Waco rests about halfway between the music meccas of Austin and Dallas. The former is often called the live capitol music of the world, and the latter remains a popular destination for touring bands and musicians. Waco’s music scene, however, remains relatively slim given its prime location. KWBU takes a look at the city’s music history and how it might change in the coming years as the downtown corridor develops.
Musicians, mostly college students, are playing during an open mic night in the backyard of one of Waco’s premier music venues. But it’s not located along a row of other music venues, like Austin’s storied Red River district or Dallas’ growing Deep Ellum.
It’s a coffee shop: Common Grounds.
And it’s nestled between Pizza Hut and the soon-to-open Heritage Creamery. Liz Taylor, former director for Tourism in Waco and of the Convention Center explains why Waco relies more on small venues for music than on their Convention Center or the Extraco Event Center. Spoiler alert: it’s all about the ticket sales.
“Waco is not, has never really been a, in the twenty years I’ve been here anyway, has never really been an advance sale destination," Taylor said.
These smaller venues that Waco's music scene revolves around are similar to Common Grounds. That is, most of Waco’s music venues are primarily something else, like a restaurant or a bar. It’s hard to imagine it now, but Clay Pot, the Vietnamese restaurant by Baylor’s campus used to host punk shows.
Jared Himstedt, who is now head-distiller at Balcones Distillery, started playing in a Ska-punk band in college. The concerts at Clay Pot, he says, were “pretty rowdy.” With half the crowd hanging out in the parking lot and half inside, moshing. There were even a brave few, who would try - unsuccessfully - to protect the restaurants decorations, shelves, and ornamental cabinets.
And Clay Pot wasn’t the only place. From the family-owned, Poppa Rollo’s to the VA Center, the Jubilee Theater, and the Skate Park -- live music in Waco mostly took place in unorthodox music venues. Himstedt, now a member of the band, Wild Okra, was much more close knit 20 years ago.
“It was really nothing a venue that could fit 500 people, like, actually sell out and have friends not get in, which if I played a show and 500 people showed up and the venue maxed out today, I would freak out," Himstedt said. "Hasn’t happened in a long time.”
Himstedt and his friends played in a number of other cities around the U.S., but Waco was the most responsive. The Waco music scene, he added, was something pretty special.
As Waco evolved, so did the venues, so did the bands, so did the crowds.
You may not be able to catch shows at Clay Pot or Poppa Rollo’s anymore, but Zach Daniel, who drums for the band, Lomelda, which remains a popular fixture in the local music scene, says that Truelove and Common Grounds expansion has made it easier to attract bands from other cities to play shows with them in Waco. That expansion, says Taylor Torregrossa, the venue promoter at Common Grounds helped the coffee shop attract bigger artists from other cities, many of whom are en route from Austin to Dallas.
“I think that Mutemath in 2011 was our first, like, huge show," Torregrossa said. "And quickly after that was when we began expanding the backyard and pushing it back.”
Looking toward the future of Waco’s music scene, Torregrossa says that what Waco does well is grow new artists.
“Common Grounds and Waco does a really good job of taking a small artist and, like growing them with Waco as their home, kind of. It’s like what we did Ben Rector," Torregrossa said. "It’s what we did with Drew Holcomb. It’s what we did with Penny & Sparrow, and those bands are selling out shows here now.”
Waco might not become a live music capitol any time soon. But Waco as continues to grow and a city leaders look to develop the entertainment industry, it will continue to develop its vibrant niche in music that can grow with its artists and its venues.