The three drone Highland Bagpipe is as iconically Scottish as haggis and tartan – even if, ironically, none of the three are Scottish in origin. For one weekend each summer the skirl of the pipes fills the air in and around Glasgow green as the city plays host to over 200 pipe bands from around the world in the World Pipe Band championships. This year, one of those bands is from deep in the heart of Texas… the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums of Austin, Texas.
Austin, Texas is the heart of the State of Texas – named for the republic’s first President – Stephen F Austin. It is the modern day capital of the Lone Star state and home to the University of Texas. Austin is also a music capital of the world – where the Austin sound has been evolving for several decades. What began as an outpouring of country and rock from the city’s beer joints, evolved into the music of the “cosmic cowboys” with artists like Willie Nelson and Michael Martin Murphy leading the way. Today the Austin sound is, at least according to Rough Guides, “a mélange of country, folk, and the blues with strong psychedelic and alternative influences.” But what about bagpipes?
While you may not find pipes and drums appearing on the Public television staple “Austin City Limits,” the skirl of the pipes can clearly be heard in the heart of Texas thanks to the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums. Indeed, just as the “Austin sound” was emerging in the form of outlaw country music in the 70s, the Silver Thistle Pipe Band was being born. The band has been competing and performing around Texas and the world for over 40 years and 2019 will see the group making its 5th venture into the World Pipe Band Championships. The band is a global community with members from Scotland, South Africa and France as well as homegrown Texans, many of whom learned to play thanks to the band’s own lessons program.
Dr. Ken Liechti is Scottish, an aeronautical engineer having graduated the University of Glasgow. Graduate school brought him to the USA in 1974. He joined both the University of Texas, where he holds the Zarrow Centennial Professorship in Engineering, and the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums, in 1982. A piper since he was a wee lad in Scotland, he was pipe major of the band from 1985 until 2011. He has been with the band almost from the beginning, including the days when they wore pink and white kilts.
Doug Slauson is the current pipe major of the band, having come to the pipes at the tender age of 37 after seeing a performance at the Austin Celtic Festival. A consulting Engineer for the city of Austin, he also teaches bagpipes and is a graduate of Texas A&M.
In this episode of the podcast the two men talk about the history of the band, the changing role of the Pipe Major, the pressures of performing at the world level, and the longevity and ongoing popularity of the band.
The World Pipe Band Championships have been held since 1947 and the future looks bright with as many as 40% of the pipers and drummers taking part each year are of age 25 and under. The 2019 World Pipe Band Championships will take place in Glasgow on August 16th and 17th. A total of 195 bands from around the world are registered to date and will be taking part in the various grades.
Good Luck Silver Thistle! For more on bagpipes, see our earlier episodes, #011 It’s All About the Bagpipes with Craig Munro of Wallace Bagpipes and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and episode #048, Composed: The Debut Solo Album of Piper Dougie McCance of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
NOTE: All band photos courtesy of Todd Bircher Photography
• Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums (website)
• World Pipe Band Championships (website)
• History of the great Highland Bagpipe (website)
• Todd Bircher Photography (Facebook)