By Richard Skanse
Country music has done right by Monte Warden, and for most of his life, the Austin singer-songwriter and band leader has been unfailingly faithful to his No. 1 muse in return. Together, they’ve made for quite a pair over the years, going all the way back to Warden’s teens, when he collected his first Austin Music Award for 1983’s “Best New Band” (Whoa! Trigger), to that time when George Strait cut one of his songs (“Desperately,” co-written with Bruce Robison) and released it as a single that racked up more than a million radio spins on country radio. But tonight (Thursday, March 7), right upstairs from the very Continental Club stage where his trusty country combo the Wagoneers plays every Sunday night, Warden aims to do some serious two-timing on his beloved honky-tonk. His mistress? The Great American Songbook.
No, wait … it’s not what you think. This ain’t one of those cynical mid-life-crisis/genre crossover cash grabs, a la Rod Stewart trying to woo your grandma. Nor is it quite a “What would Willie do?” move aping Stardust and the half-dozen or so other Stardust-y standards covers albums that the Red Headed Stranger has already made himself. This is different. Because even though Warden and his new band, the Dangerous Few (featuring Monte on vocals and guitar, fellow Wagoneer Craig Pettigrew on bass, Mas Palermo on drums, T Jarrod Bonta on piano, and Erik Telford on horns) will be devoting their new Thursday night residency at the Continental Club Gallery to the smooth, cocktail-ready stylings of classic traditional pop music, Warden promises that every song they play will be a Monte original. And bar maybe the rare, occasional new Sinatra-style spin on one of his own “oldies,” most all of the originals they play will be brand-spanking new.
Clearly, Warden’s got some explaining to do. So we got the seven-time Austin Music Award winner and two-time Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee on the phone last weekend and let him try his best.
I’ll cut right to the chase here, Monte: Have you gone off your rocker?
[Laughs] Well, the short answer would be yes! I appreciate your candor in that!
Care to elaborate? For starters, where exactly did the idea for this new project of yours come from?
Man, I can just tell you, it was like, 30 years ago, whenever When Harry Met Sally came out, and Harry Connick Jr. brilliantly did all those old songs, my first thought as a songwriter was, “Man, somebody’s going to come along and do an all original project, doing brand new songs in that traditional crooner vein, and it’s going to be so cool, it’s going to be bigger than Coca-Cola!” Never thinking I would ever do anything like that, because I was 19 years old — I could barely, you know, I was just starting to write songs that were passable. But I always had that idea in the back of my head. And over the years, as I got a little bit better as a writer, and more importantly got a lot more successful as a writer and got to write with other successful songwriters, I would tell people, “Hey man, I think there should be more songs in the vein of the Great American Songbook!” And I would have people agree with me, and we would start to write things in that vein. I also produced a couple of jazz-type things, and about five years ago I got hired to write a Toyota ad with songs in that vein. So I wrote a bunch of songs with Jeff Franzel, who was one of Sinatra’s final band leaders, and this other guy, Bruce Brody, who played in Patti Smith’s band, and they were real killer. So I had all those songs, but I still never thought it was going to be me doing this, because hell, I’m a honky-tonk singer!
Well, bla-bla-bla, what happened was, back in November I broke my leg, and while I was convalescing, I had a lot of time to think about, “What have I not done that I’ve always wanted to do?” And that’s when I decided, “I’m just going to put together a little combo and take a spin at this, doing all original material — no covers, not one, not one standard.” Because I may not know my traditional pop history quite like I do my country history, but I don’t think anybody’s done an all-original project like this since Bobby Darrin or something. At any rate, it’s been a while.
So, yeah … In answer to your question, I guess I’m off my rocker! [Laughs] I mean, just look at my career: I have never done anything as far out of my wheelhouse as this. Ever. In fact, to quote me and Mas [Palermo] after rehearsals, we were like, “You know what this reminds me of? Nothing!”
Prior to that epiphany you had with When Harry Met Sally, did you have any particular connection to this kind of music?
