Ameripolitan People

For ten years, the best honky tonk, rockabilly, Western swing and outlaw country musicians have gathered under the banner of The Ameripolitan Weekender and Awards. Founded by Texas country iconoclast Dale Watson, the non-profit organization hosts an annual celebration of traditional country music genres highlighting what the mainstream pushed off the mainstage.

The Ameripolitans have helped redefine careers, honor those deserving of broader recognition in country music and create a legion of dedicated fans. Held either in Austin or Memphis, the three-day marathon of music, dancing and late nights brings together pickers, players and lovers of this music for a traditional country music family reunion. 

This year’s gathering featured music nearly continuously over a three-day weekend, from hotel conference rooms to historic venues across “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Competing showcases, single-release events and late-night hotel lobby jam sessions packed the agenda—not to mention the unofficial events around the city. There was not enough time in the day to see it all. 

But that didn’t stop Tim Horyna and Deborah Chandler from trying. The Salt Lake City couple has attended the events for the past four years and was thrilled to be in Austin for the first time. They were still getting their heads around the schedule on the first day, as they waited in the registration line. 

When asked who he was excited to see, Horyna, a factory rep for industrial hoists and cranes, replied joyfully, “Oh, jeez, of course, Dale. And we’re excited to see the people who tour through our city in one place. I’m really going to try to figure it out as we go and see as many as we can.”

Watson is a bit of a cult figure among the fan base. His vision built this weekend into an institution — likely beyond his imagination. For the tenth anniversary, the event was hosted again in the Wyndham Garden Austin, just off I-35, about 15 minutes from South Congress. This was the location of the first Weekender and Awards.

Chandler, a middle school principal, joined Horyna in the registration line and conversation.

“This is the best. The Ameripolitans are what I look forward to all year long. It’s small and intimate, you dance with the people you see on stage.”

Six years ago, the couple saw Watson in Salt Lake City when he told them to attend that year’s awards show. Before they left the venue that night, Chandler had booked tickets and airfare to the show in Memphis. Since then, they have developed lifelong relationships with other fans through this community. 

“I’ve made friends here, my Ameripolitan friends, and I can’t wait to hook up again,” she said. 

Celine Lee Watson wears several hats for the event. She’s the creative director, producer, co-founder with husband Dale and, perhaps most importantly, chief cat herder. 

Lee Watson leads a small staff and core group of volunteers throughout the year to prepare for the weekend. The team focuses on enhancing sponsorships and artist relations. 

This year, the team significantly expanded its corporate sponsorship program to include big-name Texas brands like Lone Star Beer and Tito’s Vodka, as well as celebrity-endorsed Teremana Tequila. The Rock is a big fan of this music, according to the Ameripolitan team. 

But for Lee Watson, it all comes back to the people—those who have been there since the beginning and those who are just discovering the event and music now. 

“We want to give people more. They want it, and we want to give it to them,” she said as she outlined the non-profit’s expansion plans. This year, The Ameripolitans expect to host shows and events around the country, promoting the genres and musicians who earned nominations and wins in previous years.  

Martha Merger, of Walburg, Texas, a small town about 50 miles north of Austin, is one of those original volunteers who remains at the core of the organization. 

“I’ve been here 10 years, the first event was here at this hotel, all of it was in that ballroom,” she said, gesturing down the hall. “Dale asked me to volunteer, and I asked to do what, and he said, ‘I don’t know, something.’” 

And she’s been doing something for the event ever since. For Merger, the Ameripolitans are about providing a space for traditional roots music to thrive. Bringing together bands and musicians that pay tribute to traditional country music with the fans who love the old ways and those doing it today is worth the work—which is not insignificant or cheap. 

“No one is getting rich here—we keep on coming up with creative ways to bring in the money and expand the focus and the fan base—and we’ll keep going,” she said. “And here we are 10 years later, by hook or by crook. We all come back because we love this music.”

This year’s event was capped by a star-studded awards show at the Moody Theater, home of Austin City Limits Live. The show included performances by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who received the Master’s Award, the surviving members of The Texas Tornados, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenz, Junior Brown on the Gut-Steel and the legendary Wayne Hancock. Songwriter Gary Nunn opened the night with a perfect song to welcome the event back to Texas and this particular stage, his beloved “London Homesick Blues.” 

This masterfully produced event—even with a few rougher edges—was a far cry from the fluorescent light-filled ballroom of the Wyndham Garden Austin. The awards show team included Watson’s long-time producer Mitch Cohen and retired radio and television executive Rodger Christian. 

While there was a successful $125,000 fundraising effort and concerted push to enhance the production value of the show, Lee Watson understands the value of keeping some of that do-it-yourself, alternative energy for fans like Hoyrna and Chandler.  

“We don’t want to get too professional and feel untouchable,” she said. “We want to make people feel welcome no matter what. But we are also going to grow organically and support these independent musicians so they can be seen and heard by more people than ever before.” 

And the artists appreciate the exposure to this community. Sterling Drake, who took home the 2024 award for “Honky Tonk Male of the Year,” put it simply. 

“Ameripolitan fans don’t measure artists by stream counts or social media followers, but by the integrity of the music. It’s a beautiful thing.”

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