Tall drink of water Dallas singer-songwriter Max Stalling has made a solid career on the Texas circuit since the mid-'90s one gig and one solid album at a time. A running buddy of Dallas-based Mark David Manders, Stalling began his musical journey at Dallas open mikes where he received encouragement from Manders, Kevin Deal, Brian Burns Jay Johnson, and others. By the time he recorded his debut album, Comfort In the Curves, in 1997, the whole Texas music/Pat Green/Red Dirt thing had swept Dallas and the state, and Stalling eventually found himself in such demand he was able to quit his day job as a product development engineer for Frito-Lay.
While Manders and other Dallas-area stalwarts have for the most part cut back on their musical endeavors, Stalling, a graduate of Texas A&M, has managed to keep his core audience together and work himself into some choice gigs such as the one Friday at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck. Stalling’s quiet, everyday tales appeal to a certain audience and good-ole-boy Texan mindset, and that has helped assure his longevity in an overcrowded genre. The fact that his songs actually have some depth, wit, and elegant phrasing hasn’t hurt either.
The Crystal City native — South Texas figures frequently in Stalling’s music — has recently released his fifth studio album, Banquet, on his own Blind Nello label. He’s wisely added tasty covers like Doug Sahm’s “Beautiful Texas Sunshine” and a how-could-it-miss version of the Beatles’ somewhat syrupy pop confection “Two of Us.” Stalling has covered the Beatles before.
“I loved them and was always such a fan of their songwriting and composing,” Stalling explains. “I think everyone can relate to a Beatles cover even if they don’t actually know it’s the Beatles.”
Stalling believes reaching across generational limits has been a key part of his success, using the Mucky Duck as an example.
“At the Mucky Duck my crowd usually consists of some old fans who go way back with us; some, for lack of a better description, yuppie business types; some folks who probably live in River Oaks or West University; and some people who don’t really know my music but they know the Duck is very reliable for booking quality acts. Let’s just say it’s not a homogeneous crowd. It’s not just guys with their ball caps on backwards.”
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Speculating on his longevity in a scene that has turned trite on some levels and seen many flashes in the pan who washed out after two or three albums, Stalling, who quit his day job in 2002, notes, “I never attained the level of success some of my peers have, but I’m still alive, still swinging, and I feel really, really fortunate.
"On the days when I’m moping around, when I’m second-guessing myself or wondering if I should be doing something else than this, I just always come back around to the fact that I’ve been able to do this 20 years now, I still like it, I still like interacting with audiences, playing and writing music, and that I could have to do something that pays really well but that I hate," he continues. "So I truly try to just focus on being grateful for what I’ve got as a so-called career.”
Stalling also notes it hasn’t come without effort.
“Some of my contemporaries in the DFW scene have reduced their number of gigs or are only doing gigs in the area now,” he says, “but I’ve made it a conscious point to stay on the road, to keep gigging. I could go into a part-time mode, get me a different job and only play when it fits, but that’s not what I want to do.
“You have to realize that while I’m getting better gigs than I was 15-20 years ago, I’m still playing the Blue Light in Lubbock, playing the college bars and rowdy beer joints. But I do love to get a gig in a great listening room like the Duck," adds Stalling. "That’s gravy.”
Like other folks in the Texas music and Americana genres, Stalling is constantly dealing with the changing economics of the business.
“There’s a reason my best-selling and most financially successful album is the one we recorded at Dan’s Silver Leaf in Denton in 2006 [Sell-Out, Blind Nello Records]. Bottom line is that it’s just cheaper to record a live album than to go to a studio and work your way through new songs one track at a time,” says Stalling. “On top of that, I think people like live albums if they’re well-recorded and well-mixed, which that one was.”
Stalling, who is married to Blacktop Gypsy fiddler Heather Starcher-Stalling, had been living near Tyler in the small town of Bullard for almost a decade, but moved back into Dallas three years ago when Starcher-Stalling’s son graduated from high school.
“There are times when we miss the simplicity and the peace and quiet of the country,” he says, “but it’s also nice to be back where you can easily get pho or go see a good show. After being gone for years, I’ve come to appreciate Dallas more now, to take what it offers.”
Stalling also notes that it’s been a while since he’s played Houston’s No. 1 listening room, and he’s eager to get back there.
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“I’ve always used the Duck as a measuring stick,” Stalling explains. “I go in there and use it as a way to get intimate with the audience versus slogging through a long night in a beer joint and just cranking it up. My guitarist can put his electric down and pick up the mandolin, we can actually do more subtle arrangements. The sound is great so people can hear your lyrics at the Duck, and every songwriter wants the lyrics to be the focus.”
Stalling and band just returned from the annual Texas/Red Dirt music/skiing festival in Steamboat, Colorado, and he was very encouraged by what he saw.
“It’s not just the ballcap guys anymore,” Stalling observes. “That element is still a big part of it, but lots of older people are turning up at it and I think that’s great. People my age who were digging me 20 years ago have kids now. I actually had several people come up and say ‘my kid loves your song such-and-such,’ and I love it when that happens because obviously that’s good news for me.”
Max Stalling performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 15 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.