Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller on stage at the New West Records party at Threadgill's in Austin, Tex., on March 14, during South By Southwest.(Photo: Mike Snider)
USA TODAY - Max Gomez had a mind-blowing moment at South By Southwest.
The up-and-coming singer-songwriter took an outdoor stage that had already been warmed-up by Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.
"I can say I had them open for me," he laughed. "That will never happen again."
In truth, the New West Records showcase Thursday afternoon at Threadgill's, had no clear pecking order, but the label clearly has high hopes for Gomez. His River Phoenix-John Mayeresque good looks and weathered-beyond-its-years voice surely warrant their interest.
Songs such as "Rule The World" and "I Should Have Run From You" display a directness and depth that deserve attention from fans of Americana music and beyond.
"Two years ago I came out here (to SXSW) and played a dive bar and a fella named Garry Briggs came and caught half of my last song (Rule the World) which is sort of a song that people in the record business and fans and friends alike have sort of known and thought could be a hit song," said Gomez, 25, in an interview before his set. "He caught a little bit of that tune and that is when he started talking to me. It just happened naturally."
At the time, Gomez was hawking homemade CDs with his autograph on them for $20. As New West's senior vice president of artist and repertoire, Briggs changed that.
Gomez recorded the Rule the World album, which was released in January, with friend and producer Jeff Trott, who's co-written songs such as "If It Makes You Happy" with Sheryl Crow. Gomez is taking a break from touring after SXSW and told the crowd "I just shot a video with Kiefer Sutherland."
The label has a stable of iconic songwriters, each of whom has their own history with the South By Southwest Music Festival.
Thompson, who performed several songs from his recent release Electric, participated in one of the first SXSW festivals. "I was here year one or two when it was less like a zoo. I think I was an independent artist at that point, back in the eighties or 1992."
He came this year because the label asked, said Thompson in an interview on the Gibson guitars bus parked in the restaurant's parking lot. I get reports, usually scary reports, that it is scary and you should stay out of Austin for that particular week," he said with a smirk.
For an artist such as himself, SXSW participation is not necessarily "integral," he said. "The idea was this was for unsigned bands and you strived to be seen by the right people. The industry has changed a lot."
Miller recalled playing in Lauderdale's band at the festival's second year in 1988 and noted that the event's co-founder Louis Jay Meyers was "this guy we used to play with who was a banjo player and went on to start the Folk Alliance."
A regular at the festival, Lauderdale has "missed four or five since 1988," he said. "At the beginning, they were very strict and it was only people who didn't have (record) deals and you could only play one time. ...Now they really pack things in."
"The concentration of international huge acts and mid-level acts and up-and-coming acts," he said. "Right now, this week, this is the capital of that right now."
With the ability to self-promote, "being an unsigned artist these days might not be not a bad position to be in, really," Miller said. "Although, don't get me wrong, I love my label."
He and Lauderdale played a loose, lively set of songs from their album Buddy and Jim, released four months ago. After a quick sound check, Miller chuckled and said, "Let's just play. None of this is going to help."
Hiatt came to Austin to play two New West events and to sit in with daughter Lilly at one of her gigs with her band The Dropped Ponies. SXSW, he says, "has gotten bigger and bigger and huger and huger. It looks pretty damn enormous to me."
The fact that all the attention isn't on unsigned acts is not necessarily a bad thing, said Hiatt, who is working on a followup to 2012's Mystic Pinball. Major headliners such as Green Day and Prince popping into Austin results in an influx "of a lot of people wanting to hear all that music," he said. "It can only help the new folks who are trying to get something going."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)