By Richard Skanse
(LSM Aug/Sept 2010/vol. 3 – Issue 5)
PART 1 — Kevin Welch
The Great Emancipation
Songwriter’s songwriter Kevin Welch spent 30 years in Nashville before following his son Dustin and daughter Savannah down the music road to Austin.
“Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk
Gandhi was a soldier, Hendrix was a monk …”
— “Come a Rain” (Kevin Welch)
Kevin Welch was barely into his teens the first time he encountered the music of Woody Guthrie. And by Welch’s own admission, Woody kicked his ass. “Clobbered me pretty good,” is how he puts it matter-of-factly today.
Four decades down the line, the scars from that long-ago whooping are still fresh. It’s not that Welch, now in his mid-50s, looks particularly beaten or battered; a little weathered and worn, perhaps, but he still sports a lean frame, healthy tan, and the kind of chiseled good looks and long, Indian-warrior hair that’s seen more often on the covers of romance paperbacks than Americana CDs. But cue up his latest album, A Patch of Blue Sky, and it’s clear that Guthrie’s Dust Bowl howl still haunts him. For evidence, one need only sift through the ashes “Marysville,” Welch’s stirring eulogy for an Australian town ravaged by arson-sparked bushfires. “I am a stranger wherever I go,” he sings at the song’s beginning and end, “but I see what I see, and I know what I know.” Or, earlier on the same record, behold the epic sweep of “The Great Emancipation,” a widescreen portrait of hardscrabble perseverance and faith in the face of bitter adversity:
“Hard times here, hard times over yonder
Don’t the stars shine pretty my love
Blood runs deep, souls run deeper
They rise as high as heaven above.”
“That line, ‘hard times here, hard times over yonder,’ occurred to me when I arrived in Australia last year and there where horrible floods in the north, and then the bush fires broke out in the south,” Welch says. “It was floods up here, and fire down there.” But also — and this is the part that counts — somewhere in the endless skyway above that great depression in between, the break in the clouds promised by the album’s title track.
Look closely, and you’ll find similar threads ribboned throughout Welch’s entire catalog, both on his solo records and on the three acclaimed albums he’s recorded with longtime friends Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin. The same Woody folkways, in fact, are traveled by many of his peers on the contemporary roots music and Americana scenes. But for Welch, they all wind back to that fateful summer around age 14 when he first discovered not only Guthrie, but Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “I ran into them both within the space of days,” he says, “and it really hit me hard.” In part because Welch lived just 30 miles away from Guthrie’s old place in Okemah, Okla., but also because the young teenager’s earliest memories of home were of the road. Welch was born in Long Beach, Calif., but his father was an airplane mechanic whose job moved the family from airbase to airbase around the country.
“My dad had a crew of guys and we used to travel with their families caravan style, a great long line of cars and trucks going down the road to the next town where we would attempt to find someplace for everybody to live for two months,” Welch recalls. The routing, he adds, was generally terrible: Del Rio to Seattle to Cape Canaveral to El Paso, that kind of thing. “We estimate that we’d lived in something like 70 different places by the time I was 7.”
That was when his father was promoted to the home office in Oklahoma City, and the ride jerked to a stop. As his family planted roots for the first time, Welch came down with an acute case of un-motion sickness. “I remember it kind of slowly dawning on me that we weren’t going to travel anymore, that that was that, and it was really unsettling,” he says. “But we lived just a few miles from Route 66, and my dad explained to me that if you went left and stayed on the road, it would go all the way to Los Angeles. And if you went right and stayed on the road, it would go all the way to Chicago.
“That was very comforting for me,” Welch says, “just to know that we were still kind of hooked up.”
Music would be his ticket back to the highway. It carried him not just to Nashville, where Welch spent years dutifully trying to support a family by writing songs for mainstream country radio, but around the world, from Norway to the Land Down Under to, most recently, deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. But somewhat curiously, although he still tours frequently (including two back-to-back trips to Italy earlier this summer), his scenic, six-acre spread in Wimberley is a model of inefficiency in the quick escape department. Tucked high up on a hill at the end of a one-lane road, a lazy dog walk away from Casa Ray Wylie Hubbard but at least 30 minutes away from the nearest interstate, it’s very much a sanctuary you retreat to, rather than run away from.
