Sexton’s cruel, and gentle, years
November 16, 2005
As a young guitar-slinger, Charlie Sexton imagined himself not so much up onstage, electrifying a crowd, but in the recesses of a recording studio, making a less immediate sort of music. Instead of wanting to emulate the live theatrics of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the young Sexton listened to “Magical Mystery Tour,” and fancied himself, Beatles-style, arranging string sections and recording tape loops backward. It was ironic, then, that Sexton hails from Austin, Texas, a place that bills itself as the live-music capital of the world, but is hardly a center of the recording industry.And odd, then, that Sexton should go 10 years between releasing albums. But a full decade passed between 1995’s “Under the Wishing Tree” and “Cruel and Gentle Things,” which saw the light of day this September. And odder still that from Sexton’s perspective, for the most part, he never stopped writing and recording. More to the point, the record companies he was associated with stopped releasing what he produced.”It’s kind of funny, because I had made records. Just no one would release them,” said Sexton, speaking by phone from a Los Angeles hotel room. “The record industry really fell apart right after ‘Under the Wishing Tree,’ around 1996, ’97.” Specifically, in Sexton’s case, he left the MCA label after “Wishing Tree,” and signed with A&M. Sexton witnessed the fallout of the music business explosion close up when A&M, reeling from a corporate merger involving its parent company, showed little interest in the album Sexton had completed to follow “Wishing Tree.” Particularly disheartening was that, after “Wishing Tree,” which was considered his artistic breakthrough, Sexton had toured extensively, putting his band in tiptop shape.
The good part about having the talent and versatility of a Charlie Sexton, however, is that there are career options. In 1999, with his own recording goals stalled and a newborn son to support, Sexton got a call from an acquaintance he had made in New York some 20 years earlier, asking if Sexton would join his touring band. He didn’t really want to go on the road, and especially didn’t want to sign on for one of those endless gigs that take a musician away from his family for months at a time. But Sexton says he was “in a bad place financially. So I said, ‘whatever.'”Thus Sexton found himself signed on for a nearly four-year stint with one of the most tireless, itinerant musicians of this age: Bob Dylan. From 1999 through 2002, Sexton played hundreds of dates, from European capitals to dusty American fairgrounds to Japanese arenas (with a stop in Aspen for the 2002 Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival) on Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour.”That was a pretty fortunate thing to have happen,” said Sexton. “If you’re going to get a real job, that’s the one to get.”The heavy-duty touring put an emotional strain on Sexton. But playing with Dylan was a great distraction; in recent years, Dylan has not only been pulling virtually everything out of his enormous catalog, but visiting old folk and blues songs, and throwing in the occasional Warren Zevon or Jerry Garcia tribute tune. On top of that, Dylan grants himself license to alter his approach to each song, sometimes in dramatic ways, from night to night. It was more than enough to keep a band member on his toes.Moreover, Sexton found his boss to be far less thorny and mysterious than the public perception would have it. “Everyone’s looking for the dirt” on Dylan, said Sexton, who played on Dylan’s celebrated, Grammy-winning 2001 album, “Love and Theft.” “But I find everything he does to be purposeful and methodical. I understand why some things are different musically, that other people don’t understand.”Dylan was not the only master Sexton served. After playing on Lucinda Williams’ masterful “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Williams enlisted Sexton to produce the worthy follow-up, “Essence.” More recently, he produced “Heard It on the X,” the latest by Tex-Mex collective Los Super Seven, as well as “Geronimo,” by Shannon McNally (see related story).
A few decades, naturally, can cause significant alterations to a person, his music, his desires. (In Sexton’s case, they’ve done no damage to his face. At 37, he retains his matinee idol looks.)Sexton’s earliest goal, it would appear, was to be a guitar god. The son of a teenage mother and a father who spent time in prison when Charlie was 4, Sexton got his education in Austin’s music clubs. He did, in fact, play alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as fellow Texas icons Jimmie Vaughan, Delbert McClinton and Joe Ely. He opened for John Lee Hooker and fronted his own rockabilly band, Charlie & the Eager Beaver Boys.But when Sexton broke out of Austin, as a 16-year-old with a record contract, he sported a different persona. His debut album, 1985’s “Pictures for Pleasure,” was right in step with the New Wave times. When he appeared on the cover of the May 1986 issue of Spin magazine, he was made up into a glossy, androgynous pop star. And to an extent, it worked commercially; the album’s single, “Beat’s So Lonely,” reached No. 17 on the pop charts.After a self-titled CD in 1989, Sexton opted for the band route, helping form the Austin supergroup the Arc Angels, with Doyle Bramhall Jr., and Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon from Stevie Ray’s backing band, Double Trouble. On the heels of 1990’s “Arc Angels,” the band seemed headed for greatness. But rock ‘n’ roll got the better of them, and by 1992 they were finished.Sexton, meanwhile, had already started work on the songs that would make their way onto “Under the Wishing Tree.” And to his ears, they were a different sort of song, more mature and substantial. On the strength of his previous solo work and the Arc Angels’ record, the label accepted it unblinkingly. But when he submitted a similar type of record for A&M, the recently upended label shrugged.”I said fine. I didn’t write or record for about two years,” said Sexton, adding that touring with Dylan didn’t leave much time for his own music. “But I collected a lot of pieces from different parts of the world.”
The hiatus led to what Sexton calls an epiphany. “I’d gotten to a point in the writing when I couldn’t do a type of song that had no depth for me,” he said. “I couldn’t go back to that place.”The proof is in “Cruel and Gentle Things.” The emphasis is on the songs – of home, maturity and redemption – Sexton’s voice, whispering and weathered, and a production style that is both up-to-the-minute but also rooted in acoustic sounds. The introspective opening song, “Gospel,” about fear, grace and trusting Jesus, fully indicates the substance Sexton is talking about. Sexton plays most every instrument on the album, though there is not a guitar solo to be heard.Of finding himself with no major label attachment and no one offering input on just what kind of musician he should be, Sexton says, “It was quite freeing. Because little pieces of the puzzle that weren’t there came through. You’re not in a struggle continuously, getting all different kinds of requests from all different kinds of people.”Sexton may not have an album catalog to draw from that rivals Dylan’s. Over 20 years, he can only point to the four solo works and the Arc Angels album. But with “Cruel and Gentle Things,” he stands on a solid foundation for the next 20 years or so.”‘Wishing Tree’ and ‘Cruel and Gentle Things’ – they’re exactly 10 years apart. And that’s a drag,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to a place where the records and the process stay about the same, and I have to realize, that’s what I am. That’s who I am.”Apart from the artistic comfort level he has found, Sexton figures to become more productive as an album maker because he doesn’t love the road. He is enjoying his current tour, the Charlie Sexton and Shannon McNally Rock & Roll Revue, which has his band backing McNally for a set, an acoustic interlude featuring himself and McNally, and a set by Sexton’s band with McNally joining in. But after three-plus years on Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, he’ll leave the road-hogging to others.”The live thing is the frustrating. There are so many things that can go wrong,” he said. “Which might be why I’m more drawn to the studio. Things can go wrong in the studio, but you can say, OK, let’s take a 15-minute coffee break.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org