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The Casual Life

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"I-10 Westbound Blues," about driving the stretch of highway between New Orleans and Houston, has become Kim Carson 's theme song. Carson, who is debuting her live album, Live at Tipitina 's, on Wednesday, now has two bands. In New Orleans, she has her long-time band, the Casualties (Dwight Breland, Theresa Andersson, Doug Waguespack and Paul Guidry), and in Houston she has a purer honky-tonk band, Buffalo Speedway. The songs are the same, but the realities of growing up and making music sometimes force unusual decisions. "This is kind of an audio snapshot of where we were because we 're starting to go different directions," Carson says. "Theresa 's thing is taking off so she 's got less and less time for the band. Doug 's getting married, and the Casualties, their roots are here. They 're not going to want to go to Texas for three months."

To document the night as fully as possible, Carson preserved Jo "Cool" Davis ' intro, stage patter, even her introduction of the band during a cover of Willie Nelson 's "I Gotta Get Drunk." "Hopefully you get the feeling you 're there," she says. Originally, Carson had planned to assemble a disc that was the best of her songs and put together an album of country classics later. "But a lot of the covers came out so good that we put a lot of covers on it," she explains. "Wake Up and Smell the Whiskey" particularly captures that combination of heart and showbiz that made the great country singles both affecting and popular.

Live at Tipitina 's also features three songs from her Calle de Orleans CD. "I did that album in Nashville with some of the players I 'd been playing with in the East," she explains, "but it had a whole different feel than the Casualties. We had our own arrangements, so these are our versions of those songs." Played by the Casualties, "Honky Tonk Girl" feels more natural than the Nashville version, though "Not a Big Deal" loses some intimacy and sadness as the band is more of an equal and less obviously there to support Carson 's vocal.

"When we were traveling in the RV, it cost more in gas than you 'd pay for your house," she recalls. To get around that, she has played around the Gulf South by herself or with a number of collaborators, most recently Ryan Donahue, but dancing music needs more than a guitar and a dobro. "That 's been my dilemma," Carson says. "I can keep paying bills playing solos, duos and trios, but to get to the next level, I need the band." As financially challenging as it can be, "I 've got to bite the bullet and make a commitment," she says, adding that she plans to put together a small band to tour. "We 'll mostly have to stay in Texas to make the right money, but you can build your crowd over there, then come back this way. Over there, they think I 'm a Cajun and call us &140;swampy-tonk. '"

Fortunately, American roots music, including bluegrass, Western swing and honky-tonk, are coming back into vogue. "There 's a big resurgence in the South where honky-tonk music is radical, and it 's mostly rich, college kids," Carson says. In New Orleans, those people are into funk and jam bands, though evidence suggests the audiences are merging. During Jazz Fest, Galactic is playing a show, followed by a late-night set by the bluegrass Yonder Mountain String Band. "This is their rebellion," she says. Thanks to aggressive CD reissue programs, recordings of artists such as Tex Williams and Doc Watson aren 't quite the underground gold they once were, but the music has become too underground for the radio.

Carson worked in country radio until 1999, working at WNOE before moving to Houston 's KKBQ, where she stayed for a short time. "I was reprimanded once for dumping a Shania Twain song -- we played one every hour -- and instead putting in a Tammy Wynette song," she remembers. "A week later, Tammy died and they came in to tell me that I could play her now." The downfall of contemporary country, according to Carson, is that "they listen to country radio DJs who are not country. The only reason they 're in country is because top 40 flipped in the early '90s." The growth of Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting led to more and more stations being programmed from central offices, so many pop programmers found their way into country. "These guys who have been playing Michael Jackson all these years, what sounds better to them -- Shania Twain or Patty Loveless?"

The CD-release party show at Tipitina 's on Wednesday night is going to be a celebration of the Casualties. "We 're going hit the stage right at 9," she promises. "We 're going to do the CD, then we 're going to take a short break and have guests and former Casualties sit in."

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