Greetings from South by Southwest — New Old Country @ Antone’s
South by Southwest
Modern Old Fashioned Heritage Country
Kelly Willis’ voice swoops and offers a satiny sheen that is both silky and so fluid it threatens to slip through the notes being played by her and husband Bruce Robison’s crackerjack band. For years the darling of progressive country fans, the sweetheart of the post modern rodeo was both too cool and too traditional for what got on the radio.
That said, there’s no argument about the kind of ice country the first couple of Austin’s roots music scene crafts. Loose-limbed, sweeping and designed to get those belt buckles polishing, it’s a testament to road houses, honky tonks, Wurlitzer jukeboxes and neon that’s fixing to buzz until it’s burned out.
Layers of luxurious steel guitar slather straightforward country music, bass thumping and following the melody line, drums kicking and the piano pushing a tide of notes and chords that’s let the songs ride. And what songs they are.
Robison, obviously, has written some of mainstream’s country’s best songs – George Strait’s “Wrapped,” Tim McGraw’s “Angry All The Time” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Travelling Soldier.” But what the pair choose to embrace for themselves suggests the best of countrypolitan and western. Echoes of Tammy Wnynette, Ray Price and pre-Julio Willie Nelson can be heard: the trills in the thickest part of Willis’ warmed brandy sob and Robeson’s head-tossed back bleeting.
And when they join voices – as they did on “Walking Back In” – they almost evoke thw nimbleness of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It is that easy merging to create a third voice that makes duet singing special, and they understand how to melt into, contrast and echo other instinctively.
For as theoretically alt as the pair is thought to be, when their seasoned band slides into “Wrapped,” the song;s allure to George Strait is obvious. A song of being undone by an overwhelming crush on a woman over an easy shuffle with a backbeat that bangs like an unhinged door in a wind storm. Electric guitar laces up the melody line and Robison’s voice can take on a hint of shyness that makes the want sweet instead of lecherous.
That notion of the gulp being a baby steo suggests the monster’s shadow that’s really just a mouse in front of a flashlight under the bed. The kind of music purveyed by Willis, Robison and Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris is so salty, so gritty, so real and also lovely
“Six White Cadillacs,” Harris’ opener from the soon-to-be-released Hard Bargain, was a funky stop-start proposition that sauntered with a certain aplomb – even as it captured a caravan to another world. The new swagger comes from reckoning with loss and knowing that time is easily the most limited commodity of all.
Explaining to the near capacity crowd at the seminal blues club that she was there to play her new album in its entirety, there was a sense of anticipation from a crowd who’s been following the Alabama-born, Greenwich Village/DC folkie for nearly four decades.
The muted “Lonely Girl” is the poignant consideration of the way time slides away, taking the ones we love and often leaving us alone in spite of our best intentions. Offered as a balm to a restive soul, the gently rising ah-ahhhh-ahhhh suggests the way knowing leavens the pain we struggle with.
Graciously acknowledging her bare bones backing band after the second song, Harris explained these were the musicians on her record. Introducing Charles Reeves “over here on everything” and “over here, another multiple musician who also produced the record, Jay Joyce,” Harris demonstrated the power of a few instruments masterfully played. Indeed, the less-is-more approach put the 12-time Grammy winner’s voice in the spotlight – allowing the audience to appreciate the subtle way Harris inhabits complicated situations, difficult truths and the ghosts who follow us throughout our life.
Ron Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain,” one of two songs Harris didn’t write, was both exhausted whisper and the conviction of knowing both the exhaustion and the need to go on. Bright in the places that needed conviction, it’s the kind of song that affords strength of self without posturing.
Mortality is certainly the undertow for Hard Bargain. “Darlin’ Kate” is designed as a celebration of the life and passing of Harris’ dear friend Kate McGarrigle, who lost her battle with a rare form of cancer last year, and “The Road” considers the impact of her relationship with mentor/partner/muse Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose in Joshua Tree leaving Harris momentarily rudderless but on the brink of what would become an enduring career.
It takes a brave soul to measure what is left of their life, to weigh what has been and what was lost and to embrace the future with an open heart and the understanding that what is gone can drown what is left if you’re not careful. That Harris sets these things to melodies that move in circles, that drift and meander in such pretty ways is a testament to a life lived in and for the songs she’s sung.