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The blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah

It's a crazy-hot Saturday evening at the Dessau Music Hall, a dancehall in far North Austin. It's so hot that the sun sweats all over the people in the parking lot outside. The place is abuzz--even the mosquitoes know something's up; they're out in force. The people know it too. They saunter outside the concert hall, sweating and swatting and waiting to see this classic Lone Star guitar-picking, fat-chewing, noodling-with-the-folks gig.

Guy Clark and Terry Allen--two of this state's finest singers, songwriters, and storytellers--are on stage right now, and before the night is over, Allen's son, Bukka, will be cajoled on stage for a cameo; Robert Earl Keen, too, will get nabbed for a few ballads. Tonight's is the kind of show where just about everybody who's anybody in the Texas acoustic biz is in the audience or onstage, or both. It's the kind of gig a young, up-and-coming balladeer would beg to be part of.

Only, Ana Egge doesn't have to grovel. The 22-year-old, who opens for Clark and Allen tonight, is more apt to rely on her plaintive lilt and lush guitar style than a big-shot manager or a pair of kneepads (she has neither of the latter). Egge requires no supplicating; the girl is charmed. She's hardly old enough to belly up to the bar, and already she's opening for heroes and legends. Or headlining Austin's beloved La Zona Rosa. Or getting eight minutes of fame on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

In less than a year, Egge has become part of the Austin buzz, that rarefied realm where only the seriously charmed saunter from nowheresville to storyville. You know, The Buzz: that hot spot on the horizon of Texas music where mosquitoes don't sting, but instead bring record-label promises of milk and honey. So far, the major-label mosquitoes haven't swarmed Egge, but some industry folks insist that, given her banner year, that's just a dotted line away. As it stands, the singer-songwriter's 1997 debut CD, River Under the Road (co-produced by Egge and Asleep at the Wheel drummer Dave Sanger), is the only consumable piece of proof that Egge is as promising as "they" say she is. But there are lots of theys.

They could be the who's-who of acoustic bluebloods featured on Egge's CD: Mary Cutrufello (on baritone guitar), bassist Sarah Brown, Bad Livers banjo player Danny Barnes, guitarist Steve James, and Sanger. They might be Shawn Colvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Iris DeMent, who have all taken Egge on tour in the past year and a half. Or they might be Roseanne Cash and Eliza Gilkyson, who've each invited Egge to open dates this fall. And there are the theys of the Austin Music Awards, who voted Egge the Best Singer-Songwriter and Best Folk Artist of last year. That's a sensational array of endorsements for an artist who has no manager, no band, and no major-radio play, and who has only just finished writing the songs for her second, as-yet-untitled CD.

"It's pretty weird," Egge says one afternoon a few weeks after the Dessau Music Hall gig. She is sipping coffee at Flipnotics, one of her favorite Austin haunts, and talking about how things have happened so quickly and seamlessly. She's talking about how it's strange but good, and how her youth can only be a positive thing. And she's talking about Colvin, whom she credits in her CD's liner notes as a prime inspiration and patron.

"I owe so much to Shawn," she says of the Grammy-winning Austin transplant, who took Egge on a 25-date tour last spring. "I didn't do anything to deserve that. I just want to give so much back to her."

Sitting at the outdoor table--her short hair slicked back, her skin as pale and liquid as a field of midwestern wheat--Egge looks like a University of Texas student, or maybe a teaching assistant in the music department. But there is something simultaneously young and old in Egge, something in her voice, not her words, as she talks about her first encounter with Iris DeMent last year.

"She called out of the blue and was telling me she loved my record--I was absolutely, completely shocked, because I got her first album for my 16th birthday." The two carried on a phone friendship until the day in January when Egge worked up the nerve to ask DeMent if she ever needed an opening act. DeMent called later that week and offered to take her on tour in California.

A similar thing happened with Colvin, whose brother-in-law is Egge's booking agent. A die-hard fan of Colvin's, the New Mexico expat made a point of going to as many of Colvin's concerts as she could, staying after each performance to say hello and deliver a copy of her demo cassette. Eventually, Colvin got around to listening to the tape. Then she called to thank Egge for thanking her in the credits.  

"I was like, 'What?'" Egge says. "The very first time I heard Shawn play live, I thought: 'That's what I want to do'--to be able to play and sing and capture people as a solo performer."

