Lewis was raised in a devoutly religious household, quit going to church when he was 14, got married to a God-fearing girl when he was 19, then she split after six months. "I gave the whole thing a try, and it didn't work out, so I left the whole thing," Lewis says--religion and marriage being "the whole thing."

Now, it's the whole thing that informs his work, whether it's the baptism nightmare of "Backslider" or the ominous overtones of "Possum Kingdom," in which Lewis asks a woman if she wants to be his angel and you're never sure if he means his sweetheart or his murder victim. "Do you wanna die?" he repeatedly asks, clarifying the frightening point that is the very essence of the Toadies' music.

--R.W.

NEW ACT
OLD 97's

Rhett Miller walking away with the Music Award for best new act is a little bit like television winning an award for best new invention. To some of us, it seems like Miller's always been around, the ubiquitous teen folkie whose good looks and pleasant charm landed him regular gigs at Dave's Art Pawn and inside the pages of Seventeen magazine (the latter of which contained Miller's description for the Ideal Girl--"grooviness is essential"). He has literally grown up in public, matured from sensitive-boy-with-guitar to pop-rocker (with Sleepy Heroes) to power-balladeer (Rhett's Exploding) to a damned fine singer-songwriter. May still look like that 18-year-old goy-wonder, but his voice carries with it a deeper resonance, a more profound understanding of the words he writes and sings.

Where he once chirped in a vaguely British accent sweet songs about God and girlfriends (he once wrote tunes titled "Seashell Girl" and "Cicada Song"--request them now), as the main vocalist and exuberant frontman for the Old 97's, he now communicates his romantic pessimism in a bittersweet twang. On such songs as "St. Ignatius," "Wish the Worst," and "Dancing with Tears" off the band's 1994 debut CD Hitchhike to Rhome, Miller comes on like a country boy raised on the Everly Brothers--his voice clear and pretty, finding the right harmony with his longtime partner, bassist Murry Hammond. (Indeed, the Old 97's isn't Miller's project alone: Hammond, a longtime train-song fanatic; electric guitarist Ken Bethea; and drummer Philip Peeples round out the band.)

Make no mistake: the Old 97's are a pop band that aspires to be a country band (and not, as some would insist, the other way around)--Uncle Tupelo, perhaps, without the coalminer and Carter Family references. And so there's the Merle Haggard cover (the least convincing track on the record, if only because no one would believe anyone in this band turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole), the Bob Wills favorite "Miss Molly," the fiddle and banjo and mandolin, and the "Tupelo County Jail" bonus track that's some kinda bonus. Either way you cut it, though, the music's always folk, especially when Miller and Hammond do their acoustic duo thing at the Gingerman or the Barley House.

When the Old 97's first formed, there were those around town who eyed the band with much skepticism, as though this were another attempt for Miller to find some used clothes that fit him well this week. But more than a year later, as the Old 97's continue to evolve into a band that picks up where Killbilly left off, fusing traditional and the very modern, it's safe to say Miller's finally grown into his wardrobe.

--R.W.

FEMALE VOCALIST
Kim Pendleton of Vibrolux

MOST IMPROVED ACT
Vibrolux

Kim Pendleton sits slumped over in a wooden chair, looking and sounding very much like a woman with a bad head cold. Behind her sit the members of Vibrolux, each quietly preparing to perform a rare acoustic set in an even rarer atmosphere--Borders Books and Music in North Dallas, farther removed from Deep Ellum than the 10-minute drive would suggest.

Without the distance of a stage and the darkness of a nightclub to hide behind, the band--four members augmented by a fifth, a 19-year-old classical guitarist who works with Vibrolux guitarist-songwriter Paul Quigg at Speir Music--is forced to give perhaps the most intimate set of its career, in a bookstore during the daytime. To further exaggerate the moment, more than 150 people--many long-time Vibrolux fans, others kids who can't get into the clubs or parents who wouldn't be caught in Deep Ellum on a weekend night--crowd around the group, literally sitting at the feet of the woman who would be local music's past and future queen.

From the moment Quigg strums the first note on his acoustic guitar and Pendleton opens her mouth, nasal congestion or no, it becomes readily apparent to those who've heard the band a hundred times or even just once that this is a truly special moment. Though Pendleton repeatedly apologizes for her stuffed head, her voice rings harsh and beautiful through the P.A.; it breaks at times, only bends at others, but always it's haunting and perfect. If Spyche's is the voice of an angel, Pendleton's is possessed by a demon--the same one that made Billie Holiday such a wreck, the same one that made Frank Sinatra so sad, the same one that drove Janis Joplin nuts. Pendleton is at once a jazz singer and a blueswoman, a rock star and your best nightmare.

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