One breezy Saturday afternoon not too long ago, rancher Sofus Nielson was sitting around the general store, drinking a longneck and watching the fellows pitch washers when a biker from Tennessee came wheeling up.
"Tell me, sir," said the stranger, am I in Luckenbach?"
"Mister, you sure are," replied Nielson.
"Well, hell, that's great - give me a beer," said the biker, as he walked into the store and ordered a cold longneck bottle of beer. Then he picked up the phone and called home: "Momma," he said "I made it!"
Such occurrences, one as rare as running water here ("it runs when it rains," explained a Luchenbacher), are now an everyday scene with this smallest (population: 3) of famous small towns. Before 1965 the biggest thing in Luckenbach was the name. Then, in the latter '60s, LBJ came down the road from Johnston City for a beer, and after that everyone from Grapetown to Dripping Springs knew about Luckenbach.
Last night, "Luckenbach, Texas," a song crated by a couple of Nashville songwriters (who had never visited the town) for Waylon Jennings (who had never visited the town) was up for Single of the Year in the Country Music Awards televised nationally by CBS. And though the song has made the town a mecca for thousands of tourists, musicians and travelers who, as Waylon puts it, want to get "back to the basics of life," nobody in Luckenbach was watching the show. The town has no TV set.
But that's not to say the tourists aren't appreciated.
"I bet we had at least 400 or 500 every day this summer," said Marge Ottmers, the 46-year-old pig-tailed resident storekeeper and sheriff of Luckenbach. "It was mighty fine for our beer business."
Which is just fine for Luckenbachers, because beer-drinking can safely be called the main industry of this town. With a single genral store (also the post office and saloon), a dance hall, a defunct gin mill and blacksmith shop, a gas pump, a lone parking meter (which, for excitement, is opened to buy a round of beers), and a few outhouses marked "Maw" and "Paw," there isn't a whole helluva lot to do, except drink beer. Unless, of course, you're a storyteller, a musician or a washer pitcher.
"I guess we get more beer drinkers than anyone else," said Luckenbach resident musician Gregg Cheser. "We get a lot of musicians, too. A few of the locals come to pitch washers, but a lot of the out-of-towners have never heard of it."
Washer pitching, the town's sport, consists of tossing 1 1/2-inch metal washers toward a two-inch hole in the ground 15 feet away. Scored much like horseshoes, champion washer pitchers are said to win as many as eight or nine beers in an afternoon.
Born in 1849, the town of Luckenbach was owned for the first 120 years by the Engle family, one of the hundreds of German families who immigrated to Texas in the early 19th century. The melodic town name was acquired when one of the Engle daughters married a German lad named Luckenbach, and to this day, Luckenbachs and other German decendants live close by.
But in 1970 the 10-acre town was up for sale in area newspapers, with a promise it could be paid for "with the local egg route." One of the parties who was interested was Hondo Croutch, a local rancher who doubled as a storyteller extraordinaire in the Will Rogers tradition, and who often was hired to warm up shows in Las Vegas. He joined his friends Vuich Kooch and Kathy Morgan in buying the town to save it from some possible developers.When word got around that Honda Croutch was mayor and partial owner of a town in West Texas, friends from all around began dropping in for a cold, tall one and tale.
"Hondo was a sensitive and loving guy who had a way of talking to you and making you feel like you were the most important person in the world," said Kathy Morgan, the 49-year-old wife of an airline pilot. "He always had plenty of time to talk to you no matter what he was doing. He used to love to kid with people, also."
Frederick P. Deike, owner of Deike's Store and another single-store town called Hye (just outside Johnston City) recalled a time when Croutch was visiting him and a group of tourists looking for the "LBJ Ranch" came by.
"Old Hondo just looked at them with the sincerest expression you've ever seen and asked, 'the LBJ what?'"
"'The LBJ ranch,' said the tourists, 'You've never heard of the ranch Lyndon Johnston owns?"
"'Pardon me, ma'am,' said Croutch, 'but who is Lyndon Johnston?'"
One of the Texans who fell in love with Hondo Croutch was Jerry Jeff Walker, the Austin country rock singer who visited Croutch like a "kid visiting his grandfather," according to Kathy Morgan. Walker became so enamored of the little town and the good feeling it gave him that he decided to record an album live from the Luckenbach dance hall, just a hop, skip and a jump from the general store.With the release of the album, (entitled "Viva Terlingua" after a bumper sticker on the dance-hall door). Jerry Jeff followers began dropping by in hope of catching the feeling of Luckenbach, or even Walker himself, or his friend Willy Nelson, then a frequent washer pitcher.
"For a while there we had seven or eight musicians a day stopping by," said Gregg Cheser, who has lived in the town since 1973. "Behind the general store became a good place for the musician to try himself out - a good sounding board. If you make a mistake no one cares. And if you're good they might buy you a beer."
Other events also brought fame to this hill-country town. The first Luckenbach World Fair in 1972 drew more than 20,000 people in two days. Duringthe 1976 Luckenbach "nonbuycentennial," held to protest the commercialization of the real Bicentennial, the general store supposedly sold over 14,000 cans of beer in a single day, and Hondo Croutch talked on the store phone to 16 different radio stations. Every year Luckenbachhosts the "Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman's Chili Cook-Off" - to spite other male chauvinist cook-offs that allow men only.
But it wasn't until Waylon Jennings made a hit out of "Luckenbach, Texas" (it was in the tip 13 for weeks) that the droves started turning off the main highway, searching through this West Texas country for the simple town. Reporters from national magazines and newspapers as well as from CBS and ABC have visited Luckenbach. Books have been written both on the town and Croutch, who died last September. Visitors from as far away as France and Australia have visited the town. And just plain curious folk have ventured to Luckenbach.
"I'm not really into country and western music," said Jim McKinnis, a 34-year-old professional photographer who had traveled from Seattle, Wash. "But I really identify with the spirit of the songs. I had to make this pilgrimage."
Another visitor, musician Dave Lindley from Ft. Collins, Colo., hitch-hiked to Luckenbach just to be in an "insperatoinal place" for music.
"It's such a peaceful feeling out here I can see why Jerry Jeff chose to record here," said Lindley, who is thinking of recording himself. "It's the kinda place where songwriting just might come easy."
The popularity has had an ill effect also. A few months ago someone stole the only parking meter (it has since been replaced) and many of the travelers have chosen to be a permanent part of Luckenbach by inscribing their name on the 127-year-old storefront's weathered wood. The Texas highway department gave up long ago trying to keep directional signs to Luckenbach, something that doesn't pique Kathy Morgan so much as it pleases her.
"Now we know that we're getting only the people who really care about getting here," said Morgan, who owns the town with two of Hondo Croutch's daughters (Guich Kooch the third original owner, moved to Los Angeles and now is an actor on ABC's "Carter Country"). "On the whole, the people that are coming are pleasant and are nice to have around. They don't change the way we do things around here."
Indeed, travelers who stop by seem to grab a longneck beer and sit out back at the tables out of reverence and respect for Luckenbach. They'll listen to a local musician play under the willowy, live oak, or hear a raconteur like Mike "Grizzly" Edwards, a bar owner from up the road, tell a story about life in the hill country. Or if they stop by during one of the Saturday night dances they'll join in with the other locals, enjoying the sounds of a good country and western swing band. The floor will always fill up when the band plays "Luckenbach, Texas."
The only people who don't seem to get by Luckenbach as frequently any more are Jerry Jeff Waiker and Willy Nelson. The attention from their fans ruined their washer-pitching game.