All that said, though, he still more than a little “hooked up.” He’s still got lots of friends, contacts and colleagues back East in Music City, U.S.A., and plenty more an hour away in Austin, “Live Music Capital of the World.” A Patch of Blue Sky, released in mid-June on the Texas-based Music Road label (Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Sam Baker), is holding strong on the Americana chart. And just two winters ago, a host of the biggest young names on the Texas/Red Dirt music scene recognized him as a living legend (a la previous honorees Leon Russell, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark and neighbor Hubbard) with his own tribute concert at Musicfest in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
And if all of the above still makes him only the third most happening and buzzed-about musical Welch in Texas right now, well, you better believe he’s pretty a-OK with that, too — and not just because son his Dustin and daughter Savannah were both cool enough to play and sing on their old man’s record. Having seen what he’s seen and knowing what he knows, Papa Welch can vouch that the kids are very much all right.
* * *
Years before he’d ever even heard of Woody Guthrie, Welch was already bound and determined to make music his life.
“By the age of 10, I had already told my family that I was going to be a musician when I grew up,” he says with a laugh, reeling in the years over a glass of La Croix sparkling water in the kitchen of his little cabin in Wimberley. “All I ever heard was, ‘Oh, that’s a hard business, son,’ so I set a trap for myself. I remember consciously thinking, ‘If I tell people about this and mouth off about this, it’s going to make it harder for me to give up and fail. It’s going to make me stronger.’ And I just never looked back. I never had to wonder what I was going to do with my life.”
In fact, he pretty much knew from age 7, when he first heard his mother’s copy of Elvis’ Golden Records. “That was when we were still traveling — we were living in Pennsylvania at the time, and she brought that home and it just killed me,” he enthuses, dashing into his living room to grab the red-sleeved vinyl keepsake. “I mean, look at this thing: it’s got ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘Treat Me Nice,’ ‘All Shook Up,’ Heartbreak Hotel’ … it’s a massive record. And I was just a little guy, but man, I knew this was the shit.”
His folks agreed to let him take guitar lessons, but the teacher they found wanted to start him out on mini accordion first because of his small size. “It was just supposed to be for a couple of months, just so I could get familiar with the scale and kind of learn how to read music,” Welch explains. “But before the 10 weeks were up, my father got his transfer to Oklahoma and we were gone. But being a little kid, I thought, ‘OK, but I’ve still got three weeks of accordion stuff I’ve got to finish up before I can start playing guitar.’ So when we got down there I asked my folks if they would sort that out for me. And they found this sax player named Ray Norman, and he started coming over to the house so I could finish my accordion training. It never even crossed my mind that I didn’t have to anymore!”
His new teacher didn’t really play guitar, though, so Welch ended up sticking with his little squeezebox for another three years — and loving it. “I actually got pretty good at it,” he says. “I started entering competitions — my dad would drive me to Colorado for them — and I played hard stuff, like jazz and Brazilian bossanova and classical and Bach. I was into it! But by the time I turned 10, it was increasingly obvious to me that the cool kids were all playing guitar. So I set the accordion down, and I have to say, I can barely play one now.”
His not-really-a-guitar-teacher guitar teacher Norman was able to show Welch a few basics — enough, at least, to play the licks to “What I Say” and “Day Tripper.” By then, though, Welch knew other kids who played, and his neighborhood was lousy with garage bands on every block, so it didn’t take him long to watch, learn and catch up. In high school, he strapped on a Stratocaster and battered his eardrums playing in a rock power trio, as one did during the late ’60s heyday of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“It was really, really, really loud,” he says. But not loud enough to drown out the acoustic strains of early American music he’d recently discovered via his come-to-Woody awakening. He never did cotton to any of the Peter-Paul-and-Mary-type folk stuff, but there was plenty of other rootsy musical turf to roam and explore. Along with the potent, timeless songs of Guthrie and the more recent fare of fellow Okies Merle Haggard and Leon Russell, there was the burgeoning cosmic cowboy movement brewing down in Texas, the nascent alt-country of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Welch took a particular shine at the time to bluegrass, which more or less brought his college career at Central State in Edmond, Okla., to an abrupt end.
