Sit down and shut up

It's a Tuesday afternoon, and singer Toni Price has just arrived at the back door of the Continental Club in Austin to play her weekly after-work gig known to its regulars as "Hippie Hour." Up the hill behind the roots music haven, bulldozers and backhoes are clearing away the remains of a long-deserted, ramshackle apartment complex once dubbed "The Willie Hilton," a last vestige of the Red Headed Stranger's 1970s South Austin Shangri-La now being shoveled aside for yuppie condos.

"Now cut that out!" Price hollers at the offending machines. "That ain't progress!"

It's a telling flash of charming militancy from the diminutive, feisty singer whose latest album is simply and defiantly titled Hey. But if anyone typifies the bluesy 'n' boozy, music-for-its-own-sake Austin ethos, it's Price, a woman who never shies away from taking a stand--even though she insists on sitting down when she performs--and has battled with her record label, the local weekly, and the near-monolithic South by Southwest music festival during her six years on the Austin scene.

Nonetheless, she remains one of the city's more favored musical acts--if only in local terms, packing her Tuesday happy-hour shows like a hot Friday at midnight for more than three years running, along with almost anywhere else she plays. Her records receive regular airplay on KGSR-FM, the River City's heavily Texas-music adult alternative station, and Hey has been hanging tight in the Top Five of the national Americana radio chart in the Gavin music-industry tipsheet.

Yet Price refuses to tour and promote her music. And in an overly self-obsessed music community where most acts seem to fall prey to either slacker dreams of instant stardom or never-quite-canny-enough careerism, Price escapes both traps handily. Frank Sinatra may try to convince us he did it his way--ignoring the assistance of the Families--but it's Toni Price who can actually make such a claim. She truly does things on her own damned terms, thank you very much, succeeding purely on the strength of her music.

And there's the rub. Making the sort of backporch country-blues that Bonnie Raitt specialized in before Don Was gave her a pop polish job, Price sounds familiar yet still fresh, thanks to an enthusiastic way with a song that strides right on up to the lyric and announces, "Honey, you are mine." Her accompanying acoustic guitar players are always two, three, or even four or more of the best pickers in town, depending on their schedules: Casper Rawls (LeRoi Brothers), "Scrappy" Jud Newcomb (Loose Diamonds), Champ Hood (the guitarist and fiddler on tour last year with Lyle Lovett's Large Band), Rich Brotherton (from Robert Earl Keen's band), Steve Doerr (LeRoi Brothers) and Derek O'Brien (the Antone's scene stalwart who co-produces Price's albums).

The resulting style raises "white blues" from near-epithet to a gloriously rich celebration of love and lamentations, honoring such Austin traditions as hot licks and downhome musical sincerity in a subtle yet soaring manner. It's no wonder that there are people who show up every week at Hippie Hour, month after month, never tiring of Price's musical charms. She is undoubtedly Austin's best kept musical secret, an ideal ambassador for the Capitol City's neo-traditional devotions who's quite content to spend most of her time playing right here in town.

One well-worn path to a record deal leads from Austin to Nashville, but Toni Price took the reverse course. Born in Philadelphia but raised in a typically suburban Music City neighborhood, Price grew up a music lover but didn't start singing until she fell into a garage band during her senior year of high school. "That's when I knew when I found my people, found my thing," she recalls.

She followed it with stints playing Top 40, backing an Elvis impersonator, touring state fairs singing country covers, and playing five nights a week, five sets a night in a motel lounge band. "That teaches you a lot--endurance, humility, and your craft," Price explains. She later landed in a popular Southeastern college party band, and finally started her own act, Toni Price and the Jam Wranglers. "That was the pattern for what we do now, except we had bass and drums, though it was real spare, and we stood up."

In that band she also started singing the songs written by a fellow she hired as a substitute guitar player, Gwil Owen. Onetime leader of the Nashville rock band The Thieves, whose smart 1989 Capitol Records album vanished without a trace, Owen has provided the bulk of Price's material since then. "To me, he's just the best," she enthuses. "He says the same old shit, every song is about love lost or found just about, but he finds that way to say it in a different way, to make that metaphor that's art."  

