The most literate songwriters effortlessly unearth universal truths with a keen eye for the human condition. Texas owns a proud tradition.
“I think it comes down to writing songs that are about actual issues and not about wanting to have some material thing,” says Houston folkie Matt Harlan. “These are things that people have to go through in everyday life — real experiences and actual issues.”
These five artists are among the Lone Star State’s most rapidly-rising storytellers:
Adam Carroll sketches characters with a novelist’s style (“Bernadine”) and an alchemist’s precision (“Rough Side Accordion”). Proof: Let It Choose You. The regionally-celebrated songwriter’s excellent new collection doubles down on high watermarks (2008’s Old Town Rock and Roll) with a dozen vivid vignettes from the Gulf Coast. “Adam’s is artisanal songwriting,” says Texas songwriter Slaid Cleaves. “He’ll connect you to your neighbors, fellow humans and even your own jaded heart.”
Matt Harlan’s The Raven Hotel braces colorful characters with seamless storytelling (“Old Spanish Moss,” “Old Allen Road”). Stark narratives pepper his pages on the title track. “If there’s a thread tying these songs together, it’s got something to do with finding the bright sides of dark places,” Harlan says. “There’s always something optimistic.” Harlan does not write about mindless Saturday night revelry. Instead, he elegantly captures Sunday morning redemption and regret.
Curtis McMurtry’s forthcoming Respectable Enemy plots (“Foxhole”) and prowls (“Eleanor’s House”) like a wounded lover. Narrators hide knives behind their back. “I wanted to make an album about people treating people they loved as opponents and the really mean and competitive aspects of love,” the Austin native and recent Nashville transplant says. “It’s about conflict, really. I play out the nastiest parts of people.” The results spotlight a young songwriter wise beyond his years.
My favorite record so far this year: BettySoo’s When We’re Gone. The Austin resident’s collection aches (“100 Different Ways of Being Alone”) and breaks (the title track) with singular beauty and poetry. “It was inspired by grief and celebration, challenge and defeat,” she says. Ease your way toward “Nothing Heals a Broken Heart.” Your day immediately will be divided into before and after.
Not all storytellers sit alone with an acoustic guitar. Wild Child’s full-band powerhouse The Runaround pulls (the buoyant title track) and punches (“Crazy Bird”) with endless energy. “With this record, we were trying to see how big we could get the bubble to be before it burst,” founding member Alexander Beggins told CMT Edge. The band’s ambitious approach has paid dividends with Wild Child winning both best folk and best indie act at this spring’s Austin Music Awards.