“I took some music courses and some regular college courses, and I really loved the music theory courses,” he says. “But I only lasted one semester, and that’s when I met Pat Long. He was just hanging around being a ne’er do well, playing bluegrass music with his buddy Tim Brown, who played upright bass. I hooked up with those guys and dropped out of school after one semester.”
Welch and Long became fast friends, launching a musical partnership that lasted throughout the ’70s. Both as a duo and a band — originally New Rodeo, which later evolved into Blue Rose Café — they hit the honky-tonk circuit throughout Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona and Louisiana with a vengeance (Welch explains that they didn’t bother with Texas so much on the assumption that there were too many bands down there already). They played a mix of their own originals and stuff by other Oklahoma songwriters, with Welch happily leaving most if not all of the singing to Long. “Pat was a way, way better singer than I was,” he says. “And he was the main songwriter of the two of us. I was pretty much just the guitar player or sidekick guy, really.”
Early on in their time working together, Welch and Long had the good fortune to find a mentor (and bottomless well of good songs) in a fellow named John Hadley. A Renaissance man along the lines of Lubbock-reared maverick Terry Allen, Hadley taught art at Oklahoma University in Norman during the school year and spent his summers in Nashville writing songs for the publishing company Tree International. They’d always heard good things about Hadley, and became close friends, but Welch admits that their initial introduction rubbed him the wrong way. Hadley, upon hearing some tracks New Rodeo had just laid down at a studio in Norman, candidly suggested to Long that the band’s guitar player (Welch, who’d already left for the day) needed to try playing his solos in the same key as the song. “That pissed me off,” Welch laughs, recalling Long’s awkward phone call conveying the message. “I said, ‘Really? You tell John Hadley he can kiss my ass!’ But I cooled off after a while and went back to the studio, and sure enough, he was right — my solo was horrible and I recut it. Then we asked him to show us some songs, and he shows up with a stack of reel-to-reel tapes. He played us I’d say about 100 songs that day, and they just killed us. To this day, I still have never heard anything like a lot of the stuff he showed us then. And so after that, I just started following him around like a puppy dog, and he kind of took me — and Pat — under his wing.”
It was Hadley who eventually got Welch to Nashville, inviting him and Long out to meet some of his publishing connections. The duo made a handful of return trips over the next couple of years before finally moving there for good in ’78. Welch was 22 years old and newly married to the future mother of his three children, Jennifer Patten. He had a publishing deal and a hunger to write, but no designs whatsoever on landing any kind of record deal — especially not as a solo artist. As far as he was concerned, he was still just the quiet half of Welch and Long. But their partnership would not make it through the new decade.
“That environment isn’t for everybody, and eventually, it didn’t really suit Pat,” Welch says after a moment of thought when asked about Long. “After we moved to Nashville, Pat kind of slowly started backing off, and he wasn’t playing that much. And I waited a long time, thinking, ‘I can’t do anything without Pat.’ But it finally got to the point where I had to do something, so I started taking side gigs as a guitar player for other people. And I don’t know … Pat just kind of got out of the groove and started doing other things. We remained very good friends, but things didn’t go well for him for a long, long time, and I think he got progressively more depressed by it. In later years, he finally went to school to learn to be a long-haul truck driver, and he’d just started doing that and I had a lot of hopes for him. He had moved back to Tulsa, and I was really hoping he was just going to take over and resume his place in Oklahoma, because he was such a great singer … such a cool voice, and a really, really good guy … ”
He eyes stare down and through the table in front of him, and he falls quiet again for a spell that feels a lot longer in person than it does when later played back on tape or when transcribed onto a page. Finally he takes a deep breath and exhales the rest with a weary sigh. “But on one of those trips in his truck, he took his life in a little motel room somewhere.”
That was in April 2003. That August, Welch and the rest of the surviving members of Blue Rose Café reunited for a one-off show in Norman. It was billed as a tribute to Long, and was recorded for a CD and DVD to sell as a benefit for his two young daughters. Welch says he’s never listened back to the show, though, because having to sing his late friend’s songs that night was one of the hardest things he’s ever done in his life.
“So,” he sighs again, looking back up and clearly eager to change the subject, “that’s what became of Pat.”
