Street Cred to Burn

The 1996-97 Austin Music Awards

Two things happened to Austin music in 1996: Minus a single transcendent, galvanizing band to rally around, Austin's edgier outposts lost a measure of cohesion and splintered into any number of indie and psych-rock permutations. On top of that, traditional sounds -- specifically country, blues, and swing -- came roaring back with a vengeance, to the point of usurping club-based rock & roll as Austin's trend of choice.

Last year, local clubs swelled with people seeking out 81/2 Souvenirs, Mr. Fabulous & Casino Royale, the Recliners, Toni Price (as usual), the Asylum Street Spankers (ditto), Guy Forsyth, the Derailers, Storyville, and Junior Brown. The local success of albums from Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin proved radio station/Music Awards sponsor KGSR has succeeded in defining a new type of classic Austin archetype. If KVRX doesn't beat 'em to it, KGSR's sister station 101X (also an AMA sponsor) could do the same by paying more attention to the farm leagues of Emo's, the Electric Lounge, Blue Flamingo, and Hole in the Wall.

That's still a few years from happening, though. In the meantime, The Austin Chronicle's 1996-97 Austin Music Awards show says a lot about the past, and the strange way it has of becoming the present, again -- overnight. Almost to a one, tonight's performers have all won an Austin Music Award; some have won several. Tapping the city's rich veins of blues, country, folk, swing, Tex-Mex, and rock, each band or performer on the bill has solid roots in tradition, yet each is as current and unique to Austin as Barton Springs.

Not that the show ignores underground. Far from it. Just look at the man who leads it off: Gerry Van King, "The King of Sixth Street." King has street cred to burn, because that's where he plays. He doesn't even need a club. Anytime he's healthy, it's a good bet he's got his electric bass plugged in and is shuckin' and jivin' away on the Sixth Street pavement. Last year's Awards Show brought a long-overdue measure of attention to King; his dapper shades, shiny crown, and 100-watt grin have since become staples of the Austin Music Network. This year he'll be warming up the crowd in the sunken area at the very front of the Awards Show's new digs in the Austin Music Hall.

In the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Malcolm Cowley's wonderful book Exile's Return, shadowy clubs, flickering candles, and mysterious glances breathed life into a peculiar form of music, based half on American jazz and half on European ambience. Generations later, it's been resurrected in Austin as 81/2 Souvenirs. Last year's Music Poll winners for Best Jazz Act have captivated dancers and hipsters with a repertoire extending from Serge Gainsbourg and Nino Rota to Cole Porter and Federico Fellini (for visuals) for over two years. The Souvenirs' ascent has been something to behold, as they've introduced an audience weaned on Nirvana and Van Halen to cocktails, fancy suits, torch songs, and swing, becoming one of the most popular Austin bands of the decade.

Kimmie Rhodes, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, the Texas Tornados

Speaking of origins, if you're an Anglo in Austin, is there anything further underground than the South Texas border world of conjunto and corridos, the culture and customs that schooled the Texas Tornados' Flaco Jimenez and, indirectly, his fellow Tornados Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers? Sahm himself has been something of a garage icon ever since his Sir Douglas Quintet came bopping up from San Antone in 1965 with a funky groove called "She's About a Mover." Calling himself a "Dylan Come Lately," Sahm's musical vision has informed and shaped Texas music like few others. He's been cross-pollinating Latin, country, blues, and rock & roll most of his life, and the Texas Tornados may be his finest concoction yet.

Since forming in the late Eighties, the Tornados have come together at regular intervals to crank out spicy Tex-Mex flavor (like last year's Four Aces) that sounds like nothing else in the world. When Sahm's chiming guitar joins a Meyers organ riff straight out of "Like a Rolling Stone" and Jimenez' fluttering accordion runs, it's better than a Rio Grande Valley grapefruit, oozing with the sticky pulp of Texas music. Longtime San Marcos musician Roy Head, author of the classic white-boy soul anthem "Treat Her Right," steps into Freddy Fender's spot as the fourth Tornado for the Awards show.

