“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas,” Waylon Jennings sang in a duet with Willie Nelson. The song’s title, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” gives a hint as to what the song is about—a yearning for a simpler time and a simpler way of life when love, a guitar, and Texas were all you needed to get by. It’s an apt ode to the very real town of Luckenbach.
Deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Luckenbach is an unincorporated community with a main drag that includes a working saloon, dance hall, and a general store that sells souvenirs to tourists who venture out to the diminutive town. While there are only 13 full-time residents in Luckenbach, come the weekend the population reportedly swells to 1,300 as people head out on Farm Road 1376 to the historic spot for music or just to test the theory about the stars at night being big and bright when you’re deep in the heart of Texas.
According to the Texas State Historical Society, the town was founded by German farmers, including the Engel and Luckenbach families, in the late 1840s, known by the name of South Grape Creek. The Luckenbach family opened a general store and a saloon and eventually a dance hall in the town. In 1886, South Grape Creek was renamed Luckenbach and slowly grew into a small, but stable community. The population peaked in 1960 with some 60 residents calling it home.
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Luckenbach’s national reputation started in 1971, when Benno Engel sold the town to John Russell “Hondo” Crouch who had a vision for the bucolic outpost. By all accounts, Crouch was a bit of a character—he was a writer, All-American swimmer, a wood carver, and father of four who bought Luckenbach for $30,000. He set himself up as the town’s mayor (he owned the town, so who was to argue?) and set about turning Luckenbach into a destination of sorts. He coined a motto, “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach” and launched festivals of all kinds (chili cook off, a Hug-In, its own World’s Fair) to draw people to the tiny town.
The heart of the town was the dance hall where musicians would set up and play while people danced around them. It was at the dance hall that Texas-born singer and songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his 1973 album “¡Viva Terlingua!”, according to Texas Hill Country, thrusting the little burg into the country music spotlight. While Crouch passed away in 1976, the town and his vision for Luckenbach continue to this day with dances, picking circles, and impromptu jam sessions around the fire pit playing to people sipping cold beers under the oak trees.
While Crouch passed away before “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” became a hit, the song helped seal the town’s reputation. Perhaps people were willing to make the pilgrimage out past Fredericksburg if they just might run into “Waylon and Willie and the boys.” The funny thing is that according to Waylon’s son, Shooter Jennings, Waylon had never been to Luckenbach when he originally sang the song, which was written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons. While he eventually made it to Luckenbach in 1997 to play at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, the song had already been out for some 20 years. It hardly mattered, though, because Luckenbach wasn’t going anywhere—and hopefully never will.