The 2016-17 Austin Music Awards’ Texan Tower of Song
Thirty-five years of AMAs? More like 181 years of Texas on one stage, on one night!
Rolling Stones pledge since 6 thanks to the overlapped harmonies of "Honky Tonk Women" during a kiddie drive time TV commercial for Hot Rocks 1964-1971 ... my hand shot out.
"Don't call Ronnie!"
Charlie Sexton dangled a finger toward his phone.
"We can call him right now," he reassured.
From across the Chronicle conference room table, yours comically argued against a surreal thrill.
"Let's not bother Ronnie," I countered.
Instead, Austin guitarist for the most famous living musician (he whose name shall not be spoken) troubled one Robert Plant, exiled former local. Not that year, actually. In 2015, he materialized Steven Van Zandt for the Ian McLagan spanner. Last March, rather, Sexton irritated the self-appointed Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar himself.
Irritated as in pearls.
When the leonine singer stepped to the mic in the Austin Convention Center last South by Southwest, purring his beloved Fifties R&B – correction, late KUTX oracle Paul Ray's beloved Twine Time – he instigated as palpable a hold-your-breath moment as any ever experienced at an Austin Music Awards. Very sweetest of spots in the great American canon – the Coasters, and Clyde McPhatter – Saturday night at the drive-in came alive at the Downtown ballroom via the ever-Pavlovian pipes of a legendary honeydripper missing only a gold-sequined jacket and some pomade.
Ten months later, electronic botheration (as the Jamaicans say) proved unwarranted: The AMA bandleader stood right next to this year's initial ask. Or rather, Sexton flanked Lloyd Maines, who manned actual guitars instead of his trademark pedal steel, and may have even been acting as the maestro's bodyguard that night at the Paramount Theatre. Inscribe the date – Jan. 16, 2017 – because as the sole rational soul on an internet comment section responded to our show review, the landmark, 101-year-old stage hosted the "best music show of this century so far."
Three hours of Juarez and Lubbock (on Everything) up inside A-town's grande dame shook out bawdy (Jo Harvey Allen) and breathtaking ("Amarillo Highway"), with a prerequisite dose of Joe Ely to gun "Gimme a Ride to Heaven, Boy" just as God intended. Southwest tales of migration and border radio rang out like the Rosetta stone of Lone Star song. Three generations of Allens, including Austin sons Bukka (accordion) and Bale Allen (congas), backed by Austin's finest (fiddle maniac Richard Bowden) and an equal audience, put on a veritable spectacle of genre-bending roots lyricism tapping the highest levels of investiture, inventiveness, and inspiration.
Terry Allen: raison d'être, raison Texas.
As an encore, that show's second guitarist – Charlie Sexton – grants another homegrown convergence a glimpse into greatness. Any audience with Terry Allen billows mad star dust, which is why the call our hero did put in brought a stallion at a gallop: Lyle Lovett. Prairie croon couched in a cockeyed grin, Klein's great-great namesake (on his mother's side) translates small town Texas banter into a cosmopolitan sophistication shared with the Panhandle poet.
Lyle Lovett – and Terry Allen, together.
In fact, they created a new Austin Music Award for the occasion. For the latter electric pianist anyway; the former show pony will have to wait on his. Presented to Allen: The Townes Van Zandt Award for Western surrealism in a short-form media. That may not be the formal title, come to think of it.
Lovett aboard alongside Ely, who followed his fellow Lubbock don at the Paramount a week later with a birthday milestone (18 forever), what other high plains drifters want to step on up to the occasion? Imagine either henchman covering Allen's "The Wolfman of Del Rio" or "High Horse Momma." Is "New Delhi Freight Train" too obvious?
Remember Lovett's Texan tower of song, 1998 double album Step Inside This House? Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt, and Steven Fromholz all received re-tuning by a penguin-loving songwriter riding high amongst them. No one venerates native oral tradition comparable to Lyle Lovett.
Except Steve Earle.