* * *
What became of Kevin in Nashville was this: To supplement his modest income as a professional songwriter, the former quiet half of Welch and Long eventually stepped up to the mic to front his own bands, and, by the end of the ’80s, found himself signed to a major-label record deal. He also landed a handful of cuts on albums by A-list Nashville stars, co-founded a pioneering artist collective/indie label and established his name as an internationally renowned singer-songwriter. And though his marriage was over by the time Warner/Reprise released his self-titled 1990 debut, Welch and his ex-wife remained on friendly terms for the sake of their children, Dustin, Savannah and Ada. When Savannah was born, he co-wrote a song with his friend and mentor John Hadley called “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” about wanting to live long enough to see his children grow; he got not only that wish, but also, courtesy of Moe Bandy’s cover, a Top 10 country hit, to boot.
None of the above ever made him rich, or even close to it. But still, all things considered, his 30-year stint in Nashville was a pretty good run. And to the man’s credit, he seems very much aware of this — at least enough so to methodically chase nearly every Willie-worthy “Nashville was the roughest” anecdote in his arsenal with a Karma-soothing shot of Zen. To wit: His frustration is palpable when he recounts the time Warner Bros. declined to offer any kind of support for his 1992 appearance on the Tonight Show, as the taping didn’t coincide with a current radio single. Welch, who subsequently ended up paying for his band’s travel and hotel expenses himself, calls the incident one of the “last straws” of that particular business relationship. But you’d still have an easier time squeezing blood from a stone than a truly disparaging word out of him about anyone he worked with at the label.
“I loved those guys,” he says unreservedly. “And I’ve always had more good things than negative things to say about my experience with Warner Bros. Nashville in those days. I signed with those guys because I was convinced that they, more than the other labels in town, would let me do what I wanted to do. And that turned out to be the case. For two records, they left me entirely alone. In fact, I got to produce my second record, Western Beat, with my drummer and partner, Harry Stinson.”
How he ever even ended up making records in the first place still seems to perplex him, though the gist of it boils down to a little peer pressure from Steve Earle.
“When I first moved to Nashville, it’s like all of a sudden, that was when Barbra Mandrell was happening, and the Oakridge Boys and T.G. Sheppard — a lot of singers and bands that I didn’t really relate to,” Welch says. “So I really felt like a fish out of water, and I didn’t have any desire at all to make a record or even to be a part of the recording scene. But about 10 years went by, and Steve made Guitar Town, and then he started talking to me about making my own record. Meanwhile, Kieran Kane started having top 10 records with the O’Kanes, and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett had come to town and just, all of a sudden, thing started turning. Steve always called it the ‘credibility scare.’ People were unplugging their shit in L.A. and New York and all over the place and coming to town, because Nashville was happening.”
The music was unpredictable and uncontrollable, two qualities that that were anathema to the radio-driven industry. Which is why it only lasted for a fleeting 15 minutes or so, and then — pfft! — Randy Travis, king of the new traditionalists, brought order and conservative sanity back to Music Row. “And that’s when I finally showed up for the party, still this weirdo with long hair,” Welch says with a laugh. “‘Hey, I’m here! Where is everybody?’”
His style may not have been particularly mainstream, but it’s worth noting that, even in the thick of that brief rebel insurgence, Welch was never really a maverick just for the sake of flipping the system the finger. He’d just learned from experience that his best work — and his most commercially successful work, to boot — came out of being true to himself. During his first 10 years in town, when he depended on his publishing deal for 99-percent of his income, he tried his damnedest to abide by the advice given to him by legendary songwriter Harlan Howard: “Just write for the hit parade, kid.” The problem was, he sucked at it. He managed to land enough album cuts (i.e., non-singles) to stay under contract and put food on the table, but his most successfully songs were, tellingly, ones he originally wrote for himself — like “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young” and, prophetically, his very first cut: “Everyone Gets Crazy Now and Then,” which Roger Miller took to No. 36 in 1981. Years later, after Miller’s death, the Highwaymen mistook the song as a Roger original and recorded it as a tribute on their 1995 album, The Road Goes on Forever. “Waylon called me, kind of laughing, and said, ‘Man, you’re not going to believe what we did,’” Welch says.
It was only natural, then, for Welch to feel so strongly about needing his creative freedom when he started making records of his own. And his handlers at Warner Bros., their conservative, bottom-line judgment apparently impaired by the heady buzz of that late-80s bender the whole industry was experiencing, indulged him. But when neither album managed to produce a breakthrough hit, things changed.
