In search of ... Luckenbach, Texas

How can a one-horse town attract so many country music stars? Pete Watts heads to the hills to find out
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The Independent Travel

Luckenbach? That rings a bell... Where have I heard of it before?

Luckenbach? That rings a bell... Where have I heard of it before?

Outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings immortalised the wonderful, curious little town of Luckenbach, Texas, in a 1977 classic. A tiny place with a huge heart, Luckenbach, in the middle of the Texan Hill Country, is hard to find but worth seeking out, especially if you are into country music.

Surely it can't be that little if somebody has written a song about it?

Er, the population's 25.

Twenty-five?

Yup. Luckenbach town centre consists of three buildings. One is a general store that has a cosy bar round back and the other is a traditional shed-like dance hall, which offers plenty of room for a good ol' Texan two-step.

That's only two buildings. You said there were three.

Oh yes. There's also an outhouse.

I must be missing something. A bar and an outside lavatory – there must be more going on?

There is. In appearance, Luckenbach is like one of many such hamlets that dot Texas's beautiful, rambling Hill Country, a patch of land, unchanged for decades, which sits roughly between the state capital, Austin, and San Antonio, the home of the Alamo. Many of Texas's early European immigrants settled here, mainly German and Czech. (Texas has the largest Czech population outside the Czech Republic.) In 1970, a typically Texan raconteur named Hondo Crouch wanted a place where he could sit with his friends, chew the fat, tell tall stories, conceive mischief and jam. He settled on Luckenbach and, disappointed to find that it closed (yes, closed) on Wednesdays, bought the town's entire 10 acres so he could entertain whenever he wished. Drawn by Hondo's colourful company, the former trading post became an unlikely magnet for Texas's finest musicians and eccentrics. It became a place where odd things happened, where "everybody was somebody". Jennings, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker were regular visitors. There were armadillo races, face-making competitions and the annual hell-hath-no-fury ladies' state chilli cook-out. But mostly there was the craic of the chat round the fire, good company and fine music. After Jennings's hit, Luckenbach became famous worldwide.

So what happens there these days?

When we turned up (after some searching, most of the road signs having been stolen by zealous music fans) on a cold wet Wednesday in November, a motley-looking crew of musicians huddled round a ferocious wood-burning stove in the middle of the tiny bar – a shrine to Willie Nelson – drinking Lone Star beer and trading quips between songs, a mixture of own compositions and country standards. The only interruption was when BB, the bassist/barman, slipped behind the bar to serve another couple of beers – "the coldest in town" – to the regular stream of customer/tourists (40 a day, 200 at weekends). As Judy Lightfoot, who works in the general store, explained, "It's like a step back to the old days." Time stopped. A song, then a story. Then another story, and another song. Even the Danish girl I was with, who didn't know Johnny Cash from Johnny Rotten, was seduced by the easy atmosphere, the sporadic, languid conversation, the frankly beautiful music. Magical. And all from a bunch of hillbillies.

You mentioned Willie Nelson. Does he play there?

Willie's been known to turn up unannounced but you're more likely to catch him at one of the monthly dances. Holidays such as Fourth of July, Texas Independence Celebration and Valentine's Day feature major performers and can draw crowds of up to 15,000. The town, all of it, can be hired for private parties. They even still have armadillo races.

Isn't it all a bit twee?

Not at all. The locals would be doing the same whether the tourists were present or not. After all, there's not a great deal else going on.

I was wondering about that. Is it really in the middle of nowhere?

Not really. Luckenbach is an hour's drive from Austin and San Antonio, both of which make excellent bases for a holiday in the Hill Country. If you want to get closer, the largest nearby town is Fredericksburg, five miles from Luckenbach, a former German settlement with more than 100 b&bs. It wears its German heritage proudly – every building seems to have a half-timbered frontage and pastry and sausage are everywhere. It even holds an Oktoberfest, for which you have to book well in advance. From here, you can venture to Luckenbach, the LBJ ranch at Johnson City, Kerrville, which has a fantastic cowboy museum, the tiny town of Hunt, which for reasons unknown features a 60 per cent scale model of Stonehenge, and Bandera, a place of saloons, Stetsons and dude ranches that comes straight out of a John Ford movie. Or you can just fix a picnic (from Fredericksburg's excellent Best of Texas deli), hop in the car and drive. The Hill Country is one of the most beautiful areas in America; it's a lovely place to get lost.

I'm sold. How do I get there?

Return flights to Austin cost £530 with Continental (0800 776464; www.continental.com). Car hire is available from Thrifty (001 800 847 4389) from $18.25 (£13) per day. Accommodation in Fredericksburg costs between $40-$100 (£27-£68) for a double room. For information on events in Luckenbach, visit www.luckenbachtexas.com.

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