The Sexton Sextet last played the Austin Music Awards under something of a misnomer. In March 1995, Charlie was the only Sexton in the group (its official name was the Charlie Sexton Sextet), and there were only five people in it. This year, his brother Will has stepped into the breach, fulfilling the name and also a long-standing desire of the brothers' to collaborate creatively.

As covered in the Chronicle's cover story this past December, both Sextons are experienced Austin music veterans still in their 20s whose careers have finally brought them into creative sync. Enduring the familiar Lennon/McCartney refrain of "Charlie's the performer, Will's the songwriter" must have finally gotten tiresome for the brothers, because the current Sexton Sextet makes such distinctions seem written in grease pencil. Steeped in the blues, Otis Redding, and Dylan, their lucid songwriting is often stately and tender, as on Charlie's underrated 1995 album Under the Wishing Tree and any of Will's numerous collaborations.

The Sextons will also participate in a very special portion of the Music Awards' program, the tribute to Townes Van Zandt. The dean of Texas songwriters and winner of the Song of the Year in 1983 for "Pancho & Lefty," Van Zandt died on New Year's Day at the age of 52, leaving behind a profound influence on Austin, Texas and songwriters everywhere. A hard-living outlaw before anyone even knew what that meant, Van Zandt wrote songs that had an eye for detail and an ear for nuance that made even the most ordinary observation or conversation seem profound. Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Willie Nelson are but a scant few who recorded Van Zandt's words but never quite re-interpreted them.

Heading up the tribute to Van Zandt is one of Austin's most acclaimed musicians, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. From his days with the Flatlanders to last year's stunning Braver Newer World, Gilmore has accumulated a list of awards and accolades expansive as the plains of his native Lubbock or his beautifully resonant voice. Joe Ely, another member of the Lubbock Mafia and co-author of last year's Song of the Year ("All Just to Get to You") with Will Sexton, will join his former Flatlanders crony Gilmore, as will Threadgill's Troubadour and recurring Award winner Champ Hood, West Texas songbird Kimmie Rhodes, Van Zandt's former guitarist Mickey White, and Townes' son J.T. Van Zandt.

After such a tribute to a fallen musical hero, there's really only one way to conclude the evening: by bringing the house down. And when you want a joint rocked, who better than a brassy blues queen and a Texas guitar legend? Neither Lou Ann Barton nor Jimmie Vaughan needs any introduction, obviously, because so much of what they accomplished has become legend. There was a time not so long ago when you could walk into Antone's any night of the week and one of these two would be onstage, pouring out the blues like lifeblood.

Lou Ann Barton and Jimmmie Vaughan close out the lineup.

Whether it was Vaughan with the Fabulous Thunderbirds or Barton, first with the Thunderbirds then with Stevie Ray Vaughan and finally all by her own bad self, both these local favorites helped create a sound as instantly recognizable as the club that nurtured it. Rough-hewn yet smooth like a strap of genuine Texas rawhide leather, their blues is that of Texas roadhouse lore, all stinging guitars and wailing vocal cords, saucy keyboard licks, and watertight rhythm sections. Both Barton and Vaughan are multiple Music Award winners, and on a night of honoring traditions, they'll send this show into history sweating and dancing all the way. So pull up a seat, get yourself a ticket, and enjoy some of the best Austin music of the past 15 years.

[A Word From Our Sponsors: The 1996-97 Austin Music Awards are sponsored by The Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest, and are co-sponsored by107.1 KGSR, and 101X. Guest presenters include Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes and KJFK personality Robbie Jacks, subUrbia director Richard Linklater, and Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead fame. Kerry Awn provides comic relief, and Paul Ray, as usual, holds it all together as MC-for-life. Show starts at 7:55pm sharp. Y'all come.]

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