Musicians off the Record

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About Musicians Off the Record

What does society look like through the eyes of musicians? How do musicians talk about their careers, the music business, race, gender, politics and the impact of their music on society?

In an ongoing project directed by University of Texas professor of communications Dr. Madeline Maxwell, students are interviewing local musicians and music industry figures. We are focusing on the renowned Austin music scene initially and plan to move on to other scenes as the project grows. The Austin focus makes sense for several reasons:

  • Its longtime influence on America's musical identity from local acts ranging from Janis Joplin and Roky Erickson to Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • The PBS series Austin City Limits, an award-winning staple of music television since 1976
  • South by Southwest—hosted since 1987 and now one of the world's greatest annual gatherings of industry professionals
  • The slogan—Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World—adopted by government officials and music fans alike on the assumption that the city has more live music venues per capita than Nashville, New York City and other musical hot spots
  • Austin is also home to over 1,200 recording artists who make a $600 million economic impact

The University of Texas has a unique claim to fame in music history. John and Alan Lomax, together responsible for the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song recordings of blues, cowboy songs and other American folk music, were both associated with UT. John Lomax grew up on a farm in Bosque County, TX and entered UT in 1895. His son Alan spent his childhood in Austin. Although he went to Choate and entered Harvard, he transferred to UT in 1933 and graduated in 1936. By the end of the 1930s, John and Alan Lomax had recorded more than 3,000 songs on 78-rpm discs. Generations have grown up with these Library of Congress recordings.

Dr. Maxwell initiated this project in 2003 after being inspired by her introduction to Lomax's work during her Texas childhood. With the support of UT Libraries staff members involved with UTOPIA, and the cooperation of Gavin Garcia, a longtime veteran of the Austin music scene, Dr. Maxwell and her students began creating a collection that the group hopes will complement previous cultural studies (such as the Lomax recordings).

John Lomax said, "My father was fired from the University of Texas for recording those dirty old cowboy songs. Cowboys were lowdown, flea-ridden and boozing, so a guy who associated with them—even though he romanticized them a lot, as my father did—was looked down on." (Jon Pareles' obituary of Alan Lomax,

"Alan Lomax, Who Raised Voice of Folk Music in U.S., Dies at 87")

The musicians we sought out occupy a different social space today. The research team found musicians not by traveling to prisons and country homes, but by identifying the key players who regularly appear in the weeklies, or are heard on airwaves or live in clubs. They are likely to have fans and groupies, and might need to engage security to keep the gatecrashers out of the studio when they come by.

We wanted to find out about their lives as working musicians. We asked them to sit down in front of a video camera and talk to us about their experiences and opinions, about what the world looks like through their eyes. The interviews were conducted by UT students, some of them in a studio on campus, some in the musicians' homes, some in venues before a gig, some in offices. All of these individuals gave generously of their time, and we are very grateful for their help and, in many cases, for the help of the managers and friends who helped to make these interviews possible.