By Richard Skanse
Not that we’ve kept an official record or anything, but here’s an off-the-top-of-our-head rundown of some of the things that have happened since the last time Wade Bowen put out a new studio album (2002’s Try Not to Listen). Somewhere in the neighborhood of 879 new albums by other Texas artists hit the racks; that’s just a guesstimate, but considering how many albums Willie Nelson alone put out in the last four years, probably not too far off. George W. Bush was elected president again, the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Dixie Chicks went from top of the country world to mainstream radio black lists and Los Lonely Boys went from San Angelo’s best kept secret to Top 40 sensations. The San Antonio Spurs won two NBA titles, the Texas Longhorns’ glorious Vince Young era came and went and the Astros made it to the World Series. And Jessica Simpson went from teen pop also-ran to household name (with a hit song featuring Willie Nelson).
Yeah, it’s been a while. But Bowen hasn’t exactly kept a low profile over the last four years. Contrary to the small town rumors that had him hanging up his guitar in exchange for a gig as an electrician, Bowen and his band — the latter until very recently known as West 84 — have been working overtime to build and maintain their buzz on the Texas music scene from one end of the state to the other. (To wit: When we caught up with Bowen for this interview in mid January, he was en-route to Corpus Christi for a radio appearance, was looking forward to a night at home in New Braunfels, and was due in Lubbock the following night for a gig in his old college town of Lubbock.) In 2003, Bowen and West 84 put out a live album, The Blue Light Live, which has now stayed on the LoneStarMusic.com Top 25 best-sellers list for two and a half years (with a good chunk of that time spent in the Top 10). Bowen also turned a few heads on the Texas scene (and beyond) by co-writing “Don’t Break My Heart Again,” the lead single from Pat Green’s Top 10 Lucky Ones album. And he got married (to Shelby Bowen, sister-in-law of Cross Canadian Ragweed’s Cody Canada) and had a kid, Bruce (now 6 months old.)
Bowen spent the last four years doing all of this while still finding time to fly (and drive) back and forth from Texas to Nashville too many times to count to make his new record, Lost Hotel. Which, at long last, is finally ready for the light of day — helped along into the public spotlight with a healthy push from the brand-spanking-new Sustain Records. Bowen’s Lost Hotel is the first release on the Texas-based independent (but Universal-distributed) label, which later this year will also unveil new albums from Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bruce Robison, and Jason Boland & the Stragglers. That’s good company, and a good indicator of how far Bowen’s climbed on the Texas music scene totem pole in the years since West 84’s scrappy debut, 2000’s Just for Fun. All signs now point toward 2006 being the year Bowen officially graduates from next big thing on the Texas scene to Big Thing, period.
Congrats on the imminent release of Lost Hotel. It’s been a long time coming: Four years since the last studio album, and three years since the live record. Were you starting to get antsy?
I got real antsy. But I calmed down and made myself realize I was doing it — taking the time we took — for the right reasons. I actually started recording this record about a year and a half ago; it’ll be two years in May. So when I started recording the record, I was thinking it’d be only two years between records. Which is still a long time, but at least it’s getting done. My whole focus on this record was to take my time and make sure it’s right, and I’d never gotten to do that with any of my other records before. I love Try Not to Listen, I’m proud of Blue Light, but I really didn’t get to take my time with those, and because of money and time, I never really got to create like I wanted to. With this one, it was the complete opposite: I took probably more time than I should of. But at least now, for the first time in my career, I can walk into a radio station or an interview or anywhere, and smile or kind of smirk and say, “I’m proud of this one. Listen to this.” That’s the first time I’ve been able to say that.
When you take that long making a record, how do you know when it’s finally done? Do you finally set a deadline?
It wasn’t really a deadline, because we set a lot of deadlines that never really got met! But at the last session, we recorded about eight songs, and the last song we did was the “Perfect Silence” song I wrote for my wife. It was the last song I wrote for the record, and the last of the 22 songs we recorded. When we got that one down and nailed it, I knew we were done. That song’s really the only, I wouldn’t say happy song, but if you listen to the record, it’s the only one that starts leaning toward hope a little more, you know? It’s not as lost as the rest of the songs are; the character in that song is pretty much the only one on the whole album who is happy about life. So when I took that direction with my songwriting on the very last song that we recorded, I figured, “OK, I’m starting to go a different direction with this, let’s stop here.” I just really felt like we had it. I finally decided, you can keep working on a record and never really be satisfied, because you perfect and perfect everything in the studio until it’s insane. Finally, we just said, “It’s done, man. It sounds great. Let’s just put it out.” And then we spent about five months figuring out where we were going to go with the record, where it’s home was going to be. That was a pretty stressful period.
