Natural Appeal

Photo of Reckless Kelly

Reckless Kelly

As is only appropriatefor the last Austin Music Awards presentation of the century, the 1998-99 show looks like it's going to be just a little different this year. Fear not: MC Paul Ray still has his gig, the backstage area will still be teaming with a wall-to-wall pit of confusion and schmoozing, and at least one award winner in a minor category will think the audience cares more about their acceptance speech than they actually do. Most importantly, the awards themselves will continue to recognize and reward what Austin Chronicle readers believe were last year's most important musical people, places, and things with the finest certificates Kinko's has to offer. For the 17th straight year, the Austin Music Awards will serve as the local music community's unofficial State of the Scene address.

Photo of Meg Hentges

Meg Hentges

So what's different? The entertainment. In the past, Awards show bills were specifically designed to celebrate the past year in Austin music. This year, however, the awards not only speak for 1998, they speak for 1999 as well -- and beyond. While virtually every artist on the bill short of Reckless Kelly could be described as "veterans" of the local music scene, every artist also looks poised to make 1999 the best year of their careers to date. In that respect, this year's Music Awards lineup makes good sense in that the show still serves as the official kick-off to South by Southwest, greeting out-of-town visitors with some of the best music Austin has to offer, but isn't it better form, given the nature of the music conference, to showcase the year ahead while also celebrating the year just past? We thought so.

Counter to said line of logic, let's start this Awards show music preview with some nostalgia. Four years ago, Meg Hentges was the unofficial voice of SXSW. After a tune from the former Two Nice Girls guitarist wound up on KNACK's Homegroan sampler, Austin's first commercial modern rock station added "This Kind of Love" to its regular playlist just in time for the festival. By week's end, Profile Records founder heard the song so many times on the radio, he decided Hentges would be his new BMG-distributed label's first rock signing. Two years later, Hentges did indeed sign to Robbins Records, a deal that only last month yielded the singer's major label debut, Brompton's Cocktail (see this issue's "SXSW Record Reviews"). For once, the promotional CD sticker doesn't lie; Brompton's Cocktail really is a well-crafted pop album "full of hooks, intelligence, and instant anthems." At the awards, expect Hentges to debut her new band and her new single, a fresh reading of "This Kind of Love."

Photo of Stephen Bruton

Stephen Bruton

Both Jon Dee Graham and Stephen Bruton will be the first to tell you they're a bit too "well-aged" to have any plans for cracking modern rock playlists anytime soon, but both guitarists have just released albums on New West Records, anyway. Graham, a former True Believer who stepped out of the sideman shadows two years ago as the singer-songwriter's favorite singer-songwriter with his stunning Escape From Monster Island, returns to record stores next week with Summerland, another compelling collection of disturbing narratives and disquieting melodies. Just as well-written and performed is Bruton's first album in five years, Nothing but the Truth (see "SXSW Record Reviews"). Despite a résumé that includes credits with Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, T-Bone Burnett, and Alejandro Escovedo, it's hard not to call this multiple-award-winner's latest set Bruton's best work to date. As the casual song-swapping combo the Resentments, Bruton and Graham are joined by two other local music scene vets, multi-instrumentalist Mambo John Treanor and Toni Price band mainstay Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who's won back-to-back "Best Acoustic Guitarist" awards and leads his own solo project, the Southbound Monarchs.

While the Resentments often toss good-natured barbs at each other as they trade songs, they may have met their match in Borscht Belt throwback and Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman. The "Kinkstah," as his friends and enemies call him, has been writing songs and solving fictional crimes for nearly three decades, but is just now in the middle of a commercial resurgence. Last year, Friedman was in the marketplace with both Blast From the Past, a prequel to his previous 10 novels, and Pearls in the Snow, an all-star tribute to (who else?) himself with Friedman-penned tracks recorded by Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Waits, and Lyle Lovett. While he hardly seems finished making the promotional rounds on either endeavor, Friedman's most recent enterprise was last week's "Goin' to the Dogs Bonefit," a charity concert for his Hill Country animal shelter, featuring performances from Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen, and a trio of Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock). Precisely which of his celebrity friends might join Friedman for his Awards show set remains a mystery.

