Why did Alejandro Escovedo leave Austin for Dallas? It’s complicated


Perched on the edge of a gentle hill with a sweeping skyline view of downtown Dallas, the Belmont Hotel is a welcoming haven, and not just for travelers. A few dozen guest rooms wind around the narrow streets of the recently restored villa-style complex, but there’s also a residence apartment above the main lobby. That’s where Alejandro Escovedo landed when he left Austin last year.

A San Antonio native who spent much of his youth in California, Escovedo had called Austin home for more than 30 years, since settling here with country-punk band Rank and File in the early 1980s. He rose to national prominence a few years later leading the True Believers, then launched a solo career in the 1990s that has produced more than a dozen albums.

A 2006 recipient of the Americana Music Association’s lifetime achievement award, Escovedo is now a revered elder statesman of American rock ’n’ roll. When he returns to Austin on Wednesday to play songs from his new album “Burn Something Beautiful” at ACL Live for a taping of “Austin City Limits,” it will mark his fourth appearance on the landmark television program.

So why, at 65, has he suddenly left the city that was long his haven, and where six of his seven children live?

It’s complicated. For starters, his wife, Nancy, got a temporary job with a TV series in Dallas. When that ended, they found they liked the city more than they’d expected they would, especially the “artist-in-residence” lifestyle the Belmont had extended to them.

Health and wellness issues also played a part. The couple, who met three years ago and married in September 2014, were honeymooning in coastal Mexico when Hurricane Odile hit the area. They escaped injury, but PTSD left them scarred to the point that Escovedo had to cancel a tour in-progress many months later.

READ MORE: Jazz band, hurricane drama inspire Escovedo’s annual ACL Live concert

On the upside, new treatments for Hepatitis C, which Escovedo had been diagnosed with 20 years ago, finally cured him of the disease during the early part of their stay in Dallas. At the same time, he was finishing songs for “Burn Something Beautiful,” which he recorded in the spring with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Buck’s longtime collaborator Scott McCaughey in Portland, Ore.

And, yes, the changing face of Austin inevitably becomes part of this narrative. The couple found living expenses far more manageable in Dallas, even living less than 3 miles from downtown. “It’s half the amount of money I was paying in Austin,” Escovedo says.

The often-discussed issue of affordability for musicians (and others in the arts) in Austin isn’t just about struggling young bands. Escovedo’s departure underscores that it’s also a reality confronting many of the city’s most prominent musicians.

“Sometimes people assume that you have a lot of money because you’re famous or you see their name, but I’m really just a working musician,” Escovedo says in the living room of his Belmont apartment earlier this month. “I do OK, but I’m certainly in no position to buy the homes that are for sale down in Austin.

“You have to remember that when I bought my first house, on Oxford and Valeria (just west of South Lamar in the Zilker neighborhood), I bought it for $56,000. The first house we lived in when I was in Rank and File sold for $26,000. I think we paid $150 a month rent. (The owner) wanted to sell it and she offered it to us, but we didn’t have the money.”

And let’s not forget that other bane of 21st-century Austin: traffic. “Dallas is supposed to be such a big city, so you’d think that traffic jams would be crazy,” he says. “But it’s easier for us to get around here than it is in Austin.”

Culture played a part as well, especially in their thriving neighborhood just west of downtown. It includes the revered Kessler Theater music venue as well as lots of record stores, coffee shops and ethnic restaurants around the city’s Bishop Arts district.

“The day after we moved here, we went out to have lunch, and the place was just so diverse, with African-American people, Chicanos, Asians, everything,” he says. “It was refreshing to be in a city that had more of an urban feel to it. And nobody really knew who we were here, which was interesting, because that gave us some space that we weren’t feeling in Austin.”

In the end, the motivation was perhaps more psychological than anything: Escovedo and his wife were just ready for a change.

But he wants to make one thing clear. “It wasn’t about putting down Austin,” he says. “I had a long-lasting romance with Austin, and I don’t feel like I’m separated from it all that much. My kids have accepted that we’re here now, and they come up to visit. And we see our friends.

“It was more about what was happening to us internally, and what we needed in order to make ourselves happy, to feel like we were free of burdens. It all kind of came to a head.”

Dallas digs

Walking the grounds of the Belmont with Escovedo, it’s easy to see why he and Nancy have grown attached to the place. Down the hill from a small greenspace that overlooks the city, an outdoor pool provides a cool escape in the summertime. (Escovedo says the staff has joked about how it’s Nancy and Alejandro’s pool, because of how often they used it in the hottest months.)

Farther down the hill, a hotel employee is giving Escovedo a tour of a warehouse where the bandleader wants to set up a practice space for his fellow musicians before an upcoming tour. It’s one of many ways the Belmont is making concerted efforts to accommodate artists. In the pool’s courtyard, there’s an open lawn where the hotel has hosted performances by acts such as Austin quartet the Trishas, as well as a recent book-signing event with live music for author Tamara Saviano’s new biography of the late Guy Clark.

The Belmont’s reputation as an artists’ enclave also means constant interaction with other musicians. He mentions bumping into Kevin Russell of Austin band Shinyribs one day, and stumbling upon Fort Worth soul sensation Leon Bridges holding his birthday party at the hotel.

