For this series, we’ll be following Geoffrey Himes as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. In this installment, he visits Austin, Texas. (You can check out part two of his stay in Austin here.)
To understand why Texas is such fertile ground for smart, rootsy songwriting, you have to look beyond the annual South by Southwest Music Conference, beyond the nightclubs that have earned Austin the bumper sticker slogan “Live Music Capital of the World,” and peek into people’s houses where the gestation of those songs takes place.
On the Monday night of the SXSW week, I found myself in Lisa Fancher’s living room near the University of Texas campus. Fancher, a former Kerrville Festival New Folk finalist, is now a lawyer and part-time musician but no less passionate or skilled at songwriting for all that. In the high-ceilinged, big-windowed addition to her small ranch house, 10 Texan singer/songwriters plus a pair of out-of-town guests sat in a circle.
Within the circle were a mandolin, bouzouki, accordion, electric piano, upright bass and half a dozen acoustic guitars to be grabbed by anyone so inspired. In the kitchen was a potluck collection of wine, juice, beer, cheese, crackers, pineapple, grapes and mixed nuts.
All the musicians assembled were public performers; most of them have released albums, but none were especially famous. That lack of celebrity made the seriousness and the quality of their craft all the more impressive.
In most cities I visit, there’s a tendency among musicians to move directly to the arrangement and production stage as soon as a song idea emerges. They’re more interested in the sound and mood of the music than in such basic building blocks as melody, harmony, rhythm and verse lyrics. It’s understandable, for it’s really hard to come up with tunes, chord changes, phrasing and words that are tightly written and original.
What makes Austin and Nashville different from most cities is that the musicians there don’t skip over that first step. They assume that the song has to be good enough to work in the most stripped-down format—just a voice and guitar or piano—before you can move to the next phase. Only when the song works in that most naked setting can you be sure that the lyrics bring characters and narrative to life, that the melody and chord progression pull the ear along. And only then can you start to think about arrangements and production.
Musicians in most cities pay lip service to these concepts, but only in Austin and Nashville have musicians created the living-room laboratories where you can actually put the songs to the test. It’s not so much that explicit criticism is offered as it is that a songwriter can tell when a song has grabbed the circle’s attention and when it hasn’t. When it does, the fidgeting, whispering and looking around ceases and the faces focus on the singer. When that happens, you know you’ve got something. And when it doesn’t, you know you have to change something.
It’s easy to assume that you’ve passed the test when you play a song for your spouse or band, but there’s no test like a circle of fellow songwriters. And most—though not all—of the songs played Monday night passed the test, probably because they were written with the test in mind. They had lyric details that were easy to visualize, melodic phrases that were easy to remember, and chordal/rhythmic momentum that was easy to give in to.
As good as it was, this particular song circle isn’t unusual. All over Austin and Nashville similar living-room laboratories are testing and refining songs till they are hardened, little jewels. And that’s why these two Southern cities boast a breadth and depth of songwriting craft that no other American cities can match.
So thanks to Lisa Fancher, Michael Fracasso, Jenny Reynolds, Jim Patton, Sherry Brokus, Patterson Barrett, Wendy Hale Davis, Joanna Lynn Howerton, Stephanie Urbina-Jones, Jens Lysdal and Craig Marshall for welcoming me into your circle, letting me hear your fine songs and allowing me to understand a crucial, too-often-skipped-over step in music-making.