Research Q&A: Dr. Penny Green and Austin Americana

A "picking circle" in Luckenbach, TX
A “picking circle” in Luckenbach, TX

                 Recently, faculty member Dr. Penny Green embarked on a research project looking at Austin’s unique music community.  We sent our intrepid blog editor to find out more in this edition of “Research Q&A.”

What’s your project about?

My project looks at the Central Texas Americana music community and how it has changed since the mid 1970s when Austin declared itself the “Live Music Capitol of the World”.  I’m focusing largely, though not exclusively, on these musicians’ economic positioning and quality of life, and how these have changed over time.

How did you get interested in this project?

Although I’ve enjoyed the “Austin Sound” since I was in grad school here in the 1970s and 1980s, I got interested in the Centex Americana music scene in about May of 2009.  I got to know some musicians who introduced me to other musicians, and I kept hearing the same thing over and over.  I kept hearing that the pay was staying the same as it had been for years and that it was getting more and more difficult to live in the Austin area.  So I figured it was time to find out whether I just happened to be talking to a small handful of disgruntled musicians or if there’s a pattern.

How does this compare to other cities?  I know that here in Austin, we’ve got some things like HAAM to try and help struggling musicians, but I can’t imagine that being enough.

I can’t presently answer that question in any definitive manner; it’s one of the things I’ll be looking at in the research.   But there was at least one musician who told me that he and his family moved to Lafayette, LA because they get paid better for the gigs and the cost of living is considerably lower.  He frequently plays in the Austin area, but Lafayette is now his home base.

Wow, that’s not good for the aforementioned “Live Music Capitol of the World” tagline.  Why is that going on?

That’s what I’m trying to find out in the research.

Do you have any hypotheses?

I’m thinking that perhaps more of the bars and other venues are no longer owned by local people; perhaps they’ve gone under corporate control.  There are also other things happening.  Americana musicians and their audiences seem to be predominantly white; at IMG_0873 (2)least that’s what I’ve observed.  As the region becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, it’s possible they’re being marginalized as the Austin music scene grows more diverse.  There’s also an age issue.  When I go to Americana live gigs, most the people there are in their mid-thirties, or older.  If you go to the Kerrville Folk Festival, for example, you’ll see a lot of gray hair.  If the population of Austin is getting younger, then that could be contributing to the marginalization process.   By the same token, we know that Austin, and perhaps much of Central Texas, is a beacon for retiring Baby Boomers; the size of the 65+ population has definitely increased over the last 10 years.  I haven’t had a chance to systematically analyze the numbers to see what’s happening to the age structure of the population.  And don’t forget about widening income inequality.  One of its most problematic consequences is an increase in the cost of living, especially the cost of housing; widening inequality is inflationary.  That’s definitely hitting musicians hard.  Another component of widening inequality is wage stagnation for most people, except those at the very top.  What appears to be happening to Americana musicians may be a special case of this more general phenomenon.

For someone who’s not familiar with the genre, how would you define Americana?

Well, that’s one of the questions we’re asking the musicians.  [laughs]  But my understanding is that Americana is a mixture of bluegrass, country western, blues, some jazz, and gospel….there’s a heavy emphasis in Americana on lyrics.  This is not “ear candy”.  It seems to appeal to an older, more mature audience.  It’s a more serious kind of music.

IMG_1141 (2)So it’s kind of building off that folk tradition of political and social activism in the lyrics?

You can definitely pick up an undercurrent of activist themes in some of the music, but not all.

What places in Austin can you still find this music?

In Austin, you can find Americana at the Cactus Café and Threadgill’s.  You can find it at the Continental Club and the Broken Spoke.  You can find it at Waterloo Icehouse.  Looking at Central Texas more broadly, you can find it at Poodie’s IMG_0726 (2)Roadhouse out Highway 71 west, Hondo’s in Fredericksburg, River City Bar and Grill in Marble Falls, and the Badu House in Llano.  There are Americana venues in San Marcos and New Braunfels.  And, of course, you can hear it in Luckenbach.   Americana musicians also play a lot of house concerts.

