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Hot Country Punksters

In Austin, the obsessively self-referential city that calls itself "The Live Music Capital of the World," there is an unwritten book of frequently apocryphal notions about its music scene. One of the major fancies that turns out to be true is that it's a place where most anyone with the gumption to get on stage can be heard. A corollary to that presumption is that it can lead to bigger things -- a local rep, an audience and maybe even a record deal -- although this tends to be unusual.

But for The Damnations TX, Austin has been everything that legend suggests. Singing and songwriting sisters Deborah Kelly (guitar) and Amy Boone (bass) have rapidly risen in just a few years from enthusiastic amateurs to club-packing Sire Records pros.

Kelly says their success has "always been a big surprise and kind of a mystery." "I see a lot of good music in Austin," she says. "I don't know what it's like to be out there in the audience seeing us, but I guess there's something appealing there."

Modest words for an act that has succeeded at one of the hardest musical tasks in Austin: actually getting an audience. Even the Capital City's alt-pop hitmaker Fastball was playing to only a handful of fans after releasing its first major label album. With a plethora of clubs and enough aspiring musicians to populate a small city, Austin on most any night has an embarrassment of, well, if not riches then at least original music offerings. It's common to catch a band with a buzz and find oneself in sparse company.

Yet The Damnations TX was a strong local draw well before it recorded its debut, Half Mad Moon, which comes out February 16. And it's not just that the band has found an audience, but rather, it actually has fans -- enthusiastic followers who crowd the front of the stage, zealously doing a slightly spastic jig that Kelly calls "the get the bug off me dance."

Yes, Damnations TX shows in Austin have become a hoedown-cum-revival for the younger set, succeeding where so many Austin acts have failed: in not just sparking that ephemeral buzz, but actually generating real excitement. With an attack that's more polished country-punk than the currently common and often mundane stylings that fall under the rubric of alternative country, the band plays with adrenally charged elan. Backing up that enthusiastic approach are songs with smarts and heart, the bittersweet vocal harmonies of Kelly and Boone and wiry electrified picking by guitarist Rob Bernard, onetime member of the Dallas-based Picket Line Coyotes and Austin rockers Prescott Curlywolf.

Although their approach has a distinctly Texan-roots music stamp, Kelly and Boone actually grew up in the heart of the upstate New York rust and truck-farm belts. The progeny of a civil engineer father and schoolteacher mother, they were weaned on everything from Bob Dylan to Stax and Motown soul. But within the circumscribed horizons of the upstate hills, there was little to do but "drive out to the cornfields and drink and smoke pot," as Kelly recalls.

(As to why these sisters of the same parents have different last names, Deborah explains, "I changed mine to Kelly because we have Kellys on my mom's side and Kellys on my dad's side. I just wanted to have that name instead of Boone, y'know, Debbie Boone. The joke got to be annoying after a while.")

After their parents divorced, first Kelly and then Boone followed their mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico. "When I was in New Mexico, I kinda thought of music as a fun thing to do, and I was thinking more of going to college," Kelly explains. "But college is kinda expensive. And after things started working out playing music, things started shifting the other way, and I started thinking that maybe college was the thing that was unrealistic, and music was maybe a little more realistic."

"We always messed around with [music]," Boone says, "but didn't feel the songs were good enough to show around publicly."

Recalls Kelly: "I had a boyfriend in Santa Fe who hung out with some musicians in Austin, people that kinda went back and forth and talked a lot about Austin. I was ready to leave New Mexico and go somewhere on my own. I liked it instantly. I came here just to check it out and stayed a year. I liked the fact that it was a college town and a music town through and through with lots of different clubs and all different kinds of clubs. I had a punk rock band when I first came down. It was real inspiring to be in Austin, so I just stayed."

Boone soon followed her sister. "She was loving Austin, so I came down to visit her here and really liked it."

The sisters first ventured into public performing at open mike nights at Chicago House, a now long-gone performance space. But it was only after Kelly started bartending at the Electric Lounge, an indie-scene rock club, that she saw her dreams become tangible. "It was really a great way to meet other musicians," she notes. "I would talk to the musicians; they would sit at the bar and drink their beers."

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