Brett Watts: Songwriters In The Round

Brett Watts’ Songwriters In the Round

Monthly at The White Elephant Saloon

Fort Worth, TX

You’re already aware – or you should be – that here at Outlaw Magazine we’re running a series of feature articles spotlighting people who take direct, dedicated action to keep great music alive.  You’ll get a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to support a cause they believe in.  And most of the folks you’ll be introduced to are doing what they do because they weren’t blessed with the artistic gifts and sense of self required to get up on a stage and lay their souls bare.  So they use the talents the good Lord did instill in them, and in doing their part they become an integral component of the art and the soul (yeah, the heart, too) of genuine music.

This go-round, though, we’re going to take a slightly different spin around the old contributors’ block.  This time out, it’s Brett Watts in the chute.  And he’s been playing serious, time-tested cowboy music and writing songs and poetry for literally decades.  He’s up there on the bright side of the mic doing his thing, making our lives better.  In fact, take a break from reading this right quick and open up a new browser window (or tab, if you’re one of them there sophisticated interwebs types) and queue up

Give his songs a spin while you read the rest of this little story; you’ll be glad you did.  Brett’s an accomplished and well respected artist in his own right.  His unique pickin’ style is the envy of a number of his peers and colleagues, and he’s been nominated for Entertainer of the Year, Song of the Year, and Male Vocalist by the Academy of Western Artists of America.  That’s rare air right there, folks.  Michael Martin Murphey, Don Edwards, Red Steagall, that crowd.  So Brett’s credentials and talent aren’t in question.  And somewhere around now or so you’re rightfully wondering why a sure enough musician, songwriter, and cowboy singer is getting featured in a piece that’s ostensibly about people who are, well, none of the above.

This is why:  We’re here to talk about Brett Watts’ Songwriters In the Round, a monthly song swap series that’s now in its twelfth consecutive year in the venerable Fort Worth Stockyards.  To do that, we sorta had to get acquainted a bit with Brett first. The series started at the old Thirsty Armadillo, a venue which petered out and later found new life in a new location just off the red bricks of Exchange Street.  The Armadillo back then was a fairly new joint, looking to establish itself in an area rife with legitimate competition.  So when Brett approached the owners with an idea for a Sunday afternoon songwriters’ circle as a way to draw in some tourists and maybe some regulars and get some longnecks sold on a typically slow afternoon, they jumped at it.  Brett would be a constant as the host, and would handle all the booking and whatnot.  The venue would reap the benefits.  And they wouldn’t have to pay for the performers.  Comfy little deal for everyone except the guys with the guitars.

Except that Watts had bigger ideas than a concert paycheck on a recurring basis.  His idea, see, was to give aspiring musicians a forum in which to hone their craft in front of a live audience.  Bounce their songs off each other, trade stories, have some fun sifting through the insight, wisdom, and bullshit.  And maybe get himself a little exposure as well.  It worked well for a while, but some disputes took center stage after a time and a decision was reached to take the Thirsty Armadillo off the board as far as any role as a host venue was concerned.  (Note:  Over a decade later, the parties involved in the set-to have put it in the rearview and are friends.  No real drama, or even a juicy story.  Just one of those cases where a club owner and some performers can’t quite see eye to eye, and everyone parts ways).

Brett not being the type to lay down and quit just because a door closes, it didn’t mean the series was dead.  What he did instead was just walk a block back up to Exchange, cross at Main, and amble into the legendary White Elephant Saloon to talk to the owner at the time, Joe Dooley.  Watts laid out his idea, remembering this time to be sure he got paid in the deal.  And without missing a hitch, the Songwriters In the Round was back on.  Third Sunday of every month, right there in that sweet spot in the afternoon after lunch is done and the church lessons still resonate but don’t preclude a bit of a thirst.  The way it would work remained largely the same; Brett would handle booking, get artists lined up to perform each month.  Sometimes it would be a small circle, just three or four folks to swap songs over a four hour window of slow moving, easy Texas afternoons.  But usually there were six or more, pickers male and female who’d jump at the opportunity to try out their stuff on colleagues they wouldn’t normally get to hear, much less perform for.  It didn’t take long for the event to acquire a certain cachet of its own, and as time went by the series became sort of a destination event for the young and good ones on the rise.

If you’re a fan of the younger set of acts making waves around Texas (and in some cases, in Hollywood) these days, you’ll recognize some names who shared the stools before you knew who they were.  Folks like Randy Rogers, Ryan Bingham, Mike Mancy, Cody Jinks, Ryan Turner, those types.  Nobody’s going to claim that Brett Watts launched their careers; this isn’t like the weekly shows Jack Ingram did at Adair’s back in the day.  Brett’ll be the first to make that distinction for you in his humble, unassuming way.  But the point isn’t what launched who or vice versa.  Rather, it’s that artists of that caliber over the years have gravitated to Watts’ songwriters circle like moths to a flame.  And it’d be a cool story if it ended right there.  But that doesn’t even touch the time Steven Fromholz showed up to play.  Yeah.  Fromholz.  And as the afternoon wrapped up, after the great one had simply swapped songs with that week’s crew easily and all friendly-like, the request came.  Not “Freebird,” either.  It’s Fromholz.  And someone in the back of the White Elephant, who’d been waiting the whole show with fingers crossed, couldn’t let it slide.

