A musician's long-running love
affair with Austin
TALES OF THE CITY (This is a continuing series of personal essays grounded in Austin.)
Christine Albert's ode to Austin, the city that picked her up when she was down.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
On a hot day in June 1982, I packed my belongings into a tiny, red Ford pickup truck. Under the camper shell were a dresser, a couple of boxes of kitchen stuff, milk crates full of albums, my Martin guitar, a PA system and some clothes. I drove south and east, out of my life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and into the waiting arms of Austin, Texas.
I had visited Austin in the mid-'70s, gone dancing to Joe Ely at Soap Creek Saloon and swimming in Barton Springs. I was enamored then, but I already had a life I loved as a professional musician in Santa Fe and deep attachments there. So, I contented myself with watching Austin City Limits on TV and sharing the stage with Austin bands that came through New Mexico, and continued my infatuation from afar.
In May 1981, I played the Kerrville Folk Festival with Eliza Gilkyson — and discovered a community that welcomed us as family.
Gary P. Nunn took us to hear Nanci Griffith at Emma Jo's, Lucinda Williams at the Alamo Hotel and Uncle Walt's Band at Waterloo Ice House. I began finding reasons to return to Austin as often as possible.
But relocating to Texas would mean leaving a relationship, the safety of a town I loved and the New Mexico sky that had sheltered me since I was 16. As I'd done with most big decisions, I trusted that I would eventually know when — if ever — it was time to move from Santa Fe.
That time came in October 1981, when I was raped by an intruder in my home. Overnight, Santa Fe was no longer my safe haven, and my relationship with my boyfriend began to unravel from the strain of the trauma. Still, I remained frozen in indecision until a good friend said, "Christine, this move is so ripe, it is beginning to rot."
As if to lure me to Austin, I got a nine-week gig performing six nights a week at the Driskill Bar. For a musician, that was like having a "real job" waiting for me. By the end of my tenure there, I knew the town, other musicians to play with, and had met the man who would become my first husband and the father of my child.
I fell into my new life raw and shell-shocked, but Austin nurtured me. The alternative medical community helped me heal a serious, post-traumatic stress-related illness. I took self-defense classes to regain my courage and found therapists to help me process what had happened to me. I began working with the Austin Rape Crisis Center to channel my anger, help other survivors of sexual assault and give back to the community.
And music ... oh, the music! There were songwriters, festivals, studios, music in the parks, live radio shows, gigs and inspiration galore. Singing has always had the power to alter my attitude in a deep way. I desperately needed to let my voice fly, and Austin gave me the chance to do that.
Late one night in 1986, my little red truck broke down on the highway in San Antonio, and I was hit by a car. The drunken driver killed a 17-year-old boy who had stopped to help me.
Once again, I was devastated. Once again, Austin nursed my wounds and my spirit.
Water exercises at the old YWCA helped me regain the use of my paralyzed arm. Fellow musicians covered my shows and showered me with support. I had a tour booked in Europe, and my old friend Eliza encouraged me not to cancel but to use it as a positive goal to work toward. The music, my family and this community kept me going.
Austin has also been there for me for joyous events. Nineteen years ago, I gave birth to a fifth-generation Texan.
My son, Troupe, went to Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which presented frequent appearances by local musicians. He attended Natural Ear Music Camp in the summer, heard music at countless events in local parks, and his dad took him to see James Brown, Steve Winwood and Yes.
Not every kid has access to shows like that from birth. Having been raised in the "live music capital of the world," Troupe is writing music for video games and playing in three bands. He, too, loves Austin.
Throughout the past 25 years, I've experienced personal, creative and professional changes. After a painful divorce, I am now happily married to musician Chris Gage, and our partnership has evolved into a new artistic persona — Albert and Gage. In 2005, Chris suffered a back injury, and fellow musicians rallied to organize a benefit to help us through a tough time. I fell more deeply in love with this town that I now call home.
I have been healed by Austin music so many times and am always looking for a way to return the favor. Recently I co-founded "Swan Songs" (www.swansongs.org), a nonprofit entity that arranges private concerts for individuals facing the end of life, with their favorite regional musician or style of music.
We have organized bedside concerts featuring classical music, bagpipe music, well-known folk musicians and Elvis songs. The requests are eclectic and varied, and I'm perpetually astounded that we live in a city that can make all of these musical wishes come true.
To me, Austin is more than just "a cool place to live." After a quarter of a century here, I never feel I am giving as much to Austin as she gives to me. But I'll keep trying, because I know she'll keep giving.
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(Singer and guitarist Christine Albert makes music with her husband, Chris Gage, and lives in South Austin.)
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