by Morgan Davis
Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos
Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, Mohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo, veteran booker and artist Aaron Miller (aka Multi-tracker) and now we bring you a conversation with Dianne Scott, an Austin music icon who is in many ways the heart of the Continental Club.
Ovrld: Alright Diane, why don’t we begin with you telling me the story of your journey to Austin. How did you end up here?
Diane Scott: Okay, I had actually gotten sober in 1986. December 27th, 1986. And after spending a year in my hometown, being sober, I knew that it was going to be difficult to stay sober and stay there. My mother and my stepfather lived in Texas and I wanted to be close to them but not be in their back pocket. So I chose to Austin because it was three hours away from my mother, so an easy drive if she wanted to visit but she couldn’t just drop in unannounced [laughs].
My friend and I had originally planned on going to San Antonio, but after we had visited Austin, I knew this was the place for me because I was quite familiar with who Stubb was from Joe Ely’s first album so I decided I wanted to work for Stubb, ‘cause he knew everybody I wanted to know. My whole plan when I first moved to Austin was to work for Stubb and meet everybody he knew and continue with booking musicians as I had in New York. And that was exactly what I did. After a little bit, Stubb got to know me and actually hired me [laughs]. He was quite surprised when I started showing up everyday for coffee so he would get to know me enough to hire me, and we became quite good friends.
I worked for him for about nine months and then I had to go back to New York state because I had promised the owners of the inn I had worked for that I would come back for the summer season. I went back and then I came back and after that my agency went full swing. So in March of ’88 I had participated in SXSW but I didn’t have a full participation until ’89. At that point I went into SXSW representing probably about seven different acts. My booking agency here was open for five years, and at the end of that five years I was working at [Continental Club] part time, then it became full time when I closed my agency. As I like to say, I gave up babysitting adults for babysitting drunk adults. Yay! [laughs]
Ovrld: And in the past three decades, Austin has gone through so many different phases, but what are some of the things that you think are especially different now for someone first coming to the city versus when you first got here?
DS: Well, I think the one thing that has remained consistent is there still is no money to be made in music in Austin, and there wasn’t then. It was a very tight knight community, though; no one really fought over gigs because there wasn’t any money to be made anyway. Everyone went and sat in at everyone else’s gigs and that sense of community, thank god, has been everlasting.
But the differences are I think were more supportive venues. Not just venues. There are plenty of venues. But at that time there were a lot of venues that tried to nurture the musicians. And musicians came here to learn the craft of being a songwriter, of maintaining a band, of meeting other musicians, of expanding their horizons as a musician, and expanding their knowledge of music in general. I think that was the primary focus of anybody that moved here. Plus the laid-back culture of Austin was good because you could work at Thundercloud, pay your rent, and be a working musician at the same time. It was doable. It was inexpensive to live here. Dare I say, cheap? [laughs] And you didn’t have to work a whole lot to afford a place because usually there were four or five other people living in the same house. If everybody brought home $20, then you had enough to pay the rent and the utilities!
Ovrld: Do you think the community aspect also made it an easier city for you to recover in? Do you think that helped with your path?
DS: Absolutely! When I first moved here, one of the things I learned was that Austin was also a huge recovery community. Partly because there were so many musicians here and there were a lot of musicians here who weren’t brand new to the scene. They had been around, they had been around the world, they had experienced a lot. And they had given up some of their vices. And had been clean and sober. So there was kind of an older generation of people who led the way for younger people to be in the industry and be clean and sober.
Ovrld: I think that’s something people might not expect in Austin, especially since it’s got a very hard party reputation.
DS: Absolutely, it’s a party culture, it really is. But within the music community there is a pretty strong focus on either being a partier or being pretty clean and sober.
Ovrld: There also seems to be a focus on well being. I see a lot of people in the community trying to be supportive in that way. Did you feel that a lot of people kept an eye out for each other?
DS: Yes, I do. But at the same time, at that point drugs and alcohol were not really on the forefront the way they are now. So while you worked out for your buddy you didn’t necessarily shuffle him off to rehab. It was a different kind of thing. And my experience has always been, I lead through example. I don’t preach to anybody about the pros or cons of AA, I don’t tell anybody how they should recover, or what they should recover from. I just live my life and hope people can see that you can be in this business without having to be fucked up to do it.
