The Honky Tonk Doctor is in
“There’s a watering hole and Austin we go when we have a troubling mind and need to unwind …”
Dale Watson’s loping twang rambles onto the dance floor at the Continental Club, where two-stepping space at the beloved South Austin haunt is squeezed by a tight group of women clustered at the front of the stage.
“We go there to find the one in the back. Have a seat if ya like. You’re gonna hear it like it is,” Watson croons. “That is if the Honky Tonk Doctor is in.”
A hoot erupts from the crowd halfway through the lyric, joined by a hearty round of cheers by the end. The “Honky Tonk Doctor,” Dianne Scott, stageside and surrounded by a gaggle of girlfriends, beams at Watson.
It’s Feb. 1, 2016, the day before Scott’s 65th birthday, and the club is celebrating the woman who has spent 23 years working the back door and giving the club its colorful voice, first with her Continental Confidential newsletter and, more recently, through its social media accounts. Club staffers whisk a blazing cake out from the back and Watson leads the crowd singing “Happy Birthday.” The room explodes in cheers as Scott blows out the candles.
‘You’ll only put your beer on that pool table once’
“I don’t know what the club was like before. I can’t imagine what the club was like before Dianne,” says James McMurtry, the Americana poet whose Wednesday night gig is one of the Continental’s longest-running residencies.
Jon Dee Graham, another songwriting ace who holds down the club’s midweek sets, agrees. “She is a force of nature, and like most natural forces, she is complex and downright hard to explain, but commands respect all the same,” he says. “Sweet and tough like the vines tattooed onto her skin.”
Her long run posted by the pool table in the club’s back room has refined Scott’s Northeastern friendly but no-nonsense demeanor. “I have two reputations,” she jokes. “One is for being the sweetheart and so supportive and so cool and the other is being the bitch at the back door.”
“She does a great job of making people feel welcome as long as they’re not misbehaving,” club owner Steve Wertheimer says.
“You’ll only put your beer on that pool table once,” Brian Auderer, who builds the club’s website, says with a laugh.
Everyone has a story about Scott, who stands barely 5 feet 2 inches, wrangling drunken tough guys with nothing but steely will.
“One in particular was her forcing a guy twice her size out the door simply by advancing on him step by step, unyielding ‘til he was out,” Graham recalls. “You can be huge without being big, you know?”
These days Scott handles public relations for the club’s Austin and Houston locations and Wertheimer’s newest venture, C-Boys Heart and Soul. Those responsibilities occupy the bulk of her time. She is at the back door only on Sundays and Mondays, and her post has evolved into a receiving line as much as a guard station. Friends, musicians and club regulars love to stop by and catch up.
At the Continental’s Loretta Lynn birthday bash earlier this month, Wertheimer marvelled at Scott’s crowd of admirers. “Man, you couldn’t get anywhere near Dianne … There were so many people on top of her,” he says.
Noting the way all sort of folks sought out Scott’s frank, open-minded wisdom, last winter a friend dubbed her the “Honky Tonk Doctor” and created a Charlie Brown-style advice booth at her table by the club’s back entrance. Tickled and touched, Watson immortalized her in song.
Club-goers can request advice for 25 cents a question. The idea was a lark, and Scott has been surprised by the response. On a recent night she made $61 answering all sorts of questions from the utilitarian (Who has the best barbecue in town? Where do the locals go that tourists don’t know about?) to more serious fare. She’s offered career advice and counseled women to leave their men.
Recently a woman in her 50s sat down with Scott. “I have a very serious question,” she said. She explained that her son was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He was in rehab and begging to return home.
“She started to say, ‘Should I let him?’ Before she could even get it out I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Scott says.
The woman began to cry, but Scott maintained the hard line. Nearly half a lifetime ago, she almost missed the call of her brilliant second act. The vibrant woman who would go on to be a solid rock for a generation of Austin musicians passing through the Continental was almost destroyed, hiding from her demons at the bottom of bottles.
“You are not doing him any favors,” she told the woman. “I am speaking from the voice of experience. … It’s time for him to stand on his own two feet and if he falls, he falls.”
To live or to drink?
