Martie Maguire (left) and Emily Robison of Court Yard Hounds
Martie Maguire (left) and Emily Robison of Court Yard Hounds

AUSTIN, Texas — The South by Southwest music conference and festival is a place for new artists, as well as veterans, to generate a buzz. No kidding.

Officially, nearly 2,000 acts are showcasing their music this week in hopes of kick-starting careers either just beginning or well into their prime. Sisters Martee Maguire and Emily Robison, who make up two-thirds of country trio Dixie Chicks, made their third SXSW appearance as Court Yard Hounds Thursday night (March 18) at Antone’s, a storied nightclub in the heart of downtown Austin.

In a week absolutely jam-packed with buzz-worthy shows, the duo’s bluegrass-influenced songs put smiles on the faces of the hundreds of music fans and SXSW attendees who piled into the club for an hour-long set of newly minted songs and favorite cover tunes.

Concertgoers were rewarded with more than just a rare performance by the two sisters: Jakob Dylan joined them on stage for a pair of songs, “See You in the Spring” and “You Wear It Well,” the Rod Stewart classic. The former song, recorded as a duet by Dylan and Robison for the Hounds’ upcoming debut album, is a tune about fractured lovers from different climes. On stage, the heartfelt tune projected warmth as well as sadness.

Backed by a four-piece band, Maguire and Robinson accompanied themselves on fiddle, banjo, dobro and mandolin, but it was their vocal harmonies — as well as Robison’s leads — that made the performance special. The sisters could easily win many fans across the country with their intimate Americana sound, inspired by the string bands they loved as teens.

Though Maguire, Robison and singer Natalie Maines have announced a Dixie Chicks stadium tour with the Eagles and Keith Urban this summer, breaking a long hiatus that followed their big Grammy win in 2007 (as well as meltdown over Maines’ comments about George Bush and the Iraq War earlier in the decade), the sisters will surely have a prosperous and less controversial second career as Court Yard Hounds.

Among the standout songs in the set were “Skyline,” inspired by the San Antonio skyline; “It Didn’t Make a Sound” and “The Coast,” another Texas-themed song that will be the album’s first single. (It has been reported elsewhere that “It Didn’t Make a Sound” would be the first single.)

Court Yard Hounds will make their Northwest debut at Lilith Fair, which stops July 3 at The Gorge Amphitheatre.

Thursday was a typically intense experience for attendees, who faced the daunting task of choosing among dozens of performances occuring each hour of the day all across downtown Austin and in outlying area. Add to that a slate of daily panel discussions, a trade show and free music showcases stocked with beer and barbecue that made decisions agonizing and difficult.

Few particpants hesitated at a chance to attend the keynote interview with Smokey Robison of Motown fame (interviewing him was music journalist Dave Marsh). Speaking before a capacity crowd at the Austin Convention Center, a trim and healthy looking Robinson (now in his 70s) regaled listeners with tales of his long, incredible career as frontman for the Miracles.

Robinson said he grew up in a household where the music of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and others played 24/7. He met Gordy at age 16 after a failed audition. But Gordy’s interest in his music led to a mentorship that produced some of the great songs of the Motown era. The biggest problem with his teenage songwriting was that verses were often unrelated in subject matter, even though they were “all rhymed up” very nicely.

What kept Robinson going even when he was discouraged? “I just wanted to do it so desperately,” he said. “I really wanted to be in show business, but I didn’t know it was possible. That was my impossible dream.”

Robinson, who almost comes across like a friendly, stylish, non-toxic Richard Pryor, clearly regards his life as blessed. At Marsh’s prompting, Robinson offered some advice to young musicians: “thicken your skin” and “keep your feet on the ground.”

In the next hour, a panel discussion posed the question: “Does Rock and Roll Belong in a Museum?” Led by Jim Henke of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the discussion was spirited, though only a few in the audience protested the prevailing view of the panelists (among them Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times and formerly the Experience Music Project) that the recordings, history and artifacts of popular music desperately need to be saved, cataloged and displayed. (The dissenters argued that the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll is undermined by putting it under glass, so to speak.)

Another panel focused on the theme “How Will We Listen to Music in 2020?” Among the conclusions: Fans won’t just press ‘play’ in the future; they’ll interact with artists willing to share the creative experience. Vinyl and CDs won’t go away; they will always have their devotees. Artist development (A&R) and the control of intellectual property will continue to be the bookends of the music business, though a lot of jobs in-between may disappear.

Question: Will kids who grow up with Guitar Hero develop into artists who are more interactively creative?

At the trade show and at venues throughout downtown Austin, enterpreneurs and corporations boosted their commercial profiles by hosting music showcases and supplying free drinks and food. Among them was Wente Vineyards, a century-old California winery that sponsored an emerging artist promotion titled “Discover the Wine, Discover the Music.”

One often associates beer and spirits makers with rock ‘n’ roll, but Wente is appealing to a young audience by matching its wines to music. Karl Wente, a fifth-generation winemaker who is a musician himself, explained that the flavors and characteristics of his wines have inspired his songwriting.

Austin was the perfect city for a pairing of wine and music. The city is awash in wine bars and is the home of the Whole Foods chain. Among the stops Karl Wente made on Thursday was a showcase at Cork & Co. in downtown Austin. Matched to a selection of Wente wines were performances by such artists as Ian Hopkinson, Fierce Bad Rabbit, Family of the Year and Austin Hartley-Leonard.

The day ended on a sad note as news spread of the passing of Alex Chilton, a member of the Box Tops and Big Star. Memphis-born Chilton, who had been scheduled to play at SXSW, died Wednesday in a New Orleans hospital. Late word was that SXSW was trying to organize a tribute to the pop icon. Read more about Chilton’s death here.

For complete information about SXSW, follow this link to the conference Web site.

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