Last September was the first time Cody Caddell traveled from Kerrville to attend El Cosmico’s Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, a weekend-long festival with camping, music, and baseball in Marfa. During the first night of concerts that included the Heartless Bastards and Marty Stuart, Caddell knew that he would return.
“The vibes, the feelings, everything about Trans-Pecos is so much more intimate,” says the educator. “If I’m on limited funds and I only have one festival to go to every year, it’s going to be Trans-Pecos.”
The festival debuted in 2006, two years before its founder, Austin hotelier Liz Lambert, officially opened El Cosmico. She knew it would take years to transform her property a mile south of Marfa into a hotel and campground, but she didn’t want to wait to host guests. So she decided to throw a party. “I invited some musician friends to play and we just sort of built it from there,” Lambert says in an email.
And built it they did. Among the friends who volunteered to erect a stage for the festival was Tift Merritt, a singer-songwriter from Houston who ultimately was given another task. “I think people realized that I wasn’t very good at using tools, so my job was public relations,” she says. “I rode a bike all around and invited folks and handed out flyers.” About 400 people showed up.
Merritt has performed almost every year of the festival, as has local musician Ross Cashiola and Grammy-winning musician and producer David Garza, who refers to those early years as a “cool house party” in the desert—and more of a secret before social media.
Through the years, Trans-Pecos has grown with the addition of workshops that include sound bath meditation, sotol tastings, horseback riding, a pop-up spa, and parties. A more permanent stage was built on the site in 2017. Occasionally there has been a Ferris wheel and a mechanical bull. However, Lambert says the festival still provides an intimate experience.
“It feels kind of like an extended family picnic,” she says. “There are no fences, no massive corporate sponsors, and no $8 bottles of water. At its peak attendance, we had around 1,800 people, which sounds like a lot but on 21 acres of land feels very small.”
20 Years of Ballroom Marfa
In 2003, Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn established a contemporary art space inside a 1920s-era ballroom that once housed a silent-film house and a dance hall. Since then, Ballroom Marfa has worked with over 840 artists, musicians, writers, and thinkers; brought musicians such as Jeff Tweedy, Feist, and At the Drive-In to Far West Texas; and contributed to Marfa’s worldwide reputation as an art destination.
Although the desert town is always evolving, the Ballroom will remain a place for artists, says executive director and curator Daisy Nam. “We’re always adapting to be able to support their needs,” she says, adding that during the pandemic, they started an artist-in-residence program “for artists to come to Marfa to have time, space, and resources in this very special region of Far West Texas.”
Programming has also maintained a community-minded focus. In fact, one of Nam’s favorite programs is the annual DJ Camp that teaches local students how to mix and scratch music during their summer break and ends with a dance party at the outdoor bar, Planet Marfa.
The 20th anniversary celebration starts on Oct. 6 with the opening of Perhaps the Truth, featuring works from a dozen artists along with other activities throughout the weekend. More upcoming events can be found at ballroommarfa.org.
There is one lineup of five artists for the one stage each night, which provides the opportunity to discover new music. Well-connected in both music and hospitality, Lambert picks the acts that have included Neko Case, Kacey Musgraves, and Wilco. Some musicians such as Ben Kweller and Robert Ellis have become regular fixtures. Lambert aims for a mix of close friends and other acts she’s excited about, “either up-and-coming bands or time-honored legends,” she says. “My musical taste is really diverse and I love booking bands that you might not think of on the same bill.”
A great example of this is the rotating lineup that forms El Cosmico Family Band. Every year, the musicians come together in some capacity to perform a set that Garza compares to a variety show. “You never know who’s going to jump in, and there’s an element of surprise to it, which I love,” Garza says.
Some of those surprises included Jenny Lewis and St. Vincent covering Deee-Lite’s ’90s hit “Groove is in the Heart” with Garza in 2015. Ellis led the band in 2019 to pay tribute to the late Boyd Elder, the Valentine artist known for his painted skulls on two of The Eagles’ album covers. Naturally, the family band covered “Hotel California.”
People in Marfa still talk about Robert Plant’s unexpected performance with then-girlfriend and folk singer Patty Griffin in 2011. His name wasn’t on the festival poster that year (Griffin’s was), but in typical small town fashion, word spread that he would perform. It was a thrill for Julie Bernal to see him onstage. She was a frequent visitor to Marfa at the time, but she moved to town a year and a half later.
“I think that was probably one of the things that made me want to live here even more, because it was such magic,” Bernal says.
Elis Ribeiro from Baltimore is returning to Trans-Pecos this year to experience a bit of that magic for the last time at the original El Cosmico location. Lambert announced earlier this year that the hotel is expanding to a 60-acre property on the east side of Marfa with construction set to start in early 2024. To celebrate this end of an era, Spoon, The Heavy Heavy, and Neal Francis are headlining this year’s festival with Merritt, Ellis, Garza, and Cashiola returning. Jess Williamson, Kara Jackson, and others fill out the bill.
“There’s a certain sense of nostalgia and sadness about this being the last year here, but at the same time I’m so excited about what’s to come,” Lambert says.
Riberio is ready after attending the 2019 festival. The music aligns with her taste, she says, and she likes that the festival environment doesn’t feel overwhelming. “Even though it’s growing and some things are changing, I feel like it’s still got the heart at the center of it. It hasn’t changed too, too much that it’s lost what’s made it magic.”
Riberio also likes to attend the annual sandlot baseball game between Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa and Texas Playboys Baseball Club at Vizcaino Park on the east side of Marfa. Sandlot baseball has grown in recent years with teams forming around the state, but these teams have been around for over 15 years. Michael Camacho joined the Gallos in 2009 while he was still playing with the Playboys.
“That was a big controversy for a while, whether Michael Camacho was going to be a Gallo or a Playboy,” Cashiola says. Camacho never felt so honored to be booed and called “Benedict Arnold” when he played for the Playboys.
Like the music festival, there are also special moments that occur at the sandlot game. St. Vincent sang the “National Anthem” in 2014. Sometimes Kweller puts on the uniform and plays for the Playboys. A memorable moment for Camacho was catching the first pitch from Carrie Brownstein in 2021. “She threw it hard and straight and fast,” he says about the Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia star. “She could have technically been a pitcher for any sandlot team. I thought that was pretty cool.”
While Camacho is bummed that El Cosmico is moving, the baseball game will be much closer to the new location. Most of the current accommodations will also relocate, and Lambert is collaborating with architect Bjarke Engels and his team at BIG, and Jason Ballard at ICON, to build 3D printed Sunday Homes that are available to purchase.
“It’s a really wild dream come true,” Lambert says. “Stay tuned.”
For now, El Cosmico is holding one last party Sept. 28-Oct. 1 at its original location.