Saving Country Music’s Biggest Takeaways from SXSW 2018
The original concept of South By Southwest was not to be a funnel for corporate brand recognition through music, or as a springboard for superstars to increase their street cred on social media. It was a place for artists and industry to come together in the discovery process so worthy talent could find support for their music, and the music business could discover the leading artists of the next generation.
It’s with this spirit that SXSW should be approached, and in that spirit that Saving Country Music has boiled down the scores of live performances experienced over the week to a few most important observances that may be useful to fans and industry alike.
Of course there were great performances by many artists we already know, and who already enjoy wide recognition and representation such as Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, Nikki Lane, Margo Price, and many others. Other standouts included most all the performers at the Rebelle Road Showcase (read here), including Alice Wallace and her new song “Elephants.” Ruby Boots of Bloodshot Records was all over the place, playing her own great sets, as well as sitting in with Nikki Lane at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion. Sarah Shook was a big discovery in 2017 for many, and certainly didn’t disappoint with her SXSW performances. And bluegrass group Wood and Wire put on a rousing performance ahead of the release of their new record North of Despair out April 13th.
But here were six artists that stood out among the crowd that you may not be hearing about from major periodicals, and whose talents far surpass their current popularity footprint. You can also find more pictures from the 2018 SXSW festivities below.
#6 – Caroline Rose
Caroline Rose is not country. This is more of a fuzz rock project with no fuck’s given. But she fits in her own weird way into the Americana realm on New West Records, and the roots world shouldn’t be scared to accept Caroline into its fold with the entertainment value she brings with her live shows. Her recent album Loner benefits greatly from a live, visual component. A couple of very entertaining videos for “Money” and “Soul No. 5” have helped, but this is nothing compared to seeing Caroline perform live.
With a fearlessness that is incredibly refreshing, Caroline Rose is able to somehow call out the incredible lack of self-awareness permeating today’s culture by approaching her live show with complete abandon. It’s sloppy, stupid, and so entertaining. And no, this is not some east Nashville hipster bullshit. From Vermont, Rose lives well outside of that close-knit scene, and believe it or not, is probably too good, and too weird for that lot. Simply put, Caroline Rose is a joy to see live, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
#5 – Lukas Nelson
It’s time to start considering Lukas Nelson right up there with the top 2nd generation stars of music. This guy does it all: incredible songwriting, amazing voice, and a monster on the guitar. His song “Just Outside of Austin” is about Luck, TX, where he performed it at the 2018 Luck Reunion on Thursday (3-15). Lukas Nelson’s ability to both evoke the timeless magic of his dad’s tone and warble, yet renew it with an original delivery all his own—along with the sheer explosiveness and natural ease of his guitar playing—makes him an awe-inspiring specimen for the theory of pedigree.
#4 – Emily Herring
Emily Herring is the traditional country singer and songwriter we’re not making nearly enough fuss about nationally. Hidden away in Austin, she works as a full time auto mechanic in nearby San Marcos. Her commitment may only be part time—and her footprint regional—but her talents should should get your full time attention, and be taking international. Her recent record Gliding is not to be overlooked, and her performances at the Rebelle Road Showcase on Wednesday (3-14) of some of the albums best songs like “Last of the Houston Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Best Thing I’ve Seen Yet” were incredible, even without a band accompanyment. It’s the voice and songs of Emily that make her stand out.
#3 – The Brother Brothers
Such a minimalist conservation of efforts and sounds is employed by Adam and David Moss, also known as The Brother Brothers. But they do so incredibly much with it, opening up soundscapes whole orchestral arrangements and 7-piece prog rock outfits fail to capture. In the screaming mass of SXSW festivities, they were able to conjure a calmness and beauty unlike anything else over the week, getting people to hush their mouths and drop their phones to imbibe in the purity of close sibling harmony. It was nothing short of incredible, especially since their set at the Brooklyn Country Cantina on Saturday (3-17) was performed right beside the bustling throngs on 6th Street. It should have taken incredible balance and concentration from both the brothers and the crowd to drown it all out and live in the moment. But it all felt so incredibly effortless.
#2 – Joshua Hedley
Yes, Saving Country Music just can’t keep its mouth shut about Joshua Hedley ever since it was announced his debut album Mr. Jukebox would be released via Third Man Records on April 20th. But if his set in Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX chapel to an intimate crowd is any indication to the style and quality the record will include, arguably not enough noise has been made just yet. This is most pure and perfect reenactment of the Golden Era of country music you can hear or see on the planet, yet served through original songs to make it relevant in today’s context. Believe the hype with Joshua Hedley.