With a personal style that eschews flash for comfort, Scott seems an unlikely candidate for a superhero origin story, but her dramatic birth in 1951 followed an in utero gamma ray shower. Her mother, Virginia Scott, was diagnosed with spindle cell sarcoma, a very aggressive form of cancer, while pregnant. She underwent Cobalt therapy, an early form of radiation, but her prognosis was so bleak, no measures were taken to protect her baby.
Dianne Scott at one month old with her mother Virginia Scott who just returned from the hospital after having her right leg amputated.
After Scott’s unexpected birth, doctors amputated her mother’s leg above the knee to slow the spread of the disease, but instead, somehow, the cancer disappeared. Scott says her mother was the first known survivor of this type of cancer and doctors, who chronicled the case in medical papers, never knew why she lived.
Scott’s devout Irish Catholic grandmother, a sweet woman who struggled with alcoholism, lauded it as a miracle. “My grandmother made a vow that if my mother’s life were spared and if my life were spared she would never drink again,” Scott says. She maintained the pledge for almost 20 years until a priest who lived down the street persuaded her the promise she made didn’t really count as a pact with God because “he wanted a drinking buddy.”
Scott grew up on “a very old-fashioned, Irish, working-man farm” in upstate New York, 90 miles south of Montreal on the banks of Lake Champlain. The setting was idyllically beautiful, but also economically depressed and culturally deprived. Scott’s grandmother, the second youngest of a dozen children, picked strawberries on the great uncle’s farm where Scott was raised. For every quart of strawberries sold, she earned a dime. She squirreled the money into a collection to pay for music and dance lessons for her granddaughter, who had been enamored with song since receiving an Alice in Wonderland Victrola when she was 5.
Photo of Dianne Scott's family farmhouse in Willsboro, New York.
By the time Scott was 13, she was singing at civic events around her hometown, but the serene calm of small town life had been shattered. Haunted by a series of sickening childhood sexual abuses, she turned to alcohol when she was barely a teen. Her teenage years were scarred by more trauma, a horrific gang rape at 17 followed by the shocking deaths of her first boyfriend and a close friend who were drag racing on the country roads by her house.
Drowning her sorrows liberally, 18-year-old Scott was counseled by a therapist who diagnosed her as a “terminal alcoholic,” a term no other mental health professional she’s seen has heard. It planted a seed, an idea that gnawed at her. She began to believe a day would arrive when she would be forced to choose between alcohol and life. To drink or to live? For the next 17 years she lived with an ominous ambiguity. She had no idea which she would choose.
Through most of her 20s and into her 30s Scott remained in the area near her hometown. Bartending part time from the time she was 18, she also worked for the then-named Association for Retarded Citizens in New York State, where she astonished colleagues with her ability to reach deaf and blind clients with profound intellectual disabilities and severe behavior issues.
For several years, she lived with her grandmother and did her best to maintain the massive, 23-room farmhouse that had been in the family since 1907. On the surface her life appeared normal, but her weekends, which usually began on Thursday and often staggered into Monday morning, were a blur of binge-drinking, blackouts and reckless sex.
When her grandmother, the “center of my life,” died in 1985, Scott was unmoored. The emptiness that had loomed for years engulfed her. On Dec. 27 1986, she sat down in the empty farmhouse with a bottle of Fioricet pills pragmatically divided into five piles (to avoid the inevitable nausea of a mass dose) and decided to end her life.
But life was not done with Dianne Scott.
A friend, alerted to her erratic state by concerned staff at the bar she had just left, frantically sought her out and dragged her to the hospital. She remained hospitalized for a week and when she made it through the tremors and nausea of withdrawal, she remembered the therapist’s dire diagnosis 18 years earlier. “I went, ‘Oh, so this is the day,’” she says. “I chose to live.”
‘Tastes like the blues’
Scott had begun to forge a path in the music industry, doing the bookings for a nearby lakeside inn and a local bar and managing a bluegrass band, but after the breakdown it was harder to be in her old haunts. She resented her former drinking buddies sitting at the bar swilling freely when she couldn’t. “None of them enjoyed drinking as much as I did and how did they have the right to be able to be there and be drinking and I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was pissed.”