“Steve!  Play ‘Texas Trilogy’!”

Steve looked around, looked at the other pickers ready to call it a good four hours and load on out, looked back at the crowd.  Said, “If everybody in the joint will listen, I’ll play it.”  And the Elephant went quiet.  Morgue quiet.  Place was already nearly a hundred people over capacity.  Management had locked the doors hours ago.  But the room was still.  And Steve played it.  Every last bit of it, the whole ten minutes plus.  Crowd hung on it all, held quiet, let it flow on out over them.  Greatness, the stuff of legends you hear from those who were there back when.  But this wasn’t back then, not Texas or Colorado in the ‘60s or ‘70s.  This was Fort Worth, the Stockyards, in the 21st century.  That’s the sort of experience you might just walk into every time Watts fires up the Songwriters In the Round.  Brian Burns, Chris Wall, Steve Weisberg (John Denver’s lead guitarist), Mary Cutrufello, Matt Martindale, Houston Marchman, Austin Cunningham, Tommy Alverson, John Nitzinger, Amos Staggs, Dan Roberts, Bodie Powell?  They’ve all played the show.  And no matter how big time the pickers are, or how wet behind the ears they might be as they start out on their musical paths, they all have two things in common.

One, they just wanna hang out and play with Brett Watts and whoever he’s cooked up for the next go-round.  Two, without fail, when the show’s over, they always tell Brett they surely do hope he’ll be inviting them back.  Every time.  Makes all the sense in the world that the ups who haven’t found the coming part yet would want to return, play to the widely varied crowds that filter in and out of the old saloon on Sunday afternoons.  But the established ones, even the legends?  They want to come back, too.  And they do.  It’s that sort of magical deal, a haven of peace and happiness on the day of rest.

Each show takes on a life of its own, every set is unique and timeless in its own way.  It’s a place for the artists to practice their craft, to trade stories, to pick up little tricks from each other as they imitate for audiences the purity of the moments in which the songs were first birthed.  It’s intimate, it’s pure, it’s just, well, natural as all get out.  More often than not, the folks up there on the stools around that big wooden table seem to forget there’s even an audience out in the seats.  They’re just lost in an old home week reunion with new lifelong friends they’ve never met before but sure do love to play with.  It’s the magic of music at its purest, and it’s intoxicating.

No one in the room ever enjoys the moment more than Brett Watts does.  You watch him month after month, you see as genuine and bright a smile as this earth’s ever borne witness to.  He’s like the kid who built his own damn candy store and can play in it whenever the hell he pleases.  Knows it, too.  And it’s a thing of pure joy to witness that happiness come out of Brett’s heart and wash over the proceedings.  Sometimes you’d think he’s so caught up in what he’s hearing that he’d rather not even take his own turn singing when the line swings back around to him.  But the others never let him off the hook.  They want to hear that cool thing he does when he’s playing the guitar, and they want to hear his songs about cowboys, rodeos, trail drives, loves lost and found, and half-frozen riders dreaming of hearth and home.  Only person up there who might always be having almost as much fun as Brett is Wade Hatton.  He co-hosts the deal and runs the sound, always there to help Brett out.  You’d maybe think that’s odd considering that Wade’s fronted his own outfit, The Texas Hat Band, for well over a decade.  Turns out some of the finest Western swing you’ll ever hear at some of the coolest venues around.  Pearl’s.  The Stagecoach Ballroom.  Others all over Texas where everything that was great about the way music was is still alive and vibrant.

And Wade turns out some fantastic songs in a straight-up stone country mode as well.  So why’s he sitting up there every month with Brett co-hosting a shindig where singers just showcase their wares?  Could be partly due to the fact that he and Watts have been friends since sixth grade.  (It shows, at every show)  Could also be that Wade’s a guy with a very cool heart of his own, and a desire like Brett’s to help others along the way.  ‘Course they both get ahead in the process as well; CDs are always selling off the rail that lines the tiny raised dance floor where the song circle sets up shop.  And it doesn’t hurt Watts’ cause a bit that he’s the fella who brought Hatton into the Texas music scene to begin with. But it’s not about the money for these guys.  They’ll gladly take it when it comes, as they should.  It’s just not the goal, not the real driver behind what they do.  They simply get up there every month and provide the sort of settled in, veteran leadership that some of the younger breed needs at times and that the more established guests truly enjoy partnering with.  Guitar harmonies ad libbed here, a vocal thrown in there, a story between songs to help seamlessly reset the mood when some new song shows itself just a little short of ready for public consumption.  Between ‘em, Brett and Wade make it all work.

