By Richard Skanse
Las Vegas has earned a reputation for being a great many things over the years, but a hotbed of original music is not one of them. Show tunes, revues, tribute acts, and even extravagantly-staged residencies by some of the biggest names in the business may all be as easy enough to come by as ways to blow a nest egg, but let’s be honest: Nobody goes to that town expecting to find much of an independent music scene — let alone the kind that might foster a Guy Clark-revering troubadour with just the right mix of melodic heart, rock ’n’ roll punch, and scrappy wherewithal to knock out one of the best Americana albums of the last year.
Then again, what fun would Sin City be if nobody ever beat the odds?
The album in question is last summer’s Lost Vegas Hiway, and the troubadour behind it is one Jeff Mix. Although he’s not a Vegas native, he’s called the city home now for more than half of his life. He moved there from Florida for the first time at 19, drawn to the city of neon lights because he just happened to make neon signs — a trade not especially in hot demand anymore anywhere else but Vegas. Somewhere down the line he got out of the glass game and into selling real estate; he also got married, raised a family, and eventually started a rootsy kick-ass rock ’n’ roll bar band as an outlet for the songs he’d been writing in earnest ever since … well, all of about five years ago.
“At least, that’s when I really started pushing,” Mix explains, crediting a life-changing Christmas present for kicking his butt into gear. “My wife, Lee Ann, got me (a ticket for) a 2013 workshop in Nashville with Darrell Scott and Mary Gauthier, and it was that week there when it really hit me that I’m a songwriter, that I needed to do this.”
Mind, it’s not like that decision (let alone his wife’s idea to ship him off to songwriter camp in the first place) came completely out of the blue. Mix actually wrote his first song (a tune called “Hiways” about “women, getting drunk, and rough mornings”) way back in fourth grade, after his dad took him to see Honeysuckle Rose, and he continued to write — lyrics, at least — all through his teenage years while playing drums in a hair metal band with his brother, Jeremy. Somewhere in his early 20s, he picked up just enough basic guitar chords to strum his way through a Jimmy Buffett songbook (because Florida), and if he wasn’t yet a full-blown, diehard fan of Texas songwriters from that first hit of Willie as a kid, his first Jerry Jeff Walker concert in his early 20s officially did the trick. Hearing his old man’s copy of Guy Clark’s Boats to Build helped a lot, too.
From there, it was only a matter of another 20-years’ time before he started thinking about giving the whole songwriting thing a shot himself. Finding his confidence as a solo performer at open mics took a while longer still, but once he started putting a proper band together around the nucleus of versatile lead/slide guitarist Trevor Johnson and a gifted young viola player named Rahmaan Phillip, Mix went all in — and then some.
No, the 46-year-old, self-described “late bloomer” hasn’t quit his day job selling real estate; and least not yet — and neither has his wife, who now plays bass in his band. But Lost Vegas Hiway, the debut outing by Jeff Mix & the Songhearts, is no weekend-warrior, midlife-crisis vanity project. Nor is it even “just” a fantastic little rock ’n’ roll record, with a serious Some Girls swagger and enough memorable melodies packed into its 40 filler-free minutes to carry a Tom Petty best-of. It’s also a cannily crafted and deftly executed concept album, comprising 10 stand-alone songs — each one an evocative vignette or snapshot of a different character — that all fit together like strangers in various states of desperation who happen to be sharing the same collision course with destiny.
And if that kinda sounds like the elevator pitch for a movie, well, Lost Vegas Hiway just happens to be that, too. And a pretty damn good one, to boot; although it slipped under Oscar’s radar, the hour-long narrative feature/”visual album” (which is bundled with the album on DVD and also streaming on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube) it did land a nomination for best “Music Video — Long Form” at the 16th Annual Independent Music Awards, an international fete being held this weekend (Saturday, March 31) at New York City’s Lincoln Center. (Update: It didn’t win — but it did give Mix and his wife a nice excuse to visit the Big Apple.)
Written by Mix and directed by a talented young filmmaker from Pakistan named Zohaib Latif (who he’d previously contracted for help making real estate “property tour” videos), the film stars Mix playing a sort of a bizarro-world version himself — meaning a songwriter from Texas who harbors something of a Vegas fetish. He spends most of the film holed up at a seedy motel on the Strip amongst an assortment of other hard luck types, most of them played by friends culled from what Mix affectionately calls the “Vegascana” scene.
“It’s a small scene,” he concedes with a laugh, “but the good part about it is, we’re tight. Like the guy who plays the motel manager, Blake K. Phillips — he’s actually a real actor, but he’s also the host of a local Americana show here on KUNV, called ‘Our Kind of Music.’ I think we had a total of about nine Vegas artists appearing or acting in the movie, just to try to shine some light on all of us here on our little desert island.”
But because you only ever get one opportunity to make your first tandem concept album and movie, Mix made sure to save a handful of plum roles for some notable Texas songwriters, too. Wimberley singer-songwriter Robyn Ludwick plays a single mother on the run from an abusive ex, portrayed by a frightfully convincing Gurf Morlix. And the Texas-filmed opening finds Hal Ketchum playing the owner of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, where he shoos Jack Ingram’s blue-collar ne’er-do-well away from his nymphet bartender daughter before dispensing some road wisdom and emotional support to Mix’s character. “Give my regards to the Gateway Motel,” Ketchum tells him with a fond smile. “If it’s still standing.”