“By the third record, they decided that they were going to have to get involved more — you know, choosing the songs and getting more serious about having radio hits,” Welch says, his tone suggesting no trace of bitterness. In fact, he sounds not only understanding, but almost apologetic. “Frankly, I had been kind of quietly sabotaging a lot of what those guys were trying to do for me, because I didn’t want to get to where they wanted me to go. The idea of being on the CMA show just totally gave me the willies. It may be a personal problem or something, but I just couldn’t see being a part of that whole thing.”
Of course, Nashville’s cup runneth over with plenty of other dreamers who very much do want to be a part of “that whole thing,” so the label wasn’t going to burn any more time or money trying to change Welch’s mind. Released from his contract with Warner Bros., Welch was free to consider other options, including, he says, an offer for anther major-label deal from Tony Brown, the famed producer, label exec and talent guru whose credits included — among many others —Earle, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell. He was also looking into smaller, independent labels, like Sugar Hill and Rounder, when he realized a couple of his close friends (and sometime bandmates) were in the same boat.
“Kieran Kane had just come off Atlantic Records, and Mike Henderson had just come off RCA,” he recalls. “I think Kieran had been on every label in town at one time or another. And none of us really wanted to simply swap labels, because we knew that we’d just be stating over with the same thing again. Nashville was very, very radio controlled. So that’s when we decided we’d just to totally sever those ties and make our own record label.”
Two more friends, drummer/producer Harry Stinson and violinist/songwriter Tammy Rogers, were welcomed in on the ground floor, too. They set up shop in Kane’s house, pooled together their scraps of recording gear for a sort of potluck-style home studio and christened their new venture Dead Reckoning Records, after Kane’s 1995 solo album (the label’s first release). Since then, Dead Reckoning has released some two dozen albums, including Welch’s last three (1995’s Life Down Here on Earth, 1999’s Beneath My Wheels and 2001’s Millionaire) and three teaming Welch and Kane with multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin (2004’s You Can’t Save Everybody, 2006’s Lost John Dean and 2007’s Kane Welch Kaplin).
They weren’t the first artists to launch their own wholly independent label; among others, John Prine (Oh Boy), Jerry Jeff Walker (Tried and True) and Ani DiFranco (Righteous Babe) all had a few years on them in the screw-the-middle-man-and-release-it-yourself game. But they were still ahead enough of the curve to stand out as an oddity, especially in the shadow of Music Row.
“It was a weird thing to do at the time,” Welch admits. “But what we found out was that, by and large, there was a tremendous amount of support for Dead Reckoning in Nashville. I think everybody wanted it to succeed. It was a vicarious kind of thing for all these other music business guys in town, to see us just be total wild asses. Behind their office doors, there was a lot of, ‘Wow, that sounds like fun — more power to you.’ Because obviously we weren’t going to be a threat, but we were still making a statement.”
The fact that this statement never made a blip on the country charts didn’t matter, because that had never been the intent. Unlike the castle-storming coup d’état of the ’80s credibility scare, the Dead Reckoners had simply declared their independence from the mainstream in order to quietly explore other territories. Touring opportunities beckoned overseas in Europe and Australia, while on the domestic front, an emergent Americana scene was spreading from coast to coast; Welch’s third album and Dead Reckoning debut, Life Down Here on Earth, hit record stores the same year as the premiere issue of No Depression.
Incidentally, Welch opened Life Down Here on Earth with a song he co-wrote with Hadley called “Pushing Up Daisies.” Six years later, the song quietly popped up again on a record called Scarecrow by another Okie of some renown: Garth Brooks. It wasn’t released as a single, and Scarecrow — Brooks’ last new release to date — would not be a blockbuster on the level of the superstar’s Soundscan-busting juggernauts of the ’90s. But all things considered, landing an album track on a No. 1, multi-platinum mainstream country record was still a nifty trick for a songwriter who had already turned his back on all that, setting his sights on a brand new horizon.
* * *
“Let me watch my children grow
To see what they become
Oh Lord don’t let that cold wind blow
Till I’m too old to die young.”
