Fighting Digital: The Finest Jukebox Joints of Austin

Words and Photography by Blair Waller

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It is safe to say that with regards to playing music these days, we are in the digital age. That is an understatement. On the grand scale of music ownership evolution – from vinyl records to CD’s and now to digital – we have sacrificed quality for quantity. In this most recent revolution (late 90’s and 2000’s), we saw the erosion of CD sales, the rise and fall of Napster and the like, the collective meltdown of record companies and recording artists alike and the birth of iTunes, GrooveShark, Spotify and other online sharing applications. We now enjoy more music at a lower cost and while doing so, downgraded in sound quality. That’s the reality.

While the above tone might sound like the somber sobbing of an old-timer, it is not. Personally, I am more than OK with the current climate of music. While I do enjoy listening to vinyl (and even CD’s) immensely, I prefer having access to exponentially more bands and albums than I could have than before. As a result, the depth and scope of our music tastes have matured and broadened. We know more about the artists we love, learn more about the bands that influenced them and learn of countless other artists that never would have crossed our radar previously. It is almost as if we had been taking college courses at an online university and now we’re attending an Ivy League PhD program. It has been difficult to maintain pace with this acceleration but it’s been exciting. It is still exciting today. It will continue to be exciting.

So we have our personal collections expanded but what about the demonstration of this newly developed knowledge; the social aspect of playing tunes with our friends in public forum?

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Somewhere amidst the thread of this musical evolution, there was the jukebox. Wide usage began with vinyl, then CD’s and naturally, the trend points toward digital. With each medium, the general concept was simple: jamming the tunes you and your friends wanted to hear at a bar. In fact, the term is derived from the Gullah word “joog” meaning “disorderly, rowdy and wicked.” God willing, your experience with jukeboxes is in that vein. Anyway, the point is that regardless of the medium in which the jukebox plays, there is a distinct magic in the idea. It’s not that you don’t have access to the music in the jukebox but that you’re able to play the tunes you love in such a public setting. This act can’t be replicated by bumping your speakers in a parking lot or cranking your iPod player in Zilker Park. Playing a jukebox is a socially acceptable and respectful way to enjoy music with your fellow people, friends and strangers alike. A jukebox unites unlike any other medium of music.

Now, the question is, as the proprietor of an establishment with a jukebox, what sort of music is most appropriate for your clientele, or your preferred clientele? If you want the boots-and-spurs type to two-step, you go with the Top-40 country hits. If you want the college crowds to fist-pump in droves, you make most classic rock anthems available. If you want a more subdued atmosphere for music snobs, you select obscure albums from obscure bands. Or maybe you just go with you and your staff’s favorite albums and let the cards fall where they may. (It goes without saying you leave a couple alternate albums in the mix for profiling purposes a la Talladega Nights – “No one plays jazz here at The Pit Stop!”). Whatever the rationale, an establishment’s jukebox says a great deal about the style and culture of the establishment.

Conventional thinking says that in a time not too far away, jukeboxes will all be digital. The days of selecting the top 50 or so albums are numbered, thus phasing out the CD jukebox era. Patrons will have a seemingly limitless selection to play what they want. But maybe – just maybe – this isn’t inevitable.DSC_0708

In speaking with various owners and employees of Austin’s top juke joints, the consensus was that their jukebox is sacred – it is their most overt example of character. Their music selection attracts and retains their preferred clientele. The meticulously selected albums spin while they watch patrons nod their head or dance to the beats and rhythms of the box, the box of their creation. This display of taste is personal. (Plus, the employees are the ones working there 8+ hours a day so they prefer to hear the music that won’t drive them to insanity.)

This makes for an interesting stage on this frontier. Perhaps the technology trend will infiltrate and dominate the jukebox scene, giving patrons the seemingly limitless options we now experience on our iPods. But for now, there is still plenty of Austin “juke joints” rocking it old school. We at LIVIN Austin raise our glass, tip our hat and pump our fist – whichever the particular tune calls for – toward the best jukeboxes in the city. Bear in mind that the list of bands represented under each are a snapshot. They are most certainly subject to change, some more steady than others. When compiling the list of bands represented in each respective joint, the main strongholds were The Clash, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Ramones, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. I’m not quite sure what to make of that unofficial list – just thought it was interesting. With that, let us get down and dirty with it.

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When in search of the widest array of juke joints in Austin within a few block radius, you needn’t venture any further than East 6th street. Here you will find the bars and social clubs most resolute when it comes to music selection.

Violet Crown Social Club 

Bands represented: Ty Segall, White Fence, Roky Erikson, Radio Birdman, Gentleman Jesse, Babies, Thee Oh Sees, Metallica, The Who, Hot Snakes

This spot keeps their selection fresh. It is a social club in the truest of sense of the phrase.

