The Art of the Song at South by Southwest

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Amid all the din and the distractions at the South by Southwest music festival, it’s easy to forget that songwriting still holds currency. A musical act can make a splash for a while on a sound, or a look, or a well-funded hype machine, but at its core its songs must connect with listeners. Utne Reader is proud to be sponsoring two talent-packed SXSW showcases that reveal the art of the song is alive and well, and that the singer-songwriter is not as endangered a species as is sometimes presumed.

Here’s the lineup of the official showcase presented by Utne Reader and the music label/management outfit Thirty Tigers on Friday (March 18) at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin:

• Ben Sollee (1 a.m.) The main instrument played by Ben Sollee is the moody cello, but his music is more upbeat and varied than that would imply, thanks to his percussive playing style and soulful vocals.

• Ron Sexsmith (midnight) Ron Sexsmith is the epitome of the singer-songwriter, having turned out his share of guy-and-a-guitar classics. His new Long Player Late Bloomer is another is in a long, solid string of work; he’s the elder-statesman figure on the bill.

• Amy Speace (11 p.m.) A former actress, Amy Speace creates immersive dramas in her vivid story-songs.

• Josh Ritter (10 p.m.) Lyrics are no afterthought for Josh Ritter, whose carefully crafted folk-rock is deeper and sometimes darker than his million-megawatt performing persona would imply.

• Chapin Sisters (9 p.m.)Darkness, on the other hand, becomes the Chapin Sisters, whose sisterly voices intertwine to spin folkie tapestries of sound with a melancholy undercurrent.

• Bhi Bhiman (8 p.m). Bhiman’s been touring with Josh Ritter as a favored opener.

As if that weren’t enough, Utne Reader is also a co-sponsor of the Americana Music Association’s official showcase Thursday (March 17) at Austin landmark Antone’s. The bill is filled with artists who mine the deep roots of American song–often with a solid rock and roll backbeat:

• Old 97s (midnight) Last month in Minneapolis, the Old 97s put on a fiery show as a blizzard raged outside, convincing me and a roomful of hardy souls that they haven’t lost a bit of the alt-country edge that they’ve shown for more than a decade. And their new Grand Theatre Volume One is one of their strongest albums yet.

• Emmylou Harris
(11 p.m.) A living legend whose eyes still twinkle, Emmylou Harris has always had an ear for great songs, and she’s covered scores of them by songwriters from Bill Monroe to Gillian Welch to, on her forthcoming album Hard Bargain, Ron Sexsmith.

• Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison (10 p.m.) Both Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been purveying Texas-style country rock for years; performing as a duo, their combined talents are sure to be impressive.

• Abigail Washburn (9 p.m.) Washburn’s wide-ranging musical interests have taken her from Appalachia to China and many points between, all with a banjo on her knee.

• Band of Heathens (8 p.m.) Band of Heathens are burly Austin guys with a rich and unpretentious roots sound; their cover of Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio” shows their love for the well-turned lyric.

Image of Josh Ritter by Marcelo Biglia. Image of Emmylou Harris by Jack Spencer.

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