A DJ friend had given her a copy of Joe Ely’s debut album and there was a photo on the back from C.B. Stubblefield’s restaurant in Lubbock, the first Stubb’s BBQ. There was a sign that said, “There will be no bad talk and no loud talk in this place.” Scott was captivated. She wanted to know more about this place. Her research ramped up her curiosity.
C.B. Stubblefield "Stubbs." Photo by Taylor Johnson.
“Not only was (Stubblefield) friends with all the Lubbock connections, Joe Ely’s people, but also he was good friends with John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, Albert Collins, Albert King, all the people that I was totally in love with,” she says.
On a trip to San Antonio, where her mother was living, she made a quick stop over in Austin. She discovered Stubb’s had relocated to the Texas capital, a city that was exploding with live music. She hatched a plan. She and a friend would move to Austin in the fall, and she would go to work for Stubblefield.
She arrived around noon on Nov. 27, 1987, and called Stubb’s a few hours later. When Stubblefield himself answered the phone, she giddily asked if he was accepting applications.
“Ma’am, we don’t have no application at Stubb’s,” the barbecue kingpin drawled.
Scott rattled off her qualifications, years of experience doing everything from washing dishes to tending bar. “And he said, ‘Ma’am, I’ve got more women than I know what to do with now,’” she recalls with a laugh.
Undeterred, Scott and her friend went for coffee at Stubb’s the next morning. They returned every morning for a week. “By the third day Stubb was sitting at our table with us and by the end of the week, he and I were buddies and a couple weeks after that I was working for him,” she says.
Oh her first visit to Stubb’s, Scott had the staff in stitches after innocently inquiring what the “barbecue jam” she spotted on the menu tasted like. “Tastes like the blues,” Stubblefield said, when he was finally able to contain his laughter.
She quickly learned that the club’s Sunday barbecue blues jam was a weekly highlight.
“You would have maybe Albert King, maybe Buddy Guy, James Cotton whenever he was in town … anybody that was playing at Antone’s on Friday or Saturday would most likely stay over on Sunday to come to the Sunday jam at Stubb’s,” she says.
Will T. Massey, right, one of the artists Dianne Scott signed to her talent agency at Chicago House, a venue where Scott volunteered. Casey Monahan/American-Stastesman, July 1989
The Austin music scene was in full swing, but the industry side was still in its infancy. Now in her mid-30s, with sobriety stoking her entrepreneurial spirit, Scott launched her own one-woman talent agency with a focus on representing “baby bands,” artists just beginning to perform regularly and tour regionally. She was mentored by Jo Rae Di Menno and Jan Mirkin, a couple of well-established women who were making waves in the Austin scene, and her agency rapidly took off. A year in, she had a roster of about 17 artists including Jimmy LaFave, Will T. Massey and the Solid Senders.
She moved the center of her operations into a shared office housed in the same building as the Austin Opera House, a Travis Heights club that was one of Austin’s biggest performance halls at the time. To be close to work, she took an apartment in the ramshackle adjacent complex. Her next door neighbor was the musician Shandon Sahm, but before more musicians, lured by the cheap rent, took over, the rest of the building was occupied by “hookers and drug dealers.”
Scott’s office was the only one in the building with a door that opened into the Opera House and the venue liked to use it as a green room for artists. Consequently, she never knew what to expect coming to work on Mondays. “After Ziggy Marley had been in my office for the weekend, we fumigated,” she says. “It took a few days to get all the pot smoke out.”
Jimmy LaFave, one of the artists Dianne Scott signed to her talent agency at Chicago House, a venue where Scott volunteered. Smiley N. Pool/American-Stastesman, March 1989
Scott became a regular at the Continental Club shortly after Wertheimer took over in 1988, drawn in by the Friday happy hour with local blues greats Erbie Bowser and T.D. Bell. When she launched her agency, Bell and Bowser became early clients.
Always an adept marketer, she stumbled across the perfect name for the group after booking them a gig at Chicago House. Scott sometimes volunteered at the club, so when the phone rang that night, she answered it. “This guy says to me, ‘Is this the place where those eastside blues specialists are playing tonight?’” she says.
As soon as she got off the phone she announced, “Hey guys, we’ve got a name for the band.” And just like that the Blues Specialists were born.
