Snoop Dogg may be giving the keynote speech and the schedule may be rife with indie bands, but there is still a wealth of country and Americana artists to be found at Austin’s annual music conference South by Southwest, kicking off March 17th. This year’s lineup boasts the return of Willie Nelson and guitar-slinging son Lukas at the Heartbreaker Banquet, the continued emergence of Sam Hunt and the welcome second acts of veterans Kelly Willis, Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard. We sorted through the schedule for some of the singers, songwriters and twang-tastic players worth going the country mile to catch.
There's something uniquely satisfying about Futurebirds' mix of dreamy, offbeat pop and heavy twang. It sounds like what could happen if a lap steel player ate a couple of magic mushrooms and zoned out to Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (and it's quite possible this might be more than just theoretical). The Athens, Georgia-based outfit picks up the My Morning Jacket country-psych tradition on 2013's Baba Yaga and takes it to the uncomfortable corners of our minds: "Death Awaits" may not be cheery, but it sure does jam.
With a batshit rocking new album — The Ruffian's Misfortune, due in April — the Texas music demigod has returned at age 68 to show the young 'uns how it's done. Expect a raucous homecoming for Hubbard's various gigs around town, including a stop at the Hotel San Jose on South Congress, a stone's throw from Hubbard haunt the Continental Club. Even when compared to friends like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, they don't make spirits any freer than Ray Wylie.
"It's gonna take more than a month of bad habits to get me over you," sings Andrew Combs on his new album, All These Dreams, delivered in a tone that emotes the gnawing gut of an empty heart just as well as his keen lyricism. Born in Texas and residing in Nashville, he takes inspiration from the likes of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt but weaves in moody, soulful references that make it anything but expected — introspective, softly plucked confessionals one moment; imaginative, narrative tales the next, all with the backbone of a Countrypolitan shuffle.
With respect to his famous father, the most exhilarating moments of Willie Nelson's recent concerts have come from his son Lukas, whose blistering guitar solos on "Texas Flood" rival those of even Stevie Ray Vaughan. His own group, the freewheeling Promise of the Real, mixes California vibes — Nelson lives in the Golden State — with the eclecticism of his hometown, Austin. It's funky, jam-based stuff, all of it driven by Nelson's guitar magic and the famous nasally voice he inherited from his pa.
The Landreth siblings grew up sneaking into blues clubs in Winnipeg, where their dad played guitar. Years later, they're crisscrossing the Canada-America border with their own group, bringing with them a roots-rock sound anchored by four-part harmonies, slide guitar solos and influences ranging from Bonnie Raitt to another pair of bearded, brotherly bluesmen: the Allmans.
Her latest album, Lucky, is an affectionate homage to the songs of Merle Haggard, but since her 1987 debut in country music, Suzy Bogguss has explored a number of genres from folk to swing to jazz, and covered the songs of everyone from Stephen Foster to John Hiatt. She's also amassed a number of huge country hits, such as "Outbound Plane," "Drive South" and "Letting Go." As such, the singer-songwriter has a wealth of material to bring to the SXSW stage — along with a sterling reputation as a seasoned performer rooted in the great storytelling tradition.
This Canadian is so disillusioned with the state of country music that he decided to coin a new term to describe his approach: "mosey." Whatever you call it, he builds on the tradition of Nudie Suit-sporting idols like Hank Snow and outlaw rebels like Waylon Jennings with a sound thick on weeping steel guitars and vocals as old-school Nashville as they come — and it doesn't matter that he's probably more acquainted with poutine than barbecue. That's what keeps it interesting: his music comes from study, not birthright.
While George Strait is the king of country music, Robert Earl Keen reigns over Texas country. One of the most revered songwriters of his time, the hill country native crafts songs that play out like gripping — and oftentimes hilarious — screenplays. It may be hard to hear him over the entire audience inevitably screaming along to staples such as "The Road Goes on Forever" and "Gringo Honeymoon," but expect the 59-year-old to shake up the setlist a bit this year, as he's performing in support of his first true foray into bluegrass, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions. So we may also hear a Texas take on classics such as "Long Black Veil" and "Wayfaring Stranger."
SXSW isn't the most traditional place for major-label country stars to decamp, but, then again, Sam Hunt isn't exactly traditional. From releasing early songs on mix tapes to lacing tracks with both banjo and synth to covering Mariah Carey on tour, he's all about smashing genres and breaking the rules — which is what SXSW was supposed to be about, too, before the big sponsors and splashy stars. Expect a passionate, raucous performance when he hits the Spotify House, and maybe even a little breakdancing.
Kelly Willis and her husband, singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, are as synonymous with Austin as Stubb's Bar-B-Q, the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, or SXSW itself. While the couple has applied their lush, expressive harmonies (and their considerable charms as Austin's reigning King and Queen of Americana) to a pair of terrific duet albums recently, Willis returns to SXSW on her own as she preps for the release of a solo album later this year. Possessed with a killer voice that exudes honky-tonk heartache — and can also rock out — Willis has a few decades-worth of material to pull from, all of it worth hearing.
Like a hairier Jonny Fritz or a taller Little Jimmy Dickens, J.P. Harris is as much a larger-than-life personality as a musician. He sings about trucker speed and wayward women, drawing upon a particularly Jack Kerouac-ish childhood — which Harris spent hopping trains, sleeping in hobo camps and moving from one far-flung pocket of the country to the other — for songs that mix wry humor with a dose of real-life grit.
