Austin’s music scene wouldn’t exist without the women who keep it going.
By Cy White, Photos by Joi Conti. Styled by Asma Parvez, with inspiration from The Garden Room, Arbor Eye Center and Nordstrom. Shot on location at Music Hill Ranch. Special thanks to Renée Roberts.
The forecast promised rain. While the sky did open up, it was early enough in the morning that by the time everyone began to arrive at Music Hill Ranch, any threat of a downpour was forgotten in the rays of a surprising Valentine’s Day sun.
It’s going to be a beautiful day.
The first to arrive, a young Elle Townley. She’s all smiles and exuberant energy. That’s the word for it: exuberant. She’s already in her pink frilled dress, a Texas-sized belt, turquoise boots and jewelry to match. Her smile and energy set the tone for the entirety of the photoshoot. Townley is the new kid on the block. A rising country music star who’s already had accolades showered upon her. Nominated for a Texas Country Music Award at the age of 14, the Round Rock native is just beginning to understand what it means to make history.
“I was actually nominated for Young Artist of the Year for the Texas Country Music Association,” she says. “While I was at the award ceremony, which is in Fort Worth, I got to meet an incredible amount of amazing artists. One that really stuck out to me is Sarah Hobbs. She won Female Artist of the Year. I’ve listened to her, and I’ve really grown to love her music.”
Next in line, Cassie Shankman, who most people know as DJ Cassandra. Her mood, too, is full of life, happiness, light. She’s quickly followed by Mama Duke, another hometown hero who’s made so much noise on a national stage it’s a wonder anyone else can be heard.
This is Austin music: a little bit country, a lot of rock ’n’ roll (in one way or another). The current state of the music scene in the Live Music Capital of the World is fascinating, considering the last few years. According to the 2022 Greater Austin Music Census, the music industry overall has decreased about 10% since 2014 (which, to be fair, could be a result of survey fatigue from the community). However, the diversity of respondents within the industry has increased. The range of professions tied to the music industry range from the expected (venues, recording spaces, publishing, etc.) to the somewhat surprising (medical and the public sector).
The lockdown and development as a result of rapid population growth saw many local venues shut down. Legendary locales like Shady Grove, BT2, Scratchouse, Barracuda and arguably Austin’s most iconic locale, Threadgill’s, the bar that saw the artistic blooming of Janis Joplin and (depending on who you ask) made Austin weird before Red Wassinech proclaimed we should “Keep Austin weird.”
Still, Austin’s live culture will never fade away (with staples like Stubb’s, Antone’s, the Broken Spoke, the Saxon Pub and The Continental Club still alive and kickin’). In fact, according to the Census, the variety of live options has increased significantly. Community spaces skyrocketed from 6% in 2014 to 35% in 2022.
Townley’s emergence is significant. The amount of young artists entering the music industry has shrunk quite a bit, another factor in the diminishment of the industry overall. Those between the ages of 18 to 24 make up only 6% of the industry, while those 25 to 39 only make up 38%.
That being said, an undeniable eclecticism has embraced a new wave of artists from all walks of life. Shankman, too, has a storied past with music. Having graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in classical music, she pursued the medium with vigor.
“I’ve kind of been around in the music scene here in Austin since 2010,” she says. “I was doing all different kinds of jobs in music. I studied music composition and piano, and I did that for as long as I could until I had to get a full-time corporate job. I’m a composer, a DJ, a piano player and educator. I’m a consultant for film and TV, like if there’s a scene on a TV show with a bunch of kids who are trying to learn. Or there was one scene where a father’s trying to learn piano from his son and none of them knew how to play piano, so I had to teach them how to play when they’ve never played piano before. Stuff like that.”
However, nothing in her history suggests she would add DJ to her list of skills. Of course, as most will tell you, the mandatory lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to reevaluate, reassess and branch out of their comfort zones to jump into something new. Shankman delighted at the chance for a new adventure.
“I got a really big job writing music for a medical company,” she says. “That’s kind of when I started to learn a little bit about DJing. I’ve always wanted to do that and then picked it up because a friend of mine wanted to do it. I was like, ‘Wait a second, I like this.’ Then one person is like, ‘Oh, I like your sound, I want to hire you for this.’ The next thing you know, down the line, you’re like, ‘I’m a full-time DJ.’ And it is wild.”