1111 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78702

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Bands represented: Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, The Stones, Outcast, Queen, Sharon Jones, Jay Reatard, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Waits, The Clash, Thee Oh Sees, Ween, The Good Bad & The Ugly Soundtrack, Dengue Fever, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elton John, Django Reinhardt, Creedence, Tame Impala, Gorillaz, The Zombies, Sinatra, The Smiths, Grinderman, Dead Kennedys, Curtis Mayfield, Yardbirds, Dylan

Astounding great selection. One of the most well rounded selection of the jams you want to hear when having drinks at really any time of day.

1308 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78702

Liberty Bar

Bands represented: Nick Cave, Modest Mouse, Wolf Parade, Neil Young

This selection of bands was listed by memory. Needless to say, I visit here often. The speakers play softly in their large outdoor area where the delectable East Side Kings food trailer resides.

1618 1/2 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78702

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Bands represented: Black Lips, Bowie, King Tuff, Devo, Melvins, Sonic Youth, Ramones, Howlin’ Wolf, Iggy Pop

1016 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78702

The White Horse

The main reason I haven’t listed their selection is because they have live music playing 7 nights a week. However, I have had a glance and it is totally legit.

500 Comal Street, Austin, TX 78702

The Brixton

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Bands represented: Iron Maiden, Black Flag, The Damned, The Specials, Ice Cube, The Descendents, Buzzcocks, Hank Williams, Beastie Boys, At The Drive In, Bowie / Ziggy Stardust, Bad Religion, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Misfits, Fugazi, Public Enemy, Toots and the Maytals, Ramones, The Clash, Best Coast, Van Halen, Thin Lizzy, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, Ween, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, The Modern Lovers

Great hole-in-the-wall spot with character and charm in spades. This selection acquiesces to those with a fine-tuned taste for punk jams.

1412 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78702

We now move around to various clubs around the city.

Deep Eddy Cabaret

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Bands represented: Elvis Costello, Merle Haggard, Black Joe Lewis, Willie Dixon, Uncle Tupelo, Billie Holiday, Steve Earle, George Jones, Dylan, Beck, Nat King Cole, Decemberists, Flying Burrito Brothers, 13h Floor Elevators, The Clash, Marvin Gaye, Bowie, Johnny Cash, The Pretenders, Commander Cody

2315 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703

Longbranch Inn

Bands represented: The Clash, Grinderman, some great mix CD’s

This is a classic spot to chill, listen to lesser-known tunes and shoot pool while pre-gaming for the night.

1133 E 11th Street, Austin, TX 78702

Horseshoe Lounge

Bands represented: Reid Wilson, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, David Allen Coe, Willie, Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Uncle Lucious, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely, Conway Twitty, Jimmy Buffet, Don Williams, Charlie Daniels, Otis Redding

Heavy on country and loyal to local acts, this spot is firm on their musical roots. Of note, they only serve beer and have arguably the finest shuffle board in Austin.

2034 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704

Barfly’s

Bands represented: Thin Lizzy, Deerhunter, Fugazi, velvet, Flaming Lips, Pentagram, Joy Division, The Zombies, Waylon Jennings, At The Drive In, The Beatles, TV on the Radio, The Roots, Eric and Rakim

5420 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78751

LaLa’s

Bands represented: Ray Charles, Glen Miller, Richie Valens, The Coaster

I believe they say it best: ”If you’re grandma listened loved it and it was recorded before 1965, chances are you’ll love it here.”

2207 Justin Lane, Austin, TX 78757

Casino El Camino 

Bands represented: Swayed, Albert Collins, Ramones, Madness, T-Rex, The Cars, The Who, Texas Tornados, Iggy Pop, ZZ Top, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Tom Jones, AC/DC, Aerosmith, George Jones, The Vaselines, Jimmy Cliff, Birdland, Buzzcocks, Eddie Curran, Churchwood, The Dictators

Dirty 6th a little bit much for you? Dip into this shady spot for a breather from the “glitz” and vomit smell that is present in most surrounding spots.

517 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78701

Red Shed Tavern

8504 S Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78745

Sidebar

602 E 7th Street, Austin, TX 78701

Buddy’s Place

8619 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78757

Bender Bar & Grill

321 W Ben White Blvd #300, Austin, TX 78704

Mean Eyed Cat

1621 W 5th Street, Austin, TX 78703

G&S Lounge

2420 S 1st Street, Austin, TX 78704

As you can tell, I love the jukebox. However, nothing compares to live music. That goes without saying. Somewhere in between, though, when researching such a topic, you might encounter a wily-haired gentleman inconspicuously playing piano in a virtuoso-like manner. With no disrespect to the transcendent jukebox, an encounter such as this is far more special and actually has the power to change your perspective on life in Austin. Enjoy this picture and visit the White Horse.

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