At the time the Austin Rehearsal Complex was on Music Lane, between Scott’s apartment and the Continental Club. She spent so much time at the ARC, it became a second home to her cat, who would head down there when she wasn’t home. “Mojo would go down and sleep on the front desk,” she says. Former Austinite “Renee Zellweger’s dog, Dylan, a golden retriever, would lay in front of the desk.”
She booked all her artists into the Continental Club. She loved the club’s warm, familial vibe, but it had a downside. Everybody was somebody’s friend and they all slipped in the back door, shorting her artists the cover charges they were due. She complained to Wertheimer. “Steve said, ‘You go work back there,’” she says. “And I did. And I never left.”
A family of misfits
In her time at the back door of the Continental Club, Scott’s turned away hordes of drunks and hooligans as well as film crews and self-important pseudocelebs who’ve tried to breach the entrance when the club was at capacity. Once, South by Southwest co-founder Louis Black dropped by during the fest, but the club was full and Scott refused him entry. To Black’s credit, Scott says, he didn’t argue, but simply nodded and sat patiently on a bench outside the door.
Likewise, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock, Robert Plant, Johnny Depp and Bruce Willis have all been “positively charming” in their time at the club, although Willis “was a stage hog with his harmonica.”
One time Lucinda Williams was a bit huffy when Scott asked her to go to the front door and she says, the only person who’s ever pulled the ‘Do you know who I am?’ card was singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, whom Scott found “prickly and arrogant.”
There’s an exception that proves every rule and one night during SXSW 2004 the club was jam-packed in anticipation of a late set by Kris Kristofferson.
“Suddenly the (back) door opens and this guy sticks his head in and says, ‘Excuse me, could I come in and use your bathroom,’ Scott says. “And I turned around and I looked at him and he goes, ‘I’m playing later do you think it would be OK?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely Kris.’” Scott dissolves in a fit of giggles at the memory.
Kristofferson’s set that night remains one of Scott’s favorite Continental memories.
“The place was jam-packed and this was one of those times where you could literally hear a pin drop,” she says. “Everyone was so completely dead silent hanging on every word. Every nuance of everything he did. It was just incredible.”
Through the years, Scott says it’s been “amazing” to watch Jon Dee Graham come into his own and she’s loved getting to know James McMurtry through his Wednesday residency, but some of her warmest memories are of the young artists who cut their teeth at the Continental. “Gary Clark Jr. and watching now, the Peterson Brothers … watching those young kids develop. That’s the best. It really is,” she says.
In Wertheimer’s eyes, Scott’s presence has helped define his club. “She’s one of those things that is very unique and particular about the Continental Club … one of the reasons that club is what it is,” he says.
Scott describes the Continental staff as a loving, “dysfunctional family” and Wertheimer agrees.
“We’re a bunch of misfits that have been at that club for 30 years and it’s all a big family. It seems to work,” he says. “It’s not a fashion show at that club. It’s not that kind of place … that’s why everybody feels comfortable there.”
Through her 23 years at the club, Wertheimer has allowed Scott to create her own position, and she never put her own creativity on the shelf. Jon Dee Graham has warm memories of watching her “knitting, or writing, or working on a piece of art” in the back of the club.
Roughly 11 years ago, L.A.-based author Pamela Des Barres (“I’m With the Band”) began hosting a series of writing workshops focused on women’s memoirs in Austin. Scott has attended all of them. In a 2013 session, Des Barres gave her writers a prompt to write a stream of consciousness essay about “something you wish you could forget.”
Scott was struck by a stomach churning memory, “the scent of chewing tobacco and Four Roses bourbon and hay on a flannel shirt.” Suddenly, she was unwinding a brutal, but beautiful, piece drenched with stunning sensory details. For the first time in her life Scott was able to put to paper the story of her sexual abuses.
“I couldn’t have done it any sooner than I did,” she says.
When she read the finished piece, “Not All Wounds Are Visible,” at a writer’s gathering at the Continental Club’s upstairs gallery, McMurtry described it as “brilliant.” Des Barres plans to include it in her next book, although Scott, a seasoned businesswoman, acknowledges her piece might not make it through the editing process.
But it doesn’t really matter. The act of finally giving voice to her buried pain was monumental for Scott.
“It was life changing,” she says.