Girls With Guitars
By Christopher Hess
OCTOBER 20, 1997: In the year of Lilith, it's not at all surprising that so much attention has been paid to women in music, especially those who fall into the category of singer-songwriter. The deluge of girls with guitars being signed to major label deals came on somewhat suddenly, perhaps as a response to the death of grunge and the impending failure of ska or punk or anything equally eager to step up and fill the empty pair of Doc Martens left on the doorstep of the next commercial jackpot. And while Lilith has and probably will continue to endure its expected share of obligatory negative backlash, the tour will nevertheless stand as an overwhelming success, and perhaps more importantly, as a signal that there is so much more to come. Here in Austin, we have more than our fair share of representatives of the girls with guitars movement. The present phenomenon may be unique because of the ratio of recent arrivals, but it's not hard to see this as somewhat reflective of the general population -- in that nobody else is really from here, either. But those who came here were drawn to this place for this very reason -- Austin is that musical Mecca. And as the people come, so do the ideas and the influences and the lives that shape the writing of songs and the sound of a scene. The sound of this scene is so disparate, though, that it's difficult to call it by that name.
What the hell are girls with guitars? Singer-songwriters, really. And just what is a singer-songwriter? The question is simultaneously inane and provocative, the answer obvious and unattainable. You hear about them all the time, you can see them, at least in Austin, every night of the week, but it's difficult to find a stylistic thread connecting one to the next. Who is a singer-songwriter? The term applies to the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but what about Ozzy Osborne? He writes songs. He sings them. Dr. Dre? Selene Vigil? You'd probably get your head bit off, a cap in your ass, or a big fat lip if you tried to tell any of them they were singer-songwriters.
A well-established local legend of the genre and someone who probably doesn't mind being referred to as a singer-songwriter is Nanci Griffith, born in nearby Seguine and an Austin resident from the age of one month. Griffith played in town either alone or as rhythm guitarist for other people from the time she was a teen until she moved to Nashville in the early Eighties. And from the release of There's a Light Beyond These Woods (1978) to this year's widely heralded Blue Roses From the Moons, she's enjoyed a growing national and global recognition that, given the sheer numbers of musical product marching forth from the city limits, few have been able to attain. To her mind, the fact that she's a woman doesn't really enter the equation.
"I've never paid much attention to the difference between male and female singer-songwriters," says Griffith. "We were all just making music and trying to make a living at playing and writing. I played every Sunday night at the Hole in the Wall for five years, from the time that it opened. Doug [Cugini, the owner] literally kept groceries on my table."
Though the Hole may have changed its format somewhat over the years, the permanent home for the genre, the Cactus Cafe, remains true to form. Grif Lundberg, who's been booking the Cactus since 1981, also claims a certain degree of gender-blindness. "I don't delineate between male and female artists in booking the club," he says. "I try not to pay attention to that. During the early Eighties, though, it was difficult for female singer-songwriters to find an audience. It was very much a niche market, so folk music kind of went underground."
But is being a folk musician the same thing as being a singer-songwriter? Not exactly. According to Lundberg, "It has to do with the acousticality of it -- it's usually acoustic-based music. If the songs can stand alone acoustically, without a rhythm section -- if the song is the focus and not the music -- that's a big part of it. Also I think the lyrics should be able to survive on a piece of paper. If they speak to you, tell a story, they can lend insight and make you think. If they can be considered poetry, really."
Though on a national scale the figure of the singer-songwriter may seem to disappear and resurface from time to time, here in Austin the transitions are more an ebb and flow. It never goes away entirely, though the ratio of exports does shift. Which is a big part of the reason so many singer-songwriters make their way to the Capital City.
"Austin is turning into a major metropolis," says Lundberg, "but it's still a laid-back city to live in. It's beautiful here, and the Hill Country is close. I think that lends a lot of inspiration. Ten years ago, the cheap cost of living was a magnet for artists. They could come here and afford to live on tips and concentrate on their art. Now, though, that's changed. Day jobs can kill the muse. People still flock here, especially musicians, probably because the 'Live Music Capital of the Whatever' slogan has gotten around. And once they get here, they find that in Austin they get more press attention than they would elsewhere. In Dallas and Houston, they'd get lost or ignored, but here you'll generally get noticed at least. And even if you're not that good, if you still have a ways to go, there are still many places you can go to play."
