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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.

rayland baxter

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Rayland Baxter

A mid-afternoon time slot on Saturday, before the St. Patrick’s Day madness had really picked up, felt just about right for Rayland Baxter, who opened Paul Cauthen’s party at the Rustic Tap. The Nashville singer-songwriter’s set, characterized by his 2015 single “Yellow Eyes,” was full of sun-kissed ballads and shimmering dreamscapes. But it wasn’t all pretty lamentations from Baxter, who showed off his chops as a low-key dual threat on set closer “Young Man.” The brooding dirge, another cut from his Imaginary Man LP, saw him unfurl some gnarly guitar work, a glimpse of the restless drive simmering beneath the summery surface. J.G.

sarah shook

Kathie Russell

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers

“I need this shit like I need another hole in the head,” Sarah Shook sneered during one of her Bloodshot Records-sponsored appearances, an I’ve-had-enough mantra that perfectly encapsulated her style of degenerate country. That was from “New Ways to Fail,” a song that will be featured on next month’s Years LP, and Shook and her band, the Disarmers, were primed to impress at every SXSW appearance, including a sunset cruise on fellow SXSW standout Jamie Kent’s curated riverboat. Her cussed-minded delivery and blemishes-and-all defeatism was the perfect complement to her band mates’ hillbilly choogle, which featured Adam Kurtz’s steel pedal work, a particular delight on new single “Good as Gold.” J.G.

Billy Strings

Shane Timm

Billy Strings

There are some real lyrical nuggets to be found on Billy Strings’ first LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement of his lightning-fast flat-picking when you see him play in person. Just ask the St. Patrick’s Day revelers that he played to late in the afternoon on Saturday in East Austin, who danced and high-stepped their way around the Latchkey patio. Strings wasn’t the only star in his band – mandolin player Jarrod Walker picked up the thread of his solos with near-telepathic ease – but most interesting of all was the strange, trippy territory the stringed quartet was willing to explore. J.G.

Keith Urban

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Keith Urban

“It’ll be a little bit loose, it’s Friday night,” Keith Urban claimed at the beginning of his headlining set at Stubb’s and, in a way, he was right. Fresh from his hour-long conversation at the Austin Convention Center, Urban was ready to tell jokes and jam, qualities that gave his 80-minute set – an unusually long time by SXSW show standards – the illusion of being off the cuff. Strip away Urban’s easy charm, and his set was one that could’ve been at an arena: a precision-tuned parade of hits, all delivered with maximum muscle and drama. Urban fed off his close proximity to the crowd, telling sly jokes – he compared the VIP balcony seats to royalty, quipping, “It’s like an episode of The Crown!” – and shifting the focus to his instrumental prowess. It’s not simply that Urban spat out lively solos while jamming with his band – or with opening act Larkin Poe, who came aboard for a version of “Where the Blacktop Ends” – but he enlivened the quieter moments and succinct renditions of hits with bold, colorful fills and licks. In an intimate setting like this, it focused the attention where it matters most: on the elements that motivate the music. S.T.E. 

Nikki Lane

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Nikki Lane

South Carolina native Nikki Lane always exudes a deadpan cool, even when struggling a bit after a week of multiple South By Southwest gigs per day. She acknowledged as much toward the end of a Friday-afternoon set at the Austin Convention Center. “My band is so excited I’m not gonna be able to talk tomorrow,” Lane said by way of apology. “Bliss in the van!” Aching voice or not, Lane nailed everybody’s heart to the back wall of the building, delivering a no-nonsense half-hour focused on her 2017 album Highway Queen. Exuding the kind of charisma that can’t be coached or learned, she rocked a cowboy hat and sang with a touch of blue-eyed-soul rasp. Highlights included “700,000 Rednecks,” the jubilant closer “Jackpot” and a cover of Jessi Colter’s “Why You Been Gone So Long” – with an adlib about how she “got drunk at the Luck Reunion and listened to some Willie Nelson” the day before. Now that’s a good gig. D.M.

Parker Millsap

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Parker Millsap

When Parker Millsap steps on stage, he does so with the excitement of someone who’s never been there before — a welcome thing in the sometimes overwhelming procession of SXSW bands. The Oklahoma singer-songwriter opened his Thursday night set at the Continental Club all by himself, cranking through “I Gotta Get to You” with a ping-ponging energy that was never to waver. His band — particularly fiddler Daniel Foulks — kicked things into an extra gear, but the magic was down to Millsap, who maintained a boyish charm even as he delivered biting social and political commentary. J.G. 

