At the Crossroads

Hadden Sayers likes control. More often than not, only his hands are on the steering wheel of his career. He makes every decision that affects his work, and labors over details. He fronts two eponymous bands, one for live gigs, the other for recording. The latter has been taking up most of his time the past couple of weeks, seeing as the guitarist is busy (here and in Nashville) working on his first full-length studio CD in four years. In counterpoint to the stripped-down approach he used on his last, 1996's Retrofutura, Sayers is employing hulkish production techniques this time around to create, according to the musician, the "biggest, best Hadden Sayers record ever." He has brought in heavy artillery to back up the claim. Pat Buchanan, a studio guitarist of some note, has already contributed rhythm tracks to six songs, and other participants of similar experience are on board. Recording should be complete by October -- or whenever Sayers says so.

Though Sayers describes the sound as "raw pop with blues guitar," he says so with a chill in his voice. The Stevie Ray-clone thing is a description he loathes and is trying to shed. Funny how things change. When he parted with Miss Molly and the Whips, it was because he wanted to be a Stevie Ray clone. That ghost still lingers in every pentatonic riff Sayers rips.

Sayers had at least two reasons for cutting out on Miss Molly. He moved on partly out of necessity, trying to escape from a burning house, and partly out of respect for that voice in his head saying there were more songs and styles to pursue. The other members of the outfit were starting to get the same vibrations and soon went their separate ways -- to teach, travel or work for the oil industry. Hadden left Miss Molly to play in Planet X, then in the five-piece Hadden Sayers Band. Sayers eventually reconfigured the quintet as a three-piece, which is how it has remained since 1995, with its own share of lineup changes.

The major reason behind Sayers's sayonara was his desire to chase this Vaughanian dream. Sayers wanted to repackage himself as a "blues guitar-slinger kinda guy," which had more to do with wanting to be a rock star than releasing his inner Delta bluesman. The label "blues guitar-slinger," at least back in 1996, seemed like the fastest way to get there. "That's a moniker that's stuck with me for a long time now, and it's something that's really hard to shake," Sayers says, with only a touch of incredulity escaping from his matter-of-fact tone.

The path he has chosen has certainly been bluesy. It has led to regular roadwork and a devoted fan base, but so far has failed to generate much national media or industry attention.

Stevie Ray clones who have achieved some success -- and other blues-based artists, such as Eric Clapton and Aerosmith -- haven't done it alone. While developing their own musical identities, they've employed the songwriting services of others. Stevie Ray clones who've been less successful remain, for better or worse, puritanical in their beliefs in solo craftsmanship. Some won't let outsiders near their work; Sayers was one of them -- until recently.

"I'm trying to write the best songs I possibly can write, and get the best songs I possibly can write," he says, adding that he has co-written material for his latest with Austin's Danny Tate, the guy whose pen has helped jettison Kenny Wayne Shepherd to stardom.

The big leagues have so far eluded Sayers, despite his years on the scene. He's operating without a record deal of any type, getting regular high-exposure gigs across a broad geographic area by virtue of his craft and the skills of his booking agent. Records are sold through either local retail outlets or his Web site.

As far as Sayers sees it, having something musical to do already puts him ahead of most of his contemporaries. Drummer Chris Axelrad, formerly the drummer in Planet X (Sayers's post-Molly outfit) and now TKoH!, describes Sayers as one of the most professional guys in the business. "He can say more for himself than most, as far as making it in music goes. There's a lot of cats that can do it, like, on the level of playing casual gigs. But people that can manage to go on tour, and make CDs, and make a living at it, are very few and far between -- especially out of Houston, because there's no infrastructure here to help you do that."

Staying unattached, Sayers says, is his preferred status. He credits his survival to never signing a deal. "I've just made my records on my own," Sayers says. "And it's been able to finance a lot of touring and a lot of promotion that I normally would not have been able to do."

Not everyone sees Sayers's situation as peachy. Dickie Malone, manager of the Fabulous Satellite Lounge and the man who both recruited Sayers into the Whips and set up Planet X as a house band at the club, says, "I've been critical of what he's chosen to do. I feel like he got to where he is now five years ago and has been spinning his wheels ever since."

It's not all Sayers's fault, in Malone's opinion. He says the Texas circuit can't support a nonblues band, like the one he envisions Sayers fronting. Malone has a point: Concentrating on constant touring, instead of putting together one kick-ass finely produced recording, is full of good intentions but not good results. You can't grow artistically when you're on the road every night. It's about time Sayers settled down.

When pressed to go back five years and remember how he saw the future, Sayers admits that though the current picture "seemed most likely to happen," he'd be lying if he didn't say that "I had my fingers crossed that I'd get a bigger record deal and be able to put my record in every store and have somebody promoting it."

Another thing might be a signature sound. Sayers feels he's breaking out of the guitar-slinger cliché. He also says greater commercial success will help him destroy the label completely, the notion being that once you figure out what people want, you can fine-tune your sound to deliver.

After the upcoming CD is released, Sayers plans to record a back-to-basics album. He wants to follow up quickly on the Nashville studio affair, so that his two selves can somehow reinforce each other instead of tearing at each other's throats.

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Chris Smith