Three years ago, Dan Colehour seemed set to arrive on the national music scene much like Chris Knight had. With a DreamWorks deal in hand and a searing roots-rock album recorded, Colehour was ready to hit the road hard. He heard opportunity knocking, saw his shot at hand. One for the Old Man had a lot going for it: smart heartland lyrics that appealed equally to the Farm Aid crowd and urban alt-country hipsters, Colehour's somewhere-between-Mellencamp-and-Springsteen voice, David Grissom's monster guitar and no-nonsense production by Houstonian Frank Liddell, who, along with Grissom, had been instrumental in igniting Knight's career.
Iowa native Colehour had been in Nashville since moving from Austin in 1996, when, he says, "I got serious about songwriting."
"I'd had a couple of publishing deals before I began working with Frank Liddell on some demos, and we just liked what we were getting in the studio, enjoyed working together. I believe in Frank a great deal. David Grissom was a big part of that, as was Mike McCarthy, who engineers for people like Spoon, Fastball, Trail of Dead. But it was David who pretty much drew the guitar-heavy acoustic rock blueprint.
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"When I started working with Frank, he asked who I wanted to play on these two demos we were working on, and I said Grissom. He made a phone call, and the next time David came to town we had him by for a couple of hours. He laid guitar down on two tracks, and if I've ever had a sound, it was born that day. Frank and I just looked at each other and smiled. And David wouldn't take any money for it, wouldn't hear of it. He's that kind of people. He just liked the music, and that was that."
According to Grissom, reached on tour with the Dixie Chicks, "I met Dan through Frank at a South By Southwest party in Austin in '93. We wrote a few songs together and he immediately struck me like Chris Knight did when I met him. He very much had his own voice and he could just knock you over with his soulfulness. Dan was straight-up rural Iowa, and I could relate to that since I grew up in Kentucky and I had been working with Mellencamp for three years. We just clicked."
In a music business story as old as the hooker with the heart of gold, just when it looked like Colehour's long years in the trenches were about to pay off, Universal absorbed DreamWorks and Colehour's record got lost in the chaos.
"It was a roots-rock Americana-type deal for DreamWorks, and once they were onboard we got the green light. We jumped on it and finished it pretty quickly, and then it just sat there. They kept pushing our date back, and within six months Universal bought DreamWorks. After a few months in limbo, they just cut us loose. It was pretty devastating."
Colehour and Liddell took it hard. According to a friend, "Dan and Frank were in a heap of depression." But Liddell continued to contact Universal and make it plain that if they didn't want the record, his Carnival label did. Colehour, who was going through a divorce and just needed to make a living, got a day job and continued to write and play. Covers of his songs by Trisha Yearwood and Montgomery Gentry helped out. The worst of it for Colehour was that he had a killer record but he couldn't sell a single one. Time dragged on.
Enter Luke Lewis, the executive responsible for bringing last year's Americana sensation Mary Gauthier onto Universal's Lost Highway label. When Lewis finally worked his way through the pile of projects left over from the merger and heard the Colehour record, he liked it and worked out a deal with Liddell to release it in October.
Cut from the same American hybrid stalk of Midwest corn as John Mellencamp, the 40-year-old Colehour's musical vision is anchored in diesel tractors roaring to life in bitter predawn cold, endless sky, endless work, a mortgage on the farm and a stubborn bow-your-neck pride in the futile fight against the march of time. Although Colehour's work is more melodic, Texas music fans will likely hear echoes of another Grissom-powered project, James McMurtry's Too Long in the Wasteland, lurking in there. And just when we think Colehour is simply a well-produced roots rocker, he drops a cover of the honky-tonk classic "She Thinks I Still Care" that is equal parts sensitivity and testosterone. Under Grissom's hand, this old nugget finds new life and power.
Lyrically, Colehour is often up to his boot tops in Fred Eaglesmith's terrain, nostalgic about old ways fading slowly, and like Bruce Springsteen, Colehour frequently recalls the streets of stolid Norman Rockwell American villages that are the backbone of the Midwest, the Great Plains and the nation. In "Quarrytown," he enunciates the blind faith and unquestioning patriotism of a prototypical American heartlander when he sings, "Back in '62 round the start of Viet Nam / some of us quarry boys who were of fighting age made a deal with Uncle Sam / in the name of God and country we buried our friends in the ground / we never knew any better in a quarry town." It is an innocent, pre-Nixon image of the country.
While Carnival is "trying to focus on the farming/blue-collar crowd," Colehour is anything but a farm boy, although he is proudly Iowan. "By the time I came along, all my family had gotten out of farming, but it's just the way of life up there. It's in the genetic code. Strong, quiet, persevering, graceful people."
Hopefully, Carnival will see past Colehour's obvious tractor-pull appeal and will concentrate on the female market, too. Love songs such as "As It Ever Was," "Leaving Meridian" and "Still Your Ruth" have all the blue-eyed soul of a Delbert McClinton and should appeal to everyone from corporate secretaries to biker chicks to Hummer-driving housewives.
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With the record release still several months off, Colehour is testing the waters outside the Midwest strongholds of Indianapolis and Cincinnati by playing Texas, which he's always thought of as a second home.
"I was living out in California and helped my folks relocate to San Antonio. I'd been down there two weeks when I saw Joe Ely at the Southwest Craft Center. Grissom was with him and they killed, of course. I loved Texas. The entire time I'd been out in sunny California I was terribly homesick. Didn't know why, but I just didn't seem to fit in. Homesick way down deep in my soul. But Texas, it felt like home, wide-open spaces and friendly faces."
For now, Colehour is just trying to keep his head above water until his shot comes around again in October. He's made peace with his career misfortunes, just like those farmers in his songs who rise before daylight to fire up the engines again.
"I have to work a day gig when I'm in town. It's tight right now, but my back's strong. There's no time to feel sorry for yourself."