Gotta tell you – the weather’s great here in Austin, Texas. Thursday was a bright, sunny spring day that topped out at about 80 degrees. And it was too nice outside to stay cooped up at all the official events of South by Southwest (SXSW) so we played a little hooky.
We did our official bit by attending Dave Grohl’s keynote address but the sunshine streaming through the glass at the Austin Convention Center was just too alluring. So we split, and stumbled upon something really great.
It was an outdoor party by the New West Records label at Threadgills, a restaurant built on the site of the old Armadillo World Headquarters and run by some of the same people. New West showed off some old and new members of its artists’ roster.
New West has been in business since 1997, when founder Cameron Strang signed Billy Joe Shaver, Delbert McClinton and the great Austin musician Stephen Bruton. In the years since its inception, New West has found a place in the hearts of lovers of roots music, as it has signed legends like Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, the Old 97s, Ian Hunter, Dwight Yoakam and many more.
Strang has since left, and partner George Fontaine Sr. is now the label’s president. We didn’t catch up with Fontaine Sr., but we managed to corner George Fontaine Jr., who also works at New West and runs Normaltown Records, an affiliated label.
“We want to bring people quality music and quality artists,” said George Jr. “We had been known for signing more heritage artists, but in recent years we have signed some new artists and hopefully build them up to be the next generation of Steve Earles and John Hiatts.”
Some of those new names performed at the party. Austin Lucas showed off his folk/bluegrass lineage with some fine tales of sin and hellfire, and history and death. We got off to the steel guitar-and-twang of Daniel Romano, a Normaltown artist who has a Gram Parsons vibe and the straightest looking band this side of Merle Haggard’s Strangers.
John Hiatt greeted everyone with a short solo set, kicking off with “Thing Called Love,” which Bonnie Raitt turned into a thing called a hit back in 1989. He got around to a new tune from an album he’s working on, which he promised would be out around the beginning of next year.
New West has had great success with the “roots” artists but Fontaine Jr. said the label’s on the lookout for artists that will expand the range past a strictly Americana category. “We have really broad tastes. We have a number of different people that make up the A&R team and everyone likes different stuff,” he said. “What we’re doing now is seeking artists who write their own songs and have that unexplainable, intangible quality to them.”
One of those artists is Ronnie Fauss, a Dallas-based singer. He was playing an in-store set at Houston’s Cactus Music that Fontaine Sr. attended. “I was doing a cover of a Slobberbone (a North Texas band who was on New West) song and (Fontaine) came up after the show and told me how much he liked it and how he signed them and worked as their A&R guy,” said Fauss. “We got to talking and hit it off immediately. A year later I signed and a year after that my record (I Am The Man You Know I’m Not) came out.”
Max Gomez is another new artist on New West. “Two years ago I went to SXSW on a whim and played a little dive called the Chuggin’ Monkey. I played my whole set to 20 people who were there and during my last song in walked a guy named Gary Briggs. About six months later we’re talking about making records and it’s a dream come true and I couldn’t be happier about how I got to make it,” said Gomez.
Steve Earle is the pattern, and his new album The Low Highway (out April 16) has Fontaine Jr. excited, as does the recent signing of Austin singer/songwriter Patty Griffin. Will New West also sign Griffin’s new husband and “driver” (guy named Robert Plant)? “Ah, that would be nice,” Fontaine said.
New West has a Plant associate – Buddy Miller, who co-produced and played on the ex-Zep’s last studio album Band of Joy. Miller, a great singer and songwriter and a shockingly good guitarist, is promoting the new album Buddy and Jim, a collaboration with veteran Nashville singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
The Buddy and Jim band easily stole the show at the New West party, mixing some rousing originals with well-chosen covers including “Down South In New Orleans” (Johnnie and Jack) and the rockabilly stomper “The Wobble” (by Jimmy McCrackin). The originals rocked, too: “I Lost My Job of Loving You” and especially “Vampire Girl” featured some sizzling guitar from Miller.
More great guitar work came next, from one of the greatest guitarists ever. Richard Thompson, who many people feel could be second greatest British rock guitar player, played tunes from his new Electric. And electric they were – from the Celtic stomp of “Sally B” to the rocking “Good Things Happen To Bad People,” to the just great tunes “Salford Sunday” and “Stoney Ground.”
Austin is just the place for this all to happen for New West. The label has a very successful series, “Live in Austin TX,” which features performances from the venerable TV series “Austin City Limits.” Although the time for introducing new performances has run out, New West is reissuing some of the old performances on vinyl and as CD/DVD combo packs.
Easily the most successful release New West has issued is kind of odd: it’s only the second movie soundtrack offered by the label, and it doesn’t feature too many artists on New West. It’s the Crazy Heart soundtrack, issued in 2010 and sent into the stratosphere by the Oscar-winning song “The Weary Kind” by Ryan Bingham.
“When we agreed to put it out it had been shopped to every major label. No one even knew if the movie would see the light of day,” said George Fontaine Jr. “Then Fox Searchlight bought the movie and the offer came across Cameron Strang’s desk to do the soundtrack and he jumped on it.
“Buddy Miller was involved in some of the producing. The late Stephen Bruton, who was a friend of Cameron’s, was sort of the musical inspiration and wrote some songs himself and coached Jeff Bridges throughout the movie. So it sort of made sense that it came to us. An Oscar also helps.”