The bands and more play on at the Cactus Cafe

This summer marks two years since The University of Texas at Austin announced its partnership with KUT 90.5 to program the Cactus Cafe, the iconic listening room in the Texas Union that featured artists such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith and Ani DiFranco early in their careers.

Wood and Wire
Austin bluegrass ensemble Wood and Wire was the Cactus Artist in Residence in March. 

Since KUT formally began programming the Cactus in mid-August 2010, the public radio station has worked to continue the music line-ups that built the venue's reputation. In fact, the listening room continues its 11-year run as "Best Acoustic Venue" in the 2012 Austin Chronicle Music Poll.

Although the best attributes of the Cactus have remained the same, some aspects of the venue have evolved. For example, jazz and classical guitar can be heard; music fans can purchase tickets online in advance of shows; and new audiences are going to the Cactus to discuss music, sports, politics and faculty research.

Artists in Residence

Last spring, the Cactus launched an artist-in-residence program, a four-week residency designed to continue the venue's tradition of providing a platform for promising local talent. The shows are free to the public in hopes of broadening exposure for the artists.

Singer-songwriter David Ramirez was the inaugural artist in April 2011, followed by Hello Wheels in September and Wood and Wire in March. The Carper Family Band, an Austin-based all-female trio singing old country, swing and bluegrass, will be the June artist-in-residence. This year, Lone Star Beer is sponsoring the artist-in-resident program to support the free concert series.

In addition to their weekly show at the Cactus, artists-in-residence receive on-air exposure on KUT 90.5 and, in the form of the KUT Song of the Day and the Austin Music Minute, and through KUT's social media channels.

Dale Watson
Alternative country/Texas country singer, guitarist and songwriter Dale Watson performs at the Cactus Cafe. 

"We've been really pleased with the artist and public response to the residency series," says Matt Munoz, manager of the Cactus Cafe. "All three of the artist-in-residence shows so far have been at or near capacity, and we anticipate the same for the Carper family this month."

Expanding the Genre

Munoz says that when scheduling shows, he tries to strike a balance between new and established performers. "We've had great runs with classic Cactus artists such as Terri Hendrix, Robert Earl Keen, Ruthie Foster, California Guitar Trio, Over the Rhine and Bob Mould," he said.

"Some of our most successful shows in the past two years played the Cactus for the first time, including blues, soul and folk singer-songwriter Citizen Cope's four sold-out nights last April, folk-country-duo The Civil Wars show in the Texas Union Ballroom last July, indie and alternative rock singer-songwriter Mike Doughty and alternative country band Lambchop this spring."

In the spirit of diversifying musical genres, the Cactus formed a partnership with the Austin Classical Guitar Society last spring to produce "Classical Cactus," featuring up-and-coming local and regional classical guitarists playing one Thursday night per month during the spring and fall semesters.

"Soon after partnering with the Cactus, KUT approached me about ways our two organizations could collaborate, and soon after the 'Classical Cactus' series was born," said Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society. "In the classical music world we dream of creating events with a casual atmosphere and that have no barriers to entry, and the 'Classical Cactus' series does just that."

The series recently concluded its fourth installment and, thanks to a partnership with KMFA, Classically Austin 89.5, "Classical Cactus" concerts are recorded and rebroadcast.

A second broadcast partnership, with ESPN's Longhorn Network, delivers select Cactus Cafe music performances to a television audience. "Sessions at the Cactus" is a 30-minute show consisting of a 20-minute performance and a 10-minute musician interview in front of a live audience.

Professors Art Markman and Robert Duke
Psychology Professor and "Smart Thinking" author Art Markman, along with Professor of Music and Human Learning Bob Duke, explored modes of study and changing perspectives that can help all of us be more effective and efficient thinkers and teachers. 

Musicians who have been featured on "Sessions at the Cactus" include Dale Watson, Amy Cook, Dan Dyer, Graham Weber, David Ramirez and Slaid Cleaves.

Views and Brews

Although music is the mainstay at the Cactus, new content and formats are being explored in an effort to reach broader, more diverse audiences.

"Views and Brews at the Cactus" is KUT's twice-monthly community discussion series exploring a range of subjects and ideas as diverse as "Jazz and the Spiritual Journey through the Music of John Coltrane," "Drugs and the Olympics," "Texas Politics," "History of Radio," "Texas High School Football" and "The Life of Tennessee Williams."

"Our goal is to engage with the community to share thoughts, inspire new perspectives and develop compelling multimedia content all while involving Austin in the discussion," says Hawk Mendenhall, KUT's associate general manager and director of broadcast and content, which includes the Cactus.

One of the longest-running and most popular "Views and Brews" discussions has been hosted by rabbi and jazz historian Neil Blumofe. A jazz musician himself, Blumofe has hosted numerous talks on jazz, exploring such things as the role of jazz during the Cold War, Dizzy Gillespie and the art of altitude, and Thelonious Monk and the art of hesitation. Nearly all of these events have had a full house.

Sampling of Upcoming Programs
at the Cactus Cafe

  • Female Country and Bluegrass Trio "The Carper Family" Headlines June Artist-in-Residence - Mondays in June
  • Jimmy LaFave - June 1
  • Views and Brews: Building an Intergalactic Empire from Salvage Vanguard to the Kennedy Center - June 5
  • Slaid Cleaves - June 8 and 9
  • Views and Brews: Gregg McVicar of Undercurrents: Native American Music and the Blues - June 12
  • Ian Moore - June 14
  • Views and Brews: Matthew Hinsley of the Austin Classical Guitar Society and Scoring The Unknown - June 19
  • Loudon Wainright III - June 23 and 24

Visit the complete Cactus Cafe events calendar.

The discussion series also covers topics in line with the university's academic mission to embrace sports, politics and faculty research. Art Markman from the College of Liberal Arts has been a featured speaker, as has Charlotte Canning and Bob Duke from the College of Fine Arts, and Danielle Sigler from the Harry Ransom Center, among others.

Looking Ahead

When announcing the partnership with KUT, university leaders cited KUT's content production, fundraising, business management and event promotion capability as needed to make the Cactus Cafe sustainable.

"When we agreed to program the Cactus, we anticipated a multiyear climb toward financial sustainability," explains Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT's director and general manager. "After a more than $90,000 lighting and sound upgrade to enhance the artist and audience experience, as well as other technological investments, we're seeing encouraging progress in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue.

"We knew that programming would be interrupted this year for some previously scheduled renovations in the Union. Fortunately, we lost fewer days than we expected, which will help overall revenue," Vanderwilt says. "We're looking forward to a full schedule of programmable dates in fiscal year '13," which begins Sept. 1.

Munoz says he plans to continue booking up-and-coming singer-songwriters, as well as classic Cactus acts. Aspiring musicians can look forward to open mic night returning to the Cactus this fall.

He also says he hopes to build new partnerships with the likes of the Austin Songwriters Group, Texas Performing Arts and Austin Vida, the Latino Lifestyle and Culture Magazine.

"The Cactus Cafe has complemented KUT's mission even better than we hoped," says Vanderwilt. "On almost a nightly basis it brings people together in meaningful music, cultural and civic experiences."

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