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Gurf Morlix and swapping songs at SXSW

March 13, 2013

The Austin music scene has an ambivalent attitude towards the South by Southwest circus that takes over the town for spring-break week every March. On the one hand, they appreciate the attention it brings to the state capital as a major music center, but they resent the way it often eclipses the qualities that made the scene so special in the first place. For Austin has long been and remains an incubator of songwriting craft second only to Nashville.

I was reminded of this Monday night when I joined Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus, the one-time co-leaders of the Maryland band Edge City but Austinites since 1994, at a “song swap” at a private home near the University of Texas campus. Patton and Brokus had moved to Texas largely because of its emphasis on songwriting—as opposed to the East Coast’s focus on arrangement, or “finding a sound,” as it’s emphemistically called. In the high-ceilinged living room of former Kerrville Folk Festival winner Lisa Fancher, they sat in a circle of 13 singer-songwriters, some semi-famous (Betty Soo, Michael Fracasso, Jeff Talmadge) and some not-so-famous.

But a strict sense of democracy prevailed, as each person got an equal chance to sing an original song before passing the turn to the person on the right. Whether the singer was trying out a half-learned new song or a polished older song, there was a healthy sense of competition, of wanting to have the best possible song to play for one’s peers. And the result of that process was some pretty damn good songs.

Something similar happened Sunday night, at a party hosted by former Maryland guitarist John Cronin, who went on to play for Ian Tyson (of Ian & Sylvia fame) and many others. In the backyard of his winter home in Manchaca, a town just south of Austin, the prickly pear cactus had deep purple fruits. The spring air was cool for Texas but warm for Maryland in March, and the garage doors were left open so the circle of pickers inside could straddle the concepts of indoors and outdoors. Joining the circle were Cronin’s cousin Mac Walter, a current Maryland guitarist, and Walter’s childhood neighbor from Lutherville, Maryann Price, the former singer for Asleep at the Wheel, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks and Cowboy Jazz, now an Austinite herself. They all played that hillbilly swing, which is another defining factor of Texas music.

Saturday night I attended the album release party for Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense at Strange Brew in South Austin. It’s the kind of listening room that has a big “Please Observe Silence” sign over the stage, and the audience—even the notoriously chatty professional musicians in the crowd—does stay quiet and listen. Morlix is best known for producing the finest albums that Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier and Ray Wylie Hubbard ever released, but he has grown into a fine singer-songwriter in his own right. The songs are often the darkest shade of the blues, but they are redeemed by a sense that even the bleakest situations can be overcome.

Wearing an unbuttoned orange shirt over a black T-shirt, the tall singer with the silver mane played a small acoustic guitar and stomped his foot on a Porchboard Bass foot pedal that added the sound of a kick drum to his rhythmic songs. When his gravely baritone was counterbalanced by the dulcet soprano of Betty Soo on songs such as “Gasoline” and “Searching for Your Eyes,” the flinty lyrics about danger and death achieved a tumbling momentum and an unexpected buoyancy.