#1 – Billy Strings
We’re living in a moment where a very young, up-and-coming former bluegrass prodigy might be the very best thing going in all of country and roots music. Many won’t give this the proper due because they believe bluegrass is too niche, and the ceiling is so low in the genre compared to country proper. But if you’re looking for the singer, songwriter, and player that could parallel what we witnessed Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell do over the last few years, Billy Strings very well may be your answer. His performance at the Brooklyn Country Cantina on Saturday (3-17) was the best thing this set of eyes and ears consumed all week, and by a wide margin. And judging by the rousing applause and agape mouths by the others populating the crowd, this isn’t a renegade take.
Billy Strings’ 2017 record Turmoil & Tinfoil is excellent, and Saving Country Music experienced his magic in August of 2017 at the Pickathon Festival as well. But he’s found an entirely new level presently, and his band is perfect. The only way to describe the Billy Strings live experience is like tripping without acid. The compositional fortitude is so soaring, it opens up recess in your mind that are otherwise inaccessible. In a word, Billy Strings is a modern-day musical virtuoso.
Watch out for this one, and don’t pass up any opportunity you get to see him live.
March 20, 2018 @ 11:42 am
Billy Strings is a local fellow and a great musician but if I had my druthers I’d go nuts for Hedley and for Brother Brothers.
Joshua Hedley is everything I want in the future of Country Music. he’s got the look, the voice, the songs… he’s just so perfect like he stepped out of a time capsule and I wish there were more artists like that. look at that suit! it’s like watching Pop Goes the Country when I was a kid. Hedley is a glimpse into that perfect world I dream of with Country Music not going to shit. I can just see him fit into a timeline, from Hank Sr. to Bill Monroe to Hank Thompson and then Patsy then Porter Wagoner then Marty Stuart, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and lastly Joshua Hedley.
I’m not familiar with Carolyn Rose but I’m going to do some research! seems like exactly what I wanna get behind!
March 20, 2018 @ 1:02 pm
I’m in the camp that thinks Hedley might be gimmick (style) over substance. But, I’ve been wrong before and will try to approach his full length without prejudice.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:21 pm
I don’t see him bringing groundbreaking records like Isbell or Simpson or Willie doing Red-Headed Stranger. he’s no revolutionary but as far as nice Country-politan with good rhythms and melodies it stands up there with some of the best of the sub-genre.
March 20, 2018 @ 11:49 am
Keep showing the love for Emily Harring.
March 20, 2018 @ 12:03 pm
I am crazy about Emily Herring.
From the videos i have seen, she appears to put on quite a show.
Robert's Country Blog
March 20, 2018 @ 2:31 pm
It’s so cool to see Emily getting some press here. I guess she was the first San Marcos musician I met, though at the time, she was working on our vehicle, and I found out later about her musical talents. I’ve seen her a few times, and recommend.
March 21, 2018 @ 10:02 am
Listened to her most recent album based on this article. Great stuff. Looking forward to her next album whenever it comes
March 20, 2018 @ 12:35 pm
Billy Strings rules!
March 20, 2018 @ 12:42 pm
Does Caroline Rose always dress like she’s going to play tennis? Yip Yip Yow.
My biggest takeaway is that I hate Milennials.
March 21, 2018 @ 7:08 am
I think that’s new.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:02 pm
A few of these I’ll check out.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:11 pm
Thanks, will check a few of these out. Mostly familiar with Lukas. His new album was pretty good and he rocks live.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:19 pm
I downloaded 2 of Joshua Hedley’s songs just several days ago. I’m loving the Golden Era sound and look. It makes me crave for the days of that time period, even though I’m a millennial lol. Hopefully there are big things in store for him. I doubt there will be a resurgence in this style of music in the long run, but it’s good to know somebody out there is preserving it.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:24 pm
I’ve been a big music fan my whole life and love going to live shows. Within the last few years, thanks in large part to this website, I have realized how much great country music is out there and have been to some great live shows of artists I have been introduced to on this website. I am equally excited for Joshua Hedley’s new album. As a newer country music listener, I have had trouble reconciling how Hedley’s album could be getting so much hype (deservingly so based on what I’ve heard), yet Zephaniah Ohora hasn’t blown up. ZO’s album blew my mind and sent me down a classic country rabbit hole – I find that album to be almost perfect. Is it just that Hedley is signed to Third Man and has “paid his dues” playing with other Nashville artists? Curious as to what other more experienced listeners think?
March 20, 2018 @ 1:58 pm
Hedley’s album is yet to be released, so I don’t know that any side by side comparisons are fair until we hear the whole thing. Hedley definitely has more promotional muscle behind him than Zephaniah did, and has definitely been playing around for more years, and so that always helps.