But Nashville proved a frustrating place. "People don't even play unless there's record people who are supposed to be in the audience, and usually they don't show up anyway," she shrugs.

But one music business figure whose ear she did catch was Cameron Randle, who at the time managed Lou Ann Barton and the Texas Tornados and now heads up the Arista/Texas label. "He turned me on to Lou Ann and all this stuff out of Austin," Price says of Randle. "I had seen Stevie Ray, but I didn't know about Austin. But he said, 'You gotta come down there, I'll put together this great band, we'll get you on this festival, we'll slip you in at Antone's, home of the blues, blah, blah, blah.'

"It was like a dream come true," she enthuses about her maiden visit to Austin. "The whole thing opened itself up to me, and I could hear the history, and I could see the living thing here. Nashville's just dead! And it kills the spirit. Everyone tells you you're just another damn one, just get in line: 'We don't get your songs. Why are you bending that note? Quit doing that! We don't do that here. We don't dance.' Whatever! Goodbye! So I was outta there. Three months later I was here."

Price spent her first two years waitressing as well as singing, but Austin blues patron Clifford Antone took her under his wing and signed her to his self-named label. Soon after, he relinquished control of the company to others, and Price's ongoing struggle with the music business took hold.

Her 1993 debut, Swim Away, promised another singer to follow in the neo-blues footsteps of Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, and Marcia Ball, whose trio album was Antone's best-seller by a long shot. A deal with the Warner Bros.-distributed Discovery Records to release and promote Price's album offered opportunities beyond what Antone's could offer, but Price wasn't about to have businessmen tell her what to play (she insists on co-producing her records), where to play, and how to look and act.

"I'm not in the music business," she insists. "I'm making music. And I'm glad that I have a record deal and I made a record and they're selling it, but I can't do all that business stuff.

"I got a memo last year when they sent me somewhere, and it said, 'Not to schmooze would be detrimental.' And I thought, 'Detrimental to what? Detrimental to my health?' And what is schmoozing anyway? I love to meet people, and I love to talk to people, but what is schmoozing? It's some fake shit where you shake somebody's hand and say, 'Hey, love your shit, whatever,' and that's fake. And I don't do that. It doesn't get you anywhere anyway. That's not what I do.

"Of course they want you to go on the road, but that's bullshit too," Price continues. "It's their business to get it played on the radio, to get it in the store. Whether I want to go to that certain town or not, it's their business to sell records. I'm not a salesman, and I've told them that. My contract is a recording contract, not a touring contract or a salesman's contract.

"I do this: I come here, and I sing, and I give a show. And people come and see it, and people come back because they like it. And because they met some other friendly people that they liked here, too." It may seem a simplistic formula for success, but for Price, it certainly works.

In fact, Price is one of the few Austin club acts who actually makes a living at music. "I realize that," she notes graciously. "I think it's just some person's turn each time over the years. I think I'm just lucky, and in the right time, and I think I'm doing something good."

However, the folks at Discovery have sometimes disagreed. On Hey, Price says, they remixed two songs behind her back, and airbrushed "my beautiful little hairs" from her underarms in the cover photos. Nonetheless, she's still happy that the record came out "relatively intact.

"It's the eternal fight between business and art," Price says without sounding bitter. "How anything ever gets out I don't even know. So I'm really lucky, but it's a struggle. But it's worth fighting for."

When asked why she won't play the label game most every other musician with any ambition buys into, Price is blunt.

"I'm not obedient. I obey my own heart, and what I'm supposed to do. I don't know what anyone else is supposed to do, but I know what I'm supposed to do."

And then she heads into the Continental, where she's soon hanging by the bar, greeting friends, chatting with fans, spending time with her people. Once onstage, Price generates a sense of musical family that rivals the onetime vibe of the Grateful Dead, a cultural communalism that is one of the sources of the Hippie Hour tag.  

"There's people who tell me they've been here every Tuesday for a year, or two years, or three years," Price notes. "Or they say, 'This is my first Tuesday,' like it's some kind of event. And it's a wonderful thing. And as long as it lasts, I'll be happy, and if it passes over, I'll still be doin' it because that's what I do."

Toni Price performs October 19 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

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