And if we think back 20 years ago, we would find more of this kind of music happening within Austin at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters or Threadgill’s…

The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters.  Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography
The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters. Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography

The Armadillo and Threadgill’s on North Lamar are two key venues where the “Austin Sound” was born in the early to mid-1970s.  Unfortunately, the Armadillo was torn down and replaced by a city building, I think in the early 1980s.  But as I mentioned previously, you can still hear really good Americana at Threadgill’s, both north and south.

But a lot of the downtown, central Austin action has been taken over by other music whether that be for business, cultural, or demographic reasons, as you said earlier.

That’s what I suspect, but I don’t know for sure yet.

And how are you going to know “for sure”?  What’s your methodological strategy?

Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.
Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.

I’ll be doing a number of things.  First of all, I’m conducting interviews with Central Texas Americana musicians, using snowball sampling.  I’m also looking at demographic changes that have occurred in an 11-13 county region around Austin, as well as income inequality data for those counties.  I want to see how the distribution of income and cost of living have changed over time.  I also want to interview other members of the music business: producers, maybe some members of the Austin Music Commission and probably some venue owners.  But I haven’t gotten that far yet.

I see that you have a guitar here in your office.  Do you play as well?

Dr. Penny Green
Dr. Penny Green

I played as a kid; and now I’m taking lessons from Tommy Byrd, a very talented singer-songwriter here in Austin.  Debbie Rothschild, who is a very talented Americana singer/musician, has also been helping me. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.  I’m also trying my hand at songwriting.  I want to immerse myself, as much as time permits (laugh), into the community that I’m studying.  One thing I’ve already learned is that, when you hold a full time job, as many musicians do, it’s real hard to find time to work on your music.  I look forward to continuing my work on this project.


Andrew Krebs, Vintner in residence

Finding the Time to Make the Wine
by Andrew Krebs
Andrew’s full article Social Logical Austin

Grapefruit 1I would like to take this opportunity to share my balancing approach. For the past couple of years, I have been passionately involved in making my own wine. In a lot of ways, being a graduate student is like being a vintner. Really, there are just so many parallels. The more I think about it, the more I see that in order to make a fine wine, you’ve got to plan, prepare and look for inspiration. How is that not like conducting social science research? For instance, winemakers keep detailed notes about their recipes. Without a written log, the wine cannot be replicated or even tweaked for future attempts. Researchers, ring a bell? Winemakers, like published academics, also need to have patience through the process. Those of us who make wine understand that you can’t drink the solution right away. Similarly, most researchers can’t publish without a few rounds of revisions.

Hannah Arendt


By Kevin Hsu

In May 1960, a high-ranking Nazi SS officer who had escaped from US custody after the war and been in hiding with his family in Buenos Aires for ten years was found and captured by agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. In April the next year he was brought to trial in Jerusalem for his involvement from 1942-44 in the overseeing of the deportation of close to 500,000 Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. He was indicted on a number of charges, one of them being crimes against humanity.

At the time, a prominent professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research (as it was called then), and a Jewish refugee from Germany herself, offered to travel to Jerusalem, to the very ‘Beth Hamishpath’—House of Justice (though some people say it should be more accurately translated as ‘House of Judgment’)—to cover the trial for The New Yorker, claiming it would be her last opportunity to see a major Nazi ‘in the flesh.’ Her report, published in 1963 and later as a book, engendered a great deal of controversy that led to a string of personal and professional falling-outs.

This is the subject of the movie Hannah Arendt.

I remember when I was in graduate school I went to a seminar by Margarethe von Trotta, the director of the movie. I hadn’t heard of her before. The students had just seen a new movie by Volker Schlöndorff the previous night. I didn’t think too much of it, so when I learned von Trotta had been married to him, I can’t well say I didn’t harbor some prejudices already before attending the seminar.