Mama Duke? Oh, she’s lived her life fearlessly, both as Kori Roy, a hip-hop head who’s been embarrassing your faves since she started freestyling during lunch in high school, and as Mama Duke, the multi-hyphenate artist who now sits on the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy board. But of course, that’s what makes it hip hop: living authentically as yourself, no matter the status quo. There’s nothing “status quo” about Roy. A mixed-heritage Black and Mexican out lesbian woman who can rap circles around your favorite emo mumble-core wannabe, she’s taken every preconceived notion about the genre and kicked them in the teeth.
Even before the cover shoot starts, she’s aware of the aura of the moment. The women who start to trickle all inspire her artistry. “What’s beautiful about this industry is that I started off not knowing some of these women I’m meeting today. But now I do,” she says. “Everyone plays such a big role in their own world. The fact that this cover is so diverse excites me. We all matter in different ways to different communities.”
These three artists are in a very unique position. They’re all poised at the crossroads of past and future. Shankman and Roy represent the Austin music making its way into the public consciousness now. Townley, she finds herself sitting between Austin tradition and the precociousness of Austin’s future. A rising star bolstered by the support of the legends that came before and the women who stand as her mentors now.
“I hope Austin will continue to thrive. And I really hope to be a part of that as it continues to grow,” she muses. “I’d really love to make music my career for the rest of my life. And I’d love to play at some of the legendary venues like the Broken Spoke and the Saxon Pub. It’d be a dream come true to play at the Moody Center. I’d love to play all those places one day.”
The clock ticks closer to 11 a.m., and more women make their presence known. Soon Music Hill Ranch buzzes with unparalleled feminine energy. Legends of the industry like Marcia Ball, Nancy Coplin, Lurleen Ladd, Leti Garza and Christine Albert embrace young women who are giving the Lone Star capital its current luster. In all, 13 examples of Austin’s expansive musical legacy fill the space.
Ball and Coplin bring an almost regal repose to the gathering. Their wisdom, experience and dedication to this industry is nurturing. It feels like home here. These two legends know of home; with their women-led nonprofit HOME, they’ve dedicated much of the latter part of their respective careers to providing just that to artists in the twilight years of theirs.
The substantial increase in cost of living in the city is a pervasive issue that native Austinites across the board are struggling to grapple with. For creatives, whose incomes are often much lower than those in “traditional” industries, these struggles are amplified. Of those who responded to the census, 38% are struggling to afford housing. It’s also notable that only 64% of respondents will continue to live in the greater Austin area in the next few years.
Younger artists like Mélat, p1nkstar and DJ Kay Cali have established themselves as pioneers in their own right. The art they have created has done more than make a splash. Forget riding a wave; these women have created a tsunami. For instance, p1nkstar, a trans Mexican-American visual artist and DJ, is breaking down barriers and moving mountains for the LGBTQIA+ community, much like Mama Duke.
When all women gather for the first of two group shots, the room vibrates with energy. There is so much love in this house. This is history. Music, unadulterated and pure, has gathered in this space. This group represents only a fraction of the brilliance Austin has to offer. They must know, right? They must know that they are the blueprint. Each and every one of them, and those who aren’t here. Every woman who’s ever made a contribution to this industry—artists, musicians, promoters, advocates, visual performers—she must know she is the catalyst of something spectacular in this city, in this country.
Women built this. Women are the reason Austin’s music industry has legs to stand on. Trailblazers, barrier-breakers, table-shakers, risk-takers. This group of 13 is a testament to the power of music in all its forms and facets. The charge is for them to breathe in this moment. Look to the left, look to the right, know they’re sitting next to a sister. Even in the absence of other brilliant purveyors of the craft, know that they are sitting in community and sisterhood.
This photoshoot, this monumental moment, this is a thank-you. Thank you for your gifts, your grace, your indestructible spirit. It’s because of you, all of you, that Austin thrives. Even when businesses fade, buildings close and collapse, music stands tall on your sturdy shoulders.
As the photoshoot comes to an end, the women commune, industry veterans and new kids on the block alike. There are hugs, smiles, selfies. Some of these women haven’t seen each other since before the lockdown. Others have never met at all. For Townley, this is a moment to connect with a few of the industry’s matriarchs, be embraced with their desire to see her succeed. For Shankman and Roy, it’s a chance to re-center, become inspired to press further, reach a status of the women who have come before them and no doubt influenced them, if not in style or profession, certainly in longevity and dedication.
What was forecasted as a rainy day became a glistening Valentine’s Day gift. “It just hit me,” Shankman says as the women meander about, “This is history!” With luck (and there’s no reason to believe otherwise), more history will be made in the future.
