Emmylou Harris/Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis/Abigail Washburn/Band of Heathens, SXSW 2011, March 17, 2011

SXSW runs a tight ship — your set had better be finished in time to set up the stage for the next act. But when you’re country royalty like Emmylou Harris, exceptions are made.

Harris was given free reign over her allotted time, and she used it to perform her forthcoming new album Hard Bargain in its entirety. Album producer/guitarist Jay Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reeves, who did triple duty on drums and keyboards/bass, joined Harris, who informed the audience the trio on stage is the same on the album. Reeves in particular did an impressive job juggling two instruments, keeping time on a minimal drum kit while providing bass lines and pads on the keys.

Hard Bargain puts the focus once again on Harris’ songwriting. As she told the audience, she’s fond of a sad song, and the quiet set she performed is chock full of songs she loves. It’s the kind of aching beauty that permeated Red Dirt Girl, an album that I thought was heavy-handed with the aching and the beauty.

A question for select members of the audience — why go to a quiet acoustic show if all you’re going to do is yak yak yak all through it? I probably could have paid more attention to the music if youth and extroversion didn’t combine in such idiotic fashion. Not all of us love to hear you fuckers talk.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are the super-couple of Austin’s country music scene. I think Robison is a really strong songwriter when he’s not trying to feed the Nashville hitmaking machinery, and the duo’s set could have ended after he took "Wrapped&quot out for a spin. But Willis is so milquetoast, it makes me question the local audience who puts her in such high esteem. Willis’ voice is unremarkable, her songs less so. This passes for popular in Austin?

Japan Nite taught me a valuable lesson about SXSW — if there’s something you want to see, you’ll have to slog through artists you may not want to hear. But every so often, you’ll encounter someone who turns your head. That evening’s head turner was Abigail Washburn, a banjo player from the Patty Griffin school of singing. Even though I showed up to Antone’s early to see Harris, I was also looking forward to hearing Washburn, and she didn’t disappoint.

By the way, the margaritas at Antone’s are wonderful, and they got me goosed up enough not to mind Band of Heathens, the kind of country band so common in Austin I could have thrown a rock toward Cedar Park and still hit them. It’s nothing personal against Band of Heathens, who actually seem like personable fellows on stage. It’s just that I’ve lived in this town too long to puzzle out the popularity of Bob Schneider and Los Lonely Boys, and Band of Heathens sounds like the kind of band Austinites would loooooove …