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.