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SXSW: Willie, Womack and Lots of Cussin'
This is a very good sign: Lee Ann Womack looked extremely casual and down-to-earth during her South by Southwest (SXSW) showcase in Austin, Texas, on Thursday (March 13). Even better, she only rocked out once, leaving the loud guitars and vocal straining to the unknown rockers populating the annual music festival.

With about 300 people in the crowd, Womack took the stage shortly after midnight, kicking the set off with "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" and "A Little Past Little Rock." She then introduced songwriter Jim Lauderdale and harmonized with him on his honky-tonker "Whisper." Turning the stage over to the highly-regarded Buddy Miller, who served as her sideman for the night, Womack strolled off stage and nursed a bottle of beer. Wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a well-worn pair of jeans, the native Texan looked healthier and cozier than she ever has.

Stepping aside for Ray Benson and two Nashville singer-songwriters, Womack also welcomed Bruce Robison -- who co-wrote the Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" -- to sing harmonies on his composition "Blame It on Me." At 1:20 a.m., she wrapped up the set with the aggressive "I Need You." Both songs were on her latest album, Something Worth Leaving Behind, although she didn't perform either of its singles or "I Hope You Dance."

No big deal because part of the fun of SXSW is hearing stuff you'd never discover otherwise. Many of the bands that showcase are talented, but nearly all of them need to work on stage banter. And they're not all country, of course. Still, isn't country music what you'd expect from a band named LeRoy Justice? Especially when they start the show by asking, "How y'all doin'?" Sure, but when they follow up with "I said, 'How y'all motherf-----s doin'!" it's probably time for something a little more polite.

Toronto's tough-talking songwriter Kathleen Edwards framed her genuine terms of endearment in an equally curious manner: "Canadians are a--holes compared to Texans." Her set was played more forcefully than her rootsy album Failer would indicate. Maybe it's the confidence gained from her two Letterman appearances, or maybe she just wanted to hold her own sandwiched between two of Texas' most unique talents, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver.

Indeed, the hardest part about attending SXSW is finding the time to cover everything that looks cool. It's easier during the day when interesting musicians can be found at the trade show (such as college-friendly folkie David Berkeley), at the record stores (the Hackensaw Boys picking their buoyant bluegrass) and even on the movie screen (the would-be star of John E. Edwards Is in Love).

But when the sun goes down and the enchiladas have been consumed, the clubs start to buzz, so it's out on the town yet again. First problem: What to see? The Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players, which rumored to combine the joy of slide shows, a dinner cooked and served by the mother and a singing 9-year-old girl? Or catching another go-round of David Berkeley and a few other singer-songwriters on Sixth Street?

I chose Sixth Street, ducking into the Pecan Street Ale House in time to hear Berkeley's set. When so many musicians put on ridiculous airs of indifference, it was refreshing to see a truly talented band that is genuinely giddy to play.

"This is the only place where a showcase is still a showcase," Berkeley said, when asked why he and his band traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y., for their first SXSW. "It's a place where people can see what you do and can help you. And plus, we really wanted to come to Austin." Then he shook a few more hands and perhaps got a manager or a booking agent out of the trip.

Knowing that I wanted to see Willie Nelson at midnight, I wandered in and out of various clubs to kill time. (SXSW registrants get unlimited admission to dozens of venues.) Here's what I heard along the way: lame Southern rock, a trombone solo, angsty modern rock, a half-naked singer rolling on the stage and drinking Jack Daniel's straight from the bottle and a German country band with Rosie Flores sitting in. Plus, a twangy Australian country singer, a tiny Austin songwriter and a big boogie-woogie guy from Chicago who had the whole crowd shaking.

Barely past midnight, yet cutting into Nelson's time, the much beloved Lucinda Williams was being ushered off the stage as I entered the Austin Music Hall. But she did not go quietly.

"This is the business side," she complained as her band packed up. "There's the music side and the business side, and they somehow managed to f--- each other."

Then she added, "You all are the reason I do this." The house lights came up, and I leaned on the front of a large pillar in the rear of the cavernous venue.

"I'm saving that place for my friend," a wobbling lady told me. I couldn't tell if she was clutching my collar for emphasis or to keep her balance. So I slid over and propped myself against the side of the pillar. Less than a minute later, she got up close to my face and said, "Are you the guy that I said couldn't have that spot?"

"Yeah."

"Are you from out of town?" she slurred.

"Uh-huh."

"You know we love Willie Nelson in Texas, right?"

I nodded.

"We looooove him," she added. "Texas looooves him."

And judging from the audience -- young and old, drunk and sober, pierced and not -- Texas isn't alone. Kicking things off with "Whiskey River" (what else?), Nelson tossed his signature red bandana into the crowd and quickly slipped another over his forehead. Predictable, sure, but I slept easier that night knowing that Nelson was in the world.
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