— “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young” (Scott Dooley/John Hadley/Kevin Welch)
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, Kevin Welch looks very much like the most contented man on earth. Never mind the fact that it’s gotta be 100 degrees in the shade, and he’s spending what was supposed to be a day off enduring a long outdoor photo shoot that has him decked out in a vest, tuxedo tails and top hat ensemble that only a sadist would deem appropriate for Texas in mid-summer. None of that matters, you see, because this just happens to also be Father’s Day, and he’s spending it goofing off with all three of his grown children at home underneath a patch of clear blue sky. You could tar and feather Welch right now he’d still be one mighty happy daddy.
The three “kids” are all pretty copasetic, too, though the youngest — 22-year-old daughter Ada — readily yields the spotlight to her father, brother and sister with a none-too-subtle trace of detached, albeit affectionate, embarrassment. If they all piled into a car together right now and drove into downtown Wimberley, still dressed in their present Carney family finest, Ada would probably be the first to duck her head down at the sight of curious onlookers.
“Most kids rebel from their family by being a musician,” she says. “My situation’s the opposite.”
Indeed, whereas her brother Dustin and sister Savannah have both embarked on music careers of their own of late, Ada has so far managed to subdue the Welch family showbiz gene. Fresh out of college in North Carolina, where she was studying fashion marketing, she’s actually only in town for the weekend — en route with her boyfriend toward an anything-can-happen fresh start in Santa Cruz, Calif. Kevin concedes that she’s clearly the brains in the family. “The rest of us would all love it if she stayed here to take care of us,” he says with a laugh. “And she knows that — which is why she’s going to Santa Cruz!”
For the moment, though, the other three Welches are doing just fine fending for themselves. Twenty-nine-year-old Dustin, the rocker in the family and arguably the most naturally gifted musician in the bunch, is close to finishing the follow-up to his ferocious 2009 debut, Whisky Priest. He also has a starring role on his father’s new album, playing banjo and resonator guitar and co-writing the hauntingly beautiful “New Widow’s Dream.” Savannah, 25, only very recently crossed over to music from acting, but she’s off to an auspicious start as a founding member of the all-girl roots band the Trishas, one of the hottest up-and-coming acts to come out of Austin in the past five years. Their debut EP, They Call Us the Trishas, ends with a stunning cover of “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” a song that Savannah and bandmates Kelley Mickwee, Jamie Wilson and Liz Foster first sang together at their very first gig together — a Kevin Welch tribute concert at MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Kevin himself was in the audience that night. And if you think hearing his daughter sing the song he wrote when she was born hit him like an atom bomb, you don’t know the half of it. “It was beautiful, just beautiful, to hear the girls sing that song,” he says. “Savannah … I could hear her throat catch — she almost started crying. And I’ll tell you what, man, there were a lot of old cowboys in that room that were crying. It was a pretty strong moment.”
It always is. Welch notes that, although he rarely performs any of his songs that have been recorded by others, he’s long made an exception for this one. “I’ve always done ‘Too Old to Die Young,’” he says, “because even though I’m not exactly a religious guy, I do feel like that’s a pretty powerful thing to ask for night after night if I’m onstage someplace. And when I sing it, I mean it. Because I can still distinctly remember how mortal I felt right when Savannah was born — that realization of, ‘Man, I can’t die now … Just let me live long enough to watch these guys grow up.’
“Of course, it’s funny now because I’m just about to the point where I almost am too old to die young,” he says a quarter-century later, two months before his 55th birthday. “And, I pretty much have seen my kids grow up. So I don’t know … that song might have run its course for me. I need to write another one pretty quick.”
PART 2: Dustin Welch
Dark Son Rising
When his first child, Dustin, was born, Kevin Welch vowed that his son would have a guitar by the time he was 5 years old. Alas, when the kid’s fifth birthday came around, times were tight and the odds weren’t looking good. Making matters worse, it was right around Christmas, too. But then, like a scene out of some kind of Nashville Country Music Holiday Special, the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard heard Welch singing his broke-at-Christmas blues at a Music Row party, and decided to play Santa. After saying his goodbyes, Welch was stopped at the door by a receptionist. “Hey,” she told him, “Harlan left you this envelope.” Inside was a hundred dollar bill.