The Stockyards don’t pay much.  Not at any venue.  They don’t have to, really.  Built-in audience with all the foot traffic and tourists.  Live music’s just an added nice-to-have for club owners down there.  Yet Brett still shows up every month, twelve times a year, for the past twelve years in a row, to help spread the beautiful gospel of music tried and true.  (That doesn’t count the frequent solo gigs at the Elephant where his own music is featured) Says a lot about the man that he’s willing to put the effort into it.  Says more about him that no matter where you see him around Texas, some picker there knows who he is and wants to know if they can get an invite to an upcoming Sunday spectacular.  Or someone who’s played it and loved it wants to reminisce, see how it’s going these days, sneak in a comment indicating they wouldn’t be averse to a return if Watts is so inclined.  It’s a testament to Brett’s character that he’s so widely respected and well thought of.  He’s earned it.  Hell, the man’s still on great terms with his ex-wife.  In something like fifteen years of covering Texas/Americana/Indie music in some capacity or another, this writer has never once heard anyone say a bad word about Brett Watts.  But there have been rivers of good words, kinds words, respectful words.  Brett’s just that kind of man.

He’s a product of Arlington, TX.  Played football at what is now UTA, was good enough to get invited by the legendary Gil Brandt to try out for the Cowboys.  Didn’t pan out, but hey.  How many of us ever picked up a phone and heard Gil on the other end?  You’ve got to have a passion for excellence to get invitations like that.  And when football didn’t pan out, there was another love Brett could pursue.  Rodeo.  He’s a good-sized boy, on the tall side of things, so it didn’t take him too many trips down to the Kowbell in Mansfield to recognize that he wasn’t likely to be the next Freckles Brown and find glory riding bulls.  In hindsight he does recollect that it was only a few bulls, and those just because he was “young and stupid.”  But he did turn out a fair to middlin’ Casey Tibbs impersonation for a while there with saddle broncs.  When the time finally came to hang up the spurs and settle down, Watts used his Master’s degree in marketing (undergrad in advertising) to build a successful career with Verizon.  You read that right, by the way.  Cowboy with an MBA.  Go figure. But through it all, from the bull riding dream that bit the dust on through the broncs in the arena and the bastards in the corporate towers, he kept at his music.  Kept playing, working on his picking style, learning the trade.  Opened for some legends during his college days, among them one B.W. Stevenson, who ultimately became a personal friend.

That’s how it works with Brett Watts.  He finds what he loves, finds what he’s good at, and just goes and makes it happen.  He’s never found superstardom in the music world, but then again, he’s never sought it.  It’s been ten years or more since he put out a CD.  It was called Solid Ground, and it holds up quite nicely even after all the years.  There’s finally a new one in the works, and some of the songs it will hold are simply breathtaking.  But that’s never been what it’s about with Watts.  He’s never turned down a payday for the skills he’s honed for decades, nor should he.  Hasn’t turned down opportunities to play with some of the finest Western and cowboy singers the world’s ever known, either.  Made the most of every shot.  But never did get all eat up with ego the way it happens with so many.  Watts decided early on he’d rather be the one pulling something substantial together, letting the collective achievements of many polish his own work while allowing him an understated yet consistent exposure in the process.  It’s the best of the cowboy way, and that code and everything good about it is evidenced in everything Brett touches.  Good men are hard to find these days.  They are also damned hard to hold down.  Some who chase fame would look at Watts’ career and say he missed the boat, never made the big-time, never had the hit and got the girls and banked the cash.  Others, those with a clue, would be more inclined to tip their hats and recognize the true blue worth of an artist who chose to commit himself to the craft by helping others find their voices, find their feet, find their way.

If you’re ever in Fort Worth on the third Sunday of the month, make time to mosey down to The White Elephant Saloon.  The place itself is as historic as they come, once a centerpiece of Hell’s Half Acre where men like Luke Short, Longhair Jim Courtright, and Bat Masterson held court.  The ceiling now is lined with the headgear of common folk and legends who’ve frequented the place.  Jim Shoulders’ old weatherbeaten  hat has a prominent place near the bar.  Watts himself, not surprisingly, has an old favorite hanging up.  Reading the names on the little wooden plaques is almost like reading a book on the history of rodeo and the West and country music all combined into one epic tome.  So many echoes of the past, so many ghosts in the place.  But they’re all happy.  Walk into the Elephant when there’s nobody there but a bartender, it still feels like a room full of friends enjoying themselves.  Walk in during Brett Watts’ Songwriters In the Round, it actually will be exactly what it feels like.  Everyone might have been strangers when they stepped through the door, but nobody’s friendless by the time the afternoon rolls off into dusk.  The Songwriters show is just like that.  Always different, always fresh, always a joy.

The series itself, its longevity in an area notorious for turnover in both venues and preferred types of music, even multiple ownership changes during Brett’s tenure with the Saloon, is a testament to it’s founder’s legitimate staying power.  Simple dedication and a willingness to hold course no matter what has resulted in a twelve-year run for a fantastic little showcase where nobodies and legends swap songs as equals and colleagues and friends.  Here’s hoping the White Elephant, Brett Watts, and Wade Hatton have another hundred and twelve or so years in ‘em.  And that all of us are fortunate enough to make it to a whole lot of shows.

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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.

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