Game, Set and Match

Singer-songwriter/Spanish teacher/tennis coach Melinda Mones's musical background is a jumble, and her debut album proves it.

The album ranges from energetic good-time twangers like "Sunshine and Him" and "Good Life" ("you're never gonna find my number on a wall / but if you're lookin' for a good time, call") to funky blues-rock on "Derail," with guitarist Hamilton Loomis laying on the licks. Sweet country harmonies give tracks like "Lonely" and "Maggie" the commercial qualities of acts like the Dixie Chicks. Dramatic songs like "My Apology," with lines like "Maybe I'll miss you just a little / as I wind my way home through the park / I'll think about you as I scrape / your initials from the bark" can appeal to the 18- to 35-year-old homemaker demographic and the alt-Texas crowd that tends to shun mainstream radio. Before its abrupt demise, country station KIKK-FM gave the album a few spins, and Mones also found some support at the more alternative-minded KPFT-FM.

"I grew up liking everything from Diana Ross to Billy Joel to musical soundtracks to Bonnie Raitt, and all that bleeds over into my writing and the covers I pick," Mones says. "My stuff sways more toward the country side, but we definitely rock."

A former state tennis champion at Bellaire High School who attended the University of Arkansas on a full athletic scholarship, the Mayde Creek High School teacher may front one of the brainiest bands in town, with geophysicist Brian Kalinec on lead guitar and radiologist John Haddad on bass. Mones's husband, drummer James Stone, is also a teacher and attends law school. With a steady lineup for the first time since she began playing professionally, Mones dreams and schemes about making music her full-time occupation.

"Obviously our careers are a limiting factor on how often we play, but the positive side is that we can afford to play certain gigs that offer little more than good exposure without worrying whether we'll have enough gas money to get home. Right now, we need to play more than we need a big payday."

It's Thursday night and the band is playing one of those low-pay-good-exposure gigs as the opener at another band's CD release party at the Continental Club. For Mones, it's a chance to show one of the prestige clubs in town what she's got.

"If we weren't doing this we'd be rehearsing, so we were thrilled they asked us," she says. "It's a chance to win a few fans and maybe make a good impression with the club."

It had been over a year since I had seen the band at an open-mike night, and while Mones always had an impressive voice, the change in the band was noticeable. They got more reaction than the headliners, although the set was limited to eight songs.

"I guess we unconsciously used recording as an excuse to not go full-forward with performances and practice. We lost our bassist in that period too, so we were a man short. We'd book a gig, then scramble to find a bass player. Now we've got a steady group and a regular practice schedule, and it shows. It's so much easier when you're not worrying about whether everyone remembers the songs."

While satisfied with her first album (recorded locally at Bungalow Studio and produced by Marius Fleck), Mones admits she got some expensive lessons.

"I was just incredibly naive about the whole thing, so Brian and I ended up spending too much money. I just sat back and watched what was going on simply because I was new to all of this.

"Part of the problem was hiring studio musicians to do a lot of the parts because at the time we didn't have a real band. If we'd had a band, we'd have been better rehearsed and wouldn't have wasted time teaching stuff to people who hadn't heard the songs, just gotten in and out. It was crazy, but I learned a lot."

Mones's next album, which she says will be "low-budget but not low-quality," is already coming together with Stone producing. The aim is to come closer to the band's live sound.

"The first album sounds very polished and full. We didn't consciously aim for a commercial sound, but listening to it now, I can see that someone might think we were. This time the focus is to capture the raw energy we get as a live band. And being married to the producer, I have no problem saying if I want something to sound different this time."

A past president of the Fort Bend Songwriter's Association who wrote three songs for the album, lead guitarist Kalinec has poured considerable time and money into the band. An old hand at the music business, he views his career as a petroleum geophysicist philosophically.

"A day job restricts the time you can put into a band, but it makes you appreciate the opportunity even more. And let's face it: Adjusted for inflation, music pays less now than it did when I was playing in bands in high school back in the Mesozoic era."

Kalinec, whom Mones describes as an adviser, has been a friend of the Mones family so long that he "helped her dad pick out her first guitar." When Mones returned to Houston from a sports producer's job at a Nashville television station, she and Kalinec began playing together acoustically but always planned to expand the act to a full band.

"Melinda's sound is unique and she's very adaptable to different performing situations. That makes it easier for us as a band with limited time, because she performs the songs pretty much the same acoustic or with the band."

That flexibility has taken Mones from South By Southwest, where she played the GoGirls showcase solo last year, to listening rooms such as Anderson Fair, Ovations and the Mucky Duck, to louder, edgier venues such as the Continental Club and the Rhythm Room, and to honky-tonks like Blanco's, where danceable music is a prerequisite.

"Most people would tend to label us country," says Kalinec, "but as I discovered when we were in the preproduction phase of the album, there are considerable rock and dance elements to Melinda's music."

Kalinec sees a future full of promise.

"I feel better about where we are and where we can go than I've felt since we put this thing together. We've absorbed some hard lessons making the first album, but that's put us in a position where any conscious decisions we tend to make about recording and performing now are aimed at capturing and complementing Melinda's talent without overproducing it. Melinda is almost magnetic when she starts singing, like people can't help but be drawn to her. I've watched that happen from the stage many times. Only a lucky few have that, and she's one of the lucky few."

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William Michael Smith