Now that you’ve found a home — Sustain Records — is that stressful in itself? You’re on a brand new label that has a pretty impressive roster, and the kind of distribution that can get you a good deal more exposure outside Texas than you’ve had in the past. Is that part of the plan?
Yeah. I mean, Sustain really thinks we can get that [airplay outside Texas], and it’s kind of nice to listen to them talk about how much they believe in this record and the single and how well they think it can do. I don’t know if I’d say I wouldn’t be happy just staying in Texas, but my goal is definitely to get out. I love being in the Texas music scene and what it’s doing, but I’d rather be an artist from Texas than simply a Texas artist, and being labeled as such. I think this record kind of proves that. I went a different direction with it than most; it’s a little bit left of center from the norm of the Texas music scene, but it’s not crazy or anything. It’s not going to freak anybody out. That was my whole frame of mind with this record: To try to do something that could reach a broader audience and please people up in the Midwest and the Southeast, and being able to tour all over the country.
Let’s talk about the following you’ve already built up in Texas. How did those crowds keep you and the band going in the years between records?
Our crowds in ’05 … it was the best year we’ve ever had. The crowds just kept getting bigger and better, and we didn’t even have a new record in three years. That’s insane to me, how you can keep and maintain buzz just through touring. And that’s just a credit to the fans who believe in what we’re doing enough to keep coming out to shows, because there’s no reason for them to spread the word about, but they did. When we were shopping the record, we had some interest from other labels, too, but it finally got to the point where it was like, “Our fans have been waiting three years for a record. I’ve been telling them for a year and a half that we’re working on one … we’ve gotta remember those people.” I mean, they really are the ones that have kept our heads over water this whole time.
Have you been playing many of the new songs already for them on the road?
We’ve been playing about half the record in the show, but I’ve been really consistent in the mindset that we’ve got to hold some of it until it comes out. Because I don’t want people to be really sick of it, and then hear the record and go, “This is cool, but we’ve already heard all this stuff … when does the next one come out?”
Sometime in 2010 …
Yeah! Another four years. [Laughs] No, we’re already planning for our next record to be within the next year. We’re not sure yet if we’re going back into the studio in the summer, or if we’ll just make another live one.
Have any of the songs from Lost Hotel that you have been playing already emerged as anthems yet, in that you can tell they’ve really caught on with the crowd?
Yeah. “Mood Ring” has caught on, which is actually the only reason that song’s on the record. It’s a Paul Thorn song, who I think is an amazing songwriter, and it’s amazing how few people really know who he is. We started playing that song eight months ago, and we get requests for it every night. And every time we start doing it, a lot of people yell, and that’s pretty cool. So it just came to the point where we decided, this song just has to be on the record because so many people ask for it. But it really does fit the mood of the record and what we’re trying to get across.
What song on the record are you most proud of?
The title track, “Lost Hotel,” is probably the deepest on the record. I think it’s one of my best that I’ve written. Not because I think it’s lyrically the best song; it just has a lot of passion behind it, and a lot of heartbreak in it. I feel like I write about heartbreak better than anything. I don’t know why that is, but I’m just more comfortable writing about loss, or being heartbroke and torn apart.
Do you always go back to past relationships for those type of songs, or are you at a point where you can write a song like that without mining personal history?
For this record, I wrote a lot about past relationships. It’s hard for me to fake anything, and it’s hard for me to just make up stuff. That’s why I’m not a big story song writer. I do have my moments, I guess, but I can’t pull out like the Guy Clark or Willie Nelson type stories. There are some songs where I kind of put myself in a different place, but for the most part I tend to write strictly off of my experiences. And that’s why this record is so much more serious than my other records, because — I would think — it’s so much more mature. When I went back and looked at the 22 songs we had recorded, I realized they were all about being lost, and trying to find your way in life, figure things out … and wishing everyone would just leave you alone and let you do it. Let you be young and stupid for a while, because that’s how you figure things out. When I went back and saw that that was all I’d written about, I realized it was because that’s all I’d been doing for the last three or five years. I mean, it was really hard, when I went through a lot of different relationships, went through some trying times personally. And then it all started to make sense when I met my wife; she kind of helped control all of that.
How long have you been married now?
I’ve been married a year almost. But I’ve been together with her for four.
How did you meet her?
I met her through Cody and Shannon, Cody’s wife and her sister. She lived in California her whole life, and she moved to Oklahoma for a few months shortly before moving to Texas with Cody and Shannon. And literally when she packed up and decided she was going to move to Texas to get away from California, that’s when I met her … I met her on her way down, actually.
What’s it like having Cody Canada as a brother-in-law?
