Gwil Owen rarely walks onto stages anymore. A couple of years ago, the onetime leader of The Thieves tired of trying to stir up excitement for his band’s occasional hometown appearances in Nashville, so he concentrated on songwriting and on releasing his own albums independently. But when he stepped into the spotlight at the Crystal Ballroom on opening night of the South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas, he was greeted by lusty cheers from a full room of fans. As he started into his songs, shouts of recognition rang out. Strangers sang along with choruses. After his 30-minute set, a standing ovation beckoned him to stay. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said the following evening. “It was the single best experience I’ve ever had performing.”
When Owen took the stage at 12:30 a.m. last Thursday night, 40 other clubs and theaters across Austin were hosting SXSW shows. Dozens of other unsponsored performances vied for the attention of the more than 5,500 visitors who were in town for the annual three-day event. Those kinds of numbers can be daunting: Fans can be dazed by the choices, and up-and-coming artists can be intimidated by the sheer conglomeration of acts. (At 1 a.m. on Friday night, for example, some of the conflicting choices included such distinctive indie rockers as Low, Red Aunts, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, and Blink; roots music purveyors Lou Ann Barton, Junior Brown, the Vidalias, Rosie Flores, and the Bottle Rockets; and pop-rock veterans The Plimsouls and the Pursuit of Happinessand that’s only half the list. I settled on Jo Carol Pierce, whose combination of colorful Texas storytelling and art-damaged eccentricity proved incredibly entertaining.)
When Owen played, he didn’t care how many people were crammed into other clubsnor did many of the other artists who put on satisfying shows to appreciative crowds throughout the city. Music is about personal connection, not about what’s going on down the street. Nothing but the moment mattered when I was shouting along with Iggy Pop, marveling at the sly, melancholy sentiment of Jules Shear, or raising a glass to toast the sweetly soured soulfulness of Gary Stewart. As I stood mesmerized by the tense beauty of a new song by Joe Henry, it didn’t bother me that hearing him meant missing Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Robyn Hitchcock or Son Volt or the Mermen or the Posies or the Naughty Ones or the Borrowersall of whom connected with their audiences just as much as Henry had with me.
This year, the only people who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves were Austin residentsespecially those within the city’s music industry and those charged with commenting on it. For them, it seems, the dew has definitely come off this Texas rose. As Austin celebrated the 10th anniversary of its music festival, its citizens behaved like a rich family throwing a lavish partyand then they complained about the hassles and the costs and about how many of the invited guests had ruined the intimacy and casualness of their soiree.
But the griping stems from problems that go beyond Austin’s citywide block party. In short, things aren’t so promising on the home front anymore: On a panel about local music scenes, a young journalist complained about how dull Austin music has become in recent years. The city’s fabled clubs are overrun by predictable music, she said; she especially bemoaned the proliferation of formulaic blues bands led by Stevie Ray Vaughan wanna-bes and the lack of imagination among local singer-songwriters and rock bands.
Of course, Austinites have always been good at gripingit’s just that, in the past, instead of dousing themselves, they’ve preferred to throw cold water on everyone else. When they talk about Nashville, they mention our city in the same tone that a liberal Hispanic lesbian might use when talking about Pat Buchanan. On seminars, in panels, in print, from the stage, and over enchiladas, Nashville is demonized as the home of corporate musical pabulum. But anyone holding that opinion hasn’t been paying attention or listening closely enough. At SXSW, Music City folks were getting juiced nightly, and not just on Cuervo, Shiners and street-side Jell-O shooters. On every night, at every turn, someone from Nashville was having a good time, beaming about a memorable show they’d either just seen or put on.
Gillian Welch, Mike Dowling and Kate Campbell all drew warm receptions Thursday night at the Crystal Ballroomand each disproved the notion that Nashville music is formulaic or overly slick. The Delevantes, Terry Radigan, Jeff Black, Jamie Hartford and R.B. Morris all presented their own distinctive songwriting styles and drew favorable responses. BR5-49 continued to spread its spell beyond the familiar confines of Robert’s Western World. Hometown favorite “Me and Opie”which singer Chuck Mead introduced as “an ugly song about drug abuse and sexual deviance”draw a roar of approval from the crowd. Just as importantly, Gary Bennett’s blue-collar honky-tonker “Even When It’s Wrong” drew cheers mid-song and an ovation of support when it finished. Elsewhere, acts as new as Self and as familiar as Jason & the Scorchers met with wildly enthusiastic responses.
Of course, BR5-49 now records for a corporate record company based on Music Rowbut don’t tell anyone from Austin. We wouldn’t want to spoil their image of Nashville. No matter that one of Austin’s favorite sons, Junior Brown, is gaining a worldwide following through an association with another major record company based here. Or that another outstanding but long-ignored Texan, Robert Earl Keen, has now joined the same big label as BR5-49. Or that such commendable talents as Keith Gattis and The Thompson Brothers both celebrated their fine, upcoming Music Row debuts with Austin shows.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from writer Rob Patterson, a vocal critic of Nashville who writes for the Austin Chronicle, a weekly newspaper and primary sponsor of SXSW. About 30 minutes into a rollicking set by Nashville’s Dead Reckoning crewKevin Welch, Kieran Kane, Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers, Harry Stinson and Fats KaplinPatterson shouted in my ear, “Who says Nashville doesn’t have good music?”
Not anyone who heard Nashville performers playing at SXSW this year.
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