SXSW -- the annual set of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that were held this March 11-20 in Austin, Texas -- began in 1987 and has continued to grow in both scope and size every year. It is the largest music festival of its kind in the world. And it is, in a word, overwhelming.
Last year featured 2,266 artists in showcases plus 233 panels, workshops, and sessions; had 107 venues and stages; and had artists listed in 34 different genres. That did not include the other showcases offered by record labels, management teams, PR folks, and many more. It has grown so large that SXSW alternatives have cropped up all over town. And, lest I forget, this year featured a keynote by President Barack Obama.
While I have never attended the fest, photographer Kirk Stauffer was there this year for the eighth time. SXSW is so spread out that Kirk creates his own spreadsheet weeks in advance, in order to take in as much as possible.
Kirk is a longtime photographer living in Seattle who is also a longtime music lover. Several years ago he decided to combine those two passions, and his many photos have been featured not only in ND, but also in Rolling Stone, Pollstar, and Paste, as well as many other publications. His photos also grace many artists' webpages and press kits. He is the featured photographer for this week's column, covering as much as humanly possible.
All of the artists featured this week are women who represent the many different aspects of the roots music scene, from country-pop to the harder stuff. Their records tell one story, live performances another. As there are also many videos out there of the many artists who performed at SXSW, I encourage you to explore that wide, wide world that was this glorious festival in videos, too. More often than not, live performances can differ significantly from what's captured in a studio.
Two weeks ago, Margo Price's song "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" was selected by The New York Times as one of its "25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Heading." (This appeared in print, in the Sunday Magazine section; online it was an interactive treat.) Price's album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, was released last week to great acclaim. A SXSW set is up on NPR Music, an interview on NPR News, she's in a featured article in ND, was on CBS Saturday Morning three days ago, and is soon to be every-freaking-where. Price is no ingenue. She did three albums as part of Buffalo Clover (with Sturgill Simpson and Kenny Vaughn), and has otherwise paid her dues. Get ready, looks like she's the breakout artist of 2016, albeit more a throwback to the last decade when straight country music was interesting: the 1970s. Her music is countrypolitan with a backbeat. The vinyl's on my table as I write this. Zowie.
Lissie has just released an album, My Wild West, based on her years in California, before she moved to a farm in Iowa. In order to bring more attention to the plight of abused women worldwide, she did the single "Daughters" for charity:waters and performed it on CNN International.
Maggie Rose has a new EP just out, The Variety Show, Vol. 1. This comes after she left a big label that released her first album, Cut to Impress, which was on some best-of lists in 2013.
As I write this, I am set to see Carrie Rodriguez again tonight. Beginning as a fiddle player who had co-billing with Chip Taylor some years ago, Rodriguez broke out on her own and has not looked back. Her new album, Lola, is a bilingual affair featuring Bill Frisell and Raul Malo. It's a damn fine record.
Whitney Rose has been lighting up the touring venues ever since her breakout album, Heartbreaker of the Year, and standout performance at last year's AMA. She's been praised everywhere from ND to The New York Times. And like any serious heartbreaker, she's got a killer band.
Billie Marten is from England, where she was nominated for the Sound of... award, the annual BBC poll of music critics and industry figures for most promising new talent. At 16, she's been described as a young Nick Drake. Her new EP, As Long As, is out now. (By the way, as one of the few folks who still has all Drake's albums on the original UK pressings, I take such a comparison seriously.)
Canadian Basia Bulat recorded her fourth album, Good Advice, in Louisville, Kentucky. With Jim James at the helm, it has a pop-tinged psychedelia sound. She also uses the autoharp to great effect. She's toured with Daniel Lanois and Sufjan Stevens, so she bears listening to. Currently she's winding up an East Coast tour before heading to Europe for six weeks.
Nichole Wagner is a staple of the local Austin scene, a regular at the Carousel Lounge. She can also been seen with the Cash Band. She's album-less, but I cannot believe that will last for long.
