SXSW Part 1: Women Offer Abundance of Roots Music

Austin's Music Convention Features Mindy Smith, Kelly Willis, More

For fans of female songwriters with a hint of twang, the crowded nightclubs of Austin, Texas, were the places to be Thursday (March 18). For the second night of the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, Americana darlings such as Kelly Willis, Mindy Smith, Allison Moorer and others all played short sets to industry folks — radio programmers, booking agents, potential managers, music journalists and the like. In fact, the five-day event, which concludes Sunday (March 20), has become the official spring break of the music business.

My night started at the new Coyote Ugly Saloon on Sixth Street, one of the longest stretches of debauchery outside of Las Vegas. The Duhks, a youthful Canadian band, were tearing it up on banjo, fiddle, guitar, vocals and conga drums — playing an enjoyable cross between bluegrass and world music. This multi-ethnic combo has signed to Sugar Hill Records and opened a night of that label’s (and sister label Vanguard’s) female artists. Despite the venue, none of the women performed on the bar.

About halfway through the Duhk’s set, I headed around the corner to the Copper Tank Brewery. (All week long, a laminated credential gets participants into every bar taking part in SXSW.) The Feathermerchants, possessing a talented female lead singer, had a sorrowfully small crowd, but their show was polished, and they seemed confident in their artistic vision. At first, I classified them as Americana, but their last song reminded me of the “Crazy for You”-era of Madonna, a compliment in my book. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more.

However, at every turn of the hour until the bars shut down, a different band takes the stage. I had enough time to hop in a taxi across town for the bar Tambaleo to catch Oh Susanna’s set. Another Canadian artist, the former library clerk sings with an unforced twang and a surprisingly forthright voice for a young woman. So far, the gentle waltz of “Alabaster” is the song to beat in Austin for the rest of the week. Leaving the bar, I couldn’t quite figure out why all the Bettie-Page look-alikes were wearing ’666′ on their black leather outfits and getting their pictures taken on the nearby railroad tracks. It probably had something to do with the art gallery around the corner, but rather than investigate, I flagged another taxi and returned to Sixth Street.

Back at Coyote Ugly, Garrison Starr seemed to be having tech problems, so I slipped into the club next door to see a surprise guest. Willis squeezed in a pleasant four-song set with Fastball (“The Way”) serving as her band. A year ago, she gave birth to twins, which explains the lack of a new album, but she assured the crowd that she’s “thinking about writing.”

The fire marshal wasn’t too keen on letting anybody else into Smith’s set, again at Coyote Ugly. I did manage to gain admittance eventually, but even at 6 feet 2 inches tall, I couldn’t see above the crowd. The bands were set up in a corner, about a foot lower than the bar’s floor. I did hear a few of Smith’s tunes, but since I couldn’t see anything, I tried my luck by standing outside looking in the windows, but they were so thick, even the guitars are inaudible. Moorer was playing there at midnight, but I couldn’t bear the harsh conditions, so I moved along.

The final stop of the night, an odd bar called Caribbean Nights, seemed mismatched with the evening of accomplished songwriters on the Rounder label. Not the sort of show where the announcer really needs to warm up the crowd with rowdy declarations like “Make some noise!” or “South by Southwest is in the house!” And was the fog machine really necessary? Sarah Harmer, a fine Canadian artist with an album that arrives Tuesday (March 23), appeared as stunned by the blinding strobe lights as I was. Except she was on stage and I was in the balcony, at eye level with the almighty bulbs. Though I had to shield my eyes periodically, she did play one of my all-time favorite songs, “Basement Apartment,” but I’m not sure the bouncing colored spotlights did anything to enhance the lyrics about life turning out exactly the way you said it wouldn’t.

Fortunately, my vision remains intact, all the better to see Dwight Yoakam, the Mavericks and Patty Griffin this weekend.