Charlie In Charge
A winter Sunday night, 1978. A blue norther howls. Snow has been drifting all afternoon and evening. Inside some shithole bar in Odessa, Texas, the patrons move beyond impatiently restless to downright surly. There is "we want our money back" talk from the bar full of roughnecks, bikers and cowboys. The Joe Ely Band, due in from Lubbock, is late. Very late. Tempers are short, the vibe is bad, the potential for violence higher than usual even for a shithole Odessa bar.
Around 11 p.m., the back door of the club suddenly opens, and some kid in a blue jean jacket steps in with an amplifier. Accordionist Ponty Bone and Lloyd Maines follow, and as they uncase their instruments, light cigarettes and make ready, the kid stacks equipment, plugs in cords, sets the stage. Within minutes, the lights dim, the band drops into a practiced badass vamp, the back door swings open, and Ely sprints through the darkness to the microphone. The lights go up, Ely grabs the mike and sings, "Call out the sheriff and the highway patrol / there's a fool on the road reelin' outta control." The crowd goes nuts.
That was the first time I ever saw Charlie Sexton -- the 12-year-old kid traveling with the Joe Ely Band, one of the hottest acts in America. They were so cool back then, the Clash played with them.
I ran into Ely recently in a University of Houston parking lot. He remembered the gig. "Jesse Taylor had broken his hand, so we picked up Charlie. He was already known around Austin and he was just an unbelievably mature guitarist."
How good? Besides the short stint in Ely's band, while still in his teens Sexton played in W.C. Clark's blues band and received occasional impromptu lessons from Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. By the time he was 17, he had a major-label record deal and had moved from Austin to L.A. (Austin screamed "sellout" at the top of its lungs) where a makeover turned him into a pop rock pinup and landed him on the cover of Spin magazine. "Beat's So Lonely," the single from his MCA debut, reached No. 17 on the Billboard charts. He hooked up in the studio with Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ron Wood.
While there have been bumps in the road, it hasn't exactly been all downhill for Sexton since then. He spent four years touring the world backing up Dylan, produced critically acclaimed albums for the famous (Lucinda Williams, Jon Dee Graham, Los Super Seven) and the not-so-famous (Michael Fracasso, current tourmate Shannon McNally) and played on an endless stream of quality studio albums for other artists, including Dylan's Love and Theft, Shawn Colvin's A Few Small Repairs and Don Henley's Building the Perfect Beast. He's played live with Tom Waits.
A decade after his widely praised but poorly purchased MCA album Under the Wishing Tree, Sexton has finally found the time to record himself again -- only this time he's avoided the pressure of the major labels, instead recording an album at home in Austin and releasing it on boutique label Back Porch Records. The quiet, layered singer-songwriter material will certainly come as a surprise to those who think of Sexton in terms of his former bands Arc Angels or the Charlie Sexton Sextet. For a guy who's been hailed as a guitar god virtually all his life, Sexton's approach on Cruel and Gentle Things is tasty, deliberate and restrained, with none of the searing blues-rock barroom rawness of those Arc Angels performances (a phase Sexton virtually dismisses as a passing moment within the span of his more than 25-year career).
"I'm really comfortable in the studio, and I love the work of bringing the art out, whether it's some artist I'm working with or my own things. Colors, tones, textures, I can get really involved in trying to get all that just right, make all that fit the song," he says. "I like the studio process, making the choices, hearing it evolve and come together. I like a good guitar solo as well as anyone, but that's not what this record and these songs needed.
"I still love playing live, the fun and excitement of it, but the studio stuff is what lasts, what will be around years from now, so I try to take that work very seriously."
It is immediately obvious that the years of playing with Dylan have affected Sexton's songwriting. It's been widely reported that Sexton told Dylan that as an infant he was more likely to be put to sleep with Dylan's classic albums like Highway 61 Revisited or Bringing It All Back Home than with lullabies.
"It's almost redundant to talk about Dylan as an 'influence' anymore. He's been so prolific and so important. I'm sure there's stuff being written by people who aren't directly influenced by him, but who were influenced by someone who was first influenced in their writing by Bob. Bob is just there, interwoven now throughout the whole thing."
Sexton is too subtle and refined a man to say "I was influenced by Dylan on that one," but the Dylan effect is everywhere one wants to hear it on Cruel and Gentle Things. There's a seriousness to the work and a writing voice that is unmistakably Dylanish in the songs, whether they're delivered with acoustic reverence as on "Gospel" or with the ominous pop aura of "Burn." Sexton seems to have grasped the urgency factor in Dylan. The Dylan effect also seems present in Sexton's manner. In conversation, he is polite, quiet and earnest, yet there's a bit of that Dylan wariness in him, a guarded moment between question and answer -- hardly surprising in an artist who has literally grown up in the public eye.
Despite 25 years of major-label deals, hundreds of studio sessions, success as a producer and being a part of Dylan's band, Sexton says he's far from financially independent.
"I have a good bit of flexibility to choose the projects I want to do, the artists I want to work with, but there are definitely financial concerns. The records I do are what I want to do, but money still matters. I've got a wife and son to provide for." He notes that before joining Dylan in 1999, things were pretty tight. "We'd just had a kid, the record business as everyone knew it was falling apart, so the call from Bob was a godsend."
Sexton wants to make it plain that the current tour is as much about promoting Louisiana blueswoman Shannon McNally's new album as his own.
"I produced a record with her for Capitol, but she got that old 'we don't hear a single' line. Back Porch turned out to be such a cool label that I was able to take her over there. So this tour is about getting Shannon's album out there and heard. We've got things set up where my band and I will back her for a set, then I'll do an acoustic set, then we'll do some more full band stuff to close things out. Something for everyone."
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