It's hard, if not impossible, to argue that Lee Alexander is one of Houston's most celebrated musical sons. If his Houston Press Music Awards were stacked on top of each other they would be taller than he is. Like many of the solid veteran names in Houston, Alexander has occasionally felt the more miasma-like properties (look it up) of the local scene.
What is it about this town that drives hordes of talent to hang their heads and just move on to something or somewhere else? A book could be written containing musings on the subject from this blog alone, and the private complaints of the city's 400-plus musical acts would form an encyclopedia-sized appendix.
Some blame the lack of a music district, others the laziness or unprofessional behavior of the bands themselves. Still others find cause in the general downturn of the music industry, unscrupulous or incompetent promoters, or just blame bad geographic luck. This atmosphere has made Alexander contemplate focusing on the highly profitable current popularity of children's music, scaling back the adult material that won him much acclaim, but has not launched him nationally.
His plans, however, may be changing, and the oft hoped-for but little-expected rise of Houston's musical community is the cause. There is little doubt that Houston is on the rise. Summer Fest has become a stable phenomenon. New West Records has just signed Buxton, the Wild Moccasins and Robert Ellis to deals. Space City Records, Mia Kat Empire, and Magnolia Red are actually developing artists into viable acts. Hell, Rocks Off is even putting a band back together just because no time has seemed like a better time to be onstage here.
In the current atmosphere, Alexander is considering putting his children's album on hold. He emailed Rocks Off to ask our advice, and the following conversation shows better than anything else that as a city, Houston is finally about to take our place as the home of cutting-edge music in Texas.
Rocks Off: You seem to feel that a - let's say it softly - scene seems to finally be gaining momentum here. Why does that make you doubt your own sound has a place in it?
Lee Alexander: Well, I think the doubt I expressed was concerning doing a "family album" at this particular place in time in Houston, not the music I usually do. But since you've mentioned it, up until only recently I have felt at odds with the scene, though the fault is entirely mine. I mean, look at my last album: Put a country song, a psychedelic song, and a jazz song up back to back and what do you expect?
Venues don't know what to make of you, many writers don't know how to review you, DJs don't know if they should play you, so there you are. That's what I get for following my obsessive whims and writing under a constant fear of becoming predictable. I think I have finally found my niche though this past year as I've played more house concerts and listening rooms. Places like Jeff Abrams House Concerts, The Artery, Anderson Fair - that's more my element.
RO: Who do you feel are the musicians responsible for the increasing attention Houston is starting to attract?
LA: Well, the urban/rap end of the musical spectrum in Houston has done pretty well for the past 20 years. That certainly helped, no question. The co-producer of my last two CDs, James Hoover has won a Grammy for his work with Chamillionaire, so he can certainly attest to that fact. But attention has really picked up for other genres as of late.
First off, whether you like them or not, Blue October has had at least something to do with it. They're not my cup of tea, but I have to give credit where it's due. Also, Hayes Carll and Mando Saenz are starting to make their mark in the alt-country scene. Props also go out to touring bands like Buxton, The Ton Tons, and Wild Moccasins. They are really getting out there and making things happen for themselves.
RO: Do you feel like you should be emulating them?
LA: That is a tough question. Anyone in the business would tell you that I probably should tour as much as they do. As a father and sole breadwinner supporting a wife who's a full-time student, following their lead is out of the question. I envy them, their unencumbered artistic freedom, I honestly do. But their path, and their life decisions aren't the same as mine.
So like Amos Lee, I do what I can during time the off when I'm not teaching. It's a crazy balancing act of being a musician and an involved father. It means if and when you play out-of-town, you have to make sure it's a big happening that counts, like conventions, music festivals, and things like that. It means sometimes you even have to pass on great opportunities.
Like recently, for example, I had three invites to play at showcases during SXSW this year, but my daughter's birthday falls on that weekend so I passed on the offers. But I don't bemoan decisions like that, because the one thing I fear more than being a musical failure is having to live with regrets that I wasn't the father I could have been.
I do get a lot of advice from people around town that I should be doing this or I should be doing that. But to be honest, I think I've done all right with what little I have. I recorded my last album in my closet for free, I have no hip wardrobe, no dazzling Web site, no arsenal of novelty videos up on YouTube. And yet I've still made a name for myself.
And that's not to be critical of bands who do all those things, because believe me I would do it too if I had the time, energy, and money. It's just that in the unfortunately small position I'm in, my music has to sell itself solely on its own merit. That's the only thing I have going for me. And if weren't for my supportive band and eternally patient wife, I wouldn't even be making music at all - so I'm grateful for what I have been able to do to the extent that I have.
Big labels aren't beating down my door, so I'll stick with my Ani DiFranco game plan for now. I would use the term "Maverick" here, but Palin has totally ruined it for me.
RO: As one of our most celebrated artists, do you feel you can take some credit for Houston's new status?
LA: In the world of world popular and innovative music, no. There is absolutely nothing cool, exciting, or novel about what I do. In terms of the printed word and indie radio, maybe. My music seems to go over well with critics, it's won its fair share of awards, and it gets airplay on indie stations all over the world. There's definitely a buzz out there, and my CD sales get a boost from it.
But whether or not anyone has paid any attention to the fact that I'm from Houston, or even cares, is anyone's guess. So I'm reluctant to take credit for that. Also consider that most of what I've accomplished has been through word of mouth, and there's no way to gauge that or what possible effect it could have had on drawing attention to the Houston music scene.
RO: What about what's going on in the local music business do you find the most exciting?
LA: Well, I think the fact that New West is seeming to take an interest in Houston artists is most exciting indeed. The emerging Zenhill label is really cool. Houston Press Music Awards keeps growing into a bigger deal with every passing year. Summer Fest is a fantastic shindig that keeps growing as well.
RO: You're thinking about abandoning your children's album to focus more on the adult material now that seems to be gaining an audience all over town. Is there something specific that triggered such thoughts?
LA: There are some noteworthy local musicians of accomplishment in the field of Children's/Family Music who have told me they don't feel they get the same amount of respect just because their audience happens to me mostly children and their parents. Yet, their songs are on Sesame Street, Prairie Home Companion, and they win Parent's Choice Awards with Nickelodeon. I mean, maybe it's just me, but that's kind of a big deal, isn't it?
But I don't read things about them, and I didn't know about their music till I met them. Randomly ask 50 Houstonians if they enjoy listening to Trout Fishing in America, they wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about. But the reality is that Trout Fishing in America hails from Houston, and they rank probably second only to Dan Zane in terms of popular, non-commoditized children's music.
So yeah, that is a big concern. "Will I be considered a joke if I do this? Will people take me seriously if I go back to adult oriented music? Am I throwing away what I worked hard to achieve?" These questions are going through my mind, and I think there is good reason to be apprehensive. Ultimately I will probably go through with [it]. Half-hearted or whole-hearted is the question, I guess.
I'm halfway through recording the fourth song so there's no reason the scrap the project now. It's more of a question of what form that collection of songs will take, and to what extent will I market it. Will I just throw some songs up online for sale? Just do an EP? A fully supported album?" This is what's going through my mind right now.
These are things I have to figure out, and there is no playbook for promoting yourself this genre of music. I really don't have a clue about what I'm doing in this arena.
Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.