Ovrld: On that note, let’s talk about how you ended up at the Continental Club and how you went from, as you said, babysitting adult children to babysitting adults.
DS: I had booked a lot of my acts into the Continental Club, and I lived at the Austin Opera House, that was where my office was and that was where my apartment was. So the Continental Club was always where I spent my free time. Because of that association, I had gotten to know Steve Wertheimer, the owner, quite well. I always felt that he was the most fair and most honest club owner I had ever met. And I knew some good ones, but Steve was at the top of the heap. When he’d quote me a price that he would pay my bands, I knew he was going to pay what he said he was going to pay. And his gauge of what a band could bring in was always pretty darn accurate. He never lowballed them and he never overpaid them so that he felt like he couldn’t afford to have them back again. He knew his business, he knew his numbers and he was able to quote prices. And for that reason alone— just for the integrity factor– I wanted to work for him.
So I complained that my bands weren’t making enough money because everyone was their buddy and everyone was slipping them through the back door and at that time the back door was a pretty open door policy [laughs]. The largest guest list in the world, Austin, Texas! I ended up coming to work here on Steve’s 5th anniversary of having the club was on December 31st and I ended up coming to work that night because they had nobody to work. So I ended up filling in even though I was not yet an employee. As it turned out, I ended up moving back here to the back door in and I just never left. I’ve been here ever since. It’s been 23 years and it will be 24 years on New Year’s Eve.
Ovrld: I imagine you’ve seen a lot of legends come up in that time.
Ovrld: Continental Club has a reputation for being a place that really incubated a lot of our best known talent. What are some of the experiences you’ve had with that? What was it like to see some amazing talent develop right before your eyes?
DS: It’s always been thrilling. Because no matter who played here, there was a caliber of talent here where any one of them could have ended up being super stars. There were a lucky few that did. That wasn’t the norm. Some of them never got beyond local or regional fame. But they were all tremendous. I go back to watching the Tailgators here, watching Butch Hancock and the Sunspots, watching all these tremendous people, like Chris Thomas, who became Chris Thomas King of O Brother, Where Art Thou. He was one of the artists that I represented for a long time. So he used to play here sporadically. Seeing him now, living in New Orleans and mentoring children in both music and in acting is just amazing. We’re still good friends. [Also] Jimmy LaFave, and on the larger scale of course my beloved Ronnie Dawson, who is hands down the best performer I’ve ever seen. Seeing Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry hone their chops here and get the kind of respect and recognition they were due.
Of course Gary Clark Jr started playing happy hours here as a one man band, and that was pretty amazing in itself, and then gradually his friends started joining him on stage and then the next thing we knew he had a band! [laughs] Now pretty much everybody knows who Gary is! And on that note, I said early on in Gary’s career, one day you will be glad you can say you knew him when so don’t miss the opportunity. And I say the same thing now about the Peterson Brothers. I tell people “Remember, I told you about Gary Clark, and I’m telling you about these kids!” [laughs]
DS: Mostly being able to pay the rent. Most musicians cannot afford to live in Austin proper anymore. They have to move out of town or they have to deal with less than ideal conditions to be able to live in Austin. And you know, the entire cost of living has gone up. But the pay rate for Austin musicians has not.
Ovrld: Right, a thing I hear often is that the cover is the same now as it was in the ‘70s, $5 pretty much always.
DS: Right. And some of our covers have gone up, I think some of our musicians make as much as anybody in this town. And it’s still isn’t meeting the cost of living. But our cover charges have gone up. And we are much tighter on the guest list because our capacity is so low that we have to maximize every dollar that comes in at the door. Because most of our bands are either guaranteed an amount plus a percentage over a broke point. Not many of them can afford to have a large guest list. And we can’t afford it either because we have to make sure they’re at least meeting their guarantee! [laughs] Or it’s coming out of Steve’s pocket.
There’s just an imbalance because the quality of the music is just as good if not better than it ever was but the people don’t want to pay much more. They’ll pay it for a national touring act but even then it doesn’t always balance out.
Ovrld: So you feel like the music is taken for granted now in Austin in a way it might not have been before?
DS: Absolutely! There’s a change in our population. People don’t move here just because of the music any more. And this used to be a music destination. People moved here because of the Austin music scene. Now people move here because of the tech industry. They move here because of any number of reasons that have nothing to do with music.
