By Rob Patterson
(LSM May/June 2014/vol. 7 – issue 3)
It was a classic music business tale: The Wagoneers blazed out of Austin in 1987 to quickly win a major-label record deal and head to Nashville to record their debut album. Boldly titled and branded true Texan as Stout & High — a coinage taken from a letter by an Alamo defender describing its walls — the smoking disc won rave reviews from the mainstream media and country music critics for the way the foursome delivered authentic twang, shuffles, and old-school C&W rocked up to date with four-man band brio. They took their hard-charging live show on the road, playing anywhere and everywhere and opening shows for country stars and legends as well as rock bands like the Ramones.
A second album, Good Fortune, was a pale follow-up. Radio never embraced the band, and after two years of near-constant roadwork, guitarist Brent Wilson and bassist Craig Pettigrew quit the group. Singer and primary songwriter Monte Warden and drummer Tom Lewis carried on into 1990 with hired guns, but their run was over, kaput, done … or so it seemed. In 2011, the Wagoneers staged a long-overdue return to action with two well-received reunion shows during South By Southwest.
After two decades apart, it was as much of a surprise to the band itself as it was to fans, but the Wagoneers reunion went over so well that they continued playing shows together, whetting appetites for a new recording with a fresh crop of brand new songs. And they did indeed cut a new album — and a really good one, too. It was all playing out like a perfect Behind the Music comeback story. Except for the fact that that long-await- ed third Wagoneers record is now even longer awaited.
“It’s in limbo,” says Lewis of the still unreleased album, which for now they’re calling The Wagoneers. “It’s been one frustration after another for one reason or another.”
Warden, on the other hand, maintains a more optimistic outlook. “I’m not frustrated,” says the singer, “because here’s what I know: We’re just trying to find the right home for it. We waited 23 years to make our third album. I’m not going to rush putting it out.”
Their contrasting viewpoints “are both true for where we are,” says Warden. But don’t misconstrue it as a sign of discord, as the solidarity amongst the Wagoneers has never been greater — especially regarding what they achieved on the album. “I couldn’t be more proud of the record,” Warden enthuses. “And there are records that I made in the past where I could not have said that.”
The Wagoneers has quite a legacy to live up to — despite Lewis’ humble attempt to downplay the band’s importance and impact. “Though it’s an interesting story, we were just a blip on the map before,” he says of their initial run. He has a point, but truth be told, the Wags (as they are known by fans in shorthand) wowed anyone who ever saw them play, and were pivotal in Texas and roots music history in their timing and influence. In the late ’80s, Nashville music was mired in country-pop dreck, the Austin Cosmic Cowboy movement had played out its hand, and country had hit a low point in popularity with new generations of music fans not just in Austin and Texas but nationwide. The music needed a new burst of energy and vitality, and the Wagoneers had that in spades. Delivering country with an energy and hipness that both grabbed younger ears and satisfied older ones with their reverence for the style’s verities, the Wagoneers were the nuclear trigger for a young Austin country scene that soon came to include Kelly Willis and Chaparral (out of which came Bruce and Charlie Robison) and many others to follow in a 1990s local flowering if not explosion of roots country talent. They not only presaged the rise of Americana/alt-country, but gave it a hearty shove, paving the way in Music City for rock-style bands playing country like the Mavericks. They must also be credited as one of the acts that helped plant the seeds of the Texas country/Red Dirt movement that’s flourished now for well over a decade.
In the years following the band’s break up, Warden launched a solo career and later struck pay dirt as a writer of songs for top Nashville acts, most notably the 2004 No. 6 George Strait hit “Desperately” (co-written with Bruce Robison). Lewis and Wil- son both did time as hired guns in Austin and Nashville before returning home, where the former also drums with the band Haybale! Bassist Craig Pettigrew played with Dale Watson in his early Austin years before largely setting music aside to work as a bus driver for Austin’s Capital Metro to support his family, which in time came to include five kids.
The only time the Wagoneers got together again was to cut a rather hot track in 1995 for a now-out-of-print Austin country compilation. Then in 2011, they were asked by the Austin Music Awards to play the show as part of their induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. When they reunited to rehearse in Warden’s South Austin living room, they discovered from the first notes that the mutual magic was still there. After playing the awards show and then a SXSW showcase at the Continental Club later that night to a warm and robust reception, the Wag- oneers were back in full gear for phase two of their career.
The new album, recorded two years ago, is the work of a genuine band locking together to not just serve but honor and exalt 12 stunningly good songs Warden wrote with the help of co-writers like his wife Brandi, Pettigrew, Bruce Robison, Colin Boyd, and Darden Smith. They cut it in Nashville with producer Mark Bright — a Wagoneers fan from their first run whose chart-topping credits include Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts — but tracked it old-school and Austin style. “The recordings are basically us live in this big room at Starstruck Studios,” Lewis says. “Mark did sort of a George Martin approach: just set up some mics and let us go. Two or three of the songs are first takes.”
In less than two weeks they had a definitive contemporary Wagoneers album. “I think it shows our maturity,” Lewis contin- ues. “It’s a little bit of everything like we did before but more of it. But it’s a very current sounding album; it doesn’t seem like the follow-up to Stout & High or Good Fortune — it stands on its own. We’re all proud of it.”
And rightly so, as it’s one of those all-too-rare albums that strikes a perfect balance between commercial appeal and artistic credibility. But although they’ve shopped the new album to re- cord labels, so far, no dice. “Everyone says, ‘We love the record,’ and that’s it,” says Lewis. A band that was once courted by the biz and then backed to the hilt by A&M has run up against the sad re- alities of today’s far smaller and much more parsimonious indus- try. “No one is willing to sign anything unless they know they’re going to break even.”
The Wagoneers are more than ready to help any label willing to meet them halfway; they’re practically chomping at the bit to hit the road and win over the world. But the catch 22 is that tour- ing just isn’t an option presently without certain adult realities being met. “We’ve got a guy who has a full-time gig that he can- not leave until we can make the jump to being a full-time band,” explains Warden. “A label hears that and thinks, that’s tour sup- port — and tour support doesn’t exist any more. What it means now is selling CDs at your gig.”
An alternate route, of course, would be for the Wagoneers to self-release the album, perhaps with help from a crowd-funding campaign. But Warden is standing his ground.
“I know that a record this good is something to be so proud of, that it’s not something to just throw out there or put it out ourselves just for the sake of having something to sell at our gigs,” Warden says. “This record deserves better than that. And these songs I’ve written deserve better than that. It can only come out once. And we’ll get there. I do not share one percent of Tommy’s frustration, but I do share 100 percent of the desire to get this record out at its right home. Anyone who knows me knows that patience is not something I snuggle up against. But I’ve been able to have such patience with this project because I know that it deserves that.
“All we can do is make the music,” he continues. “I just have faith that anything this good will find its way home. I know when this thing finally comes out it’ll be a big ol’ breath of fresh air for everybody.”
Until then, the only place to hear those new songs and to see the band live is to catch the Wagoneers’ weekly Sunday residency at Austin’s Continental Club. But take it from Warden himself or from anyone else who has already caught them in the act: The Wagoneers at their best, which is very much where they’re at right now, is not a show you want to miss.
“I’ll put the Wagoneers live show up against any four 20-year-olds,” asserts Warden. “It’s a shovel to the face.”