“My dad took that hundred dollars, and he bought me this horribly out-of-tune, practically unplayable mandolin,” Dustin says proudly, 24 years later. “And I just wailed on it. I had the time of my life with it. I was always showing it off to my friends, thinking I was so cool — even though I had no idea how to play it at all.”
You better believe he had a clue or two by the time he got his “first actual, by-God guitar” three years later, though. It’s the same guitar — a Wards catalog Gibson from the ’30s — that he still plays today. “When I was first learning how to sing and play, one thing my dad and I did together was, every night instead of getting a bedtime story, I’d ask him to teach me a new song,” Welch says. “It might be one I had in mind or one of his, but every night I’d learn a new one. And the next day I’d work it up and show it to him and he’d go, ‘You’ve got it. What’s the next one you want to do?’”
Most of the songwriting tips he gleaned from his father came later, though, or via osmosis. “We didn’t grow up with everyone just sitting around the parlor pickin’ and doing big family harmonies,” Welch explains. “That was the last thing on the agenda.” In fact, he credits his dad with giving him space to develop his own musical identity — although the stuff Dustin was into growing up was hardly in line with what other kids his age liked.
“I’d plant myself in front of CMT for hours on end, just basically taking notes, but all through my teens, I would never watch MTV or VH1 — I couldn’t stand that shit,” he says. “The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix, I was like, ‘What on earth is this? It sounds like cats mating!’ And I always hated Nirvana. Now I know how to appreciate all that stuff, but when I was 14 or something? Absolutely not.” Instead, in addition to country, Dustin favored classical or jazz. “I was way into Monk and Mingus and all these kinds of jazz cats early on,” he says.
But as is made very clear by his live shows and his blistering 2009 debut, Whisky Priest, today’s model Dustin Welch is very much a rock ’n’ roller. So much so, that you’d probably never peg him as the Nashville-reared offspring of a master-craftsman singer-songwriter and a Montessori teacher. Oh, the sophistication of his lyrics might be a give away — it’s not every young rocker (let alone a self-professed high school dropout) who can reference and talk shop about John Steinbeck and Graham Greene as well as if not better than any English major; but listen to the primal kick and stomp of his music, and you’d swear this particular Welch was born under a bad sign in a backwoods swamp. Or, maybe backstage at some seedy joint on the Sunset Strip.
That just goes to show you what a few months on the road with a punk-rock band can do to a young artist with an open mind. Welch’s first band, in his teens, was a hippie hang called the Groundlings. After that came the Swindlers, a rootsy ensemble band made up of what he calls “a bunch of Music Row brats,” including Justin Townes Earle. But when Welch got a tip about a punk band from the West Coast called Scotch Greens that needed a “utility player” to take on tour, he figured he’d give it a shot just for the hell of it. “I rehearsed with them for a couple of days, and then we were on the road for like three months, opening for Flogging Molly and playing all these theater venues,” he says. “I’d never seen a mosh pit in my life, but all of a sudden, I was standing on top of a monitor with my tongue out, shredding a banjo solo.”
After that, somehow settling back down in Nashville didn’t seem all that fun, so he followed his kid sister Savannah out to Austin. There, he quickly landed a job running sound at Momo’s, and had himself a residency at the club by the following week. He assembled his first Austin band from the rest of the bar staff (they were called the House Band, naturally), and also managed to rope Savannah — not yet a member of the Trishas — into singing harmonies. That was the ragged-but-right gang that Dustin used to record Whisky Priest, a bit of a dark horse candidate but arguably one of the most compelling albums to come out of Texas in the past year.
Fast forward a year later, and he’s already got the follow-up, Tijuana Bible — recorded with his new band, Sam Hill — just about in the can.
“He’s relentless, just a dog with a bone,” marvels his father, who moved to central Texas himself soon after Dustin — and made smart use of his son’s prodigious musical chops throughout the making of his own new album, A Patch of Blue Sky.
“He made it pretty clear a long, long time ago that he was going to do this for a living come hell or high water, even though I tried to talk him out of it,” Kevin continues. “I remember one evening up in New York City … the dressing room was down in the basement, dank and miserable, and I was pissed off from this really stupid, terrible afternoon gig I’d had somewhere else in the city, where I think I got stiffed. And all I could think of was, ‘Dustin, don’t do it.’ I actually called him from the bar, and told him, ‘You know, where I am right now, believe me man, you don’t ever want to be here.’ And he said, ‘Well, if that’s what I’ve gotta do, then that’s what I’ve gotta do.’ And I realized, ‘Fuck — he’s a lifer.’”