Words of Wisdom
“There’s people of all types coming in, people of all levels of income coming in. I hope that the people who are very well endowed will consider tapping into the nonprofits Like HAAM and HOME and SIMS and Swan Songs and Black Fret, Foundation Communities and all the people who are trying to help not just the musical genres. We’re not just not just the musicians, but also all the people who find themselves in distress for one reason or another. In other words, in a town that has billionaires, people should not be sleeping on the street. It would be a drop in the bucket for a billionaire to be able to house those people. And we’ve got more than one.”
“The city needs to work with the music community and the community at large to make Austin more affordable and livable for the music community and creative class. The music scene is a major incentive for companies to move here with their employees. I am hopeful that the venues will not be priced out of their locations by high rents, taxes and utilities and other expenses.”
“We [need to]SHAKE up the music industry even more with INCLUSION and DIVERSITY. We need festival organizers, talent buyers and presenters of music to ‘buy’ into presenting more international and world music, in addition to rock, blues, alternative and more traditional forms. I hope that the music presented is also for multicultural and gender nonspecific audiences. That Austin’s music industry seeks out new talent that is not only produced by our city, or by individuals or groups affiliated with the city, but also supports those musicians without ‘connections,’ and who exhibit, onstage and off, perseverance, talent and drive. I hope that Austin continues not only to support the ‘up-and-coming’ musicians, but also recognizes veteran women musicians and women who support and help create the music industry. These individuals and groups (like HOME) are a vital part of the Austin music industry.”
What women in Austin’s music industry have inspired you/continue to inspire you?
Two of my fellow “cover women”: Marcia Ball and Nancy Coplin. They are dear friends I have known for decades, and they are also an inspiration to me. They each put in the hard work to take the spark of an idea and turn it into a reality. Whether it’s the Music Commission, showcasing music at the airport, creating HOME to provide housing assistance to aging Austin musicians, burning up the highway for five decades, bringing great music to the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar stage or creating Pianorama, Nancy and Marcia, together and individually, have contributed greatly to the Live Music Capital of the World. (And thanks for coming up with that tagline, Nancy!)
Lou Ann Barton inspired my sister, Roberta, and I. She had her own voice and her own way of telling a story. Marcia Ball, Patti Griffin, Nancy Griffith. There weren’t a lot of women in the Latin genre, so we had to make our own way. Austin embraced Sisters Morales, and now me as a solo artist, and gave us room to be who we are with our culture. Women in music had to keep up with the boys to survive and be heard.
What’s an industry outside of music that you think is essential for musicians to thrive?
Musicians are small business owners, and as such they have to have a business plan. As the saying goes, ‘Without a map, you don’t know where you’re going.’ The business plan is the map. Gotta get a map!
As technology has become more and more integral to the music industry, I believe that it is imperative for musicians to stay current with the latest technology and platforms for connecting with and captivating their audiences. Whether that’s learning social media skills, different music software, etc.
In order for musicians to thrive, every industry is essential, but at the same time, none of them are essential. To me, the definition of ‘thrive’ is the real question here. Music at a large scale is essentially a business, so the more industries at play, the larger the impact. However, as you go back in time, more and more modern technologies and industries are removed. Yet the music still exists and reaches the masses. So as much as all other industries are important, they are also not pertinent to the power of music to eventually find its way.
Assuming there’s an Austin style, what do you think defines it?
DJ Kay Cali
Funnily enough, I think it’s in the middle of being redefined. Austin is growing rapidly and is becoming a melting pot, so the style has influence from all over the world now. If Austin finally starts to accept the different styles with open arms, it’ll develop the sound and culture it always had the potential to be.
I’m not going to assume Austin has a “style”! Look at this cover. We’re all in our own little worlds. Ruling them. Playing with different sounds and bending rules. You can’t define any of the things we’re doing and creating.
It is hard to define an Austin style, as it morphs and changes through time and genres. I would say that the one thing that can define Austin style is the sense of community and the fact that the music always comes first.
Organizations to Support
Marcia Ball and Nancy Coplin co-created HOME, an organization helping artists age 55 and older with living expenses, rent and utilities. Here are other organizations all of the cover women urge you to support:
Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM)
Texas Music Commission
Wavemaker Women in Music
Meet the Cover Women
“[I’m] a lifelong musician, singer/songwriter and the founder and CEO of Swan Songs, a nonprofit that fulfills musical last wishes in central Texas, chair emeritus on the Board of Trustees of the Recording Academy and a MusiCares board member.”
“I have been playing music since 1970, tour all around the world. I started with a band called Freda and the Firedogs in 1972. That established me as a local artist and performer in what was then known as the progressive country music scene. From there, I began forming my own bands, and so I’ve subsequently made 17 albums. I’ve got five Grammy nominations and a bunch of Blues Music Awards, that’s kind of the national blues award. I’m in the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and I was a Texas State musician in 2016. In February, I received the Darrell K Royal Texas Music Legend Award from the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association.”
