Striking a Match at SXSW

All I wanted to do was watch a performance of the song “Bruises”. And because – surprise! — Train wasn’t scheduled to be in Austin, Texas, this week, my only hope was Ashley Monroe, an up and coming country music star with whom Train collaborated to compose the silly, little pop song at hand.

I didn’t hear it, of course. South by Southwest artists run on the click of a very important and very lucrative clock. If you’re Ms. Monroe, why offer up a song more synonymous with another artist when this is your one true moment in the spotlight? Then again, if you’re me, why schedule your first day at the preeminent music conference in North America around a slate of country music artists when you have spent 28 years despising that very niche?

But that’s what happened Tuesday as I wandered into the Empire Control Room a little before 8 PM. The event was spearheaded by MTV, VH1 and CMT, and with the exception of a surprisingly talkative and enthusiastic Matt Pinfield (he of 120 Minutes fame, in case you forgot), it may have been impossible for any passer-by to fully grasp how countrified the evening was initially supposed to be. Why is that? Two words.

Striking. Matches.

A pop country duo straight out of the High School Musical corner of Nashville, Tennesse, Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis spent each one of their approximately 35 minutes on stage bleeding promise while opening a night that culminated with a set from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Pretty faces? Check. Youthful charm? Check. Overly inspired? Check. Thankful to be playing SXSW? Check. Able to offer up the kind of very real musical talent needed to back up their polished presentation?

Double check.

And that’s why they mattered. For as cute as Zimmerman presented herself – envision a Southern, less naked Vanessa Hudgens wearing a black tank top, black jeans, and not-quite knee-high black boots – what allowed her to turn heads was the sheer shredding ability she possessed. Not to be outdone, Davis – a mop-top-donning, seemingly good boy who could have had a former career as an extra on Friday Night Lights – met her at every riff and every emotional turn, combining for a sound that felt both fresh and familiar, quite the feat for a couple kids who probably consider Taylor Swift a weathered veteran.

Keeping the modern day country faux-twang, the two ventured into rock territory, evoking sounds of both Led Zeppelin and the Band by combining straightforward grooves with a sensible drawl. Even better was the confidence that both players exuded, owning every measure of every part as though they were playing to a sold-out crowd of 50,000, rather than the maybe-150 media types in attendance doing their best to pretend as though they weren’t impressed.

Such would have been foolish, however. If nothing else, Striking Matches did the one thing for which anybody who has ever taken the stage at a South By Southwest could wish: They stood out. Maybe even more impressive, they did so with a focus on technical prowess rather than their easy-to-sell image. Watching them command their audience in such a way was a revelation in where country music may be headed. In short, the set was as much a relief as it was a reassurance.

“Thank you guys for coming out and hanging us,” Zimmermann said adorably before the two launched into their final song of the evening. The misstep was funny not because of how poignant a young artist can appear while simultaneously suggesting vulnerability; rather the humor fell within the mere truth that Striking Matches, like any other group here at South By Southwest, aren’t immune to verbal gaffes, regardless of reputation or stature. The best part of the tiny moment? The crowd wasn’t laughing at them -– they were laughing with them.

Because if there was one thing that anybody with two working ears could conclude after watching these promising young stars-in-the-making warm up a crowd ready for marquee names, it was this: the two people on stage at that moment were going to ultimately end up with the final laugh of the evening.

“Bruises” or not.