavor of the room. Bob Dylan is the Cactus Cafe's spiritual godfather. He never played there, but many of his 1960s running buddies have, including Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Carolyn Hester, and Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary Woody, whose "Alice's Restaurant" is part of pop culture scripture. Without a doubt, songwriting-troubadours wielding acoustic guitars have been a Cactus mainstay, leading some to characterize the room as a frozen-in-time repository of a stereotypical, 1960s-style "folk music." But those who view the cafe through that narrow lens have never paid close attention.
The Cactus’ focus was contemporary roots music and within that vibrant world its performers were extraordinarily diverse. It's a very tiny venue, and many of the room’s most illustrious performers are unknown to a broad public. But Cactus performances encompass a wide stylistic range, and the artists who appear there, and their fierce devotees, fuel an ongoing American passion for original, eclectic, non-mainstream sounds. The cafe presented a young Alison Krauss, the bluegrass-inflected pop and country star, who's gone on to win more Grammys than any other woman, including an "Album of the Year" award shared with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. The pre-fame Dixie Chicks played there, as have countless others who work within the realm of so-called alternative country music, including the Cowboy Junkies, Gillian Welch, and Grammy winner Lucinda Williams.
Czech bluegrassers Druha Trava have appeared at the Cactus, and so have American bluegrass and old-time country legends Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley, plus next-wave string bands Nickel Creek and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Celebrated British songwriters Richard Thompson and Al Stewart have performed there; plus cultish, sometime-rock artists Robyn Hitchcock, Graham Parker, and Shawn Phillips. Blues artists Taj Mahal, Corey Harris, Honeyboy Edwards, John Hammond, and Shemekia Copeland appeared at the Cactus, as did Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who resisted the blues label fiercely, in favor of declaring himself an all-around "American musician."
The Cactus has hosted the famed Hot Tuna, plus Ani Di Franco, Michelle Shocked, Louden Wainwright III, Grammy recipient Shawn Colvin, genre-bending jazzmen Mose Allison and Stanley Jordan, and 21st-century hitmaker Jason Mraz, who appeared there long before the hit. Conscious of its roots, the room's hosted a multitude of beloved Texas-bred songwriters. These include Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Tish Hinojosa, Doug Sahm, Robert Earl Keen, Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, plus Grammy winner Nanci Griffith, Oscar recipient Ryan Bingham and, on dozens of occasions, the great songwriter Townes Van Zandt, gone since 1997, legendary yet largely unknown, whose signed photo hangs on the wall, stage right.
Multi-instrumentalist Oliver Rajamani has brought South Asian Indian music to the Cactus. Traditional "Celtic" music has appeared through, among others, the long-running Battlefield Band; the Irish band Cluaan; and Julie Fowlis, whom the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph predicted, "could be the first Scottish Gaelic crossover star." Cajun superstars BeauSoleil have played the room, as has Louisiana's D.L. Menard, whose French honky-tonk earned him the nickname "the Cajun Hank Williams." Rockers taking band-sabbaticals have stopped by, including Bob Mould, of Husker Du and Sugar; Gene Ween; Black Francis of the Pixies; J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and Mike Doughty, the frontman for Soul Coughing, a band whose "mix of improvisational jazz grooves, oddball samples, hip-hop, electronics, and noisy experimentalism" earned them "a widespread, enthusiastic following on college campuses."
On occasion, the Cactus has served as nothing more than an offbeat local bar. In the late 1980s, a trio called Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom began drawing 200 listeners at a time to its impromptu street performances, just across the street from the cafe. Eventually, manager Griff Luneburg invited the band inside. Its raucous Cactus shows have become part of local legend and Twang Twang frontman David Garza ultimately enjoyed a brief spin as a major label artist. Just one-day after news of the cafe’s impending demise began spreading, an Austin blogger recalled his own unknown rock band’s atypical Cactus gig:
... [we] once somehow convinced Griff to book our old band Cheezus there on a Saturday night in 1991. We wore turtlenecks, drew black Sharpie goatees on our faces and made as much contrarian racket as we could. I thought it was pretty cool that Griff made room for an obnoxious, unpracticed punk band on his stage. I don't even think he complained about all the thrown cheese products.
Through 2009, in nine consecutive annual newspaper polls, fans named the room Austin's "Best Acoustic Venue,” though many of the cafe's featured troubadours appear with full electric-band accompaniment. Offering folk, blues, country, occasional rock, “world music,” and a bit of jazz, the focus of the Cactus was never a specific genre but a non-mainstream, rootsy eclecticism, that centered on original sounds you didn’t hear everywhere else. As Austin writer Brad Buchholz put it, the "Cactus is not contrived. It's not about the hottest trend. It's simply a place that fosters intimate connection to song ..."
Nor is the Cactus merely a bar with a musical backdrop. During most performances, it looks more like a concert-hall-in-miniature than a saloon. "What happens onstage," says manager Luneburg, "is the most important thing that happens here. Alcohol is secondary. It's not like that in other clubs. For musicians, it's just a real nurturing environment." No waitstaff work the room, there’s no blender, and bartenders keep cash registers silent while a song is in progress. My regular attendance began in 1995 and I've never once been aware of a customer placing an order during a song. It happens quietly, when it happens. The staff is even mindful of the front door, careful to make certain that it never slams. The overall aesthetic is, to quote Buchholz again, “as understated as a whisper.”
