The South's Most Creative Small Towns
Best Music Town: Wimberley, Texas
The night before New Year’s Eve, about seventy-five pickers, hipsters, and old hippies gathered in the upstairs of a barn in Wimberley. They were there to raise money for one of their own. Rick Crow, a woodworker and Western swing guitarist of considerable note, had been weighted down by a slew of medical bills. Music provided the cure, as guitarist Andrew Hardin put together a show that included original folkies Jimmy and Tom Ash, yodeler and cowboy sweetheart Jill Jones and the Lone Star Chorale, singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, flamenco guitarist Josh Sterling, accordionist Joel Guzman, and vocalist Sarah Fox. Among the bunch were two Grammy winners, three who had played Letterman, and one (Crow) who worked Carnegie Hall.
A relaxed environment in the Blanco River Valley, one of the sweetest spots in the Texas Hill Country, Wimberley is to Austin what Marin County was to San Francisco, and Woodstock was to New York—an escape valve from the city scene that grew too big for itself. With its acoustic version of the Austin sound and a nurturing music community unto itself, it invites creativity.
“As I get older, I don’t do discomfort very well, and Wimberley is very comfortable—spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally,” says its highest-profile resident musician, singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, aka the Wylie Llama. “People here respect everyone else’s privacy and their weirdness.”
What’s Going On
It’s hard not to find a concert somewhere in Wimberley. On the high end is Blue Rock Studio, a tricked-out limestone music hub high on a ridge above Lone Man Creek. It hosts monthly shows that have drawn the likes of Jimmy Webb and Darrell Scott. Cypress Creek Cafe on the square brings in Austin and national artists alternating with local folks. More under the radar are the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday music gigs at Linda’s Fine Foods, where Linda Allen’s partner, Jimmy Ash, often fronts the Ash Family band, who’ve been playing “Hill Country music” since 1979.
You learn to keep an ear peeled for dances or events like the RiceGrass festival at the storied Fischer Haus Cantina about ten miles west of town, where the well-worn floor has felt the slide of scootin’ boots for over a century. Drop by Hill Country Guitars on Saturday afternoons, where you might find Rick Crow entertaining Houston and Dallas visitors shopping Wimberley’s boutiques on the square by demo-ing the Collings guitars (starting at about $3,000).
The Blair House Inn is one of several fine bed-and-breakfasts in town, which attracts its share of weekenders, including Lance Armstrong, who’s been known to ride the winding county roads. On the first Saturday of the month, March through December, the Lions Club stages Wimberley Market Days, one of the largest outdoor markets in Texas. Fuel up on locally sourced Hill Country cuisine at the Leaning Pear, or grab a pie from the Wimberley Pie Company for the trip home. And for an authentic souvenir, go see Ulli, the “Boot Whisperer,” at the Wild West Store, which stocks more than five hundred gently worn and brand-new custom boots.
When he’s not conducting banjo workshops elsewhere in the United States or overseas, Alan Munde, one of the founding members of the groundbreaking Country Gazette, plays informal gigs with guitar swingster Slim Richey, who ran the bluegrass label Ridgerunner Records before moving to the hills. Hardcore six-stringers seek out Tony Nobles for guitar restorations and repairs. And it should come as no surprise that Wimberley has nurtured a new generation of musicians garnering national attention, including mandolinist and singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, striking chanteuse Sahara Smith, and the pianist Dylan Meek.
From his Wylie Llama headquarters tucked back in the cedar brakes, Hubbard says there’s something about the place that just inspires musical creativity. “I tell you what, it’s got a vibe you can’t find anywhere else,” he says. “Slaid Cleaves or Hayes Carll will come over and we’ll say, ‘Let’s write.’ And we do.”
The Runner-Up: Holly Springs, Mississippi
For travelers in search of honest Mississippi blues, there’s no better place than the hill country in and around Holly Springs, where you’ll find it interpreted by sages such as T-Model Ford, the sons of the late Junior Kimbrough and the late R. L. Burnside, and Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of the late Otha Turner of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Catch one of the Sunday afternoon concerts at Foxfire Ranch, or get a full dose at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic in June.