By Walt Wilkins
(Aug/Sept 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 4)
I had one of the coolest jobs anyone could ever dream of: I scouted locations for movies for the Texas Film Commission, traveling to every corner of our precious Texas, and most points in-between. I read scripts, talked to folks from Hollywood or New York, and often drove them around Houston, D/FW, San Antonio, the Hill Country, or the high plains. Everywhere, really. It was great. I could have stayed; I could still be there now, and be mostly happy.
But there was this other thing going on inside me that made my eye twitch and kept me up at night. I’d been writing songs since I was very young, and that’s what I cared most about, and at my age at the time, 30, the calling to try that for a life was getting loud. As it dawned on me that no one was going to come to my apartment in Austin to hear my songs and then record them, I began playing my songs at Chicago House, a great, vibey, handmade listening room in the heart of Sixth Street. I was serious about getting good at presenting my songs, and wrote all the time. I made a cassette (yes, a cassette) of my first handful of songs in 1992, called Blue Dreams.
A few weeks later I got a call out of the clear blue from a music publisher in Nashville, who had heard the cassette from his wife’s sister’s boyfriend at the time, my old friend and bandmate, Frank Patterson. The publishing man told me I should come visit. Growing up as I had in the capital of Hippie Redneck Country, I had a healthy bias against the slick, shallow Nashville sound, but I also knew that Guy and Townes and Willis Alan Ramsey and many of my other models either lived or worked there, so off I went to see it. Awhile after, I had an offer for a real publishing deal, so I jumped.
With no plan or back-up plan, but a Jeep and my little Washburn, I left my cool life in Austin, and began writing songs every day. I co-wrote with newcomers like myself, as well as with more established folks, and stayed up all night in song swaps, submerging myself in all of it. I met many of my heroes, and found out that not all great songwriters were from Texas. I kept playing: I’d play Chicago House, and make just enough money to get back to Nashville, then play the Bluebird, making just enough to get back home until the next show there. That pattern went on for years. I recorded and hung out with Chip Young, who had produced Joe Ely’s first two records, as well as albums for Kristofferson and Billy Swan. I become friends and wrote with Walter Hyatt, possibly the sweetest person I’ve ever known, and among the most talented, and when we lost him, I inherited his weekly Monday night slot at the Sutler, and a badass band grew up around me there. I also met a funny, beautiful, and charismatic bartender and hung out at her bar, where I met Guy Clark and Harlan Howard and Vern Gosdin and many others. That part was real cool. I found some real heart-deep co-writers, which is a big deal. Liz Rose has become like family, and we’ve written songs together I’ll play forever. Same with the great Davis Raines.
After her own Nashville record deal experience went south (thankfully for me), the beautiful, funny, talented bartender and I got married. We were most fortunate to have a son right away, and to have a sweet life there with good friends, and opportunities to play and record and write in the “big league.”
I think now that I got to Nashville just as the business part of Nashville songwriting was changing, and it was much more difficult to get cuts. I would go home to Texas and play and be reminded of why I wrote: to relate to people and hopefully move them to feel, think, dance. Texas music has always been based on live performance, and Nashville was moving farther and farther from that, signing younger and younger, less experienced (though more camera-ready, it seemed) singers. Young folks who hadn’t been on the road, making themselves better, and more real — like a whole new generation of writer-performers were doing in Texas.
Then, out of the blue, one of these real young guys from Texas called, wanting to record one of my earliest songs, “Rain in Lafayette.” He was doing so well in Texas that he made another record soon after, and recorded the first song I wrote and kept, called “Songs about Texas,” which has been cool for us both.