Ovrld: Right, it’s almost like an after thought.
DS: Right. They appreciate it as background noise, but they’re not here to hear James McMurtry spin one of his tales in song. They’re just not. Or if they are it’s because someone else covered his song and they know the cover [laughs].
Ovrld: That seems to be becoming more and more common. I always hear that at shows now. “I didn’t know they did that song!” Well, where do you think it came from?
DS: You know who we run into that with all the time? Bill Carter.
Ovrld: Oh, yeah, I can imagine.
DS: Bill Carter starts playing all of his famous songs and people are like “I didn’t know this was a cover band.” Well, it’s not. [laughs] He wrote the damned songs!
DS: Absolutely it goes back to Joe Ely. And Butch and Jimmy Dale [Gilmore] and all of them. I don’t know that it’s necessarily an Austin thing. When you have an uninformed audience that’s what happens.
Ovrld: What are some of the current optimistic views you have of the scene? You mentioned that the quality of talent now is as good or better, what are some of the new acts that you think are getting by in the scene?
DS: Well, we have a lot of new acts, that’s the real blessing. We have 13 year old Jack Montesinos, who is a monster guitarist and he’s playing with Don Leady of the Tailgators who is old enough to be Jack’s father and then some [laughs]. The two of them playing together is just absolute magic. And we have someone like Tomar Williams, who is new on the scene because it’s Tomar and the FCs, a brand new band, but it turns out that the very first time he played at the Continental Club was in the ‘80s with his family band [laughs]. So it’s like they appear to be new but in actuality they turn out to have been around forever. And even Jack Montesinos, his dad Javier, has been playing forever.
So there’s all that history, and all these family lines. We have Sarah Hickman’s kids, we have Marlon Sexton, Charlie [Sexton]’s son, we have Roy Graham, Jon Dee Graham’s son, Curtis McMurty, James [McMurtry]’s son. I mean, it’s just amazing to see these generations of children. And a lot of them are the same age and they actually collaborate. Beautiful to see.
Ovrld: On the recognition note, especially in terms of the history, you get recognized this year at the Austin Music Industry Awards. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
DS: I did. It was kind of mind-blowing for me, it was the “Unsung Hero” award, and it was an Austin Music Industry Award so it’s about recognizing people who are behind the scenes and do a lot to kind of help Austin music. And yes, that’s what I do [laughs]. But to win that honor from my peers was very touching.
Ovrld: You mentioned to me before that you were almost embarrassed getting the award…
DS: I was! I was almost in tears the entire time. And of course my friends at the Statesman and the Chronicle all had to mention that! [laughs] It was pretty overwhelming. And generally whenever I have an opportunity to thank people that helped me I always think the women were there for me. Because being a woman in the industry, back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was not easy, because it was still a good ol’ boy network. And I have the support Loris Lowe at KLBJ and Margaret Moser at the Chronicle, Jo Rae Di Menno and Jan Mirkin, who are booking agents and managers. With the help and support of them I was able to thrive in Austin music. But for the awards show I felt I had to thank the two men who had been instrumental and that was Stubb, of course, for getting me to Austin in the first place, and Steve Wertheimer for providing me with a place to create my own future, my own job, my own position.
Ovrld: And you’ve been doing writing, too…
DS: Yes, I have. I’ve always been a writer. But I started taking it seriously about twelve years ago when I started taking writers’ workshops with Ms. Pamela Des Barres. Pamela lives in LA but she has lots of friends of friends here in Austin, so she began coming twice a year and offering the workshops, they’re two-day workshops, and they’re women only. It’s a memoirs workshop. That kind of started me on my path of writing about my own life and my own history and getting that ball rolling.
Ovrld: You’ve also in that time been very connected to organizations like SIMS and I understand that you actually were their first representative in a sense…
DS: I was their first PR person. Sims Ellison, in life, had been a friend of mine. I had been friends with all the guys in the band [Pariah], so when Sims died it was shocking for everybody. At about that time Aerosmith’s manager [Tim Collins] wrote a letter about how the industry had to be more responsible for the well-being of the people on whom we make our living. I had taken the letter down to the Austin Rehearsal Complex and [ARC co-owners] Don [Harvey] and Wayne [Nagel] had seen it. This was shortly after Sims had committed suicide, so they had already had the idea of doing something and the letter just kind of reinforced that. So along with Don Ellison, Sims’ dad, and Sims’ brother Kyle, the SIMS Foundation was born. Martha Guthrie was in charge of volunteers and she was the one who brought me in and said “Come on” and so I was on.
