It's been a little more than six years since John Evans moved to Austin, but he could be forgiven for hardly noticing sometimes. Raised in the Sagemont area, where he starred in football for Dobie High School and later Lamar University, Evans wound up winning more than a dozen Houston Press Music Awards. More recently, he's done so much work at SugarHill Studios that he jokes about living with engineer Steve Christensen half the time.
“Like all I do is drive to Houston and back,” Evans, back home for once, cracks over the phone. “It’s hilarious.”
Evans is a musician's musician, a chameleonic songwriter whose latest album, Polyester, marks both the ending of a difficult period in his life and the beginning of the next one. He says naming it after the synthetic fabric used in leisure suits and bell-bottom trousers – the sort that a 6'5”, lanky rocker like Evans might wear onstage, for example – seemed appropriate considering the many different musical fibers that constitute his sound. It also reminded him of an old job he once had at a chemical company called Sterling Manufacturing, Evans explains.
“I was kind of familiar with polyester and ester foams and what all goes into it,” he offers. “It’s all man-made stuff, but there’s so many different uses. But it’s all based in the ester. And with this record, the songs kind of go across the map into five or six different genres, but they’re grounded in old roots music.
“So I felt like it’s kind of like a polyester leisure suit, where you can wear six different colors but they all come together and it ends up looking cool,” he adds. “At least I think it does, and that’s kind of what I was thinking with the album.”
Released on Houston's Splice Records, Polyester is a bittersweet album that balances upbeat material like the title track and “Instant Society” – a social-media critique Evans says he wrote to make the point that “if you’re really that deep into complaining about all this shit, then maybe you should go do it” — with the more melancholy “Sweet Dreams,” “Until You” and “Good Life,” among others. Evans wrote and recorded the record while looking after his daughter Abbie, who passed away in December 2013 from an obscure skin disease known as epidermolysis bullosa. She was only 20 years old, and had become well-known to Evans's fans as “Merch Girl” from her constant post behind the T-shirt stand at his shows. Filmmaker Cary Bell's documentary about Abbie's struggles, Butterfly Girl, was a featured selection at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, and inspired Variety to say, “although it would be easy for the film to become grim or despairing, that’s not how any of [the family] choose to see their situation.”
Abbie also inspired some of Polyester's more unusual songs, like the fuzzed-out funk/spoken-word/rockabilly hybrid “Dust Bowl.” Headed back from Beaumont one time, Evans left it up to Abbie whether they would settle in Houston or Austin, where his friend Hayes Carll had invited them to stay at his place; the stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics reflect “all the things running through my head” at the time, Evans explains. The sentimental “Grandma's Chair” recalls the time shortly after they moved in, when, Evans says, “we thought if we bring little bitty pieces of family with us, little pieces of furniture and things, we can make it feel like home.” He was also listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson.
“It’s a personal record, and you can almost tell that some of the songs — a lot of times, that stuff I would have saved and only sung those songs at songwriters’ shows and song swaps,” Evans says. “I’d never really put ’em in with the band. And then I thought about it and I was like, ‘Man, I want to make this record with all of these tunes, and I want to use the guys that I’ve been using on other people’s projects, and try to make a beautiful record.”
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Once Abbie passed away, Evans put completing Polyester on hold and instead threw himself into performing and producing. There was plenty of work to go around – besides his own John Evans Band, Evans is a member of girlfriend Emily Bell's backup group and El Trio Grande with fellow roots-rock wordsmiths Jesse Dayton and Mike Stinson. Production-wise, recently he's had a hand in Bell's In Technicolor; Texas City-born honky-tonk throwback Jason James's 2015 self-titled debut; and Corb Lund's Cabin Fever, which actually bumped Justin Bieber out of the top spot on the Canadian album charts last fall. But all of that stuff he can handle — Evans says it was the promotional side of putting out a new record that was making him flinch.
“It was something where it was tough to play, but I’d have to put on a face and go play,” he explains. “I really couldn’t do the social side or the networking or the interviews that it would take to put out a record. You know, there’s a lot that goes into it, and a lot is just going around and meeting people. I wasn’t ready to embrace that. It’s really been in this past six months that I’ve finally said, ‘You know, I feel like I can do it again and not completely go crazy.’”
The John Evans Band releases Polyester with special guests Nic Armstrong & the Thieves Saturday night at Raven Tower, 310 North. Doors open at 8 p.m.