South by Southwest Brings Out the Best in Musicians
Jim James at the CMT/MTV/VH1 Showcase -- Tim Mosenfelder

Jim James at the CMT/MTV/VH1 Showcase — Tim Mosenfelder

AUSTIN — “South by Southwest is always like a crazy family reunion,” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James told CMT Edge before his headlining solo set at the CMT/MTV/VH1 night in downtown Austin last week. “I always admire things where people come to try to make their dreams come true [and] there are a lot of artists and bands coming to South by to try to make their dreams come true.”

Yes, indeed. This year’s South by Southwest offered faces new and familiar in a city brimming with artistic excellence. Whether first-timers trying to make dreams come true or seasoned veterans furthering careers, each day provided highlights and new discoveries.

“There’s something going on in Austin,” James said, “that lets people transcend and reach this elevated plane celebrating music.”

My Top 10 moments from this year:

1. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at the Front Gate Tickets party. Holy Toledo, find them. Now. These young guys from Alabama are the most electrifying soul outfit I’ve seen in a decade. Maybe more. I found myself backstage hugging lead singer Paul Janeway before I even realized the music was over. Moved deeper than the core.

2. Kelsey Waldon singing the Townes Van Zandt classics “Pancho and Lefty” and “To Live’s to Fly” at Threadgill’s. (Full disclosure: This was part of a tribute concert and signing event for my book about Van Zandt.) The next generation singing Townes is what it’s all about. Waldon delivered beautifully. That Peter Rowan followed with “No Lonesome Tune” and “I’ll Be There” (a Van Zandt co-write) was icing.

3. Rod Picott’s world weary anthems aim straight for the heart and pierce their target. Picott’s set at South Austin’s G&S Lounge simply mesmerized. Plus, the Nashville resident has the rare Van Zandt-like ability to brighten bleak material with sharp wit between songs. His forthcoming R.S. Field-produced collection should turn heads.

4. Speaking of which, HalleyAnna’s Bill Chambers-produced album, due this spring, will do the same. The Central Texas-based singer-songwriter lived up to her promise several times during the week with originals sharp (“Peace Is Lonely, Love Is War”) and sophisticated (“Out of the Blue”). She’s a best-kept secret around here for not much longer.

5. James McMurtry’s set at the Continental Club was perfectly tight (“Red Dress”) and sprawling (an extended “Choctaw Bingo”). Locals should never take for granted the residency he splits with equally celebrated scamp and songwriter Jon Dee Graham at this joint every Wednesday.

6. Jon Dee Graham at the Continental Club deftly mirrored McMurtry’s tightness (“Beautifully Broken”) and sprawl (“October”).

7. Ashley Monroe is clearly an old soul wise beyond her years. Evidence: The Nashville resident’s Like a Rose. Her buoyant sophomore full-length album backs equal measures edge (“Weed Instead of Roses”) and energy (“Monroe Suede”) with a seasoned songwriter’s lyrical elegance (“Used”). She delivered the songs several times during the week with unmatched bravado.

8. Interviewing Jim James. James is candid and thoughtful and obviously relishes time in Austin. “I think any artist or musician would agree with me in loving Austin and loving the spirit of the town,” he said. “For the Jacket, Austin was one of the first places that we ever toured that opened its arms to us.”

9. Shinyribs elevated the stage at Threadgill’s. Kevin Russell, lead singer of Austin alt-country powerhouse the Gourds, is as dynamic as a solo artist as he is with his day-job band. Wrap your head around “Bolshevik Sugarcane.” Closing with a hill country take on TLC’s “Waterfalls” beat most moments the week.

10. Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis at the Lone Star Music party. Solid defines this husband and wife team’s live show. Nothing flashy. Everything works. Effortless. Robison and Willis supported their excellent Cheater’s Game album with superb takes on songs by Dave Alvin (“Border Radio”) and Hayes Carll (“Long Way Home”).