For those who haven’t had the pleasure, South By Southwest (otherwise known as SXSW) is the yearly arts festival held over the last week of winter down in Austin. Initially a music convention prowled by eager publicists trying to keep their underpaying jobs, burned out music journo/ blogger types glumly flapping their plumage at each other, and aspiring Next Big Things playing their makeor-break gigs before dispassionate and usually sozzled industry tastemakers, the thing has grown to include technology, graphic arts and assorted other things that people gather in conventions to talk about, watch, twiddle with, talk about, listen to, talk about … etc., etc. But it’s still mainly a music thing, and while we wouldn’t begrudge one of America’s greatest musical meccas its yearly pridefest — nearly orgiastic in the sheer crush of talent and near-talent — we couldn’t help but wonder if it’s sort of crazytime for the locals, especially the local players.
So unsurprisingly, we were told it might be a bit of a trick to get Christina Marrs on the horn last week, with the convention in full gallop. Founder and grande-dame of the Austin landmark Americana franchise Asylum Street Spankers, we conjured images of her and her bandmate Wammo sneaking around spiking the punch or hosting some freakishly costumed court like some vaudevillian Gomez and Morticia, freaking out the trendy L.A. industry types with Bix Biederbecke covers in five-part harmony and washboard.
But actually, we caught her at home, quietly waiting for Wammo to get back from the store (“He can’t manage a trip to the store without calling me four or five times,” she says).
SXSW has kind of lost its zing for Marrs. “When I was a little younger, I would get around and check stuff out, maybe head over to the convention center, maybe go to a few panels. Me personally, now I just go to our own showcases and call it quits. There’s a lot of people who want to see the same things you do, so good luck getting in. There’s just so many thousands of more people in town, it’s craziness down there.
“It’s funny — most of the music biz people don’t even see a lot of the music, they’re just there for the parties. I mean, this is our 14th SXSW… and you can see what it’s done for us,” she laughs.
“We did meet our Japanese label guy at SXSW one year. … That was probably the biggest thing that came out of it for us, getting a Japanese label and getting to tour Japan a few times. ‘Course, that was also the year I had to leave Tom Waits’ show early to go play my own showcase. We had to walk out after about half his show. … That was extremely hard to do; I think we inched out backwards the whole way. We had our bandmates set up our equipment ahead of time and then we ran all the way to the venue.”
The Spankers have little to prove anymore after a decade and a half of deep-roots Americana, braided into musical theater, post-hippy vaudeville, social commentary and a little goodold-fashioned, cheek-slappin’ secular raunch. Secular? Well, maybe a break from that on their latest CD, God’s Favorite Band, a nearly plausible speculation for a collection of (mostly) gospel tunes (e.g., “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” an old Louis Armstrong nugget from the ’30s, a roadside diner read of “Last Way of the Mile,” a slightly honky-tonk “Wade in the Water,” plus the slightly woozy and offcatechism “Volkswagen Thing”) harkening back to the days when the band played its now renowned huevos ’n’ worship “gospel brunch” at La Zona Rosa, a local Tex-Mex joint.
She gets asked about it a lot, but pointed out to us, “Now, there’s all kinds of gospel brunches around town, but I’m pretty sure ours was the first.”
But gospel’s more than novelty for Marrs.
“It’s the genesis of all American roots forms. It’s the very beginning of everything.
“I really like it. It’s hard to listen to gospel music without tapping a foot. … It’s so harmony-rich, and it’s just such a joyous musical form, even if you don’t subscribe to a dogma or get the whole message out of it. I love it. I love tango music, too, and my Spanish is about good enough to order dinner.”
We noticed on their website a public call for a new mando-multi-instrumentalist, hardly a shock for a band that, since the departure of co-founder Guy Forsyth a decade ago, has churned through nearly two dozen players.
We couldn’t help but ask if Marrs was a tough boss.
She laughed. “I think … when I think back on all the people that have come and gone, you know you’re dealing with human beings. Some people just don’t like being on the road, especially with the kind of schedule we’ve been keeping, 180 gigs a year, most of those outside of Texas. … We replace someone about once a year.
“At this point, it’s just so old hat for us. I remember the first person that quit the band, I was devastated. ‘How can we ever go on?’ It’s funny because it was our bass player, and at this point I can’t even count the number of bass players we’ve had.
“And we’ve had to rebuild this band from the ground up. We got to the point where it was just me and Wammo, and we were about ready to pack it in. But we thought, ‘hey, why can’t we put this back together’. So we did.
“And that was 10 years ago.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to band members Christina Marrs and Wammo as husband and wife.
On the Bill:
Asylum Street Spankers play Oskar Blues on Monday, March 29. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. 303 Main St., Lyons, 303-823-6685.