PART 3: Savannah Welch
They call her a Trisha …
Savannah Welch can’t say for sure whether or not her father and brother cried during her official debut with the Trishas, singing “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young” at MusicFest 2009. Not because she can’t remember, but because she didn’t dare look at them during the performance. “I actually had to completely check out and forget what I was doing altogether to even get through the song,” she admits. “Because it was heavy — and not just because of the emotional nature of the song and what it’s about. I had never really felt confidant to sing in front of other people like that, let alone in front of him.”
Well, except for that one other time — at the “Chip Off the Old Block” SIMS Foundation fundraiser in Austin that the Braun Brothers (Reckless Kelly, Micky and the Motorcars) hosted back in 2005. That was no cakewalk either. The theme of the evening was musicians with children who play music, and both her father Kevin and brother Dustin Welch were coming in from Nashville to perform on the bill. Savannah, the actress of the family, decided on a whim that she wanted to join them onstage and sing “The Other Side,” a song her father had written for her mother. “That first time we heard her sing, she really kind of surprised us — and I think she surprised herself, too,” Kevin recalls. “She just totally nailed it. Dustin came offstage just beaming, big brother to the nth degree, going, ‘Man, she was sooo good.’ We were all just gobsmacked. Like, where did that come from?”
Good genes, perhaps? That, or lots of practice … in private. “I always loved singing growing up, but I would sing around the house, and people would tell me to shut up,” she insists, though that last part sounds a bit of a stretch. It’s more likely that she just censored herself. “Growing up really around talented people like I did, I always thought they set the bar really high and I didn’t see the point in sitting around to play unless I could do something that great. I felt like I needed to go hide somewhere and get really good and then come back.”
She took her sweet time, keeping her secret to herself even after moving to Austin right out of high school and falling in with a veritable second extended family of musicians, including the Braun brothers and rocker Kyle Ellison (who’s played with the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers). She came to Austin to attend UT, hoping to study film, but dropped out after a year when she realized she could get real world experience a lot quicker. She got a day job working for Jimmie Vaughan’s management company, found an agent and started acting. She’s since had roles in about 10 different projects, ranging from short independent films like Love, Sadie to acclaimed director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which was shot in Smithville, Texas, a year and a half ago. (“That was an amazing experience and a huge honor,” she enthuses, but hastens to add, “even though there’s a pretty huge chance that I won’t end up in the final cut, because he’s just known for editing people out.”)
Not that she’s had a lot of time to sit around and fret over that, because ever since their first gig together back in January 2009, the Trishas have been the belles of the Texas music ball. The group (comprised of founding members Welch, Jamie Wilson, Liz Foster and Kelley Mickwee, plus fiddle player Trisha Keefer and drummer John Silva) was a showcase smash at last year’s Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville and this year’s South By Southwest in Austin, and their profile will only get bigger now that they’ve finally got a CD to sell. The five-song “mini album,” They Call Us the Trishas, was released in late July. Welch, Wilson, Foster and Mickwee sing one song each on the disc and all sing together on “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young”; however emotionally spectacular their live debut of the song might have been at MusicFest, the version they captured in the studio is damn near definitive. At the very least, it will be a very long time before anybody else even thinks about trying to cover that Kevin Welch song again.
Her father’s song is only the second most stunning Welch original on the album, though — after Savannah’s own original, the devastatingly beautiful “So Blue.” Incredibly, she swears it’s the first song she ever wrote. And, at least as of mid-June, it’s still the only song she’s written.
“I’ve written some other lyrics here and there, but no other finished songs,” she says. “I wrote ‘Blue’ about three years ago when I was living in this little efficiency apartment, going through a breakup and some other shit. I sat down at the piano and the song just kind of wrote itself. I had it mostly finished except for the chorus — the girls kind of helped me arrange that. But it’s so weird that the first song that anybody’s hearing of mine is something so personal. It’s very emotional and vulnerable. When I sing it, it feels like, ‘Hello, nice to meet ya — I’m naked!’”