DJ Kay Cali
As a California native and current Austin resident, DJ Kay Cali has been rocking crowds for years with a lifelong passion for music. Being a classically trained percussionist, it was only natural that the turntables came next. Now a celebrity DJ, producer, beatboxer and media personality, Kay Cali has provided soundtracks for internationally known music festivals ACL, SXSW and CES. Not to mention corporate clients including Nike, Apple, Victoria Secret, Indeed, the U.S. Senate, Cadillac and Ferrari. She has opened up and shared the stage with GRAMMY- and OSCAR-award-winning artists Questlove, Lalah Hathaway, Solange, The Foreign Exchange, Young Guru and Rick Ross, just to name a few. As one of Austin’s most popular disc jockeys, her music is guaranteed to rock any party and bring that vibe to any event while giving the audience a night they will never forget.
Cassie Shankman, a.k.a. DJ Cassandra, is a DJ/sound curator, composer, producer, educator and all-around creative. She grew up between Texas and London and is a big believer in community and collaboration. She’s DJ’d events for global clients such as Goldman Sachs, Teen Vogue, Google, Bumble, Adidas, NBC, SXSW, Virgin, Expedia, The Recording Academy, ACL Live and Tito’s Vodka. She DJ’d the AppleTV+ WeCrashed premiere party for Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto. She has opened and closed for Blake Shelton, LP Giobbi, RUN-DMC and a Sheryl Crow/Joe Ely ACL Hall of Fame event. Shankman has been recognized for orchestration, composition and music preparation work in award-winning films featuring directors and actors such as Terrence Malick, Martin Sheen and Natalie Portman. As a pianist, she’s played and recorded with musicians from indie-rock artist Ben Kweller to DEVO’s frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon at the Lincoln Center.
“I have been involved in the Austin music scene for about 35 years now. In 2020, I was inducted into the Austin Music Industry Hall of Fame, as the first woman. In 1988 I was appointed to the first Austin Music Commission and elected the first chair. We worked on many issues. But three major accomplishments were the Music Industry Loan program, which recommended the City of Austin guarantee low-interest loans to music businesses; the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial; and the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ slogan. I worked with Mayor Pro Tem Max Nofziger to come up with this slogan.
I’ve been a talent buyer for the iconic Armadillo Christmas Bazaar for 33 years and a talent buyer for Austin Bergstrom International Airport from 1999 to 2013, booking over 7000 performances. I hosted eight years of official SXSW showcases at the Saxon Pub, did artist management for Paul Oscher of Muddy Waters Band and CJ Chenier, the crown prince of Zydeco. I’ve done artist consultation and sync licensing with Tunego. I am a founding and current board member and officer for HOME, which pays rent and/or utilities for older Austin musicians.”
Kori Roy, a.k.a. Mama Duke, is a two-time Austin hip-hop Award winning artist and Austin Music Award Nominee. Taking home both Artist of the Year and Female Artist of the Year in one night, it’s no wonder she can move effortlessly in a male-dominated industry. Opening up for the group Naughty by Nature within the first three months of her first ever performance since moving to Austin gave her the adrenaline she needed to catapult her into everyone’s top three females in hip hop in Texas. Since then, Mama Duke has performed over 300 times, including at Austin City Limits and Austin FC’s Amphitheater. She dropped her debut album Ballsy in December 2020. In 2022 she was invited to sit on the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy.
“I’m an entertainer, dancer, musician, singer-songwriter, educator and producer from Houston. I come from a celebrated family of singer-songwriters across the Americas and value the connections between personal histories as it affects the present and tempers the future. My music is versatile, dynamic, ever growing. It is primarily bilingual, but also multilingual at any one show. I have two projects: Leti Garza y La Banda and Leti Garza Solo (or Trio). The music of Leti Garza y La Banda is a sizzling dance band with North American influences of Latin Jazz, Pop and Salsa—the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of Cuba, the dance rhythms of Colombia and the Dominican Republic and the bossa nova and samba rhythms of Brazil. Leti Garza Solo is a listening band. This music is drawn from my Texas roots of American folk, musical theater, Latin trova and, when enticed, American songbook standards and jazz.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Lurleen Ladd found her calling in music after establishing a career in social work and health care. Her strong connection to her audience is channeled through her experience helping those in need while addressing her own personal struggles. Her music radiates a compelling energy and intense honesty that characterizes her unique songwriting style, inspiring resilience and inner strength in her audience. With her melodic blend of pop (with an R&B vibe), she has been mentioned in the same conversation with singer-songwriters like Carole King, Annie Lennox and Adele.
