Urbane Cowboys

Like a lot of inspired musical schemes -- say, community radio stations such as KDHX or indie labels like Rounder or Righteous Babe -- Twangfest began in naive enthusiasm and a pocketful of change and devotion. Like a lot of DIY plans, it seemed doomed. In the end, survival, let alone growth, takes a reckoning with the exigencies of the market: finances, marketing, publicity, phone calls and faxes that no musical love can materialize. How, then, does a grassroots organization/event keep developing and keep its soul?

Twangfest 3 provides some clues. Sappy as it sounds, the three-day music festival, happening this weekend at Off Broadway, evinces the force of communal energy, and, dippy as it sounds, the networking power of the Internet. But even nonmainstream media like the Net have become commodified and structured away from the folks who might best use them and toward those with the capital to buy the links or pay off the search engines.

And yet Postcard2 -- an alt-country Internet mailing list that spawned Twangfest three years ago -- has flourished, partly because of the members' tolerance for -- often spilling into unsuspecting appreciation of -- some savagely contradictory musical styles: quizzical pop, old-time folk, militant punk, smooth country, retrospective swing, biker rawk. Twangfest (hell, alternative country itself) might have cashed it in by now. But the movement has gotten bigger in ways that count most. The musicians and the fans have become more and more receptive to a vast, messy musical horizon. (A browse through a recent No Depression will tell you that.) They've also come to understand what it takes to keep that horizon vital and meaningful.

This year, Nashvillian Marie Arsenault signed on as Twangfest's business manager, and though she had no experience in music promotion, her dollars-and-sense acumen has helped keep the event from buckling under ambition. "The biggest challenge for me," Arsenault says, "was that in making Twangfest a not-for-profit organization, we still had to find sponsorship money and do a lot of marketing and promotion, without making it all into a corporate-sponsored rat-fuck."

Tactics include an Internet auction (a la eBay.com), which was startlingly successful. "We made almost $3,000," Arsenault says, "which is more than we took in sponsorship money in three years. Meshel Watkins (who works for an Internet firm in Nashville and is a member of Postcard2) designed the auction site, and Chris Knaus (another P2 member) and I wrote most of the copy and went after donors. Jon Langford donated original artwork, his painting of Bob Wills signing his record contract, and that went for $175. There was a big bidding war on that. Everything was donated. Individuals gave us albums and videos; bands gave us T-shirts and CDs."

Twangfest has sprawled now to three nights, 15 bands, a core committee of eight and a cadre of subcommittees handling everything from band selection, the picnic and bowling tournament, Web-site design, CD production, booking, hotel reservations, publicity and finances. Twangfest has also gotten smarter: The nonprofit status has helped sway sponsors like Miller Lite and Schlafly Beer at the same time it has deepened the grassroots. There's no TicketMaster, no promoter taking cuts or calling shots. The Twangfest staff, many of whom play in alt-country bands, also decided to offer no repeat performers from previous years, a tough but mature and wise move.

"What I love about Twangfest is that you have bands like Buck Diaz, who play in Philadelphia, which has no twang scene, and they play in front of maybe 30 people if they're lucky. Then they come to Twangfest, where everyone is so excited. The Sovines will tell you: Playing Twangfest totally changed them and what they thought they could do. It gives them enthusiasm to go on."

With a pinched budget and a nonprofit organization spread, guerrillalike, around the country, Twangfest has gone on to receive attention from such places as the Wall Street Journal and break even three years running. And the music has gotten better, more adventurous, every year. Headliners for Twangfest 3 include the V-Roys, Dale Watson and, on Friday night, Damnations TX.

That last band is graced by some of the sweetest harmonies in any genre. Though their last names are different, Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly are full blood sisters, raised in a small town in the Adirondacks, outside Albany, N.Y. "All of us sisters sang together since we were young," Boone says. "It was all a part of our play -- playing with toys, banging on the piano. But we're not together because we're sisters. We're sisters who are friends. People are always curious if we fight, but I think, maybe, it's much harder to be outside of what Deborah and I have and then come into it and try to work with us. We are so familiar with each other, and every voice is designed a certain way. If anything, it's been much harder for me to sing with (guitarist) Rob Bernard."

Damnations TX's Sire debut, Half Mad Moon, ambles through the familiar twang-rock territory of kachinging guitars; swinging, rockabillyesque rhythms; and concise, hooked-in choruses -- all of which might make for good but ephemeral alt-country, were it not for the subtle weaving, lead-switching and compelling tones -- from a bluesy edge to a folksy lilt -- of the sisters' blood harmonies. The sisters' songs are also subtly charming and thoughtful, a feature, perhaps, of their residence in song-centric Austin, Texas.

"People here are very songwriter-oriented," Boone says. "No matter how you orchestrate your song, they're paying attention to the song itself. It's a pleasure if you're a writer. People will come up and say, 'Hey, you screwed up that line,' and you realize they've really been paying attention.

 
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