Since 2012, an eclectic daylong show dubbed the Heartbreaker Banquet has been held away from the hustle of downtown Austin at Willie Nelson's Luck, Texas, ranch — an old Western town constructed for the 1986 movie, Red Headed Stranger. This year's impeccably curated crop of country, Americana and rock acts includes Hurray for the Riff Raff, Butch Walker, Nikki Lane, Leon Bridges, Angel Olsen and 16 more artists on two stages. As for the headliner, at 81 years young, he's as unstoppable as his incomparable music catalog. Nelson is sure to deliver hits ranging from "On the Road Again" to "Beer for My Horses," as he's been doing on tour all year, and to yield much of the spotlight to his trusty Trigger, showing just why his beloved Martin guitar has so many scars.
"Warshin My Big Ol Pussy" may not seem like the title of your average country song (and most definitely not anything you'd want to sing your baby to sleep with) but the Nashville-based duo of Jasmine Kaset and Makenzie Green are about as true to the genre as it comes – if you consider the trailer-park fringes of Tennessee just as vital as the mansion-dwelling Music Row set. In voices that sound roughed from either the Appalachian air or too many nights at the corner bar, there's a mix of history and humor in their music. All that and good hygiene, too!
Sure, Bingham is best known for co-writing the Oscar and Grammy-winning song "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart, but any Americana fan would be remiss if they didn't check out the rest of his excellent catalog. In January, the 33-year-old released his fifth album, Fear and Saturday Night, on which he sings in a gentle rasp that could only come from being put through life's wringer at such a relatively young age. He covers topics like his father's suicide and his mother's alcoholism-related death while maintaining a rugged beauty that's even more powerful onstage.
With an approachable Waylon-esque sound, it's easy to perk up an ear when Morgan is playing. And having opened for fellow Michigander Bob Seger, he knows a thing or two about working a crowd. But it's the ferocity of Morgan's performances that makes him truly transfixing. The workingman's musician, he'll sweat hard to win over SXSWers. His new single, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's dirge "Waiting Around to Die" that is even more ominous than the original, should help with that.
Backed by a stand-up bass, cello and occasionally a horn section, the 24-year-old McMurtry epitomizes the catch-all nature of Americana. But there's nothing haphazard about his artistic process. The son of revered songwriter James McMurtry, Curtis draws on a music composition degree and his experience composing modern-day chamber music for his own über-descriptive songs. "He's got so much more training than I did, and he knows theory really well," his father told Rolling Stone Country recently. "It's kind of hard for me to hang with him sometimes."
Born in Texas, living in Nashville, Culwell is following the through-line between Bruce Springsteen and Jason Isbell. His new album Flatlands — which Rolling Stone Country premiered last month — is like a bleaker Nebraska meets Southeastern, full of dusty laments about growing up in the Texas panhandle. But while albums of such gravity can often collapse under the weight of their own melancholy, Culwell's soars, thanks to a knack for infusing even the loneliest of songs with melody.
If you think Asleep at the Wheel's western swing is something only your grandparents would dig, think again. Yes, the accordion, pedal steel and the members' tendency to yodel moves the nine-time Grammy-winning group's music toward 1930s styling, but that's the point. And the energy with which Ray Benson and the band play prevents the tunes from ever becoming musty. Case in point: their new all-star tribute to Bob Wills, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills. Released earlier this month and featuring guests like Merle Haggard, George Strait, Old Crow Medicine Show and the band's Number One fan Willie Nelson, the album of cowboy classics is proof that this Wheel keeps on turning.
One of the most successful independent bands of the 21st century, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers grew from the ashes of the Refreshments, the Nineties alt-rock band responsible for radio gems like "Banditos" and TV themes like the one for King of the Hill. There's still plenty of rock & roll muscle in the Peacemakers' rootsy stomp, but there's country, too — specifically the wide-open country of Arizona, whose desert dwellers and dusty landscapes rear their heads on signatures tunes like "Americano!"
Even the hippest of SXSW hipsters probably haven't heard of Pirates Canoe, but with a sound that's Alison Krauss-meets-Ry Cooder-meets Alan Toussaint, they're the skinny jeans from Japan that are destined to be fashionable stateside soon. The sometimes trio, other times sextet, mixes a dollop of Irish folk with a helping of fiddle, mandolin, guitar and percussion that beautifully complement — but never overwhelm — the singers' ethereal harmonies. Though based in Japan, the members met in a very Americana way; the story of Pirates Canoe's inception involves a bar, a violin case and a few adult beverages. That's not to say that the band has completely shucked its Asian roots for Nashville though. Consider "Gull Flying North," an uptempo mandolin romp that has just enough delicate tones to bring the Far East to mind.
A Hollywood honky-tonker, Sam Outlaw filters the twang of his country influences through the Mexican-American culture of his Los Angeles home. The result? Angeleno, a debut album that mixes acoustic guitars, mariachi horns, James Taylor-worthy melodies and two-step tempos into the best culture clash this side of Linda Rondstadt's Canciones de mi Padre. Come for the breezy, brassy "Who Do You Think You Are?" — stay for "Jesus, Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)," where Outlaw literally prays for a cold one.