After frequent 1980s visits but before moving from my native Chicago to Austin, I wrote that the best Chicago blues bar was a thousand miles or so south of the city’s limits. It was amazing at Antone’s to see Chicago blues artists who’d been sleepwalking for decades back home become energized in the company of young Texas musicians who didn’t merely worship them but pushed them. It was the difference between blues as a wax-museum anachronism — 25 variations on the theme of “Sweet Home Chicago” — and blues as a live-wire jolt.
Clifford Antone died May 23, at age 56, reportedly from “natural causes,” likely a heart attack. There is nothing natural about dying at 56, and there was nothing ordinary about Clifford, a man of oversized appetites, enthusiasms and contradictions. He’d long dressed like an older man, a throwback, in sport coat and slacks, though rumpled with his white shirt hanging out. But his excitement was like a little kid’s at Christmas, whether he was bouncing to the blues at his namesake club or talking about baseball — which he loved almost as much — with a fellow fan.
A native of Port Arthur, Texas, Clifford initially discovered the blues the way most members of his (and my) generation did: through the recordings of the Rolling Stones, Cream and other blues-drenched rock bands. That music led him to the real deal, and the real deal turned the sleepy-eyed, molasses-drawled Antone into a missionary, a crusader who devoted his life to seeing that the blues got the respect it deserved.
The blues boom had long passed and interest in the music was at low ebb when Antone opened his first club in 1975 on Austin’s then-moribund East Sixth Street. Those in the blues community who rallied around Antone’s definitely felt like outsiders, if not outcasts, in a city that had become celebrated for its “cosmic cowboy” brand of country music. It was integral to the spirit of the blues in Austin that it never lost that chip on its shoulder.
Yet with Antone’s serving as the crucial catalyst, breakthrough artists such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and Marcia Ball soon gave Austin as much of a reputation for blues revivalism as for progressive country. The resurgence of interest in blues, largely spurred by Antone’s patronage and promotion, allowed Clifford to stretch (maybe overstretch) his fiefdom into a record label and retail store as well as the club (which moved several times, from Sixth Street to north Austin to the university campus area to back downtown at its current location on West Fifth Street).
Clifford believed in the blues as the one true music the way fundamentalists believe in one true religion. His generosity of spirit extended from finding a place to stay or securing medical care for the aging musicians he revered, to paying promising acts out of his own pocket when they didn’t draw flies at the door, to providing crucial encouragement for the next (and the next) generation of blues aspirants. The artists who benefited responded with unwavering loyalty to Antone.
He always maintained that he wasn’t much of a businessman and that the blues was no way to make a living — no security, no pension plan, no protection from shifts in public taste or boomtown real-estate development. Yet Clifford lived well, ate well, and projected an aura of the “Godfather of the Blues,” the guy to call if you needed a favor or some help, the guy who knew guys who could take care of things.
The federal government insisted there was a racketeering reality behind the image, that Clifford was a repeat offender in networks to distribute massive amounts of marijuana. He served time in 1984 and was sentenced again (with a plea bargain to shorten his prison stint) in 1999. During a period when his businesses were barely scraping by, when the club was consistently behind on its bills and his label was primarily in the hands of investors, federal investigators estimated that Antone’s net from the marijuana network was $1.5 million.
In Austin, where marijuana is considered more of a sacrament than a federal offense, his imprisonments merely added to his aura rather than tarnishing his reputation. No one other than Willie Nelson did more to establish Austin as a music mecca than Clifford Antone. Nelson remains widely heralded as Saint Willie, so beatific from smoking the same kind of stuff that the feds branded Antone a sinner for selling.
These days, country and blues roots are deeply intertwined in the signature artistry of Austin, in music that ranges from Nelson’s to Doug Sahm’s to Lucinda Williams’ (a spiritual Austinite, wherever she may live) to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Austin’s musical dynamic and attitude on the artistry celebrated within these pages. Just as it’s impossible to imagine Austin without Clifford Antone.