Recently filmed here in A-town cutting a new disc, the onetime Schertz shitkicker brought a folk singer's vulnerability to outlaw country, turning mentor Townes Van Zandt's kerosene heartache into hardscrabble ambition – for justice, connection, equilibrium, humanity. AMAs bandleader Sexton also went in front of cameras recently, those directed by Austin native Ethan Hawke, consumed with a Blaze Foley biopic in which the guitarist portrays the local duct tape messiah's moonshine crony, TVZ. "If I Could Only Fly" vs. "To Live Is to Fly," anyone?
Heartworn Highways, 1976 documentary of Susanna and Guy Clark's hothouse of song, here come the AMAs, erecting a tower of Texan anthems voiced by Hawke's star Ben Dickey, cast in the titular role of Blaze Foley and paired with Foley friend Gurf Morlix, and then of course Earle and Lovett, the taller of the two having also lured fellow golden throat/throwback Kat Edmonson for some cheek-to-cheek (aka duetting). Speakeasy caress and crackle, the Elephant Room's onetime draw breaks from her Big Apple aspirations for a spotlighted return engagement in the land of Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Natalie Maines. Highwaymen – including outlaw scion Lukas Nelson – make some room for the ladies.
Since 2017 lit its fuse in the ire of women nationwide, their demonstration at the Moody Theater pulls from the same well of oral history. Dixie Chicks for a new Austin, the Trishas anchor a fairer gender powwow with harmonies straight out of the sovereign triumvirate of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Now add on Austin's ageless country consort of precious decades, Kelly Willis, Janis Joplin boom echo Erika Wennerstrom of the rock hard Heartless Bastards, the Go-Go's garage gusto of Austin firelight Kathy Valentine and her Bluebonnets, local Thievery Corporation dervish Loulou (Ghelichkhani), and a six-string cutting contest between equally Joplin presence-come-shredder Carolyn Wonderland and long-tressed, next generation, mile-wide-smiling stinger Jackie Venson.
There's a rrriot goin' on!
Deepest roots, initial AMA sisterhoods dream-teamed ATX blues mothers Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball, and more. Subsequent decades of feminine wiles notch off: Too Many Girls in 1997 (Willis, Sara Hickman, Abra Moore, etc.), Supergirls of DIY in 2002 (Gretchen Phillips, Patrice Pike, Dottie Farrell, and more), and Viva la Diva two years ago (Carson McHone, Sunny Sweeney, Gina Chavez, Nina Diaz, Tameca Jones, and on and on). March on the Moody this Sunday, because as Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin once proclaimed, sisters are doin' it for themselves.
And the standard bearers don't end the parade there. Red River's Deborah Harry, theatrical unitard shriek Sabrina Ellis bum rushes the evening's walk-off rousing in addition to new soul sensation Jai Malano, both women bringing a jolt of estrogenic electricity to the large-scale musical machismo of Grupo Fantasma and Brownout. Pachanga, ese.
Parliament-Funkadelic to our booming urban metro, mothership Grupo and satellite guitar asteroid Brownout of Brown Sabbath infamy hit the lights like Santana's mescaline mayhem at Woodstock. Grupo's nine-deep Latin conga line keeps causing Problemas, peak compositional roil from 2014 whose Spanish-language rearrangement of the Fab Four's Abbey Road prayer "Because" deserved a Grammy. Back-to-back them with cousin nonet Brownout, whose dual volumes of Black Sabbath translations smoked Ozzy & Iommi's swan song 13, and everyone better take a cab home after the bacchanal.
Thirty-five years of AMAs contracts down to moments: Jimmie & Stevie Vaughan, Two Nice Girls, Kris Kristofferson & Jessi Colter, Billy Joe Shaver's Hall of Fame induction by Willie Nelson, Roky Erickson & the Black Angels, Tina Marsh, Lucinda Williams, Gary Clark Jr., Pete Townshend & Ian McLagan, Martin Banks, Doug Sahm and sons, Big Boys, Dicks, Bruce Springsteen, ad infinitum. Make room on the highlight reel. The 2016/17 Austin Music Awards represent.
The 2016/17 Austin Music Awards load into ACL Live at the Moody Theater on Sunday, March 12. Tickets: austinchronicle.com/ama