“A lot of bands stay here, and a lot of artists and writers,” he says. “So I get to meet all these different kinds of people, but we’re all like-minded in a way, because we’re all trying to find these kinds of places you can feel comfortable, where there might be someone playing guitar in the lobby.”

Toward that end, Escovedo created his own lobby series. Every few weeks, he invites a local or regional musician to play a few songs and talk about their work. The night before our visit, he hosted Will Johnson, an Austin singer-songwriter who first gained attention with the Denton band Centro-Matic. Johnson also creates baseball-related folk-art paintings, and the hotel featured many of them on display in an adjacent meeting room as part of the event.

Escovedo sometimes performs a song or two, but mainly he serves as a facilitator and moderator. It’s clearly a role he enjoys, given the animated tone of his voice when he discusses it. He remembers being a young artist in Austin and having access to the likes of Doug Sahm, Joe Ely and Jimmie Vaughan, all of whom became mentors to him. He’d like to pay it forward in Dallas.

Read more: Alejandro Escovedo’s “United Sounds of Austin” concert

He’s also trying to make a difference in the city’s music scene. “I’m curious as to why Dallas doesn’t have the kind of community that Austin has, with all the musicians that are here,” he says. “I was asking people last night — why doesn’t Dallas have that? And one person said, ‘We lose our integrity every now and then.’ She meant that they sell out — it’s all about how famous you are and how much money you make and how big you are.”

Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s immortal song “Dallas,” now nearly half a century old, comes to mind: “Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down/But when you are up, she’s the kind you want to take around.”

Escovedo says it’s a subject that has come up repeatedly in his lobby events. “It might be because Dallas is a bigger city and there’s kind of a competitive vibe,” he suggests. “So we’re trying to figure out how to make it more communal and less competitive.”

‘I love Texas’

As positive as the move to Dallas has been for Escovedo and his wife, they’re not sure yet about putting down permanent roots there. “I’m not saying I’m going to do that,” he says. “It looks really good right now, but we’re just taking it day to day.”

And though he says they won’t be returning to Austin, he understands its changes aren’t unique to the city. “Austin’s changed, it’s true/Tell me what hasn’t,” Escovedo sang on “Bottom of the World,” a song on his 2012 album “Big Station” — so he’s clearly been thinking about this for some time.

It’s natural to wonder if they’d considered Oregon, given that Escovedo speaks fondly of recording “Burn Something Beautiful” in Portland. The city has become a refuge for many former Seattle musicians (including Buck and McCaughey), as well as Drive-By Truckers leader Patterson Hood, who recently moved there from the Deep South. Spoon’s Britt Daniel has spent time there, too.

“We thought about it a while ago, when Nancy and I were first together,” he says. “But we found that the same thing was happening there that was happening in Austin. It was becoming ‘Portlandia,’” he says with a laugh, referencing the TV series. “So we thought, we’re up here so much and we love it; let’s just be visitors to this town.”

The fact that both of them are native Texans carried some weight as well. “I love Texas,” Escovedo says. “Unless I move to a beach in Mexico, I don’t know that I’m going to move out of Texas.”

So, about that beach in Mexico: When we spoke on Nov. 2, Escovedo mentioned, as an aside, that the outcome of the presidential election might play into such a decision. In a follow-up phone call two weeks after the election, he offered further thoughts.

“We’ve talked about it a lot,” he says. “I’ve been invited by Canadians to come there, and Mexico has always been open to us because we have friends there.

“But we certainly don’t want to leave our family behind. I think that’s probably the foremost reason as to why we wouldn’t leave. And secondary, there’s still a fight here at home.

“I’m going to try to talk about it as best I can, although I’m just an entertainer. But I do bring it up in sometimes humorous or subtle ways. The message we try to get across is one of hope for a better future and one in which we need to unify ourselves, and not to let people who are preaching hate and violence gain momentum.”

Regular visits

For now, then, he and Nancy will stay in Dallas, with regular visits to Austin. Since moving, Escovedo has been back at least a half-dozen times, performing at his longtime home base the Continental Club as well as South Austin listening room Strange Brew. The “Austin City Limits” taping will be his second show at ACL Live this year, following a Leonard Cohen-themed show in January.

READ MORE: Alejandro Escovedo’s celestial Leonard Cohen tribute a gift for fans

“I miss it, you know,” he says. “I used to walk up and down South Congress all the time, whether I had business or not, and meet people and talk to people. I think sometimes I could tell that it would make people feel good that I was around. I knew everybody, all the shopkeepers and everything.”

But he’s wary of looking at the future through the lens of the past. “I’m just reminiscing about the old days, and that’s not healthy, because it doesn’t exist, and it never will,” he says, almost chiding himself for an indulgence in nostalgia.

Later, though, he gives in to the sweeter side of the bittersweetness. “I’ll never forget those days,” he says. “They were great days, and formative days for me — just so rich in culture, and I met so many different people. We saw so many great shows, and I got to hang with some amazing artists and different people.

“That’s why I don’t feel separated from Austin.”



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