More than skin deep
Now that Nashville is only slightly less beauty-conscious than the fashion industry--to make it in pop country these days, you gotta be a cute li'l ol' thang with a perfect figure, bright eyes, flawless hair, and a stunning smile (the girls have to be prettier still)--it would be easy to misunderstand Kelly Willis, the winsomely beautiful singer-songwriter from Austin whose informal four-song demo Fading Fast was so good that A&M Records decided to release it.

It's easily dismissed as more hype from an industry already trying to convince us that Wings' Crystal Bernard is a country singer (I don't think so), at least until the disc hits the changer. Few full-length albums have four songs on them as strong as the quartet that graces Fading Fast, and few artists can combine an appreciation for the stomp, twang, and yodel of country's past with the immediacy we've come to expect from '90s music. On Fading, Willis conjures up Gram and Emmylou, "Rocky Top," and Kitty Wells in Doc Martens and leaves us looking at a Nashville Skyline that includes the silhouette of Austin's Capitol dome. Players on the EP include red-hot heroes of Americana who do not lend their talents lightly--most of Son Volt (the Boquist brothers and Jay Farrar) and Gary Louris of the late, great Jayhawks--the kind of affirmation not available through car phones and playlists. Add to this kind of cachet Willis' skillful writing and branchwater-pure voice, and you're looking at music that's worth listening to, regardless of beauty or genre.

Jesse Dayton swims in waters equally crowded--Texas guitar synthesists whose work combines all the by-now standard influences (country, swing, cajun, conjunto, yadda yadda yadda)--but hasn't yet hit the resonant maturity that Willis has achieved. Like Willis, the guys who play with Dayton show him to be no slouch--Floyd Domino, Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm, Johnny Gimble--but his writing is not as inspired as his choice of sidemen. Dayton relies on cliche and standards, but can't yet deliver the standbys in such a way that they escape that vague sense of the heard-before.

Still, his picking is sharp and his voice has an affecting sincerity (think Blasters-vintage Dave Alvin) that seems to promise that Dayton is still a work in progress. It's a pledge that compels you to play his new album, Raisin' Cain, more often than you would an uninteresting effort, and if fulfilled, holds good things for his future. Add the extra boost that comes from live performance, and he's quite entertaining; at least he doesn't look like he just strolled off the set of an Obsession For Cowpokes commercial.

--Matt Weitz

Jesse Dayton opens for Kelly Willis at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams Saturday, December 21.

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Matt Weitz