Ladd continues to pursue her passion for serving the community, using her music to support important nonprofit causes in Central Texas. Chief among them is The Shade Project, which she co-founded with her husband, and most recently Wavemakers ~ Women in Music (WWIM), a panel and platform created to elevate and support our community of women 40+ in the music industry. The WWIM panel takes place on Friday, March 31 at Antone’s Austin. “I am hopeful for the future of the Austin Music Scene because I am connecting with other female musicians and working toward normalizing creativity for women of every age. That means supporting existing female artists throughout their careers and specifically encouraging women 40+ who have a passion for music to be an unapologetic force that is vibrant, creative and ever evolving.”
Lurleen just released her second album, No Goin Back, which is available for streaming and download on all major music platforms.
“I am proud to be deeply involved in several industries, with a focus on arts and music and philanthropy. For many years, I’ve been a member of an all-woman band called The Mrs., on a mission to empower women across the nation through our music. I’ve always known that my heart beats for a deeper purpose: to pave the way toward a kinder world. This passion led me to create The Kindness Campaign in 2015, a nonprofit that provides art-infused emotional health tools beginning at age 3.
One of our most prominent and transformative programs is KindMusic, a beginner-friendly songwriting platform for schools, companies and groups to help facilitate turning feelings into music, all while employing local artists. We thoughtfully work alongside experts in the field like musicians and counselors to give people of all ages the opportunity to write music and build a community throughout the process. The result is a professionally mixed song on Spotify, using lyrics written by the group.”
“I am an R&B-ish artist born, raised (by way of Ethiopia) and educated (hook ’em!) here in the ATX. [I’m] a singer, songwriter, model and director.”
“I’m a songwriter, performer and producer. I’ve been in this business touring and performing all of my life. My first tour was in Germany when I was 18. In the early days, I was the manager, the booking agent, the radio promoter, the PR person, the everything-that-was-needed-to-make-this-live person, because that’s what it always takes to move forward.”
p1nkstar (“ur fav electr0nic pop superstar”) creates a world far removed from this dimension’s binaries through music and conceptual shows mixing saccharine beats with subversive lyrics. Merging hyperpop with neo-perreo and club, The Austin Chronicle described her as “early Aughts Paris Hilton on Hello Kitty steroids,” and crowned her as their Queer Pop Princess. Since her performance debut in late 2016, p1nkstar has shared bills with Charli XCX, Crystal Waters, The Ladies of LCD Soundsystem, Alok V. Menon, Dorian Electra, JD Samson, OSHUN and Sateen. p1nkstar released her debut EP Number 1 Hits! on March 6, 2020, featuring five songs produced in collaboration with Mr.Kitty, Ben Aqua and Boy Sim.
Bringing her Latinx roots to the increasingly popular hyperpop genre, p1nkstar lays out a bilingual story that touches on the complexities of her queer, trans and immigrant identities in our hyper-mediated digital world. Since moving from Mexico in 2014, p1nkstar has rapidly become an emblematic figure in the Texas nightlife scene. She’s opened inclusive spaces that center the work of queer and trans artists of color in a city that is rapidly becoming whiter and straighter. p1nkstar has received two Best of Austin awards for her space-making work in the arts and nightlife and has been presented as the future of nightlife by The Austin Chronicle.
Elle began performing publicly at age 8 and performed with a cover band at age 10. She especially takes pride in having sung the national anthem, including for the Round Rock Express, the Austin Spurs and at the Texas State Capitol. In March 2020, she earned a spot as a top-five finalist in the Houston Rodeo Rockstar competition and in October 2021, placed first in the Old Settler’s Music Festival Youth Talent Competition, earning a coveted set on the main stage for the 2022 festival.
In 2022, she was nominated for the Young Artist of the Year award by the Texas Country Music Association. Through her work with PCG Artist Development in Nashville, Elle has increasingly focused on her own songwriting, collaborating with veteran songwriters and producers including Britton Cameron, Margaret Becker, Drew Womack, Kim McLean and Matt Noveskey. Her debut single “Trouble With Trouble” and second single “Fairweather Friend” were produced by Novesky and recorded at the legendary Orb Recording Studios in Austin. The song debuted in November 2020, and the accompanying video made its premiere on The Country Network. Her third release in March 2022, “One Too Many Heartaches,” and her latest single, “Fighter,” were produced and recorded in Nashville by Britton Cameron.