Reid Nelson, a leading figure in the struggle to save the Cactus:
The attention paid to the music, the intimacy of the setting, the – I mean, Griff has created there, over the years, just a place that is so respectful of the audience, the performer, and the music, that it is unparalleled ...
Susan Svedeman, longtime Cactus bartender:
The people who come here are intelligent, cultured and well-mannered, and the fact that they are willing to seek out something different means a lot to me. They're not about Top 40 or watching TV ... At the Cactus, you're right there. You sit close to the performer. You can feel the emotion in the songs. This is no chain restaurant. You didn't choose to come to some place that's all shiny and plastic-y. You came to feel something, and that's what you get at the Cactus.
Laura Thomas, Austin native, UT graduate, and musicians' booking agent, contrasting the Cactus to other local venues:
[Elsewhere] there is always chatter and you tell them to shush and people laugh at you and tell you to go sit somewhere else.
Whereas if you shush someone at the Cactus, I mean, typically you are not the only one [doing it] and people are going to respect it. So there are just completely different rooms. There is no other room in town that has that sort of reverence for song, period.
Audrey Reynolds, business analyst for the UT provost’s office:
The Cactus ... is a listening room and it’s one of the only places that you can go in town and be assured that there’s not someone behind you who's drunk and talking ... The audience is paying attention, it’s fully engaged, the artist then, you know, kind of pays that back and it feeds off of each other. And so to me that’s really special and I get goose bumps in there sometimes.
David Kobierowski, Austin community activist and radio host:
You know the bartenders, Chris and Susan, they are so sensitive to the musician that they whisper and they are very careful getting the ice and getting the drink out, and it’s just a place where you are there to respect the music.
Notwithstanding all this good behavior, the Cactus is never stiff. There's plenty of booze and conversation between sets, loads of applause and shout-outs when a tune ends, and banter between on-stage artists and the audience. Buchholz recalls the woman who repeatedly shouted a request to Loudon Wainwright III. When he finally sang her song, she stepped the few feet from her seat to the stage and kissed him. But such exchanges, no matter how lively, are always in service of the performance.
Cliff Meltz, retired chemist and lifelong live music fan:
You go there to contribute to the musician, as well. And that makes it a very special experience ...
Most places you go, where they ask the audience to sing along or contribute, there's this vast deafening silence. And at the Cactus, that doesn't happen. The audience is really part of it. They really do try to contribute, when that happens. They're waiting for that to happen; they want that to happen.
This attentiveness is a big reason why quality artists return. Eric Bibb, a London-based singer and songwriter, says simply, "It's nice to play for people who want to listen." Austin's own Graham Weber, a talented songwriter who has headlined, served as the opening act for countless bigger names, and hosted the room's open-mic nights, sums up the view from both sides of the microphone. “As a songwriter," he says, "you can't ask for a better forum to display your work, and as a listener the sound is always great and there isn't a bad seat. It's my favorite place to both play and watch music.”
On Friday, January 29, 2010, the university stunned an unsuspecting community by declaring that this would all end. In a 5 p.m. press-release posted on the university website and sent to only two news outlets (one of them the student-run Daily Texan), UT announced that to "reduce costs and repurpose resources to better serve student needs," it would "phase out the Texas Union's Cactus Cafe" at the end of its 2010 summer session. "The decision to close the Cactus Cafe," the release continued, "was made to minimize the impact of budgetary reductions on students and to protect student core services."
The release also announced the end of an unrelated Union program titled Informal Classes, a decades-old endeavor that provided non-credit instruction to UT students, staff, and community members, in diverse subjects that ranged from massage to tax preparation to martial arts. Both programs, the university claimed, "were largely used by non-students, and in recent years ... required significant subsidies." The release offered no specifics regarding either the amount of the claimed subsidies or the percentage of non-student patrons. It closed with a statement attributed to Wm. Andrew (Andy) Smith, Jr., executive director of the Texas Union, which read, "Although popular with some audiences, these programs are no longer profitable and do not fit within the core student mission of the Texas Union and Student Affairs."
The University of Texas at Austin is a major force - geographically, economically, and culturally - within a creative city that revels in its claim to being "the live music capital of the world." As a state capital, Austin is home to thousands of government employees, as well as a large high-tech-sector, and these folks understand economic downturns. Still, given a campus budget of over $2.1 billion, people wondered why officials chose to shut down one tiny cultural jewel that, at an exceedingly modest cost, garnered national acclaim. The decision seemed to represent living proof of the old adage that some people understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Didn't seasoned UT administrators realize that tough times come and go, and that one shouldn't be too quick to jettison things of enduring value? How could administrators close the Cactus without a word of warning to its varied constituencies, which encompassed students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members? Wouldn't local music lovers, who had no hint that trouble was brewing, help solve any economic woes?
These were the questions people were asking as the news spread through local television, the internet, and a front page, above-the-fold, lead headline in the Sunday paper. "UT to close Cactus Cafe, end informal classes," declared the Austin American-Statesman, the town's sole mainstream daily, which called it "a move that has stunned Austin's music scene." As the weekend ended, more and more people were echoing the question that Slaid Cleaves had posed instinctively: Why on earth would the University of Texas close the Cactus Cafe?