Colter Wall

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Colter Wall

Colter Wall introduced one of his songs at Paul Cauthen’s Velvet Revue on Saturday afternoon as “a tale as old as time,” and he wasn’t kidding. The Canadian singer-songwriter, performing with no further accompaniment than an acoustic guitar, sounded like a man from another time – or somewhere outside of it. His beyond-baritone voice sounded weathered and earthbound, with the snap of his guitar strings crackling like they echoed from the world’s first phonograph recording. Wall even threw in a cover of “Red Headed Stranger,” made famous by Willie Nelson, which fit seamlessly with his own parables of blood feuds and lost loves. J.G.

Becca Mancari

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Becca Mancari

During her late afternoon slot at the Where Is the Hideout? showcase, Becca Mancari pointed out the fact that she and her band had been billed as a bluegrass act by SXSW. “We had a good laugh about that,” she said, before dedicating her next song, “Kitchen Dancing,” to bluegrass fans. The trippy effects on Blake Ream’s pedal steel (or “dream machine,” as Mancari called it) were anything but bluegrass, but labels hardly made a difference. The lyrics may have lingered on emotionally fraught subjects, but this was drowsy, dreamy and all around delightful stuff, eliciting whoops of excitement from Mancari on more than one occasion. J.G.

Kane Brown

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Kane Brown

Kane Brown’s fans came to his Thursday night showcase presented by Sony and Budwesier ready to party, no matter the genre of music he played. They sang along to Brown’s cover of Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” just as eagerly as they two stepped to his originals like “What Ifs.” The Nashville star had no trouble adapting to those eclectic tastes, dropping in a hip-hop style medley and even switching deftly to his band’s metal riffing late in the set. A din of screams accompanied virtually his every move, yet Brown had charisma to spare on the small warehouse stage that he’d already outgrown. J.G.

Caroline Rose

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Caroline Rose

Caroline Rose came prepared for her first visit to SXSW as a performer. “I keep a laugh track on my phone in case no one shows up,” she joked at the New West Records day party on Friday. The stage was even draped in festive strings of chili peppers, and that goofy, unencumbered energy permeated Rose’s set. With its mix of sunny melodies and acerbic wit, the material from her newly released LP, Loner, was frenetic and freewheeling. “This is my favorite song,” she beamed in introducing what seemed like every other song, but it was a bit borne from earnest enthusiasm, not irony. J.G.

Courtney Marie Andrews

Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Courtney Marie Andrews

Courtney Marie Andrews tends to lean into the melancholy undercurrents that run through her music, but the air of the ethereal that characterized both 2016’s Honest Life and the new May Your Kindness Remain lifts when she performs onstage. Her late afternoon set at Cheer Up Charlies’ indoor stage on Saturday found the singer combatting a chattering crowd, yet that oddly provided an ideal counterpoint to her spooky, sad Americana, making her vocals seem even more high and lonesome. Backed by a band that runs lean and sinewy, Andrews sounds tougher in concert than she does on record and that lends gravity to her sad songs: they no longer feel like dreams, they feel etched from experience. S.T.E. 

Liz Brasher

Val Hoeppner

Liz Brasher

There was no mistaking the twang in Liz Brasher’s voice, but her fiery set for 14 Inch Fringe on Thursday afternoon was driven by pure R&B fury. The Memphis native fronts a rare entity: a soul power trio. It was a lean, mean arrangement that still packed a punch even when Brasher traded her guitar for a tambourine, like she did on the sizzling finale. That was in no small part due to Brasher’s voice, a bold, booming instrument that would have felt oversized in a venue far bigger than the Yeti storefront at which she performed. And it was fun stuff, as she mugged and smiled her way through the set. J.G.

James McMurtry

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James McMurtry

Given his lineage – novelist father, English professor mother – it’s no surprise that James McMurtry has a flair for writerly, perfectly observed details. But there is nothing the least bit precious or musty about his music, powered by the fiery furnaces of churning blues-rock guitar. Most of the songs McMurtry served up during his Saturday set had a story to go with them, like the one he said he’d written in New Orleans while “just about the perfect amount of drunk and pissed off.” And as usual, the apex arrived with his meth-shiner crowd favorite “Choctaw Bingo,” which sprawled for 10 glorious minutes of grooving bar-band perfection. “Tip your server, be nice to the doorman and travel safe,” McMurtry advised at the end of his set. Later that evening, he turned up to watch his son Curtis McMurtry’s gig at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel across town. D.M.

Ray Benson

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Ray Benson

Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson turned 67 during SXSW, and he celebrated with a Tuesday night gala that benefitted the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. It was a loose, friendly affair complete with birthday cake and a cavalcade of guest appearances, including an interlude from Preservation Hall Jazz Band that shifted gears from Western swing to just plain swinging. Most fun of all was Delbert McClinton, who got some good-natured ribbing from Benson (“He’s the oldest person I know. He’s a like a father to me”) before belting out an ageless rendition of “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” J.G.

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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