Skaggs, Trick Pony Anchor Country Offerings at SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas — Not every audience at South By Southwest (SXSW) is populated by people with green hair and multiple body piercings.

Though commonly regarded as a gathering of those on the cutting edge, eager to discover the next big thing, the music and media conference that takes place here every March also features a fair number of country acts.

“We’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll tonight — acoustic rock ‘n’ roll, that is,” Ricky Skaggs joked Thursday night (March 15) at the outset of his free concert in Waterloo Park, on the edge of the University of Texas campus. With help from his Kentucky Thunder band, Skaggs proved that it’s how you play a song that counts as much as what song you play.

Strumming the opening chords to rock classic “Smoke on the Water” on his acoustic guitar, he parried, “Didn’t think I knew that one did you?” And at one point the Grand Ole Opry star admitted that most of his repertoire comes from the classic, pre-1965 bluegrass canon. “You got a problem with that?” he quipped. “No,” they yelled back. “We don’t either,” he said.

The vintage songbag played well with the crowd, particularly the ultra-speedy instrumentals on which his band — especially banjo player Jim Mills and guitarist Clay Hess — could show some flash. “Folks wonder how we play so fast,” Skaggs said. “Well, Starbucks don’t hurt none.”

Because the concert — which also featured Charlie Robison and Jesse Dayton — was free, many locals turned out to hear the music. But even the Austinites seemed a little unfamiliar with bluegrass tradition. When Skaggs announced that the band’s next tune would be the age-old classic “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Sleeping,” the audience laughed as if they thought he was making a joke. And when guitarist and high tenor singer Paul Brewster came in for the falsetto part on the gospel tune “A Voice From on High,” there were a few disbelieving snickers.

In the end, though, Skaggs’ concert had to be judged only an unqualified success. The audience sang along to “Uncle Pen” and they insisted, with sustained applause, that he come back for an encore of “Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Trick Pony also played to an enthusiastic audience at the Broken Spoke, a classic Texas roadhouse where dancers rule. The trio — Heidi Newfield, Ira Dean and Keith Burns — have just released their first album on Warner Bros. Records. Their Broken Spoke audience was a far cry from the jaded radio crowd they tried to impress two weeks ago at Country Radio Seminar.

“Austin is one of our favorite towns, by far,” Newfield said after her band’s 50-minute set. “We’ve been a lot of places, but Austin is probably one of the coolest towns in the States. It’s such an eclectic group of musicians, and everybody is so open-minded. Playing a true Texas honky tonk, that’s what it’s all about.”

With help from three backing musicians, and with labelmate Chad Brock in the house as a guest, Trick Pony kept the dance floor full from the opening notes of “Pour Me,” their first single, to the closing notes of “Spent.” Two-steppers moved around the perimeter, while shag dancers and freestylers did their thing in the middle.

“They’ve got big ears and they’re willing to listen,” bassist Dean said. “It’s a pretty well-rounded town.” With his metallic stand-up bass and his red, white and blue electric, Dean inspired a trio of dancing partners who gyrated around him when he jumped off the bandstand.

“They listened, they danced, they had fun, they drank,” said guitarist Keith Burns. “That’s our job done. The crowd was into it and they were digging the tunes. That’s tough to do when you have your first CD out. They don’t know any of the songs other than the single. By the time the chorus rolls around, to have ‘em singing the words the second time through, that’ s a good feeling.”

After their high profile SXSW appearance, it’s back to more mundane business for Trick Pony. They play the opening of a Super Wal-Mart in Franklin, Tenn., next, then it’s off to the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Says Dean of the group’s constant hard work: “We’re basically coming to a town near you.”

Robison, Billy Joe Shaver and Grand Ole Opry favorite Elizabeth Cook also turned in good sets on Thursday. Shaver’s appearance at a private party was especially poignant. Jesse Taylor, guitarist for Joe Ely, filled in for Shaver’s late son, Eddy, who died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve. “The Earth Rolls On,” the title track from Shaver’s new album, is also the final track. At the end of the song — the last on the album — Eddy Shaver plays a long coda, as if saying goodbye. When Taylor played the parts Thursday afternoon, Shaver fell to his knees, closed his eyes and rocked back and forth, making some connection with the music that was both chilling and deeply moving.