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SXSW 2018: 25 Best Country, Americana Shows We Saw

From eclectic sets by Devin Dawson and Caroline Rose to star-is-born turns by Billy Strings and Liz Brasher

Caroline Rose Devin Dawson

Sets by Caroline Rose and Devin Dawson were among the best country and Americana showcases we saw at SXSW 2018.

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The Americana music umbrella makes room for a whole lot of genres, and nowhere was that more clear than during the 2018 South By Southwest lineup, as country, rock, folk and blues sounds filled venues around Austin. But SXSW is a famously eclectic gathering, where even country-radio superstars like Keith Urban can feel at home. Here’s the 25 best things we saw at SXSW from the country and Americana genres.

Devin Dawson

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Devin Dawson

You wouldn’t suspect that Devin Dawson’s songs were all about heartache from the way he carried on at his BMI showcase appearance on Wednesday night. The Nashville singer, who released his major label debut, Dark Horse, in January was bubbling, whether he was detailing the origins of a song or bobbing along in unison with his band mates. But he was particularly excited to play “Prison,” a crunchy, rocking number that saw his smooth croon get raw and raspy. “I used to be in a metal band, so I do love that shit – even if I blow my vocal chords out,” he said afterwards. J.G.

Mike and the Moonpies

Adam Kurtz

Mike and the Moonpies

There wasn’t a more authentically Austin, Texas, experience to be had during SXSW than seeing Mike and the Moonpies play a midnight show at the White Horse. Mike Harmeier and his band once held down a weekly residency at the East Austin saloon, and as Friday night turned to Saturday morning they were in their honky-tonking element, playing crisp, clean and purposefully, as though someone had loaded up a jukebox. You might’ve even mistaken Harmeier, in his Stetson and jean jacket, for a young Dwight Yoakam, but even he got a little lost in the moment. “Welcome to fucking White Horse,” he said. “Holy shit!” J.G.

Aaron Lee Tasjan

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Aaron Lee Tasjan

If you showed up to see Aaron Lee Tasjan at Yeti on Friday afternoon – one of two New West showcases he played that day – expecting something predictable, you might’ve left confused. The Nashville ace, prone to pop up with any number of his friends’ bands, revels in an element of surprise. On this occasion, that meant deadpan humor and a scorching guitar solo that saw him wander through the audience while maintaining awkwardly extended eye contact. Trading licks with Brian Wright, Tasjan’s set – scuzzy, droning, and sometimes ominous – rumbled through unflinching commentary on a number of songs due to be released later this year. J.G.

Ruby Boots

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Ruby Boots

Fresh off the release of her first LP since moving to the United States, Don’t Talk About It, Ruby Boots swaggered through a SXSW schedule that included a couple showcases for her label, Bloodshot Records, and the Where Is the Hideout? party in a remote part of south Austin. Bex Chilcott and her band barreled through a set heavy on those new songs, including a raw solo take of “I Am a Woman” and a Tom Petty cover. Chilcott went on a curse-laden charm offensive between songs, too. “If you sweat this much in Texas, we’ll be fast fucking friends,” she said. J.G.

Janiva Magness

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Janiva Magness

The show-opening on-the-fly soundcheck is a handy survival skill, one that Los Angeles blues siren Janiva Magness has clearly mastered. Her set at the down-home roots-rock/soul-food joint Threadgill’s commenced with Magness pantomiming requests to the soundcheck and even checking her phone during a guitar solo. But everything was pretty much dialed in by the first chorus, at which point Magness’ wailing blues-mama sonic boom of a voice took over as she previewed her upcoming Love Is an Army album. With band and voice in the pocket, songs like “Back to Blue” and “Love to a Gunfight” sounded like half of an argument. And even if it wasn’t settled by the end of her set, you sure did know her viewpoint, thanks to the passion with which sang. D.M.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

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Ray Wylie Hubbard

“So that’s what a ‘smattering’ sounds like,” Ray Wylie Hubbard quipped when he found the audience response wanting for his opening-night SXSW show. And of course, the applause picked right up. Fronting a blistering blues-rock trio with his son Lucas “on lead guitar and bad attitude,” the wily Texas raconteur’s set was a master class of storytelling and crowd management. He spun out one hilariously ribald story-song after another and led the crowd in the old-favorite sing-along “Snake Farm.” “I hope God grades on a curve,” Hubbard said at one point, guessing he’d come in at about a C-. “Not enough to get me into heaven proper, but maybe a celestial vocational night school.” As long as he’s there as a teacher, all will be well. D.M.

Rita Coolidge

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Rita Coolidge

Seventies country-pop singer Rita Coolidge never retired, but she did go 12 years without recording an album of new material. Safe in the Arms of Time, her first LP since 2005’s And So Is Love, arrives in May and she used her SXSW set to plug the record. Coolidge unveiled the new tunes by inviting Austin-based guitarist David Grissom to the stage – he’s also on the record – and bringing her Blue Elan labelmate Chelsea Williams to sing on three songs, including “Walking on Water,” which the singer co-wrote with Keb’ Mo’. His presence as a collaborator suggests Coolidge has ventured into rootsier territory for Safe in the Arms of Time, which is somewhat true: apart from the smooth sailing of “Doing Fine Without You,” a song co-written by Graham Nash and Russ Kunkel, the songs are moody, subtle affairs that lean into Coolidge’s position as a veteran who has seen and done it all. While she closed her with a triptych of crowd-pleasers – “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” – the heart of her set belonged to her new album, making it a pleasure to see her engage with the present, not the past. S.T.E. 

Whitney Rose

Brian T. Atkinson

Whitney Rose

Canadian Whitney Rose adopted Austin as her hometown not long ago and performs regularly at the Continental Club. But that didn’t make her Saturday night SXSW gig any less special. Fronting a lean and lithe crackerjack band that switched between hardwood honky-tonk and Bakersfield snap without batting an eye, Rose and her style of Americana wasn’t dogmatic. She drifted into soul and winked at pop, performing songs, like opener “I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out),” that were lyrically sly. Rose ran through a fair portion of her excellent 2017 album Rule 62, peppering her show with such clever covers as a defiant version of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Playing with the power of a locomotive, she delivered a set that would sound ideal on any Saturday night at any beer joint in the land. S.T.E.

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