Mostly, though, it's just plain comfortable here, which can be both a draw and a repulsion, depending on your higher purpose. From the very beginning, Griffith knew her distinctively folkabilly music had to travel. "It was always important to me that my music cross the Red River," she says. "I knew that I had to leave Austin, because a lot of people did not. The music didn't travel, people in other places didn't know who my heroes were. I want to get it out there to everyone."
And by leaving, artists like Griffith and Lucinda Williams did find a larger audience. A member of the next generation, Kris McKay, shares the wanderlust, though to her mind there is more to it than too much comfort. "I've left here before, I went to New York with a major label deal (Arista). It was a good experience, but coming from here I found it to be lonely and impersonal there," says McKay. So she moved back to Austin, got work, and continued to work on her music. "I was checking groceries at Whole Foods with a major label record deal," she laughs.
Likewise, artists such as Kelly Willis and Sara Hickman have been able to take their music to a wider audience, though their renown remains focused in the Lone Star State. Recently, fellow Too Many Girls alum Abra Moore has experienced a breakout on a national scale. Her second album, Strangest Places, got her on the Lilith Fair tour and gained her radio play throughout the country, due largely to the team at Arista Austin. "They've been really good to me," she says. "They've got people working for me here in Austin as well as in New York and L.A. It makes all the difference in reaching that many people."
Still, even after the arenas, her favorite room is the Cactus Cafe. When you grow accustomed to a room like the Cactus, few things could be so intimate or pleasing. It's the recognized headquarters of the scene, home base for all things acoustic.
"The Cactus always sounds good," says Ana Egge. "It's always a very respectable crowd. I love a rowdy crowd, but I can't yet overcome it on stage. I love the Continental Club, but if the crowd doesn't know me, I'm kinda lost. The Cactus is different. It's perfect for acoustic music. I'm always so relaxed there."
Egge came to Austin about two years ago, and things have been happening fast. She's an insightful writer, a pure singer, and her debut album, River Under the Road, shines with the assistance of some of Austin's finest, including six-string luminaries Danny Barnes and Mary Cutrufello. Her first gig in town was a Bummer Night with local mainstay Sarah Elizabeth Campbell. The audience contained a reviewer from this paper, who subsequently spent half his review space on Egge's set. "It's amazing, that was my first gig here," Egge laughs. "And, very shortly after my record came out, my first tour was with Jimmie Dale Gilmore," she adds, amused to no end by her streak of luck.
Just weeks after turning 21, Egge is none too quick to commit herself to anything long-term. "I feel very young, and that I want to live other places -- there are so many places I want to go. But I do want a home base, you know? And I'm so grateful to everything the people I know here have done for me. Austin has become everything I thought it would be. There's so much support from the other artists, there's lots of cross-over from different types of music."
"It's truly amazing," says Crowley, "completely overwhelming, but it feels like exactly what should be happening. It's really eerie walking through your own dream, suddenly being in the middle of the life you've been after. It's a long road, and I'm at the very beginning of it, so it's very exciting."
Anchorless, originally put out by Dallas indie label Carpe Diem, was picked up by Atlantic and re-released with two brand new songs. Though only out a few weeks, it's not a rare moment to hear the first single, "Hand to Mouthville," on the radio. The songwriting is unflinchingly honest and confessional, which Crowley sees as essential to establishing a bond with her audience.
"The songs are very autobiographical, very personal," explains Crowley. "I've been writing for a long time, and I'm definitely observing what's going on around me, but that's from a very personal place. I think that because I'm being really honest about things, people find my songs really relatable. Sometimes I'm surprised that people relate so much to them -- like 'Rebellious' is so detailed, so many little intense pieces of me, but I think that if you're honest, people pick up on that and understand it."
Though she writes for the most part in isolation, Crowley attributes much of her success to the bonds she's formed and the collaborations she's taken part in since moving to Austin. "When I was busking down on Sixth Street, I became friends with the owner of the Hang 'Em High Saloon. He'd stop and watch us play and we'd talk. He was just a really nice guy. He said that when his club opened he wanted me to play there and stuff, said I needed a demo, and since I couldn't afford to make one, the guy just gave me $500 to make my demo. It's really unbelievable. The club is so country that I can't even play there. I mean, he did it for no other reason than he likes my music and he's a great person. That's the kind of people you come across in Austin."
