AUSTIN, TEXAS — On a mild and sunny Thursday afternoon (March 13), South by Southwest was probably attracting thousands of curious people to bustling downtown Austin, but I wouldn’t know. Instead of going into the city, I decided to keep it country.
My hotel isn’t far from the Broken Spoke, which has been serving traditional country and chicken-fried steaks to the Austin audience for nearly 50 years. I didn’t have the full lineup for the day party there, which was co-presented by Twangfest and KDHX Radio, but it turned out to be just my speed.
Shortly after wandering in, Lydia Loveless started singing “Wine Lips,” my favorite track on her provocative new album, Somewhere Else. With a forceful country voice, she is a distinctive singer on today’s landscape. And despite being 12:30 in the afternoon — super early for a musician at SXSW — she still made a connection.
After Loveless wound down her set by the dance floor, the crowd migrated into the dining area for an acoustic set by Mandolin Orange, which blends bluegrass dexterity, dry wit and thoughtful songwriting into an appealing package. In particular, their songs “Calvary” and “Waltz About Whiskey” grabbed my attention, as did a lively, mandolin-focused rendition of “I’ve Endured.”
Before taking off, I wanted to hear a few songs by Luther Dickinson, who was playing a solo set back in the main room. At this overwhelming festival when so many musicians are wailing away, Dickinson kept the tone on his Gibson mellow and beautiful. A new album titled Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues is out next week, and I am eager to revisit “Stone’s Throw” and “Goin’ Country,” which prove Dickinson to be a strong and observant songwriter as well.
Since I was already in South Austin, I made the journey to Luck, Texas, part of Willie Nelson’s property in the Hill Country. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Austin, and a century or two from the modern and progressive city. With a clapboard saloon and a white chapel, the area actually looks like an Old West town, but luckily there were beer tents and burger trucks on the premises.
Even better, the Wild Feathers and Nikki Lane were representing Nashville with aplomb. The Wild Feathers are road warriors, so tunes like “Got It Wrong” and “Left My Woman” sound tighter every time I see them. Lane is preparing to release her second album in May, so she offered a mix of new material like the feisty “Man Up” along with the older “Gone Gone Gone.” But if I had to pick just one song I’ve heard this week that has hit potential, I’d select “Right Time,” an upbeat number that makes you want to clap along … and also, just a little nervous about the trouble she could get you into.
Once I was out of Luck, I returned downtown for dinner but conveniently navigated my way past the Uncorked Wine Bar, where the Boston country combo Girls, Guns & Glory was tearing it up inside. Like countless other bands, they didn’t have an official showcase, yet they managed to scrounge up eight shows to get their music out there.
A throwback to a vintage era of country and rock ‘n’ roll, the group sounds tailor-made for a honky-tonk bar. You don’t hear a lot of that at SXSW, but it’s the kind of rowdy roots music that I always seek out when I come to Austin.