I have become the connoisseur de jour of country-style alternative music from Nashville and Austin viz a viz music festivals. I have attended South by Southwest (SXSW) for more than 20 years and witnessed the emergence of everyone from Lucinda Williams to Shakey Graves to Black Puma, not to mention the earlier generations that preceded them and continued to kick butt like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Joe Ely, and Billy Joe Shaver.
I started heading to Tennessee’s AmericanaFest five years ago, where I discovered such wonderful talents, many of them local, such as Erin Rae, Sierra Ferrell, Molly Tuttle, Kyshona, and Lily Hiatt. I plan on going to this Fall’s AmericanaFest and next Spring’s SXSW, as they are the highlights of my musical life. This review is written slightly tongue-in-cheek. I speak as an expert when I am clearly a dilettante.
This is not to say the South Austin Moonlighters don’t deserve serious attention. From Here to Home is a solid record. I apologize to the band for my lack of credentials and earnest rhetoric. It’s just that each member of the quartet (Chris Beall-lead vocals and guitar; Lonnie Trevino Jr.-lead vocals, bass, guitar, piano; Daniel James-drums, percussion, backing vocals; Hunter St. Marie-guitar) seems to be the kind of person drinking shots and beers at the bar who’s more interested in the music than in making conversation. The music suggests the power of liquid accompaniment.
Judging by their name, the South Austin Moonlighters aspire to be identified with their home environs. The title of their most recent album, From Here to Home, suggests the rootedness of their music. It’s a solid record with a strong pulse. But the music is not the sound of classic Austin or the more modern one. They sound alienated from the present town and not content to live in the past. (Typical Austin humor: When is the best time to visit Austin? The implication is, weatherwise, when is the best time of year? Answer: 20 years ago. This insinuates the high point of Austin living was decades earlier before it was discovered by the hordes.)
The point is, Austin is no longer Austin. Everyone in the Texas town knows that. People still move there because even though the city has grown into a megalopolitan area with expensive gentrification overtaking bohemian areas (a Hermès store on South Congress?) and such. The town still earns its self-conceited title as “The Live Music Capital of the World” because it continues to feature great music at the Saxon Pub (where the South Austin Moonlighters frequently hang out), the Continental Club, C-Boys Heart and Soul, the Broken Spoke, Antone’s, etc.) almost every day.
Which is a roundabout way of saying the first song on the South Austin Moonlighters’ From Here to Home is about Nashville. The lyrics don’t paint a pretty picture of the town. The place is cold in both senses. The weather is rainy and chilly. The people are inhospitable. That may be true to a point, but the South Austin Moonlighters ought to walk a mile or two or three or four down their namesake road and remember what used to be with what currently is and ask themselves who should be casting the first stone. As for the Austin climate, one (dirty) word: summer.
The South Austin Moonlighters know this. Austin is also no paradise. All of the ten tracks offer a mostly cynical look at the material world in which we live. “It’s Only Money (That Makes the World Go ‘Round)”, one song title scathingly notes. The hard-hitting “Make a Livin’” begins with an image of “the down-and-out and overwhelmed / lyin’ face-down on the floor”. “Long Time Coming” declares, “Nothing’s free, no guarantees”. And so on. Even the celebratory “Hearts in Parallel” about finding love posits that two hearts cannot become one. The best one can do is find a companion with whom one can travel without conflict. In press notes, Trevino describes the music as “joyous”. He’s also the guy who penned the lyrics to “Then Away, Farewell” with the insight, “The road to death is a lonely highway.” Um, not the kind of sentiment one would necessarily consider upbeat.
Like that other Austin bar band, Band of Heathens, the South Austin Moonlighters rock hard with an electric guitar leading the charge. The four talents play loud. Producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) lets the instruments clash to create a riotous noise. Think of From Here to Home as the sound of one big family, each member fighting to be heard. My guess is that a Nashvillian headed to Texas might find the cacophony a little off-putting, but there lies its charm.