For several years, my annual birthday parties were fundraisers for SIMS and at that time, the purse strings were pretty tight so my birthday in February would usually bring enough in to keep the doors open in February and March until the big check came from KGSR.
Ovrld: Do you find it fulfilling to be able to do that sort of work to try to not just raise awareness for issues that Sims struggled with but also seem to be especially prevalent in Austin music?
DS: Yes, absolutely. It’s very satisfying to be a part of it. It’s also very sad that we have to be a part of it.
Ovrld: You also do your own advice booth at the Continental, which is a similar thing. You offer a therapeutic venting area for people…
DS: Venting is good, yes [laughs].
Ovrld: “The Honky Tonk Doctor” is what the sign describes you as…
DS: Yep, the Honky Tonk Doctor! It started as a joke because my friend Becky was always trying to come back and sit with me and she couldn’t because there was always someone back here talking to me and she said “Everyone’s always asking you for advice, I can’t ever come and sit with you!” So she said “It’s just like Lucy [from Peanuts]!” and I said “Yes, it’s just like Lucy’s lemonade stand.” A few weeks later she came in with the sign and the skull for me to collect my quarters in. With inflation and all, my price is 25 cents, not five [laughs].
Ovrld: Right, gotta factor that inflation in.
DS: Right. But it’s been a trip. It really has. Some of it is very lighthearted and people just want basic information about Austin and where to go. When it’s anything about the Continental Club I say “I can’t charge you for information about the Continental Club,” because I already get paid to do that. But anything else, it’s a quarter! [laughs]
Ovrld: And you said people come to you with a whole range of issues, from relationships to financials to family…
DS: And with addiction issues, sobriety issues. There are all kinds of things that come up. Some people have very serious things that they want to talk about. Some because they know my history and others just because it’s an opportunity for them to ask someone who knows nothing about the situation.
Ovrld: Right, you’re unbiased and impartial. And you mentioned to me too that something you especially like to do is ask them questions that let them come to their own conclusions, which you said you picked up from your own therapy.
DS: Through years of my own therapy! I learned that you listen and then ask specific questions and then that makes them stop and think and sometimes they’re able to put the pieces together for themselves just by talking it out and if you ask the right questions, sometimes you get the right answers, where they want to or not! [laughs]
Ovrld: Yeah, that’s always a tough part of advice, do they really want to hear this and will they listen to it? Is this what they want to hear or what they need to hear?
DS: Right, and of course advice is the most asked for and the least wanted thing in the entire world.
Ovrld: From my experiences in Austin music, and maybe this is a population thing in general not just music, but it seems like a lot of people are unwilling to take that step to even seek out therapy and go to therapy. Is that something you think people in Austin music could use more of and that they need to take that step?
DS: I don’t know anybody that couldn’t benefit from therapy, honestly. No matter how well adjusted you are. Trust me, there’s something you could use therapy on. But thank god because of SIMS there is therapy available. And before I was actually eligible for coverage of therapy under SIMS, they extended it to me because of my history of working with the organization. So at a very low point in my life, I knew I was going into a very deep depression and I contacted some friends at SIMS and they made it possible for me to get therapy, and it’s a therapist I still see to this day. More infrequently than I used to. But they’re the ones who set me on that path and connected me to the most fabulous therapist. So I know a lot of success stories of people that have taken advantage of SIMS’ mental health services and have benefited greatly from it.
Ovrld: I think you even told me that you feel SIMS saved your life in a way.
DS: Absolutely, yes it did. It was that kind of depression.
Ovrld: On a more general advice note, as the Honky Tonk Doctor, what is some advice you would give to people who are coming to Austin now that you wish someone would have given you when you first came here 30 years ago?
DS: I would recommend that you come with an open mind. Don’t expect Austin to be what it was 30, 40, 50 years ago. But also don’t expect it to be like the rest of the country. Because Austin is a velvet rut, it’s easy to get into the laid back atmosphere and kind of take it for granted. Don’t. Because it could all be gone tomorrow.
You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.