Pretty funny, man. It’s a cool experience, and a lot of fun, hanging out. People are like, “You must play guitar together all the time.” But with Cody and I, it’s never really been a whole lot about music. We just have a good time together as friends. But we have had the opportunity to write together, and it’s gone really well. It’s real easy to throw lyrics and ideas back and forth at each other.
Did you co-write anything with Cody for this record?
I did actually record a song we wrote together, but ended up not putting it on this record. He put it on his Garage record — “When It All Goes Down.” That was one of my favorite writing experiences I’ve ever had. We felt like we got a lot down in that one, a lot of life’s and the world’s problems figured out!
Is there a level of friendly competition between you two?
No. He’s many, many levels above me, so I don’t really feel much competition with Cody. I don’t feel like I should even compete … I mean, he’s way ahead in the game right now. I’ll tell you, the best thing I’ve learned from him … he just has such a love for music. He’s got such a passion for it, that he lives and breathes it. Not that I don’t have that passion, too, but he takes it to the extreme. And it’s cool to be around someone like that, because every now and then you get caught up in the business side of this, and the stress side of it, and Cody’s a good reminder to me to just have fun with it.
Speaking of just having fun with music … let’s go back to your first album, Just for Fun . How does that hold up for you? Do you stand by it, or try to hide it?
I hide it. I mean, we were all just 19 and 20 years old. We had no money, and no idea what we were doing. And we had a producer who really didn’t know, either — it was his first record to produce as well. So, no experience, no idea what was going on, and 19-year-old songwriting — that’s enough to make you not like it! But we still play some of those songs from that first record. And it still actually sells. But it’s something that we’re about to discontinue, because I want people to have good product when they buy our stuff. I don’t want people to waste their money on that album.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a songwriter since then?
I think I’ve just matured. Over the last three years, writing for this record, I’ve learned how to, not just write, but condense more. Find a way to create some passion with some lyrics and not just put something down to make it rhyme. It’s weird to say that, but it is hard to find that kind of groove in your head that says, “ I need to search for something deeper there.” You learn to do that, and it’s hard to do that, because you really don’t know how. But I’ve learned, just from co-writing with a lot of different people, and listening to different songwriters, like Paul Thorn and Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin, Springsteen … you learn how to really search for something deeper at all times.
Tell me a little bit about the lead single, “God Bless This Town.” What were you trying to convey with that one?
The actual idea came from joking around and a sarcastic comment I made after going out in my hometown — I went back and visited, and really got frustrated with some people that I used to call my friends who weren’t very cool anymore six or eight years down the road. It just amazed me how people can change so much, and I guess a lot of it has to do with me not living there anymore and moving away and not being a part of what’s happened there in the past eight years or so. So it was a sarcastic “God bless this town,” and then I thought that’d make a pretty good song. I started writing it with a guy who was out on the road with us, Michael Cox. There’s a line in there that goes, “population 153.” We wrote that about his home town; he grew up in Garden City, Texas, which really is population 150. So he also knew all about small town gossips and rumors that float around about you that aren’t true. People always try to make up stuff about you. Especially in my line of work. You hear stuff that’s said about you before you even know it, and they make decisions about you before it even happens.
Do you have a favorite rumor about you?
The actual one … what created the song was frustration from … I graduated from college and then went home for a couple of months before moving to Austin, just to kind of gather my feet. And the big rumor going around then was that I was quitting the band to be an electrician like my father for the rest of my life. But I was still touring full time!
When you speak of your hometown, are you talking about Waco?
Yes. Which, I love Waco. I’ve had comments from people, even from my parents, they sometimes take the song as me bad mouthing Waco. And that’s not true at all. I truly love Waco, I loved growing up there, and had a blast and love the friends I made there. Most of my family’s still there, and I love it. That song is just for a few specific people who pissed me off!
You just shot a video for “God Bless This Town.” Tell me about that.
We did some of it in Uhland, and some at a place called the Sealy General Store in Sealy, Texas. I don’t know if you ever heard of it, but it’s pretty neat — they did some of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there, and Secondhand Lions. Anyway, the plot of the video is pretty much us just doing our natural thing. It’s us driving around, being late to a show. So there’s scenes of us stopping to play dominoes with some guys, flirt with girls, all kinds of fun small town stuff. Then at the end we make it to the show on time. We got Ray Wylie Hubbard to play the part of the club owner, who’s pissed off at us. He played it perfect!
Have you done the Texas songwriter’s pilgrimage to Mount Hubbard in Wimberley to write with Ray Wylie?
Yes, I have. I’ve been very lucky in the past two years to get really close to Ray. Him and I have become real good friends, and I’ve been truly blessed with that, because he is one of the best guys out there that I’ve had the pleasure meeting. And he’s so willing to help out the young guys like me and a bunch of other people; he loves to be around them and kind of spread what he knows.