Egge was raised by musician parents who moved back and forth between North Dakota and New Mexico. Ana and her three sisters learned early the sounds of Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, and the Grateful Dead; the Egge girls were steeped in music. Their father, Bill, sang in the St. Paul-based St. Olive's Choir, whose holiday concerts are broadcast live on PBS, and their mother, Linda, who once played in a polka band, taught music in public schools in North Dakota. When the family settled for good in Silver City, New Mexico, the Egges started the Down to Earth School, an alternative private school. And it was there that Ana found her passion--first, playing guitar, then playing mandolin and singing harmony in a band with her older sister. Then, she went back to guitar.

The second time on guitar, she says, "was a different world." After seeing Steve James perform a concert in Silver City in the early '90s, Egge says, she was blown away by the blues master's finger-picking style. She asked him to teach her, and the lessons changed her life. Finger-picking would become the vehicle by which Egge developed her own complex sound. And in a roundabout way, it would be the thing that brought her to Texas, where James was based, along with his partner at the time, bassist and songwriter Sarah Brown, who records for the revered folk and blues label Blind Pig. James and Brown convinced Egge to move to Austin in 1995. She was 18, and not at all intimidated by the town's fabled music scene.

"I thought of myself as a student coming here," Egge says. "To be able to learn from these amazing musicians, and ask people who are accessible, 'What do you do? How do you get shows?' There are so many great people here, and I just wanted to play guitar."

And so it goes--the classic story of the young dreamer who sets out for the place of lights and music, of blessings and buzz, and who sometimes finds it. In the case of Ana Egge, however, it's also the story of the young poet who dreams, like the seeker in "River Under the Road" (co-written by Jimmie Dale Gilmore), that there is water beneath her wheels. And when she wakes, she finds that, indeed, there is a river under the road, and the river leads everywhere, anywhere.

"You know, it's all out there," Egge says, expressing a sudden sense of exaltation. "That's the most amazing thing. It's there. You just have to work hard and learn from everything, but it is. It's all out there!"

And perhaps she's getting there. In her quiet voice, tinted with shades of North Dakota heartland and New Mexico desert, Egge communicates the same sort of honesty that's allowed Colvin and DeMent to make their way through the ranks. And while nobody's declaring Egge the next Shawn Colvin or the next anything, people such as Austin singer-songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Campbell--who invited Egge to perform in her famous "Bummer Night" series at Artz Rib House a couple of years back--sense something big in the young contender.

Though what, exactly, is "hard to say," Campbell muses, echoing the opening lines of Egge's song "Bless Me Mother." "There's something about her presence and her singing that draws people in. A lot of people try to do that and can't. It's just real honest, and I think that's real important to a lot of people in this business. In a sea of shit, to run into somebody like Ana is real nice. Aaah, maybe you shouldn't print that about the sea of shit. But it's true. These days anybody can cut a CD. Ana's certainly had some lucky breaks, but I don't know that it was because she was trying to climb to the top. I think it's because she was doing what she's supposed to be doing."

In describing Egge, Campbell points to a deep-rooted realness, an earnestness or humbleness that can't be faked. You sense it on stage, in the way Egge plays guitar, using her right hand as agilely as her left to make one instrument sound like two or three; in the way she stands alone up there, with nothing to catch her; and in the way she sings just as sweetly to Friday-afternoon shoppers at Central Market as to a small, tight-knit crowd at La Zona Rosa.  

But mostly, it's in Egge's voice, which has the forlorn certainty of a train whistle blowing in the dusk, moving off into some lightning-bug distance, carrying you to places you can't see but can sense. The memory of a lost love, for instance, as in "Bless Me Mother." Or the melancholy reflections of an ancient coal miner, as in "Made of Iron." Or the conflicting moments of ambition and self-doubt, as in "Talco Girl" (written by Steve James).

Indeed, when she performs, Egge paints the spaces around her with images of dying rural towns and would-be beauty queens. She sings of moving from one place to another and starting all over again. She croons of hurting and persevering, and growing up early. They're haunting melodies--so awfully, beautifully wrenching to come from such a young woman. Even Egge's mom's commented on it, asked her daughter why the songs are so sad, to which Ana responded that there isn't an answer. You just don't need to write when you're happy. Campbell, a veteran acoustic gal, advances a theory borrowed from Townes Van Zandt: "Townes said there are two types of music: the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah."

As with so many other, more exalted writers, the blues are Egge's gift, her blessing. In fact, she uses those words frequently in conversation: Blessed, lucky, fortunate. "I guess I'm just blessed to be able to write and play," she says. Or, "I've been so fortunate to meet the people I've met." Or, "I was pretty lucky to be raised like I was." That's the wise-old-woman welling up beneath Egge's youthful exterior. And that's why they can't wait to hear more from her.

Ana Egge performs November 5 at Club Dada.


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