Viva Big Bend

By Kevin Tankersley

Livin’ large in far West Texas

Everyone has heard of South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL). Those are big, multiday music-and-more events held each year in Austin. Fairly new to the Texas music lineup is Viva Big Bend, a four-day affair featuring bands and singers performing at 10 venues throughout four towns in far West Texas: Alpine, Fort Davis, Marfa and Marathon. If you’re going to the festival, you might as well add a few extra days and see a little more of the region.

Each of those communities “has a style, a uniqueness to them,” said Stewart Ramser, the producer of Viva Big Bend. “I love the communities that are out here. They are small towns, but they’re vibrant.”

Viva Big Bend, scheduled for July 23-26, is in its fourth year. The musical lineup, as Ramser describes it, is “very diverse,” a philosophy also in play at Texas Music Magazine, at which Ramser is the publisher. “From mariachi, to blues, western swing, rockabilly, straight-up rock, Texas country, reggae-rock, alternative rock, soul. It’s a wide variety, and that’s what makes it fun,” he said.
Ramser was reluctant to name a headlining act for the festival, saying, “You come up with what you think. We list everybody alphabetically [on the festival website] for a reason. Who’s the headliner for one person might not be for the next person.”

However, he did highlight some shows that are being held in larger venues this year, including performances by Grupo Fantasma, a nine-piece Latin music ensemble from Austin that won a Grammy in 2010; William Clark Green, a Texas country artist whose last two albums have received praise from Rolling Stone magazine; and an all-star tribute to Doug Sahm, an important figure in Tex-Mex music. Sahm, who died in 1999, was one of the founding members of the Texas Tornados, along with Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers. Ramser also recommended shows by Shinyribs — a Texas band led by Kevin Russell, who was an original member of The Gourds — as well as the Chubby Knuckle Choir, whose repertoire brings together “country, bluegrass, R&B and swamp blues,” according to the band’s website.

Ramser said Viva Big Bend attracts from 2,000 to 2,500 paid festival-goers each day, and many others take advantage of the free activities throughout the weekend.

“We have lots of stuff during the day” that doesn’t require paid admission, he said. “We have kids’ concerts, and music during the day is free.”

Four-day passes to Viva Big Bend cost $60 and are available through the website, VivaBigBend.com. The site also lists the festival’s entire musical lineup, nearby hotels and dining options. In addition, many of the musicians playing are also visual artists, and they’ll typically bring their paintings or sculptures. The art will be on display at several galleries in the area.

Ramser, a native of Fort Worth who earned degrees at the University of Texas and UCLA, said there’s plenty to do in that area in addition to Viva Big Bend. And he would be the one to know. In addition to his duties with the festival and the music magazine, Ramser is also the tourism director for the city of Alpine. He also publishes a travel guide dedicated to the Big Bend region and produces the Drive Big Bend car festival, which will be held July 30-August 1.

If that weren’t enough, he helps with marketing for the Alpine Cowboys baseball team, a member of the independent Pecos League. The Cowboys have home games against the White Sands Pupfish on the Saturday and Sunday of Viva Big Bend. The Cowboys — along with Sul Ross State University and Alpine High School — play at Kokernot Field, which was built by Herbert Lee Kokernot Jr. in 1947 as a place for his semi-pro baseball team to play. Kokernot was later a trustee of Baylor University, and Kokernot Hall, a 182-person dorm on campus, is named for him.

Even though Viva Big Bend takes place in the middle of summer, that area of Texas is surprisingly cooler than most of the rest of the state, Ramser said.

“That’s why I did this event when I did,” he said. “The weather is great out here that time of year. The average temperatures are [a high of] 88 degrees and [a low of] 64. For the first three years, the averages were 89 and 63 for the high and low. Along the border it’s a different story, and Odessa and Presidio are often the hottest in the country. But we don’t get very many 100-degree days like you see in other parts of the state.”