Actually I don’t remember much from the seminar, except von Trotta herself. Even though it was August, the weather in the Swiss Alps was cold and wet. She wore a red fringed shawl over a black linen blazer, a black turtleneck sweater, black suit pants, and flats, also black. About sixty years old, she had on dangling, gold and red coral earrings, a fountain of platinum-tinted silver hair splashing onto her shoulders, framing a squarish, lined, somewhat coarse face—razor lips, scythe nose, blue-gray eyes shining, as if with the gleam of a sword just drawn. There were a red coral bangle and thin gold bracelet on her left wrist. She had a habit of pushing the sleeves of her blazer up with her hands as she talked, like she was getting ready to dig deeply into something, and every time she did so the bangle and bracelet on her wrist clanged and clacked, stringing together a beaded curtain through which her low hoary voice would pace back and forth. 

In the next three days we watched The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, Marianne and Juliane, Rosa Luxemburg (the actress who played Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa, was also the lead in those two movies), and Rosenstrasse, another film about the Holocaust. It was practically a crash course in New German Cinema.

Honestly I can’t say I like her movies, including Hannah Arendt. By ‘art house’ standards, they don’t stand out in terms of aesthetics or style. By Hollywood standards, there aren’t enough, if any, explosions, car chases, special effects, beautiful actors, beautiful actresses, plot twists, or product, or ‘lifestyle,’ placements. Von Trotta’s movies tend to be ‘just enough’ movies—just enough historical backdrop, just enough close-up moments, just enough plotting and intrigue, just enough presenting of different perspectives, just profound enough dialogue, just memorable enough actors, just enough music, just enough ambiguity. They cover all the bases. It’s as if she were merely ticking off a list. They are very ‘efficient’ movies. If they had a temperature, it would be 70°F—standard room temperature. In person, however, she is very likeable—affable and generous, yet straightforward and sharp. Just very genuine, real. Very 98.6°F. It’s as if her works took her warmth and coolness, poured them into the same pot and made them simply lukewarm. I like her more than her movies. Often you like somebody’s work only to be disappointed, even disgusted, when you finally see the man or woman ‘behind the candelabra’ (like Heidegger); more rarely, it seems, does who they are actually surprise you by being better, and more interesting, than what they do. If I had a choice I would definitely choose to meet and be the latter.    

Hannah Arendt in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil,’ about how people can depersonalize and dehumanize other people when they simply follow the rules, or ‘follow orders.’ Then all sorts of acts and atrocities can be justified and committed against a number, a statistic, an abstract entity, or something ‘unworthy,’ in the name of whatever the rules and orders serve—often ‘the Good,’ with everything ‘the Good’ is against then coming to be seen as ‘bad,’ or even ‘evil.’ Arendt attributed Eichmann’s actions and these kinds of actions in general to the perpetrators’ ‘inability to think.’ However, a lot of people, for some reason, seem to leave off what she said immediately after that—‘namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’

Frankly put, what Arendt is talking about is really selfishness.

Osamu Dazai in 1948 wrote a story about a woman in dire financial straits and at the end of her rope who was desperately trying to plead with a banker for help, but the banker, a model husband and father who arrived home from work punctually every day, simply told her he had to get off of work at 5 pm and to come back the next day during normal business hours. The woman, having nowhere to go, committed suicide that evening. Osamu Dazai’s conclusion was: ‘Home is the root of all evil.’

Arendt herself observed that Eichmann was an irreproachable husband, father, brother, son, and friend. But it was exactly for those closest to him and for himself that he carried out those actions. When we put our welfare, career, ‘pursuit of happiness,’ or what we think is good, and that of the people ‘inside our circle,’ above and to the exclusion of everything and everyone ‘outside our circle,’ we shut them out. Our pound of iron becomes heavier than their pound of feathers. It’s easy then to justify actions against anything in our way, and accept, even advocate, rules and ideas that support those actions, using them as shields. And no one can blame us, because we’re ‘in the right,’ or, simply, we’re just ‘playing by the rules.’

Thinking from the standpoint of somebody else doesn’t mean agreeing with them, or even trying to find agreements with them. It doesn’t mean understanding or identifying, or even empathizing with them. It means something much simpler. It just means ‘listening.’

There is a scene in the movie, where we see Arendt’s face, pensive, with brows furled, eyes squinting; a few seconds later, sounds rush in, and we realize she is listening to a news broadcast on the trial. The expression of thinking is the expression of listening.

Only when we listen, can we allow ourselves to open up. And only when we allow ourselves to open up, can we begin to think.