Seems like yesterday when I saw a very young Sarah Jarosz eating an ice cream come with her family on a blanket in Nashville's Centennial Park. More recently, I have seen her hold her own with Garrison Keillor, where she gave as good as she got. A new album, Undercurrent, is due in June.
Coles Whalen, from Denver, has six independent albums under her belt, did the music for a PBS series, and was the voice in an ad campaign. Her music has been described as catchy melodic pop tunes with flavorful alt-country, rock, and jazz.
The Quebe Sisters are a fiddle-oriented sister swing trio from Dallas who began performing in 2012. I first saw them a couple years back at MerleFest, where their light, Bob Willis-ish take on Americana was refreshing. Constantly touring, as one must these days to make ends meet, they've recorded three albums, and have also performed at the Cambridge Folk Fest and A Prairie Home Companion.
Pearl Charles was featured in the November 17 edition of this column. She's been described as infusing psychedelia with rock-tinged blues and moaning guitar. Her sensual vocals that are in a league with Lana Del Ray. She's gotten glowing reviews in most of the usual music mags, has toured with Father John Misty, and has a BFA.
I have written about (and photographed) the European duo My bubba on several occasions. They have added a Tiny Desk Concert to their resume and a new album, Big Bad Good, set for release on April 15. It's their first album recorded in the US, in that hotbed of Americana, Brooklyn, New York. Their quiet, near-whisper vocals intertwining with an unaffected acoustic guitar leaves you entranced and spellbound. Once you hear them, you'll be as taken as I have been. You can thank me later.
Brooklyn-based Margret Glaspy has released several singles, and her debut album is scheduled for this summer on ATO records. Her minimalist guitar style accentuate her Brett Dennen-like vocals that sometimes drift into Karen Dalton territory, but without the ache. I can see why a lot of folks are taken with her.
Originally from Dallas, now based in Nashville, Maren Morris has released three albums plus an EP that charted on Billboard last fall, and she has another one due in June, Hero, on a major label. An advance single, "My Church," has sold quite well and rose as high as #5 on the country charts. It has a twangy sound with a doo-wop beat. The video features a multi-racial choir, an older Mercedes driving down a country road, cigarettes, barbed wire fences, and a good looking, bearded guy with a broken down motorcycle. Not a dog or a train in sight. I hear CMT calling.
Sahara Smith took the name Girl Pilot in 2013, after a 1940s comic book Smilin' Jack and the Daredevil Girl Pilot, that she had kept since age 13, in order to differentiate it from her earlier work. She's from Austin, has played the fest before, and has made all the necessary stops along the way, including Letterman, the King of Late Night Americana. She took second place in A Prairie Home Companion's talent contest. She has one album out under each name, the latest being Myth of the Heart.
Australian singer-songwriter Demi Louise released a single two years ago, but remains album-less. She's also played the Folk Alliance as well as festivals in South Korea, Canada, and the UK. She describes her music as folk-pop, which seems pretty apt.
Cam (Camaron Marvel Ochs) began writing for Miley Cyrus before branching out, releasing an independent album in 2010. She followed last year with an EP and the album Untamed, both with big-time Sony Nashville, whose homepage positions her to the left of Carrie Underwood.
Kalie Shorr, from Maine, has a big YouTube following while also having released an album and last year an EP, The Nashville Sessions. She began doing cover songs at 13, visited Nashville at 16, then relocated there at 19. Her song "Cloud Nine" is in constant rotation at CMT.com. She seems bent on moving on and being found.
Sisters Natalie, Allison, and Meegan Closner from Oregon comprise Joseph: three voices, one guitar. Their only album, Native Dreamer Kin, was released in 2014, but a followup is due shortly, and a tour begins April 17. They dabble in honest words and genetically perfected harmonies, in a dark folky way.
Lily & Madeleine are the sisters Jurkiewicz from Indianapolis. Still in their teens, they've released three albums. The latest, Keep It Together, was released last month on New West Records, home of many Americana artists. Their sound is light and pop-infused, usually with electric piano and guitar. NPR noticed them pretty quick, giving them the Tiny Desk two years ago. They have charmed lots of folks.