Insurgence From the Heart

The 1997-98 Austin Music Awards

Asleep at the Wheel and the Derailers
The continued insurgence of country music into radios and album collections across the U.S. has been a sporadic charge, mounted in small factions from the far corners of the Pacific Northwest clear across to the east coast and on down, of course, into Texas. Though the attack on Nashville and mainstream country has been little more than a barely felt slap in the face, the movement continues to grow, the cause recruiting new members. More importantly, perhaps, is that its presence has opened the doors for acts that reach farther into the roots of the music from whence it came. Welcome, then, to the 1997-98 Austin Music Awards, brought to you in no small part by this insurgent movement (and The Austin Chronicle). On a simple surface level, the Derailers, originally from the aformentioned The Gourds (top)
The Damnations (bottom)

photo by Jana Birchum

Pacific Northwest (Oregon) are one of the torch-bearing bands of this current movement, but let's not forget that the Derailers probably wouldn't exist had it not been for outfits like Ray Benson's long-running Western swing outfit, Asleep at the Wheel, which began bucking trends over 25 years ago. While these two Austin perennials might serve as bookends for this year's AMA, just about every other local act on the bill serves as a marker for country's insurgent movement.

The best local example could well be the Gourds, rising from the ashes of the Picket Line Coyotes, an Austin punk band that grows in legend now, but was little-noticed earlier this decade. Carving their niche here in town (as well as in select European locales) over the last four years, the Gourds make music that's genuine, and it's that very quality that makes them so appealing. Awaiting the release of their second album, Stadium Blitzer (due on Watermelon/Sire in April), the Gourds pour odd but captivating harmonies and blood-stirring mandolin runs into a backwoods blend of Appalachian folk and bluegrass flavored with a youthful devotion to punk, polkas, and ballads.

It's the philosophy behind this fresh take on mountain music that the Gourds share with kindred spirits the Damnations. Like the Gourds, the Damnations, featuring the harmonies of sisters Deborah Kelley and Amy Boone - as well as the banjo playing of former Picket Line Coyote Rob Bernard - are a country-folk-bluegrass band that makes no bones about what informs them musically: Tom Waits, Doc Watson, Lucinda Williams, X, the Staple Singers, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams. All these influences go into the fast-strumming rockers, easy country strolls, and occasional piano rags the group romps through during their spirited live shows. Again like the Gourds, the music of the Damnations comes from the heart. Together, these two bands will share their time onstage at the AMA as the "Gourdamnations," an ass-whoopin' extended-family unit that might represent the heart of Austin's music scene as good as any musical entity.

The local popularity of the Damnations isn't surprising in at least one respect: musically speaking, 1997 was indeed the Year of the Female. Combine this with Austin's long-standing musical tradition of producing world-class singer-songwriters, and it's no wonder that local women on the caliber of Kacy Crowley, Ana Egge, and Trish Murphy have begun making waves in Austin and beyond.

It's female solo artists in particular that have been pivotal in the resurgence of roots music, and young Ana Egge, whose sensational 1997 debut, River Under the Road, quickly made her a local favorite of devoted folk fans, will perform in-the-round with two other local artists who have garnered likewise acclaim, Trish Murphy and Kacy Crowley. Murphy made a strong showing with last year's independent debut, Crooked Mile, and after a solid year of hard work is volleying larger label interest. Along with Crowley, whose future is so bright that Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun signed her personally to his label (later releasing her 1997 debut, Anchorless), Murphy speaks to a crossover in audience that has made the whole return to roots possible and lasting. All three artists, along with special guest Jon Dee Graham, whose comeback last year with the best Tom Waits album in nearly a decade, Escape From Monster Island, should be as eye-opening as the "Too Many Girls" gathering at the AMA two years ago, or the Townes Van Zandt tribute at last year's awards ceremony.

left to right: Ana Egge, Kacy Crowley, Trish Murphy

photo by John Carrico

photo by John Carrico

In fact, year after year, the most exciting aspect of the AMA is often the pairings on the bill. This year's girls with guitars go-round and the Gourdamnations hoe-down will be focal points of the evening to be sure, but just as likely to be an event is the pairing of two hip-hop/funk-oriented acts from Austin, Hot Buttered Rhythm and MC Overlord. An all-star, double-back-line format of young guns from the local jazz scene and beyond, Hot Buttered Rhythm is driven by the razor-sharp drumwork of Brannen Temple, and when combined with the powerful rap stylings of MC Overlord, whose voice and lyrics are as imposing as his physique, the effect is to be devastating. These musicians' connection to a persevering local jazz scene provides another whole realm of possibility for crossover attention, but to talk about a roots resurgence in conjunction with hip-hop, funk, and jazz is redundant.

left to right: Hot Buttered Rhythm, MC Overlord

photo by Todd V.Wolfson

Which brings us right back to where we started, the Derailers and Asleep at the Wheel. In considering the origins behind the resurgence of country, due attention must be paid to the Western swing branch of music in the American South. At its inception, country swing drew from Dixieland jazz, Cajun music, and European fiddle music imported by the immigrants Malachi
who settled in the South, and particularly in Texas, around the turn of the century. Carrying the tradition into the next century are Austin's Derailers, who take this down-home variety swing and inject it with the infectious electricity found on last year's lauded Watermelon/Sire release, Reverb Deluxe.

As stated above, Asleep at the Wheel have been as influential in the country swing vein as any band still performing, and since relocating to Texas in the Seventies, the charismatic and monumental Ray Benson and company have been adopted as Lone Stars of the highest degree. They will headline this year's Awards show, a performance that promises to dive about as deep as you can get into the roots of all facets of the music we call country. Joining them onstage will Don Walser, as well as Leon Rausch and Johnny Gimble of the Texas Playboys, who with Bob Wills at the helm, were the heart, soul, and vision of all of Western swing. And taking the potential of this performance from really exciting to legendary, honky-tonk pioneer and Country Music Hall of Famer Floyd Tillman will also take a turn with the Wheel in a real display of old-school country.

This, then, is the 16th annual Austin Music Awards, held for the second year in a row at the Austin Music Hall. As he has for many years, Paul Ray will host the proceedings with a number of guest presenters, including the MTV contingent of Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head and FOX's King of the Hill); Dominic Griffin (Rockline radio show producer and The Real World star); and Laura House, Howard Kremer, and Brad Pope of MTV's Austin Stories. The funky, electric gospel of Malachi will be a new, joyful invocation to the proceedings, and the rest - winners and all - will speak for itself.

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