AUSTIN, Texas -- Without fail, every year at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference, somebody inevitably asks, "You're here for CMT? Are there country artists here?"
True, few mainstream country artists come to Austin for the famously overwhelming conference, although it really isn't hard to find music here with its roots in country. With the proper advance planning (listening to unfamiliar bands online before you go, scribbling a schedule of where you need to be at the top of every hour), you can then answer the second-most popular inquiry: "What good stuff have you seen so far?"
That's when you take a deep breath and start in.
On Wednesday (March 14), the first night of the conference, Charlie Louvin packed several hundred people into a rock club on Sixth Street. (Now that's a sentence that you probably didn't expect.) He's turning 80 this year and recently released an album of collaborations with country artists and hipster rock guys. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, Louvin has more than enough classics to fill up a 45-minute set list, and it's always a joy to hear "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face," one of the most bitter songs I know. He was followed by Sunny Sweeney, a sassy singer from Texas who can't be classified as anything but country. She easily won over the crowd with her catchy songs and twangy vocals, plus she earned some cool points for bringing out Jim Lauderdale for "Lavender Blue."
Eager to discover new music, Thursday night began with the Storys, who hail from South Wales, yet their lush harmonies and arrangements recall the California singer-songwriter vibe from the 1970s. In other words, songs like "I Believe in Love" are not that far from contemporary country. When they get back to Europe, they're opening a tour for Elton John. Down the street, the fine folks at Red House Records offered folk-influenced sets from the Pines (check out "Put Your Arms Around Me"), Lynn Miles (likewise with "A Thousand Lovers") and Storyhill ("Fallen" -- whose first line helped me get through another chilly February: "This year the winter will not break me.")
The next afternoon, Jo's Coffee in South Austin hosted a free parking lot show. With sunshine on my shoulders and a delicious barbecue sandwich in hand, I arrived in time for the last few songs by the Band of Heathens, a local roots-rock band that made me wish I'd seen the whole show. After that, traditional Texas icon Dale Watson came on, trailed by newcomer Ryan Bingham, who reminds me of Steve Earle, Chris Knight and the rugged music you'd expect in a truck commercial. I think he's going to go far, and so does Lost Highway, who recently signed him. Tift Merritt came on next with an enjoyable batch of new songs, including "Morning Is My Destination," a definite keeper. Honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver wrapped it up with a lively set, especially after he chugged a can of Red Bull. It's always a treat to hear "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal," "When the Fallen Angels Fly" and "Live Forever."
When the official evening showcases started, the Continental Club crowd enthusiastically welcomed Pam Tillis. Her fantastic new album, Rhinestoned, arrives next month. After the first song, she asked for a little bit less volume onstage. "I'm not a screamer," she noted. That's precisely why she stands out in country music. She did Nashville proud during her set, which slowed down only long enough for a knockout ballad, "Someone Somewhere." Her rendition of "Yes Ma'am, He Found Me in a Honky-Tonk" was killer, too.
A few blocks away, Texas legend Johnny Bush staged a triumphant return at Jovita's. Decades ago, he was one of the state's most popular country singers, but at the height of his fame, he essentially lost his voice due to spasmodic dysphonia. Thanks to Botox injections into the muscles around his throat, he's back in a big way. He sings in a lower key now, yet he retains the resonance in his delivery and he's quick with the one-liners, too. Joined by former Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados keyboardist Augie Meyers on accordion, his version of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" was a highlight of his set -- as was "Whiskey River," of course. After all, Bush wrote the latter song that Willie Nelson made famous.
Back at the Continental Club, Kelly Willis previewed her new album, due in June, with an upbeat show and tunes I can't wait to hear again, notably "Too Much to Lose," "Nobody Goes to the Moon Anymore" and "Here Comes Success." The same sentiment goes for Justin Rutledge, a young Canadian songwriter with a pedal steel in his band and country-friendly songs like "She Is Music to My Ears," "I'm Your Man and You're My Baby," "This Is War" and my favorite, "Too Drunk to Cry." He played a chilly outdoor show on the upstairs patio of a downtown club at 1 a.m. -- hard to find but definitely worth seeking out.
The following night, which happened to be St. Patrick's Day, stumbling twenty-somethings invaded downtown with green tank tops and Guinness T-shirts, so I drove across the river to an unofficial SXSW show at Saxon Pub. The Dedringers may be baby-faced (like we all were at 21), but they have great potential, both from a writing standpoint as well as mainstream appeal. I've said the same thing about Hayes Carll for a few years now -- well, not the part about the baby face. For his midnight set, Carll tossed some engaging new songs into the mix. They will hopefully surface on his upcoming Lost Highway album. If he ends up at SXSW again next year, I can once again say, "Yes, there are country artists here, and in fact, here's one that you're really gonna like."