Red Tree: A Modern-Day Motown Quietly Emerges In The Woodlands

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Having been a recording artist, Rocks Off can tell you that we would rather peel potatoes than go into a recording studio. What you see as the acme of artistic self-expression is often painstakingly and painfully taken apart bit by bit, criticized, critiqued and sometimes cut altogether.

Hopefully, the end result is a masterpiece in musical form, but sometimes it's not. Regardless, the recording process is a gauntlet.

But our opinion has changed and softened a great deal since we went to visit Jeffery Armstreet at Red Tree in The Woodlands. We were in no good mood by the time we arrived, having driven through the heat with a lackluster air-conditioning system, broken CD player and Mapquest instructions that made us wish we'd hired a Sherpa rather than trusted the Internet.

As almost all Houston studios seem to be, Red Tree is nestled in a nondescript little building, and we made our way inside to a set-up that had all the quiet resonance and order of a small church. The walls were soft earth colors, and the low lighting was punctuated by the warm glow of power indicators.

Rocks Off had actually been to the studio several years ago, after Armstreet was touched by our review of his band Evangeline's album We're Alright Down Here and invited us down. The studio's other two owners are Harold Rubens and Kyle Hutton.

Rubens is one of the finest sound engineers in the country, and is currently out on tour with Robby Seay Band. Hutton is the founder of Real Life Real Music, one of the coolest things going on in Texas music at the moment.

Since we met, Armstreet has sent a steady stream of stellar albums to us. Two artists who recorded at Red Tree in 2009, James Caronna and Tim Qualls, are nominated for nine Houston Press Music Awards between them.

Making our way through the halls, we finally found Armstreet in the main control booth surrounded by members of Castle Lights. Formerly Light Parade, Castle Lights was one of the few Houston bands sensible enough to change their name to avoid cease-and-desist letters prior to a release.

The atmosphere was charged with a kind of easygoing confidence as Jeremiah Wood (right) laid down a stellar guitar line while the others looked on approvingly. No one seemed to mind our presence, and we sat cross-legged on the floor remembering how wonderful it was to be part of the creative process - at least when it was going well.

The music was a fantastic departure from the excellent, but slightly repetitious, singer-songwriter albums that seem to be Red Tree's specialty. This was much more along the lines of Arcade Fire, or maybe Muse. It was also very, very good.

"What did you think?" asked Armstreet.

"Who's the singer?" we asked. Armstreet pointed over to Tyler Susuras, who was sitting barefoot on the couch behind us.

"I'm thinking seriously of killing you and eating you in order to possess your voice," we told Susuras seriously. He looked disturbed, but pleased.

The band took a break, and Armstreet asked if we'd take a ride with him. He had something he wanted to show us.

Less than a mile away from Red Tree lies the home base of Armstreet's label, Magnolia Red. Rather than the cozy, bungalow nature of Red Tree, Magnolia Red's office looks like a major indie-label headquarters right out of a movie. The ceilings are light and airy, while bright colors, glass, and chrome garnish the space.

Rocks Off was greeted enthusiastically by one of Armstreet's business partners, Katie Rentfro. (Kent Coley, the husband of one of our favorite acts Shellee Coley, is also part owner of the enterprise.) Armstreet led us upstairs to a rehearsal space. It was, we realized, the only rehearsal space we had ever seen with natural lighting from a large window, and the effect was absolutely hypnotic.

Magnolia Red is, in our opinion, something so rare and wonderful it might as well be a unicorn. It's a label, of sorts, but also a production, management and publishing company. When last Rocks Off and Armstreet talked, his focus had appeared to be on simply running a studio. Now, it was a lot more.Sprawled in comfy armchairs, we asked Armstreet what this new set-up was all about.

"We avoid the L word because we don't want to scare off any potential labels who may want to partner with our artists," he said, "but I guess technically we are kind of a label, because we often partner on the master side,"

Also like in the movies, Armstreet is actually developing artists. His roster currently includes Castle Lights, Mason Lankford, Shellee Coley and the Folk Family Revival. He gets a band with a good sound, deconstructs the songwriting, builds it back up, has them play all over town, shops their music around for licensing - the works.

In short, here is a local entrepreneur with a coterie of like-minded and talented partners who is doing things the way they haven't really been done since... well, since we've been in the music scene at any rate.

The rehearsal space alone is a testament to that. Though empty on the Friday afternoon Rocks Off visited, its whole purpose is for the artist to drop in whenever they want and work. Anyone who wants to come up and take a listen or contribute is welcome. If artists want a little more privacy, each office has places to plug into with guitars and microphones for a little song sketching.

The idea, Armstreet told us, is to build a family in the Motown Records tradition. Each artist is signed to a multi-year management deal, with a one-album release. The overall hope is that through Armstreet and company's skillful management and dedication to securing exposure through film and commercial licensing, they will be able to launch acts into more major label success.

"Or, at least," said Armstreet with a grin, "Major success. 'Major label success' will probably be an oxymoron by 2011."

Those labels and partners will get the subsequent albums, but Magnolia Red continues to be instrumental in the rise of the artists through management and publishing.

But what we were most impressed with was the simple, quiet optimism and dedication to finding local musicians and turning them into stars. It's an idea that is so naïve, so outdated, so incredibly stupid in the modern music industry, that... that Rocks Off can't but help but pray it's true.

The dream and reality of rock and roll are so mutually exclusive that it's easy to become jaded, cynical, and believe only in every man for himself. But what's going on among the pines on Tamina Road has all the holiness of a grand quest. Armstreet and Magnolia Red have proven their worth as engineers and producers a dozen times over, as evidenced by the string of critically acclaimed successes review on Rocks Off.

If they can harness that same power into launching the careers of some of Houston's locals, then this city will definitely become a force to be reckoned with.

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