Margaret Moser was Austin music scene’s greatest champion

7:37 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 Local
American-Statesman Staff
Margaret Moser speaks to the crowd at the 2006 Austin Music Awards. KELLY WEST / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Margaret Moser, a longtime staff writer for the Austin Chronicle and director of the Austin Music Awards who was renowned as a champion of the Austin music scene, died late Friday following a four-year battle with colon cancer, according to her husband, Steve Chaney. She was 63.

Moser was born May 16, 1954, in Chicago, but her musical life was shaped by the Gulf Coast and Texas. In a sprawling piece she wrote for Oxford American magazine in 2014, she identified New Orleans, a city with sparkling parades where “rhythm infused the earth below into the clouds above,” as the origin point of her musical identity.

Her family relocated to San Antonio in 1966 when her father accepted a teaching position at Trinity University. As a teen, she immersed herself in the city’s small but vibrant counterculture music scene. In the late ’60s she became a regular at Sunday afternoon concerts at the Japanese Sunken Gardens amphitheater at Brackenridge Park, which she wrote about vividly for the Austin Chronicle in 1995:

“These Sunken Gardens shows were acid-drenched, Texas-flavored versions of the San Francisco hippie-era concerts, and they’re where I was baptized by the spirit of live rock & roll.”

The school of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll trumped traditional academia for Moser. Eventually she dropped out of high school and chased her hallucinogenic-enhanced dreams to Austin, where in 1976 she took a job cleaning the offices of alternative biweekly the Austin Sun. She pestered her way into a writing position, which she held until the paper folded a few years later.

When the Austin Chronicle launched in 1981, she signed on as a gossip columnist. Her column, peppered with tidbits she picked up during late-night conversations with bands in the back rooms of Austin clubs, became essential reading for Austin music fans.

“She kind of galvanized the scene around her column,” local music writer Michael Corcoran said.

American-Statesman Staff
Margaret Moser with American-Statesman music columnist Townsend Miller at Soap Creek Saloon in 1976. Contributed

As a female music writer, Moser was an anomaly during the boy’s club era of rock ’n’ roll, but she flipped the script on any presumed limitations. She used her womanly wiles to gain access where men dared not go. Her first piece for the Austin Sun was an interview with Randy California of the band Spirit conducted in the bathtub of his hotel room at the Driskill. “I was naked except for my notebook and pen,” she wrote in the Oxford American piece.

Longtime Austin journalist Joe Nick Patoski, writing about Moser for the National Public Radio website in June, credited Moser with helping to overturn historic gender-discrimination policies on Sixth Street when she walked into Benny’s Tavern with a few male friends one afternoon in the mid-1970s.

“It’s unknown whether or not Margaret knew Benny’s was, as the sign outside read, a Men’s Only beer hole at the time,” Patoski recalled. “She did know she was thirsty, and saw the cool little scene inside Benny’s through friends she knew from Antone’s and OK Records next door, and invited herself in, and became part of the scene in a matter of minutes. By doing so, she’d broken the gender line of the last “Men’s Only” bar on Sixth.”

“She was unabashed, brutally honest and proud, like she should be,” said Jan Mirkin-Earley, who first encountered Moser while working in artist management in Austin in the ’80s. “She’s such a free spirit, you know … and she loved telling these stories and didn’t leave anything out … it was really such a magical thing to be here and to come up in the industry in the ’80s like that and to have Margaret as one of the inspirational women around me.”

Moser wrote fearlessly about sex in a time when what we now call “slut-shaming” was more widespread. She wrote of zany escapades with her glittery, giggling girl gang, high on life and assorted illicit substances. She seemed to laugh in the face of anyone who dismissed her as just a groupie. Her posse of rock-loving gals, the Texas Blondes, were the life of the party, and she was the queen of the groupies.

But she also became a scholar, delving deep into the origins of Texas music and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s sound. She traced the history of rock, punk and the blues, piecing together clues in songs with oral histories collected in a thousand bleary late nights.