Later, on his first trip to Nashville, we sat down together for the first time and tried to write a song. We spent a good part of a day chasing something that wasn’t working, but 30 minutes before I had to get him to the airport, he played a verse and chorus he had just dreamed up, and it was so good. So I said, “Lets each write a verse and we’ll have a song.” We each took a corner of the shack I lived in — literally we were eight feet apart — and spent 10 minutes writing our verses. His verse mentioned my name, and I told him that was weird, to have my name in a song I was co-writing, so … maybe he could think of something else? But he really wanted to keep it in there — I think he was trying to help get my name out — and I thought to myself, “Well … whose gonna hear this, anyway? Just the kids in Texas who’ll listen to the whole record, right?” So, I relented. I swear to you now that I was driving in Texas a few weeks later and it was on the radio. All the time. And that’s how my name ended up in Pat Green’s “Carry On.”
Pat and I have written a dozen or so songs together since then, and I went on the road with his great band in 2001-02, playing guitar and singing harmony on his “Carry On” tour. It was my first time to play all over the country, to live in a bus and be in a tight touring band. It was every bit as much fun as you’d think. But after a year, I was anxious to be home more with Tina and Luke, so I rededicated myself to writing for the Nashville marketplace.
All-in-all, I wrote for five years for BMG, then seven for Curb. I was told twice by publishers to “dumb it down,” and had some pretty lively run-ins with some of those “music” people. I was set up to write songs with some folks who I hope are back working for their daddies, far away from any creative endeavor. But I also got to write with, and become friends with, the likes of Hal Ketchum, Danny Flowers, Kimmie Rhodes, Kevin Welch, and Lori McKenna, among others.
When Luke was 2, I began to deeply, deeply want get him and Tina home to the Hill Country, to be near family and all the great music being made here. I wanted to establish myself as a performing songwriter in Texas, and introduce my homeland to the wonders of Tina’s voice and songs. I wanted to write and play with these cool artists I knew in Texas: Pat, Cory, and Brandon, to start with.
I had started producing projects for friends in Austin even before I moved to Nashville, and kept at it, learning from so many great musicians and engineers in both towns. When I moved home, I continued to get requests to work on friends’ projects, and now I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many insanely talented folks here. If I named them, it would make me seem much cooler than I am. A special thank you to Ron Flynt, Jerry Tubb and Pat Manske is in order, though, as they’ve been such a rich and productive part of my life here.
Not long after I moved back, with my little family in tow, another family began growing up around me and my songs. Mattson Rainer of KNBT asked me to put a band together for the Americana Jam, and I started with Marcus Eldridge, the wildly gifted guitar player I had played with in my last year in Nashville. He moved home to Texas a little before me. With some calls and kismet, we soon had a very cool band. And even though I’d been digging playing solo and with Tina around the state, it was impossible to deny this immediate chemistry of the Mystiqueros. Marcus, John Greenberg, Ray Rodriquez, Bill Small and I made a record with Lloyd Maines that got on the radio in Texas and far beyond. We played in Holland with Sam Baker, and now have travelled all over the country together for six years. We’ve evolved into a touring artist-collective carnival of sorts, with a roster of friend-picker-poets that might include Tina, Jimmy Davis, Brian Langlinais, Tommy Alverson, Kim Deschamps, Patterson Barrett or who knows who else on any given night.
It’s been 18 years now since I left my cool film-scouting job in my beloved hometown of Austin to write songs that I hoped would be recorded by other folks. I’ve made seven solo records and two with the Mystiqueros, with a third on the way. I’ve had a good number of songs recorded by other artists, and had as much fun as anyone should be allowed. I get to play my songs with people I cherish. I get to sing and record with my wife. I get to work on records with other songwriters, and be part of their artistic story. I get to see my folks a lot, too, and visit with all sorts of friends and family as I travel through my beautiful homeland. I’m treated well in Luckenbach and Gruene Hall. That alone is pretty cool for having no real plan.
As I write this on my day off in Knoxville, Tenn., my new record, Plenty, will be released into the marketplace tomorrow. The subtle theme of the new record is gratefulness. I went to Nashville to get hit songs, but came back much richer than that. I came back home with Tina and Luke and the opportunity to continue this journey of writing songs and playing them with and for my fellow travelers.