You didn’t write anything with him for this record, did you?
No. I wrote with him too late for this record. But we did write a pretty cool little tune which I’m sure one of us will record down the road.
I ask because I haven’t seen a credits sheet yet … but did you have any co-writes, other than “God Bless This Town,” that did make this record?
Yeah. Randy Rogers and I wrote a couple — “It’s All Over Town” and “Lay It All On You.” Brandon Rhyder and I wrote “One Step Closer,” and Bleu Edmonson and I wrote “Resurrection.” And then there’s a song on the record about my wife that I give Matt Powell a co-writer credit for because he helped me with a line, which is funny. I also cover one of Matt Powell’s songs that I heard on a demo he made, called “Broken Reflection.”
Matt Powell is the new guy in the band. How did he end up coming on board?
We had a French guitar player, Kevin Sciou. He was really good, but he didn’t fit our style. He needs to be in a Guns ’N’ Roses tribute band or something. He actually moved out to L.A. and joined the Rock ’n’ Roll Soldiers! So, Kevin left, and one day about a year and a half ago Matt opened a show for us with his own band, and I said, “Hey, we lost one of our guitar players, and I’d love for you to come play some shows with us if you’ve got the time.” That was on a Saturday night, and he called me Monday and said, “I’d actually like to just join the band … I’m going to quit doing my thing for now.”
How did Powell coming on board change the energy of the band and the live shows?
Well, he’s just a professional, amazing guitar player. It went form us being kind of unsure if we knew what we were doing to having this guy who knew everything, and it helped a lot with the show, it helped a lot with the songs. He came in and kind of gave his flavor to a lot of the old stuff, and it really helped me during those three years when we didn’t have anything new to play. It was really refreshing for me to play some of the songs in a different way.
Who all’s left from the original West 84 band now?
Me and Matt Miller (the other guitarist) are the only ones left. Matt and I met in college. We used to sit around the house and play a lot, until we looked each other in the eye one day and said, “Let’s go play a show!” It was funny how quickly it all happened after that. Being in Lubbock, just so far away from everything, it didn’t seem like there were a lot of other people to just go out and jam with. So we just did our own thing. For a while, it was just the five of us playing our own music and doing what we could, just having fun just between us.
The fist record was credited to “West 84.” Then the next two were “Wade Bowen & West 84.” Now, with Lost Hotel, it’s just “Wade Bowen.”
The West 84 deal was, we just felt like we kind of outgrew that name. And we never really got behind that name. It was decided about five minutes before we went on stage one time, and we never really put a whole lot of thought into it. So it didn’t hold a whole lot of sentimental value to me or any of the other guys. And when everyone else from the original band left and it was down to just me and Matt Miller … we realized that just calling it Wade Bowen doesn’t really make me stand out any more than anyone else in the band. I think the band appreciates how I represent them and promote what they do. They’re all just a bunch of talented guys who happen to be behind what I’m doing right now, which is the reason we just put Wade Bowen on there.
I gotta ask you about writing “Don’t Break My Heart Again” with Pat Green. When that song got picked as the first single from his last record … did you do any celebrating?
Oh yeah! There was a lot of celebrating.
How about splurging?
I bought myself a new guitar, a new Gibson. But that was about it. I’ve been either spending on my family or saving it for my son. Trying to be a good dad.
How’s that been so far?
I love it. It’s a lot harder than I expected, though, just being on the road as much as I am, not seeing him. It’s a lot harder on my wife, actually. She needs a lot of help. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of lack of sleep raising a 6-month old son. So I feel for her in that way, but she understands that this is my life and what I have to do, and she supports it. She’s been a blessing. She’s a very strong person, having to deal with all she’s got to deal with right now, and she’s stronger than she’s ever been.
Last question. The bio on your Web site suggests that you were quite the jock in high school. Or at least you tried a lot of different sports.
Yeah. I went to a small enough school that you could play all of that stuff. I mean, you lose a playoff game on Friday night in football, and Monday you’re going to basketball practice. Same with basketball to baseball. Or I’d go play golf tournaments during the day, and then baseball at night.
Were you scholarship potential at any of it?
Nah, I didn’t really pursue that. I didn’t want to, and I don’t even know if I was good enough to. I didn’t put a lot of focus into any one of them to really worry about it. I just had fun.
What position did you play in football?
I played both ways: I played quarterback, and defensively I played corner.
What’s your best “Friday Night Lights” story? Do you have any games you remember?
I remember every single one! I have a lot of good football memories, but I’m not going to get into telling you old football stories. I’ll spare you!