The Big Bend area is chock full of museums and art galleries.

The Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine is on the campus of Sul Ross State University, part of the Texas State University system. Its permanent collection includes the Yana and Marty Davis Map Collection, a large grouping of Texas maps; the Betty Byerley Collection of more than 25 “retablos,” small paintings on tin that depict the Holy Family, the Trinity and many saints; and the Livermore Cache, a collection of arrowheads found on Mount Livermore in the nearby Davis Mountains. Detailed information about entrance fees and hours is at MuseumOfTheBigBend.com.

Approximately 40 miles from Alpine, the McDonald Observatory is located on Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes, near Fort Davis. Through numerous telescopes — from 8 to 24 inches in size — visitors can view stars, planets and other objects in the distant sky. Star Parties are offered on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, beginning about 10 p.m. during the summer, and reservations are strongly encouraged. Hours and admission fees can be found at McDonaldObservatory.org.

Just 20 miles down Highway 67 is Marfa. Any trip to Marfa must include a nighttime stop at the Marfa Lights Viewing Center, where visitors might see — or not; it just depends — the mystical Marfa Lights. The viewing area is 9 miles east of Marfa on Highway 90. Dating back to the 19th century, folks have seen a series of mysterious lights in that area. They show up some nights and don’t show up on others. The lights might appear for a few seconds or stay visible for hours. They may be stationary, or they may loop quickly around the night sky and appear to be headed to the viewing area, only to disappear as quickly as they appeared. In 2004, a group of physics students from the University of Texas at Dallas concluded that the lights are simply reflections of car lights from nearby Highway 67 or possibly campfires. “Everyone agrees it’s a mystery to be reckoned with,” says the city of Marfa’s website, visitmarfa.com, which encourages visitors to “bring an open mind.”

Marfa, with a population of 1,819, might seem an unlikely location to be considered an art mecca, but in a “Morning Edition” broadcast on August 2, 2012, NPR called the town a “blue-chip arts destination.” The connection with fine art can be traced back to the 1970s, when famed minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York and set up shop in Marfa. He bought an old Army base and filled it with art, including his signature piece, 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, a series of 100 aluminum boxes, all the same size. The Chinati Foundation now runs the space founded by Judd, who died in 1994. The former base is home to a collection containing works by about a dozen other artists as well. Included in the collection is the Robert Irwin Project, which has been in development for 14 years. Irwin, a highly influential American artist who is now 86 years old, turns “light, shadow and space into ephemeral and powerful works of art,” according to the foundation’s website. The project is a walk-through installation that uses corridors and windows to project light and dark. Information on the Robert Irwin Project and other Chianti artists can be found at Chinati.org.

About 26 miles outside of Marfa, just off Highway 90, is a Prada store. Well, not exactly a store. It’s a storefront designed to look like a store that might sell the luxury Italian retailer’s goods, like shoes and handbags. It’s actually an art installation, a sculpture created by the duo known as Elmgreen and Dragset. The exhibit was in danger of being dismantled last year, as the Texas Department of Transportation said the piece was a billboard advertising Prada, and that it did not fit the specifications of a billboard as defined by the state. In September, however, TxDOT said the structure would be reclassified as a museum and that it could stay in place.

And, of course, if you’re already in far West Texas, there’s Big Bend National Park, with 800,000 acres of space that is home to more than 1,200 varieties of plants and about 600 different species of birds, reptiles and mammals. Fossils are abundant. The park also contains more than 150 miles of hiking trails, and it’s considered a world-class area for the study of geology. If you like to camp, summer is the slow season. Reservations are not taken from mid-April to mid-November. Information on park fees, directions and weather conditions can be found at nps.gov.

There’s a lot to do in the Big Bend region, from hiking and camping to contemporary and classic art to clear night skies to music authentically Texan. And if you’re not convinced it’s worth a road trip, remember, the weather is cooler, and you don’t even have to leave the state.

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