Since Friedman is expected to carry on the Awards show tradition of special unannounced musical guests, promoters have already revealed Reckless Kelly's surprise guest, Joe Ely. And that's all right; the Awards have a history of pairing like-minded artists, particularly upstarts and legends. The former, Reckless Kelly, moved to Austin in 1996 and earned their large and extremely faithful local following the old-fashioned way: relentless live play. A pair of releases, 1997's Millican and its live, acoustic followup from last year, had both fans and major labels excited about the band's promising blend of traditional country songwriting and not-so-traditional covers (AC/DC's "You Shook Me" and the Rugburns' "Ballad of Tommy and Marla"). As for Ely, he's perhaps the Awards Show participant that needs the least introduction. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that following 1998's Twistin' in the Wind and his role in the Grammy-winning Los Super Seven, 1999 looks like a busy year for Ely, what with the possible releases of his recent live Antone's recordings, a new studio set, and a much-rumored Highwayman collaboration with no less than Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.

Photo of Jon Dee Graham

Jon Dee Graham

With a new Best Buy television and in-store campaign in the works and another solid year of roadwork ahead of him, Davíd Garza is also looking at a busy 1999. Then again, Garza kept busy last year, releasing his Atlantic/Lava debut, This Euphoria, and touring with Ani DiFranco, Matchbox 20, Ben Harper, Fastball, and HORDE. Better yet, the album and all that live play has repositioned Garza locally into someone smart pop fans watch very carefully. The days when people made fun of Garza for the quirkiness of Twang-Twang Shock-a-Boom or his eight promising, but unfocused, pre-Atlantic albums are over. In fact, Garza's touring band, featuring drummer Michael Hale, bassist John Thomasson, and guitarist Jakob Schultz, is his most relentlessly rockin' live outfit yet.

Just as a rare local appearance from Garza ought to be a treat, getting a chance to see the Robison Family +1 is equally inviting. Despite their best efforts to distance themselves from each other's careers, few Austin musicians may be as closely associated as Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison, and Monte Warden. Warden and Willis go back nearly 10 years to the days of the Wagoneers and Kelly & the Fireballs, while the Robison brothers go back, well, quite a ways. As luck would have it, all four local artists are also supporting recent albums. While Willis' first full-length album in seven years, What I Deserve, came last month out to rave reviews both locally and nationally, her husband Bruce Robison is putting the finishing touches on his second release for Sony's Lucky Dog imprint, the tentatively titled Long Way Home From Anywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie Robison's Lucky Dog debut, 1998's Life of the Party, seems to just keep picking up more steam behind its first charting single, "Barlight." As for Warden, there's no denying the wealth of radio-ready material on his debut set for Asylum, A Stranger to Me Now. As all four take to the road in the coming months to promote their albums, it's clear the chances of any two of them -- let alone all four -- playing together anytime in the near future has grown entirely unlikely.

Right there, you have the natural appeal of the 1998-99 Austin Music Awards Show: It's a show you're not likely to see anywhere else or ever again. Hentges rarely plays locally and as Bruton and Graham tour, Resentments gigs will undoubtedly dry up as well. Almost by definition, whatever Kinky Friedman dreams up for his set will be nothing short of once-in-a-lifetime, and the pairing of Joe Ely and Reckless Kelly is just that -- a first. Add a road warrior like Garza, the opportunity to see the Robison family and Warden share a stage together -- plus awards honoring the best of '98 -- and you've got an Awards Show that celebrates the past, present, and future of Austin music. Of course, we should probably mention the one thing that hasn't changed and isn't likely to anytime soon: the Austin Music Awards still start at 7:55pm -- sharp.

left to right: Kinky Friedman, David Garza, Joe Ely.

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