Oh yeah. I was raised on it. Both my grandmothers were huge Sinatra and Tony Bennett fans, because they were the generation of bobby soxers. So there was always a lot of Sinatra and Tony Bennett around and I learned a lot about those records. And one of the things that’s always been interesting about it to me is, if you think about it, that’s really the only music genre that doesn’t rely on songwriters to be the face of it. With traditional pop, the writers were never really recognized as the chief “creators” — it was the interpreters of the songs who were the stars. In fact, back in the ’40s and ’50s, only rhythm and blues and country artists — read, “black artists and hillbillies” — wrote their own songs. Like when Buddy Holly got started, his label used pseudonyms, because they didn’t want people to know he wrote his own songs, because the idea was, if you were any good, you hired people to write your songs, you know?
And yet here you are, going out of your way to thwart that tradition by writing your own traditional pop songs. What is it, exactly, that makes a song fit that genre? Is there a “Great American Songbook” style guide?
Well, they’re almost exclusively romantic songs. And I’ve found, just by studying the writers — studying Johnny Mercer and Burt Bacharach and Mel Torme, those guys — their lyrical and musical tricks always seem to go hand in hand. Like when somebody had an interesting lyrical turn of phrase, they would also make sure there was an interesting musical turn of phrase. So, not to get too much in the weed here, but there were just certain kind of rules that you’d follow. And it’s a very confident kind of music, very masculine; it’s almost like … I see a real macho parallel with honky-tonk music. So, subject matter wise it wasn’t that long of a walk to write in this world. But in regards to playing it, I’ll tell you what — this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had to learn my own songs. Like I’ll write a song in this vein, and then I’ll have to Google to figure out how to play a B-flat major 7th chord.
So it takes more than three chords.
Right! My old friend Mas years ago gave me the moniker, “Three Chord Monte.” [Laughs] So I’ve been trying to bust out of that just a little bit. But it’s also important to remember that the thing about these great songs is they also need to sound simple. And that’s true of any great song. What was one of Tony Bennet’s biggest hits after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”? “Cold, Cold Heart.” It’s a simple song, but there is a long way between simple and easy. A Hank Williams song is simple, but if you think it’s easy, go write you one!
If Tony Bennet could cover Hank Williams, couldn’t a country song of your own, like “Desperately,” be arranged just right to fit this mold?
Yeah. But for this project, for now at least, I’m not doing any songs of mine that have already been recorded, with the exception of “One More Time,” which Kelly Willis did on her Well Travelled Love record. That’s the only song that’s ever been cut of mine that I’m doing for this project. But I have thought about doing other things that could fit, like “Just to Hear Your Voice” or “Desperately,” and I might do that later. But I have found that it’s a lot easier for me to write songs for this project from scratch with the more complex chord vocabulary in there from the start than to try and incorporate it later. Only because of my limited musicianship. It’s easier for me to start with the chord progressions than try to go back and try to make them more complex.
So how many new originals for this project do you have?
Let’s see … Thursday night we’re debuting 15 of them. But I’ve got 25. The first one of these I wrote, the oldest song for this project, I wrote in ’90. So I’ve been writing a lot of these over the years. But I’ve got maybe 25 that I would consider A-listers that eventually the band’ll get to.
Did it take much convincing to get the other guys in the band onboard?
