Austin music is becoming a family business. Parents are passing down to their children songwriter/performer brand names as if they were used-car lots, drug stores, or Italian restaurants. The kids apprentice their craft by hanging around their fathers and mothers at work until they're ready to take over the franchise.
This was obvious Wednesday afternoon at the Guitartown/Conqueroo Party at the Dogwood on Austin's West Sixth Street. This is the best of the hundreds of unofficial day parties during South by Southwest each year—as soon as a half-hour set ends on the indoor stage, a half-hour set begins on the outdoor courtyard stage. On Wednesday at noon, for example, Curtis McMurtry finished up a set of songs from his 2014 debut album, "Respectable Enemy," on the inside stage. His songs were extended monologues about relationships gone south, his sturdy Texas tenor accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and a cello.
As soon as he stopped, his dad James McMurtry started up outside. The year is still young, but the older McMurtry's new album, "Complicated Game," has a good chance to be the year's best record. For once, McMurtry did a set without playing his two best-known songs, 'Choctaw Bingo' and 'We Can't Make It Here,' relying instead on six songs from the new album.
Standing alone on stage with his white Panama hat and 12-string acoustic guitar, he drew you so deeply into the worlds of 'Copper Canteen' and 'You Got To Me' that Austin seemed to slip away behind you. One could tell where Curtis got his unresolved chord progressions that keep you hanging on the edge for the next revelation. And you could hear the command of detail Curtis still has to master.
At 1 p.m., Jon Dee Graham and the Fighting Cocks climbed up on the courtyard stage to play songs from "Do Not Forget," their new album of memorable live recordings from over 17 years. What makes them a great band is their ability to be raw and raucous one moment and incredibly tender the next. And Willie Graham, Jon Dee's son, displayed similar instincts when he led his band, the Painted Redstarts, on the outdoor stage at 1:30 p.m. You can still hear the gears grinding when Willie makes the shift, but he's already much better than he was last year.
At 3 p.m., Ray Wylie Hubbard took the outdoor stage with his son Lucas on guitar. The father has a new album coming next month: "The Ruffian's Misfortune." From that album he played 'Mr. Musselwhite's Blues,' a tribute to the Chicago-blues harmonica wizard Charlie Musselwhite. As Ray Wylie and Lucas traded blues solos, the father on acoustic and the son on a Telecaster, you could hear the same refined focus that avoided all the obvious blues clichés and zeroed in on the emotional heart of the music.
Jon Dee Graham finished up his afternoon set with a blistering version of 'Do Not Forget,' a rock'n'roll anthem for memory as a kind of rebellion against the media deluge. Afterward, the burly, bearded singer-guitarist held up his album of the same title and said, "If you only buy one album at South by Southwest this year, you should buy . . . " and he waved the CD in his hand, "you should buy James McMurtry's 'Complicated Game,' because it’s an amazing album. But if you only buy two albums, you should buy this one."
He was right on both accounts. And if you only buy three, you should add Ray Wylie Hubbard's "The Ruffian's Misfortune."
Later that night, during an official SXSW showcase at St. David's Church, I heard the astounding orchestral-pop band Mother Falcon. Founded seven years ago by two high school cellists, the group has evolved into a pool of classically trained, pop-inclined musicians who co-compose indie rock songs and then give them sophisticated arrangements.
On Wednesday night, the band included the two cellists, a violinist, three horns, two keyboardists, two guitarists, and a rhythm section. The songs seemed very personal, but were fleshed out with dizzying bits of trumpet, violin, vibraphone, and accordion. And when they stood up for the ovation afterward, I noticed that one cellist was Diana Burgess, the woman who had played with Curtis McMurtry that morning.