“She’s a den mother,” Corcoran said. “She was a den mother to all these young groupies that were in town. All these young critics that came to town, she was also their den mother, like Andy Langer, Raoul Hernandez. And I think it’s because she had this real self-assuredness, kind of like, ‘Stick with me boys, I’ll show you how the ropes are done.’ Which is great, when you have all these guys who went to grad school who came to be music critics and they’re following her around like puppy dogs.”

American-Statesman Staff
Margaret Moser is serenaded by dozens of Austin musicians at the end of her final show as producer of the Austin Music Awards in 2014. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Moser was also known for her magnanimous presence. “Even when she was writing ‘a gossip column,’ none of it was mean-spirited. To me, that’s big,” said Dianne Scott, public relations manager for the Continental Club.

“We all have people that we go out to the club and we see, and it puts you in a good mood just because they’re there. And she was like that for everybody,” Corcoran said.

Moser formalized her role as Austin music’s best friend by launching the Austin Music Awards in 1982. She moved to Hawaii for a few years in the late-’80s after marrying tattoo artist Rollo Banks, her second husband. (She’d previously been married to Austin photographer Ken Hoge.) After returning to Austin in 1991, she picked up where she’d left off at the Chronicle and remained there until retiring in 2014.

In her later years at the Chronicle, Moser made a point of supporting Austin’s burgeoning under-18 music scene. She took teen bands such as Mother Falcon under her wing, long before they rose to national acclaim and gained a major record deal.

“From the beginning, Margaret’s attention provided us with a vital dose of courage to keep moving forward and creating new music,” former American-Statesman photographer and Mother Falcon musician Tamir Kalifa said in a Moser tribute section the Austin Chronicle published in late June. Kalifa’s comments were reported by William Harries Graham, the son of longtime Austin guitarist Jon Dee Graham and another beneficiary of Moser’s mentoring. She encouraged Harries Graham to write for the Chronicle as a young teen, and he also became a regular musical performer at local venues.

During her last week at the Chronicle, the city of Austin decorated a small area on West Third Street downtown, just west of Nueces Street, with a guitar sculpture and a historical marker naming the location Margaret Moser Plaza. City Council members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison spoke at a dedication ceremony that also included music from Charlie Sexton, Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell and others.

American-Statesman Staff
Margaret Moser and husband Steve Chaney opened the South Texas Popular Culture Center in San Antonio after Moser retired from the Chronicle. Contributed by Bruce Jenkins

After retiring, Moser moved to San Antonio with her third husband, Chaney. For the next few years, she seemed to be thriving despite chemotherapy treatments. She founded the South Texas Popular Culture Center, or Tex Pop, collecting artifacts and memorabilia to celebrate the city’s musical heritage.

In 2016, the Austin Chronicle added the Margaret Moser Award to the Austin Music Awards ceremony. The award was designed to honor a “living legend with deep roots in the community” who has demonstrated passion and dedication to the Austin music scene.

“It’s a cruel luxury to know death will come soon, but it’s a bizarre comfort to know how it will likely come,” she wrote in the Oxford American later that year.

“Being ill afforded me the chance to step out of the pressure of growing old in a field where few women ever get this far, and away from the threatened print medium I have loved,” she added.

In early June, she announced that she had decided to discontinue chemotherapy and was going into home hospice. The news was met by an outpouring of love and support from the many musicians, writers and industry figures she mentored throughout her career.

Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman Staff
Margaret Moser smiles after receiving a state proclamation thanking her for her service to Texas music for more than three decades as a journalist and producer of the Austin Music Awards. She was honored during a reception for her Robert Johnson historical exhibit at Antone’s on July 1, 2017, during her final visit to Austin. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Many of them turned out to see her in early July at Antone’s when the nightclub held a public reception for a historical exhibit about blues legend Robert Johnson that she’d curated for Tex Pop. She returned to San Antonio shortly thereafter.

Survivors include her mother, Phyllis Stegall; her husband, Chaney; and brothers Scott, Stephen and Bill.

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