A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to venture out of lonely West Texas and partake in one of the lesser known Texas festivals: The Llano Crawfish Open. This small town celebration, while not extravagant by any stretch of the imagination, was really well put together, and I left the weekend thinking, "That was pretty damn cool" and hoping to return in future years.
The Open has been ongoing for 24 years now, and all proceeds benefit local Llano charities. This year's schedule of events included a charity golf tournament, a team roping competition, a 5k run, craft booths, live music, and, of course, crawfish. I didn't get to experience everything, but the events I did attend were more than enough to leave me with nothing but good things to say about this festival.
I arrived Friday evening and met up with some old friends who pulled a camper in from Houston. In previous years they paid the owners of a little piece of land about $20 to camp on their property, but much to our dismay, the land had been sold, and the premises had been turned into a bed and breakfast. Thankfully, we noticed all the rodeo cowboys had their trailers and campers parked in an adjacent field by the arena, so we nestled in between the horses and set up camp.
By the time camp was set up it was time to pour some drinks and head over to the pavilion to see a Texas staple: Mr. Johnny Bush. For those of you who aren't aware Johnny Bush is the country singer who co-penned the tune "Whiskey River" made famous by none other than the great Willie Nelson. Mr. Bush did not disappoint on this lovely Hill Country evening. He played a fantastic set full of good Texas Swing with all the classics, and we sat in our lawn chairs singing along to every word we knew. The sound from the stage was phenomenal, the atmosphere was relaxed, the beer was cold, and I was enthralled that I was finally able to see such a legendary Texas artist live in concert. When the last notes from the twin fiddles rang out through the night we packed up our chairs, headed back to camp, and spent the rest of the night rehashing old stories and inside jokes, and catching up. Needless to say it was shaping up to be a great weekend.
The next morning we took our time rolling out of bed, and I'm ashamed to admit that we didn't go out of our way to experience everything the Open had to offer. I would have loved to have caught some of the team roping, and I fully intend to run the 5k in upcoming years, but this year we did a lot of sittin', vistin', and catching up. Once we did get moving, though, the festivities didn't disappoint.
When I first saw the Open grounds in the daylight the first thing I thought was how unpretentious this festival is. There aren't huge, gaudy vendor signs everywhere, the beers only cost three bucks, the craft booths are all manned by local merchants, and the atmosphere really is that of a local celebration. If you're looking for a huge, commercial event with corporate tents, bikini clad women giving samples of alcohol, and an air of debauchery, the Llano Crawfish Open is not for you. If you, however, want to enjoy a very well put together small town party with great food, the Open is your kind of place.
So, let's talk about the food. About mid-afternoon we finally got to sample the main event of the Open: the crawfish. After standing in line for a few minutes we paid ten dollars a person, and they handed each of us a large Styrofoam to-go box. I assumed they would fill up one side with a few crawfish and some sides, and I'd go about my day happily donating my money to charity for a small amount of food. I was wrong. Once in the food line I realized that crawfish is not the only item on this menu as the servers filled the bottom of the to-go box to the brim with brisket, sausage, and all the standard BBQ sides. I found myself wondering if I was in the wrong line because I couldn't figure out where they were going to put the crawfish. Y'all know I love some BBQ, but I was a little disheartened at this point because I was worried I was about to get stiffed in the crawfish department. Wrong again. At the end of the line the server told me to put my hand under the lid of the box, and she dumped a scoop of crawfish so big the crawfish almost spilled over the sides. Ecstatic I was getting so much food for so little money, I returned to the table with my friends and we dug in.
The BBQ was very average, but considering the size of this event and the enormous amount of meat that needed to be smoked I didn't hold that against the cooks. The crawfish, however, was phenomenally seasoned and well cooked, and I took out my box as well as a friend's who didn't like crawfish (her loss). Overall, I would have been willing to pay a lot more for so much delicious food, but that is yet another example of why this event is so special. It isn't corrupted like so many music and food festivals where you get priced gouged by greedy vendors. Instead, you get hearty portions cooked and served by hometown people for a reasonable price with all the proceeds going to support local charities.
As Saturday night came upon us we got to watch the auction where we saw local businesses and well-off citizens, for all practical purposes, donating huge sums of money to support their town's charities. For example, a Longhorn helmet signed by Earl Campbell sold for over $5000, and a guitar signed by George Strait went for over $8000. It was something special to see the locals come together to support this event, and the auction really drove home how much this event means to the town of Llano.
We finished the evening with live music from Jason Boland and the Stragglers who never disappoint. They may be from Oklahoma, but we'll give them a pass on that considering how much the band is a staple in the Texas music scene. Exhausted, we retired to the camper after a full day of friends, music, and food, and sadly had to leave the Hill Country the next morning with more memories from a fantastic weekend.
This festival is a lesser known event, but I sincerely hope y'all get the opportunity to experience it sometime. A small town event like this really is a refreshing break from the rat race and serves as a reminder that it doesn't take a huge corporate mentality to make a festival. Food, music, friends, charity, and a small town heart make the Llano Crawfish Open a true Taste of Texas.