FOR 15 YEARS the Kerrville Folk Festival in the Texas hill country has been the best showcase for the state's distinctive singer-songwriters: "country-outlaws" and "cowboy-folkies" like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey and Steve Earle. For the Texas sesquicentennial, the Kerrville folkfest is on a national tour with 15 singer-songwriters including such Texas legends as Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard and such folkies as Bob Gibson and Carolyn Hester.
The best of the bunch, though, may be Butch Hancock, best known for writing Joe Ely's best songs. A cult figure in Austin, Hancock merges the mythological bent of Bob Dylan with the laconic honky-tonk style of Jerry Jeff Walker. Hancock's most recent album, "Yella Rose," strongly resembles Dylan's "Desire" duets with Emmylou Harris.
Though the album is co-credited to duet singer Marce Lacouture, Hancock wrote all the songs, and his nasal, insinuating vocals dominate. Hancock's cascade of literary images borrowed from the Texas landscape tumble over Tex-Mex trumpets, western swing pedal steel and Marcia Ball's rattling piano. Some of these songs, especially "Like a Kiss on the Mouth," are just waiting to become standards.
Also coming with the Kerrville tour is Santiago Jiminez Jr., one of the best Norteno or Tex-Mex band leaders on either side of the border. Less well known than his brother Flaco, San Antonio's Santiago Jiminez brings a fluid, melodic feel to the accordion without ever losing the essential dance pulse. On his brand new album, "Santiago Strikes Again," Jiminez is joined by Juan Garcia, a virtuoso on the bajo sexto (a big, heavy 12-string guitar). The lively, light-stepping Spanish dance songs are an illuminating example of the background Los Lobos has sprung from. BUTCH HANCOCK & MARCE LACOUTURE -- "Yella Rose" (Rainlight RLT-13711). SANTIAGO JIMINEZ JR. -- "Santiago Strikes Again" (Arhoolie 3020). The Kerrville Folk Festival comes to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday.