Road Music, Day 16: Austin, Texas (Part 5)

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For this series, we’ll be following Geoffrey Himes as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. In this installment, he continues his stay in Austin, Texas for SXSW. (You can check out part 15, on his time in San Marcos, here)

A lot of people come to South by Southwest looking for great new bands. I salute them; that’s a job I used to do, and I know how difficult it can be. You go out to see 10 much-hyped bands: two are awful; three are mediocre; four are pretty good, and maybe one is really good or even better. At a certain point, though, you decide, “I have too few hours left in my life to waste a bunch of them on a nine-to-one long shot.”

So these days I go to SXSW looking not for great new acts but for great new songs, not for production novelty but cathartic musical storytelling. And one of the best places to go hunting is the annual Guitartown/Conqueroo Party, perhaps the best unofficial daytime events during the SXSW week. This year it was held at the Dogwood with one outdoor stage and one indoor stage, the one starting up as soon as the other finished.

It may be too early to be betting on this year’s best song, but there’s a good chance it will be James McMurtry’s “Copper Canteen.” On Wednesday, March 12, at 11:15 a.m., the Texan singer/songwriter stood alone on the Dogwood’s outdoor stage, dark corkscrews of hair spilling out of his black fedora. Armed only with a 12-string acoustic guitar, he played the song that he said will appear on a new album in the fall.

It’s the monologue of a character who rarely appears in American popular music today: a fiftysomething, small-town shop owner. He ignores his wife’s nagging about the bloody tailgate on the pickup because there’s one more weekend of deer season to go; he will compromise enough to give up watching the football game and shovel the sidewalk, but he won’t give up ice fishing to go to Sunday mass. For all their bickering, though, the two long-wed spouses still clasp each other tight after nightmares or sex. They worry how long they can keep the store open as the suburban malls steal their customers. And they wonder how their great hopes have fallen so far behind as they find themselves caught “between the grandparents’ graves and the grandchildren’s toys.”

Whether this is a glimpse of your present or your future, the song’s vision is enough to sober you right up from a sense-blunting turn of the modern-radio dial. The tune’s caffeinated impact comes not only from its unusual subject matter but also from its thousand-pixel details and from the descending guitar figure that hammers those ten-penny-nail images into the listener. Before the set was over, McMurtry unveiled yet another terrific new song, the world-weary-but-wise love song “These Things I Have Come To Know,” also slated for the long overdue, much-anticipated next album.

An hour later, on the same stage flanked by a wall of cactus, Jon Dee Graham presented a new song of his own, “Don’t Forget,” which he too promises will be on a new album in the fall. This one began with Graham, in a gray fisherman’s beard and round-Buddha belly, reciting Biblical “begat”s before segueing into a discussion of being both a son and a father. The verses were half-spoken, half-sung, as if Graham was a defrocked minister who couldn’t kick the preaching habit. But when he roared into the full-throttle, rock ‘n’ roll chorus, an insistent demand that we remember our place in the chain of begats, his muscular quartet (himself, guitarist Mike Hardwick, bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Joey Sheffield) proved the equal of any band of any age at the festival.

Not that age has anything to do with it. Later that night, at St. David’s Church, the baby-faced 25-year-old John Fullbright unveiled the songs from his album due in May. He introduced a handful of impressive new songs when he stood in front of the altar with his band: bassist David Leach and drummer Mike Meadows. But when Fullbright moved down to the church’s concert grand piano, his best instrument, he sang a couple numbers that fulfilled all the talk of potential that has been swirling around him.

“She Knows” is a romantic ballad about feeling both flattered and uneasy when a lover understands you too well. “The One Who Lives Too Far” describes the collapse of a long-distance relationship as if it were as gradual and inevitable as the ice breaking up in the spring. Fullbright has a better voice and a less scathing attitude than Randy Newman, but when the young Oklahoman sings in that deadpan delivery and plays the piano with those Hollywood chord changes, he sounds as if he’s channeling the older Californian.

Hunting for the next great song is not only easier than hunting for the next big thing but more gratifying as well.

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