March 20, 2018 @ 5:09 pm
Thanks Trig and keep up the great work. They just opened a new honkeytonk bar here in Indianapolis and one of the first acts they booked was Zephaniah. Can’t wait to see him live here in a couple months.
Karen Rappaport McHugh
March 21, 2018 @ 12:22 am
Whats the name of the new bar there?
March 21, 2018 @ 9:40 am
Karen – here is the website for the venue. They have contact information for booking on there. Congrats on the SXSW showcase. In the process of exploring all the artists that were featured. Thank you!
March 21, 2018 @ 4:19 am
Duke’s Indy, right? Sounds promising. Will have to check it out.
Isn’t Zephaniah a metal band??
March 21, 2018 @ 7:35 am
Charlie: Yes – Duke’s Indy. It opens this Saturday although the first show is sold out. According the website they “only book REAL honkytonk and traditional country bands.” Sounds like they will have rotating house bands and also ticketed shows for regional/national acts.
I was referring to Zephaniah Ohora, not the metal band. Check him out and get tickets for the June 30 show! They are only $10 and it would be great to sell out this venue so we can continue to get other shows. P.S. Colter Wall is playing at the HiFi next week on Friday. We have tickets to that as well.
March 20, 2018 @ 1:33 pm
I hope you got to spend some time at the Broken Spoke, the White Horse and oddball places like the Little Longhorn Saloon. I was very impressed with James Steinle, Kathryn Legendre, Joe Purdy/Amber Rubarth, Waco Brothers, and even the house band at the Little Longhorn. Awesome time for first time SXSW visitor…
March 20, 2018 @ 1:57 pm
I live in Austin so I don’t need to use SXSW as an excuse to enjoy those places, but if you’re coming from out of town, those are definitely the important haunts.
March 20, 2018 @ 2:59 pm
Gotcha! Well, you’re lucky to have places like this within reach. I was in hog heaven. I’ll want to hit you up for ideas next year if I can make it, I bet you know a few other killer spots. We couldn’t get tix for the Luck event despite epic efforts…maybe better luck next year.
March 20, 2018 @ 4:44 pm
If Billy Strings comes to your town, do not miss him. Over the last few years he has just gotten better and better.
March 21, 2018 @ 6:54 am
Lukas Nelson & Nikki Lane played a show up here at a small venue and it was absolutely amazing. It was right up there with an Isbell live show and I would love to see them both perform again. Can’t wait to see what they both have to offer in the future.
March 21, 2018 @ 7:13 am
I just interviewed Caroline Rose last week, while she was basically in between sets at SXSW. I had just heard her new material an hour or so before, and was blown away by the indie/EDM/dance punk hybrid, as her preceding (debut) album was more or less Americana. I don’t know if this sound is more “real” to her than what was on that debut, but she said she immediately felt pigeonholed by the reception of that first album and what the term “Americana” brings to mind. I can’t say I loved everything on the new album, but I love an artist this young experimenting with sounds without a cash register ringing in their heads.
March 21, 2018 @ 12:09 pm
Thanks for the mention, Trigger! What a great SXSW, and the Rebelle Road showcase was just a fantastic day!
March 21, 2018 @ 1:41 pm
Loved seeing Billy Strings on your list! I saw Billy at Luck Reunion play an unannounced set in front of Paul Thorns trailer. Was unfamiliar with him and it was the best show I saw all day! The next day, I got to see him sit in with Tx Gentleman for a couple Grateful Dead songs at Scoot Inn and that was magical as well!
Karen A G
March 23, 2018 @ 12:05 am
Thrilled to see this recognition for Billy Strings. He holds a classic gentle spirit quite capable of bringing a tear to your eye, yet will drop your jaw and melt your face with a dynamite romping display of performance charisma. I am hopeful his headlining opener for PBS’ Bluegrass Underground Season VIII will serve him well and introduce this young man’s special gift to many.
April 5, 2018 @ 9:01 pm
We have a small(ish) town festival here every July and a bluegrass band from Austin is playing this year. I’d never heard of them, but I was intrigued, because Texas isn’t necessary the first place I think of when it comes to bluegrass. So, my instinct was to come here and do a search. Lo and behold, one article: this one. Glad to see Wood & Wire mentioned here. I respect your opinions on music, Trigger, so I’m looking forward to this show – even if I know nothing about these guys at this point.
April 5, 2018 @ 10:19 pm
Seen Wood & Wire play multiple times. Good bluegrass band.