Folk Hero

The world is full of folk singers half desperate to convince you that their vocal and acoustic guitar stylings contain some nugget of inviolable individuality that makes their perspective compelling enough to justify keeping your wandering attention. And every once in a while, out of that more or less indistinct morass emerges a singer who convinces you of just that, without even seeming to try. Such a singer is Austinite David Rodriguez, and if that talent has earned him comparisons to folk godhead Townes Van Zandt and a loud round of "genius" accolades, I can't find a single reason to begrudge him the glory.

Rodriguez hasn't always been a folk singer. He established his presence in that field in the late '70s and early '80s, playing with such songwriting compadres as Butch Hancock and Lucinda Williams, but then dropped out of sight for eight years to serve time as a political activist and a criminal lawyer. When he returned, disillusioned, to the folk circuit, he carried his real-world inspirations with him and quickly re-established himself by recording a stunning live set at Austin's Chicago House. Initially released as an independent cassette called Man Against Beast, and later on CD as The True Cross (Dejadisk), the songs collected here use Rodriguez's urgent, ringing guitar style and deeply soulful voice to spin yarns of class inequity, border tensions and plain old love that aren't easily forgotten.

This is Tex-Mex music, but not in any sense you're used to. Rodriguez's songwriting style is pure country folk -- non-ethnic and about as exotic as chicken-fried steak -- but his lyrical perspective as a Mexican-American is unflinchingly direct. A song like "The Third World" might be considered confrontational, with its lyric: "I been called Danny, I been called Dave and Roberto and Freddy Fender and Jose and, 'Mr. Rodriguez, will you help me spell your name?' Though the white man owns the land he will never understand the words: compadre vamos a platicar." But when the singer's voice is so obviously honest, the sentiment transcends confrontation -- which is precisely that elusive quality of the best folk music, and the one that sets Rodriguez in a league all his own.

-- Brad Tyer

David Rodriguez performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 20 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 528-5999. $5.

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