In a roundabout way, the film side of the Lost Vegas Hiway opus all started with Morlix — and an empathetic Mix song about a prostitute, called “Find My Way.” “There was a benefit album here in Vegas to raise money against domestic violence, and that song of mine made it on there and also ended up winning this deal where they got some company to donate $25,000 for one of the artists to make a video,” explains Mix, who subsequently decided a better recording of the song was in order. “The first person I emailed was Gurf; I didn’t know him or anything, but I’d always been a fan of his work with Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard, all that stuff. He liked the song enough to invite us down to Texas to record it at his place, and then I asked him if he’d be in the video, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’
“Well, for whatever reason, that particular video actually never panned out,” Mix continues, “but by then I’d already started thinking about the idea of making two or three videos for different songs and stringing them together somehow. And then it just kept growing and growing from there.” The album — or soundtrack, for that matter — was already essentially in the can when shooting started, but the film took them the better part of two years to complete.
“Because of everyone’s schedules, we could only shoot a little bit here, a little bit there, and the whole time we just kept adding to it,” Mix explains. “And really, we could have kept on adding to it, because as I was writing the script we came up with all these ideas to bring Hal back in it more and to do more with Robyn. But it gets to the point of like, ‘When do you stop?'”
Despite her limited (but pivotal) screen-time, Ludwick proved to be one of the production’s MVPs by recommending not only Ketchum (whose role Mix admits was originally written with Guy Clark in mind), but the location for the Texas shoot. “Hal couldn’t have been nicer and really worked out great for he part, but when he told us, ‘My friends have a bar in Wimberley that we could shoot at,’ right away Robyn was like, ‘No, no, you’ve got to do it at Devil’s Backbone!'” recalls Mix with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘You mean the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, from that Todd Snider song?'”
Ludwick herself wasn’t in any of the those scenes, but Mix and Latif returned the favor by helping her make a video of her own (“Rock N Roll Shoes,” from her 2017 album This Tall to Ride). And of course she and her husband, bassist/producer John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick, made it a point to be in the audience earlier his month, when Jeff Mix & the Songhearts capped off their first-ever run of Austin-area shows during South by Southwest week with what proved to be a very special Saturday night “homecoming” gig back at the Devil’s Backbone.
They were down a key man, with Phillip having flown home a day early for other commitments (St. Patrick’s Day being arguably the busiest day of the year for one of the few fiddle players in Vegas), and playing without stage monitors through an old P.A. system that buzzed like an angry hornet’s nest wasn’t easy. But for a talented band all-too-accustomed to playing as background noise for casino tourists back in Vegas, it felt like winning a Texas-sized jackpot. One late-arriving local remarked that the parking lot was fuller than he’d seen it in five years, and when bar owner Rick Ferguson and the enthusiastic crowd called the band back to the stage, it wasn’t for an encore but rather an entire unplanned second set. Never mind the fact that they’d already burned through most if not all of Mix’s originals from Lost Vegas Hiway and even a handful of newer songs, including the gorgeous “Townes,” which was released digitally on New Year’s Day, the 21st anniversary of Van Zandt’s passing. They just happily double-downed on some of their favorite Texas covers, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas,” Terry Allen’s “Wolfman of Del Rio,” and Rusty Wier’s (by way of Jerry Jeff) “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance.” When Mix asked the audience to help sing that last one and they actually knew the words, he looked like he’d died and gone to heaven.
“This was definitely up there with the favorite gigs, ever,” he beamed afterwards, still wearing a pinch-me grin. “This feels like … home.”
In a previous conversation, not long after Lost Vegas Hiway‘s release, Mix admitted that there were plenty of times during the making of the movie when he couldn’t help but ask himself, “What was I thinking?” And yeah, sometimes he wonders the same about his decision to launch a music career in his mid-40s, an age when a lot of artists either start succumbing to burnout or, if they’re lucky and truly in it for the long haul, already leaning into their third or fourth “second wind.”
“I do find myself thinking sometimes, you know, ‘I worked so hard on all of this, but what if I still can’t really get anywhere? Does that mean maybe I’m not good enough, or maybe this isn’t for me? Should I just go back to trying to make money the normal way and not do this?'”
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a helluva lot to snap him out of that. One good night like that one at the Devil’s Backbone can do the trick, or a giddy afternoon like the one he spent driving around Los Angeles listening to the final master of his album for the first time and marveling, “Wow, I can’t believe that we got something that sounded this good!” Or best of all, just remembering one of the first “reviews” he ever heard about the film, right after its premiere in Vegas last spring.
“I didn’t hear this directly from him, but my son’s girlfriend told me that when they were leaving, my son said, ‘This shows me that I can do anything.’
“I mean, that still just chokes me up,” he continues after a beat, then laughs. “Shit, that’s worth it, all of it, right here.”