Not at all! The first guy I asked was Craig Pettigrew, because he plays bass in the Wagoneers. And Craig was familiar with some of these songs, just as my friend, because I’d play them for him backstage over the years. So when I told him I wanted to do this, he said, “You know I’m not a jazz player.” I said, “Well good, because you know I’m not a jazz singer! I don’t want you to play it like you think those guys would; I want you to play it like you would.” So Craig was on board. And Mas, I don’t know if you knew this, but after he played with Kelly in their old band together, Radio Ranch — and after the Wagoneers originally stopped playing together in ’90 — he joined my new band that I had at the time and ended up producing my first solo album for Watermelon Records. So he and I worked really closely together over the years, until he kind of retired from playing for a while and went to work at Dell. But then when Kelly put her old Well Travelled Love band back together for a few shows earlier this year and the Wagoneers did a show with them at Gruene Hall, I was amazed at Mas’ playing — it was like he did not miss a day. So after that show I asked him if he wanted to be a part of this project, and he said yes immediately. I knew he was very into this genre of music, too, because his oldest son is named Issac Dean Palermo, after Dean Martin. And then Craig said “I know just the piano player you need,” and brought in T Jarrod Bonta, and Erik Telford was the horn player one of those earlier jazz projects that I had produced.
So, yeah, all four of these guys share my passion for doing this, and they all really appreciate the fact that nobody else is doing it. In fact, that’s the coolest thing about being an all-original traditional pop group: From the minute we take the stage for our first show, we’re automatically going to be the very best all-original traditional pop group in Austin, because we’re the only one. Of course, I guess that also makes us the worst one, too! [Laughs]
Have you recorded anything yet — or do you even plan to?
Man, everybody asks me that! “When are y’all going to record something?” And here’s my answer: “Let’s go ahead and play one gig first. Let’s see what happens after one whole show!” But the crazy thing is, we’ve already gotten a call from a label up in New York: “Please send us something!” I’m going, “Send you what? We haven’t even played a show yet!” But you know, the fact that Steve Wertheimer and Dianne Scott at the Continental Club have given us a residency at the upstairs Gallery before we’ve even played one gig … that’s just cool, man. It’s cool that there’s that much faith that it’s going to be at least pretty good. So I’m really, really excited.
So what can people expect? What’s the vibe going to be like for these shows?
Well, I’ll tell you what … It’s a grown-up set. And for anyone who’s ever been to any one of my shows, these are softer songs, but by no means mellower; it’ll still be an energetic show. They’re all going to be love songs. I will say this: The band’s gonna look great, sound great … It’s going to be a professional night of urbane music. Certainly not urban music — make sure you got the “e” on that one! But you know, it’s gonna be … city music for city folk.
You say this is all new for you, but will there still be a honky-tonk tinge at all to this stuff?
Well, you’ve heard me talk and you’ve heard me sing, so … yes. The thing that my wife and I came up with is, it’s Tony Bennett meets Ray Price. Because I was raised a honky-tonk singer, and that’s who I am. But the songs and the arrangements dictate differently. I tell people the best template musically — not at all artistically, because nobody is the artist Ray Charles is, not by a long shot — but Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. His album of country western standards is a good way for people to at least get in the mood for the Dangerous Few.
As a singer, can you pull this stuff off without a martini glass in hand?
Well I hope so, because I’ve been in recovery for 11 years! [Laughs] But I’m counting on the audience being able to do that. It’s so funny you would say that, though, because that’s exactly the way to describe it: it’s martini music. It’ll keep the bartenders busy and hopefully well-tipped and taken care of.
Any idea how long this new residency is going to last?
Well, it’s a Continental Club residency, so … I think until I die. I think that’s how those go! So it’ll be Thursday nights upstairs until … Or, maybe it’ll end up being a very short residency if nobody likes it. [Laughs] There’s always that case, too. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.
Last question: What does all of this mean for your other band? It wasn’t that long ago that the Wagoneers started playing together after more than two decades apart. Is that train still rolling?
Oh yeah. The Wagoneers still have a Sunday residency at the Continental Club. And we’ve had a new record in the can for awhile now that we haven’t released yet; we don’t want to just sell it in the back of the club, so we’re waiting for the right opportunity. But it’s a heck of a record. In fact, one of the songs on it, “Some Other Heart to Break,” was just used in this new Netflix series called The Ranch, with Ashton Kutcher and Sam Elliott. So yes, the Wagoneers are still very much doing our thing. And here’s a little secret: we’re playing a hell of a lot better now than we were when we played our “last” show back in ’90!