The other half of the "us" was Crowley's partner in busking, Renée Woodward, a Fort Worth native who moved to Austin about five years ago. She and Crowley met at an open mike at the now-gone Chicago House and have remained the best of friends since. In conversation, neither uses the other's name; each is referred to as "my best friend."
The unique thing -- the distinctly female thing -- about the current wave of this movement is that, without exception, no one hesitates to express a near unconditional love for their new home, nor is there any semblance of a competitive vibe among any of these women. If anything, there's an enthusiasm and support offered up for other artists that approaches sisterhood.
Besides the immediate camaraderie, there's also an unabashed appreciation for those women who made it possible for the current generation to thrive. "They paved the way," says Woodward. "It's people like them that show the strength of women -- they helped not only themselves, but music as a whole. Women have a lot of influence in music right now, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm sure they didn't do it on purpose, but they did it for us and for the next generation. And seeing that those people have become professional and known and respected in what they do gives the next ones that hope. It seems like such an impossible road, but no, Lucinda Williams did it, Nanci Griffith did it. Kelly Willis, Kacy's doing it -- she's taking that step -- they have a lot to do with why I have the confidence that I can do it."
While they acknowledge and respect their spiritual forebears, they also claim independence from them. "The thing about the Lilith tour is that women tend to get lumped into a group or category," says Griffith, "but no, Fiona Apple does not sound like Sara McLachlan and no, Emmylou Harris does not sound like Jewel. They do something completely different. As women, we all get compared to the artists that came before us. I get compared to Joni Mitchell all the time and I have nothing in common with her creatively. I love her music but there's no similarity in guitar style or lyrics -- I have more in common with Buddy Holly than I do with Joni. If anything good comes out of Lilith it'll be that that won't happen as much."
Perhaps what is needed (and has always been needed according to most musicians) is a new language, a new frame of reference in which individuals are allowed to remain so and are not categorized for the sake of convenience or scene-specific coherence. An expanded vocabulary that focuses on music and leaves out social and political connotations -- something that goes beyond merely gender.
"There's a problem, to my mind, with the terminology of 'singer-songwriter,'" says Trish Murphy, native Houstonian and recent Austin transplant. "It connotes a certain style of music and it shouldn't. Being a singer-songwriter shouldn't lump you into folk or country or something. I mean, what about Elvis Costello?
"I'd like to see more diversity, more songwriters of many ilk and styles getting their stuff out there. Like if I ever left my band, I'd be tossed into the mass grave of over-contemplative self-indulgent goo-ga -- that's what I'm determined not to be. Michael Penn said that verses are nothing but a launching pad for a huge chorus. It's about bringing your own style to something, but still speaking a universal language. I'd much rather write a song lots of people can relate to instead of forcing lyrics that can't stand up on their own. I think a singer-songwriter creates a delicate and inseparable relationship between lyric and melody -- they have to depend on each other."
Murphy's first independent solo release, Crooked Mile, has received much local applause, and a recent Arista Austin showcase could provide the next step to her journey to bigger things. She has quickly gained respect within the music community, but is hesitant to assimilate or get too comfortable.
"I'm still a newcomer and an out-of-towner. For those reasons I wouldn't expect to be absorbed into a community of people who made this scene what it is. In another sense, the scene includes radio, writers, clubs, and in that way I feel I am a part of it. You have to create it for yourself -- you can't just show up and integrate. The scene here asks a great deal of you; it's an infrastructure you've gotta give a tremendous amount to. The artists nurture the scene as much as the scene nurtures the artists."
Whatever the definition or the linguistic boundaries of singer-songwriterhood, there are a number of new female faces enjoying recognition for a lot of hard work and creative influence. And instead of being another trend to slip too soon into the discount bin, this new generation of girls with guitars (Trish Murphy, Abra Moore, Kacy Crowley, Rene Woodward, Ana Egge -- to name just a scant few), like the generation before them (say, Kris McKay and Kelly Willis), and the generation before that (Nanci and Lucinda) signal that, like other practitioners of fully developed and traditionally inspired musical forms, they have always been here and are not going anywhere.
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