Austin, Tex., gained its reputation as one of America's musical capitals mostly because of the progressive country scene that flourished there in the early '70s. While the "outlaw country" phenomenon has long since waned, Austin continues to foster a diverse and dynamic music culture--one with strong connections to regional traditions of rockabilly, blues, country and Mexican music and one in tune with the most outlandish reaches of punk and New Wave. With an ethnically diverse indigenous population, 50,000 college students and a reputation as the Texas stronghold of all things hip and even radical, Austin remains a magnet for musical misfits and hopefuls of all sorts. For example, Texans like Joe Ely, Doug Sahm and Joe Carrasco have all made Austin the home of their western rock 'n' roll fusions.
Within Austin's flourishing blues scene, which includes sultry songstress Lou Ann Barton and guitar flash Stevie Vaughn, the undisputed kingpins are the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In fact, the Thunderbirds' sure and sweaty feel for the work of the black masters has made them possibly the best white blues band in the world. The group's fourth album, "T-Bird Rhythm" (Chrysalis CHR1395), renders this group more than ever a good-time party band--one whose livelihood is earned by staying on the hard-rocking, "up" side of the blues. Granted a tastefully straightforward, live sound by producer Nick Lowe, "T-Bird Rhythm" finds the band flawlessly locking into a range of classic Texas, Louisiana and Chicago blues, all imbued with the steamy, beer-hall charm that is the Thunderbirds' forte.
As authentic and invigorating as the Thunderbirds are, they are still tied to playing and writing in well-known and easily recognizable blues traditions without attempting to revise or expand them in the least. None of lead singer Kim Wilson's three originals sound like more than rewrites of well-worn blues riffs. But the band is just fine when it chooses a juicy cover and lets its rhythm section roll and strut its instrumental prowess, namely Wilson's soulful harp and Jimmy Vaughn's intense yet languid guitar work. The band propulsively pumps its way through Rocket Morgan's swamp rocker, "You're Humbuggin' Me," with Wilson conjuring up both Slim Harpo and Little Walter on harp. Best of all is "The Monkey," a hypnotic blues with a weird voodoo rap in which a monkey divorces himself from all connections with the human race.
In addition to a lively blues scene, Austin has its share of rockabilly-rooted bands. The Thunderbirds are currently producing Little Charlie Sexton, a 14-year-old rockabilly guitar whiz who is the latest in a long line of Texas guitar prote'ge's. The most primal and unrefined of Austin's rock 'n' roll bands are the Leroi Brothers, represented by their excellent, if rawly produced, four-song EP, "Moon Twist" (available from Amazing Records, P.O. Box 26265, Fort Worth, Tex. 76116). Led by ex-Thunderbird drummer Mike Buck's percussive madness, "Moon Twist" provides a loose and uncalculated synthesis of rockabilly, garage rock and other rhythmically compulsive styles. Lead singer Steve Doerr's two originals--"Check This Action," a frat-house rabble-rouser, and "Chicken and Honey," an erotically insinuating rocker with upside-down Cajun rhythms--reveal a band that has refreshingly adopted a somewhat deranged hedonism as its musical goal.
Perhaps the most exciting act out of Austin right now is Rank and File, which adopted Austin as home in hopes it would prove receptive to its unique country-rock fusion. With only the sincere, but misguided traditionalism of Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" and the insincere modernism of Rubber Rodeo's western cabaret as evidence, the idea of a creative rapprochement between the new rock 'n' roll and country music has seemed as artistically viable as a Kenny Rogers-John Lydon duet. Not only does Rank and File turn the trick on its impressive debut, "Sundown" (Slash SR114), but its synthesis sounds wonderfully organic, less like a good idea than a natural evolution.
The nine original songs on "Sundown" are all impressive rock 'n' roll constructions loaded with high energy, sarcastic reflection and populist sentiment. The music is full of stylistic reverberations that echo the hard-thumping rhythms of Johnny Cash, the sweeping guitar flourishes of Buddy Holly and the mountain harmonies of the Everly Brothers. Tony Kinman has a marvelously evocative baritone that adds a feeling of western mythos to songs like "Coyote," a haunting saga of illegal aliens, and "The Conductor Wore Black," a spectral tale of a train headed for nowhere. Chip Kinman's nasal tenor is applied to the band's more sardonic songs, such as the cheerful "Glad I'm Not in Love" and the bouncy "I Don't Go Out Much Anymore." Throughout there is a feeling of exuberance and discovery in Rank and File's country rock, not unlike finding some old dollar bills crushed in the back pocket of your jeans.