Lost in the '90s

The gaunt, goateed Beaver Nelson looks like one of Dostoyevsky's tortured heroes -- a Raskolnikov in shit-kicker boots and a button-up western shirt. But it was another Eastern European author in whose works Nelson seemed to languish for a time, namely those of Franz Kafka.

Who else but the Prague-dwelling master of the paranoid could have written a tale as tortured as Nelson's own personal story during the '90s? Hailed as the next big thing by Rolling Stone and signed to a major label at the tender age of 19, Nelson, between 1991 and 1997, cut not one but two albums that have yet to see the light of day. Corporate reshuffles, office politics and lawyerly shenanigans beset Nelson like God plagued the Egyptians. Had there been some sort of Faustian arrangement here, even Mephistopheles likely would have found it in himself to void the deal.

Nelson is loath to speak of those years today. "That story's been told, and I'd like to think I've got the momentum going again," the twentysomething tunesmith said in a phone interview. "I've definitely got a lot more pieces in place now, and I hope I know more about what the hell I'm doing now than I did when I was 20."

Certainly it would seem so. Little Brother, his first release since his 1998 debut, The Last Hurrah, was recently spotlighted on David Dye's nationally syndicated World Cafe radio program. The Austin media and the No Depression movement have lavished praise upon him. The gigs are growing more numerous and ranging farther and farther from Austin. It looks as though Nelson at last has clawed his way out of the Kafka novel in which his career had been trapped. Now, when he gigs in his old hometown, he feels more Odysseus than Joseph K. "It's fun to play here because I never played in Houston when I lived there. It's as if I'm not from there. But it's really great when I see old friends who I haven't seen in years and had totally lost track of. The only way I'll ever see 'em again is if they come and see me at one of my shows."

A product first of the Spring area and later of Second Baptist Academy, Nelson recalled that until his mid-teens he listened to "whatever crap they were playing on the radio." His last year at Laity Lodge summer camp put an end to that, however, as a couple of older and wiser counselors clued him in to Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. A young Nelson found what he didn't even know he had been looking for. By summer's end he had made his first demo, which he sold by the caseload to other campers and hometown buddies.

After high school Nelson spent an idyllic summer in San Saba as a cowpuncher before entering the University of Texas for a brief, frustrating foray into academia. After one semester Nelson took leave of UT and redoubled his efforts on the music front. Already a regular on the Austin open-mike scene, Nelson, like Joseph K. in Kafka's The Trial, thought his breakfast had arrived when the major-label folks came courting. Little did he know that it was not a meal but a persecution they held in store; it was not until the independent release of The Last Hurrah that things got back on track. Since then, it's been onward and upward for Nelson, and his media kit runneth over with plaudits, some of them a little troubling.

It is unfortunate, if understandable, that Nelson so often is compared with his self-professed "favorite songwriter," Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt, for his own part, wrestled mightily with his own critically imposed albatross, the much-dreaded and seemingly jinxed "next Dylan" tag. This was a crown of thorns that adorned not only Van Zandt, but also John Prine, Steve Forbert, Bruce Springsteen and damn near every other gifted songwriter who came along when Dylan got really weird in the '70s.

Now that Van Zandt is gone, there is pressure in Austin and Nashville to anoint a successor, but there ain't gonna be one. Genius can have children, but never successors. Such pithy words as the "next TVZ" are little but the work of overexcited critics too eager to make a name for themselves. No one can ever write a Dylan song quite like Dylan, and nobody can write a Townes tune like Townes could. Leading fans to expect otherwise brews up an inevitable backlash. There is little on Little Brother that conjures up uniquely Texan or Southwestern imagery. What it offers is more generally Southern than our peculiar Lone Star variation on the Dixie experience. Maybe it's the absence of the fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel, and the presence of a small horn section here and there, or maybe it's the Small Faces-type rave-ups. Whatever the reason, Little Brother, unlike Last Hurrah, conjures more Memphis than Marfa; it's more a Nashville underground-type release than most Austin Americana of the present day.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. To Nelson's immense credit, the Townes influence is in tone, not in musical style. With Van Zandt, Nelson does share that rarest characteristic of unaffected melancholy, a poignancy that is never precious. There is a feeling of clawing desperately for the unattainable in even his seemingly upbeat lyrics. It is there in the voice, too, a needful and affecting pleading that never degenerates into maudlin begging. For Nelson, this is clearly no Morrissey-style pose, and at times he writes a most Van Zandtian line or two, such as the following from "Shadow on the Wall": "Life is just a mockingbird / It laughs at screams that go unheard / dances right around above your head / and echoes dumb shit that you said / about the crazy times you knew then / the dreams that you once called your friends."

Nevertheless, Beaver Nelson can truly say he has arrived when critics stop calling him "the next Townes Van Zandt" and start calling someone else "the next Beaver Nelson."