Darla Oates
Winner for: Female Vocalist
Maybe it's too common a comparison, but what the hell: Darla Oates is a living female version of Jeff Buckley, trilling and thrilling with a range so unencumbered it recalls the dramatic vocals of the late singer, with maybe a little Yma Sumac thrown in. Her genre is, well, there isn't just one; bluesy at times, ethereal and folky at others, she's always charismatic, which isn't really its own genre, but maybe it should be. Once a solo artist, Oates pretty much stuck to Mondays at Muddy Waters and a night here and there at The Cavern and a few other clubs, but now that she's got a full backing band, the gigs are more frequent and the venues bigger. It's doubtful, though, that even the expanse that is Gypsy Tea Room could contain her full-throttle dynamics. Oates' style revolves around her voice, as it would and should with any singer, but not every singer has the knack to write songs that harness her raw skill and still let it dip and dive into show-off runs now and again. Regular audience members have called her a virtuoso, and the general opinion agrees in spite of the varied crowd Oates usually draws. Maybe her choice selection of covers was the initial enticement (just listen to her version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes"), but Oates has proven herself as a truly original artist. And a truly original voice. --Merritt Martin

Jack Ingram
Winner for: Country
He could have been a contender and still is, go figure; how did Sony miss with Jack Ingram, anyway? Maybe at that label, you have to sue to be saved, especially on the country side of life. Consider: He's the literate songwriter with movie-star good looks, a city boy who crossed over to the country crowd long before it found its longneck saviors at the bottom of a cracker barrel, but he's so barely on Sony these days you're closer to being signed if you belong to the Columbia House Music Club. (The label released his new EP Extra Volts, and by released I mean they gave him copies to send out to press and sell at shows.) No mystery why the label treats Ingram like a rumor: He's a tough sell, because unlike his frat-house-dance-hall peers, Ingram believes you gotta work for the good time, that the party at the end of the week has to mean something other than the hangover forthcoming.

His body of work, which creases with a few extra wrinkles of wisdom with each release, suggests a man who believes in consequence and responsibility, guilt and accountability--and faded love mixed within, if there's room enough and time enough between the wonderin' and the worryin'. In Nashville they're writing star-spangled anthems, hackneyed hymns to spur radio play and album sales (If you don't buy Darryl Worley's new CD, you must hate America); in North Dallas, Ingram's writing about "Red, White and Blues" and feeling bad about feeling bad about not paying his dues. It's not quite his anti-pro-war song--such a thing's never before existed--but comes damned close; such are his talents he can make you think before you take that drink, which is pretty much the last thing the country audience wants (the thinkin' part, not the drinkin' thing). Then, Ingram's about this close to country these days and further distancing himself quite valiantly; if last year's Electric was a tenuous jump into the deep end, Extra Volts is where he goes under and holds his breath till his lungs start to burn. Next year he wins singer, songwriter and musician of the year; if he doesn't, then you must not love America. --Robert Wilonsky

I Love Math
Mark Graham
I Love Math
Kid Icarus
Mark Graham
Kid Icarus

South FM
Winner for: Rock/Pop
In the beginning, I completely dismissed South FM, stiff-arming them with a few one-liners and high-stepping away. I heard the malady instead of the melody, thought they were just another lowest-common-denominator band playing to the lowest-common-denominator crowd at, say, Curtain Club. I missed the point, heard but didn't listen, shot first and never got around to asking questions. But I was the only one: On the strength of their debut (think: Deftones making a straight-up pop-rock record), South FM (singer Paco Estrada, guitarists G.I. Sanders and Chad Abbott, bassist Doug McGrath and new drummer John Humphrey) has gone from bottom-of-the-bill to king-of-the-hill, from battle-of-the-bands busts to a deal with MCA Records.

In the process, they proved themselves to be, arguably, Dallas' most radio-ready band. Which isn't the slur it once was, not if you've heard "Dear Claudia" (a narrow second for Best Song) and "My Sanity," songs with choruses that burn themselves onto your internal CD-R on first listen, intense and tender at the same time, like a rabid dog with a thorn in its paw. For the re-release of Drama Kids, which hits stores May 20, MCA enlisted high-profile producers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Bad Religion) and Tim Palmer (U2, Pearl Jam) to remix those tracks (along with "Seven," another standout). By summer, they should be on the radio more than station IDs. And I'll pay attention this time. --Z.C.

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