Singer Toni Price, the Toast of Austin
Listen to John Burnett's report.
After Nine Years at One Club, She Still Packs the House
View a Toni Price photo gallery.
Listen to songs from Toni Price's Midnight Pumpkin.
Feb. 18, 2002 -- In a town that's choosy about its music, Austin's Toni Price has built a fanatical following. For nine years, the country and R&B singer has played one night a week at a small south Austin club. What started as Tony Price's Happy Hour is now known far and wide as "the Hippie Hour." And as NPR's John Burnett reports for Morning Edition, it's a remarkable scene -- "something like a holiness revival and a Harley rally and a Phish concert and an Appalachian wedding party."
By the time Price sashays onstage around 6:30, Burnett says, "the Continental Club is standing room only, with a line snaking out the door. Eyes closed, head thrown back, her arms curling overhead, Price looks like a sultry Hindu goddess. Onstage, she sips Tennessee whiskey and flashes her arm tattoos: a Mayan snake, and a heart bearing the name 'Keith,' as in Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. He's no ex; she's just a fan."
Price's music is hard to categorize. Burnett describes it as a fusion of bluegrass, blues, rockabilly and R&B, "with occasional detours to Billie Holliday and Django Reinhardt."
Price grew up in Nashville, where she recorded a few country & western singles, and paid her dues with cover bands like Mel and the Party Hats. But she felt frustrated by the "rigid" Nashville music industry, so in 1989 she accepted an invitation to play the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. The town's music fans "just responded so lovingly that I said that's it. I know where I belong."
Guitarist and fiddler Champ Hood, already something of an Austin legend, became Price's longtime accompanist. Last November, Hood died of cancer. Friends wondered whether the loss of Hood would change Price's music. But as Price tells Burnett, "Even Champ would say the show must go on." And it has: The last recording Price made with Hood, Midnight Pumpkin, is her fifth CD, and her most popular.
In the town that launched Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and other nationally recognized talents, Austin music lovers say Toni Price has that same star potential. But does the 40-year-old singer want it? "My favorite thing someone says to one of my friends is, 'Why isn't she famous?' I love when they say that because that means they think maybe I'm good enough to be famous. To me, famous looks like a lot of work," Price says with a laugh.
Beyond infrequent appearances in Houston or Dallas, or an occasional music festival, Price stays close to home and her 7-year-old daughter. "I have a sweet situation here," she tells Burnett. "I don't have to go anywhere. People come and see me and I'm so, so lucky."
Her Tuesday gigs at the Continental are like a much-anticipated weekly tryst, Price says. "Always, I approach it like making love. And we always get there, together. I want to delight my partner each time with something new or something old that I know they like, or whatever. And that gig itself is a weekly ritual -- and people need rituals like that."
The Toni Price Web site
The Austin Americana Web site
Austin Chronicle article about Toni Price