Mark Allan Atwood and Brimstone, Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band on a Friday Night at Love and War In Texas. Friday, the first of November in the year of our Lord 2013. Less than two centuries shy of the Buck Rogers era, and the music establishment in Texas finds itself reinventing a Music Row wheel. The radio playlists all sound homogeneous as Fox or MSNBC devotees on a talking points binge. The shiny industry rags brim over with glossy headshots of this week’s new payola wonder. Frontmen sport t-shirts saying “Nashville Sucks” while hoping nobody figures out they’re just following a formula themselves. Everywhere you look it’s like a bad dream, a rehash of the old ‘80s joke about how every new Def Leppard song was just another verse from the last one. They all sounded the same.
Shoot, that fits the current Texas Music scene like a glove. And if the glove fits, you must not acquit.
But acquittal is one thing. Acquiescence, on the proverbial other hand, is another thing altogether. And if there’s one thing Texans have never once been good at, it’s acquiescence. That’s why the legitimate music scene in the Lone Star State, regardless of what the cluttered print magazines and less-than-spiffy TV shows and narrow minded DJs tell you, is as vibrant and as wide-ranging as it has ever been. This land between the Red and Rio Grande has spawned artists as diverse as Selena and Meat Loaf, as varied yet accomplished as Doug Sahm and Joe Ely. From Buddy Holly to Lightnin’ Hopkins, ZZ Top to Waylon, what’s historically been on display in Texas has been both timeless and obstinately free range.
That’s still the case today, whether you hear it on the radio or not. You just need to know where to look.
Friday night’s show at Love and War in Texas (www.loveandwarintexas.com) in Plano, just north of Dallas, was a fine example. Two distinct and seemingly wholly disparate acts were on the bill. Batting leadoff you had Mark Allan Atwood and Brimstone, a rocking four-piece outfit with screaming guitars and blistering vocals and an unbridled energy reminiscent of hair metal’s halcyon days. In the cleanup spot stood Gary P. Nunn, a pure-dee legend, with an amazingly tight band predicated on standup bass and a pedal steel for the ages. Rock in the front, Western swing in the back. Some kind of musical reverse mullet, one supposes.
And boy howdy, did it work.
Atwood and his band are tight, the sort of team that obviously thrives on playing together. And team is an apt descriptor, by the way. Weekend coaches and GMs generate billions for the NFL by watching steadfastly and claiming to understand the importance of the left tackle’s role in an end-around sweep. But those same pigskin fans who give kudos for teamwork to eleven guys in pads almost always overlook the teamwork inherent within a band. It’s a shame, because when you watch the way the guys in Brimstone play off of and interact with each other via their instruments, you’re seeing choreography Bill Belichick can’t dream of. It can be astounding to sit back and watch a song be organically recreated right in front of your eyes, and the guys in Brimstone thrive on such things. Their sonic roots are planted firmly on the rock side of the spectrum, but a wide variety of sensibilities come through as a set list progresses. There are elements of stone country, Southern rock, a smattering of blues. It’s an intensely interesting concoction, and one never knows where the next bend in the road will lead during a Brimstone show. Atwood’s vocal is the fulcrum it’s all balanced around, and again, the range can be astonishing. When he sings “Ghost,” the progression from the introspective and nuanced softness early on to the full throated acceptance of challenge at the end is mesmerizing. Less a song about Townes van Zandt than an ode to the pickers and writers out there carving their own way in a world both overshadowed and lit up by Townes’ legacy, it’s a deep vein to mine. Atwood’s got the chops to do so with precision and make it all very real. When he and the boys drop a cover in like “Willing,” absolute magic can happen. They create a musical ebb and flow that brings the story to life in 3-D, and when they break to silence for long seconds near the end as a setup for an a cappella explosion on the closing lines, oh man. Hairs on the back of a bald man’s head get raised. Brimstone is no one-note buffalo trampling loud and thinking decibels equal quality. Uh uh. These are accomplished musicians who know how to wring the last drop out of every well placed note, how to paint something familiar in colors you recognize but have never seen before. It’s something special.
Then there’s Gary P. Oh my goodness, there’s Gary P. It’s been thirty-three years now since Nunn stepped out on his own music road, leaving behind early career stints with the likes of Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker. While the sound on his side of the fence is as firmly rooted in country and Western as Brimstone’s is in rock and roll, the variety and range on display are the same. He can kick off a set with something like “Cuttin’ A Rug” from his 1995 release For Old Times’ Sake, putting on a full court Western swing press, and follow it up immediately with “Cherokee Fiddle.” Sparkling two-steppers chock full of deep stories between the lines (“The Girl Just Loves To Dance”) meld seamlessly with chestnuts from Haggard’s catalog (“That’s The Way Love Goes.”) As the set progresses, Nunn and the band in essence create a virtual country music museum of history – they go everywhere with effortless ease, Nunn’s vocal adapts with nary a hitch in stride, and an audience falls captive to the ebb and flow of expertly played yet deeply heartfelt songs. There’s a warmth and a genuine connection that happens between Gary P. and the crowds. I’ve seen it and felt it firsthand countless times over the years, and happily fell right back into it again at Friday’s show. The look on Nunn’s face when he’s singing “Friends” just can’t be faked. He’s living some old memories of his own when he sets those lines free, but he’s also in the moment with friends on the dance floor. The faces gathered there reflect the same warmth and emotional trails, and as magic moments go that’s always one of my favorites from any show I’ve ever seen from any artist anywhere. Think of the way Springsteen connects with an arena full of people and gets specific and individual with each of them when he unleashes a song like “Badlands.” Everybody in the building thinks he’s their best pal and singing it just for them; they all get lost in it and something transcendent happens. It’s on a bombastic scale, but it’s visceral and personal and genuinely amazing. Gary P. Nunn does the exact same thing, absent the rock ‘n roll passion but utterly equal in terms of making that connection. That only happens when it’s real; entertainers can’t pull off that feat. They can get the masses on their feet, but they can’t really touch their spirits and their souls. Takes an artist for that. Nunn is one of the truest and best.
Eye-opening night at Love and War. If you’re ever in north Texas, make it a point to catch live music there and eat a meal. Fine food, fine people, and a fine venue. Every now and then there’s an event like this one where along with all of the usual greatness you get to be reminded of just what Texas music is really all about and just how much it encompasses. Atwood and Nunn look nothing alike. Mark Allan is a longhaired singer in a serious rock and roll band. Gary P. is a put together picture of a lifelong bunkhouse denizen. They sound nothing alike; one’s got a huge voice that dances with telecasters and the other’s got a smooth weathered vocal that waltzes with a pedal steel. But their content and the subjects they sing about? Yeah. There’s a common thread. Atwood on “From The Water” paints a vivid mural of life in Texas and the deep ties to the land which made the Lone Star State what she is. It’s a biography and a history lesson and an anthem for a life lived free all in one. Nunn paints the same pictures, just uses different lighting. Think “Old Rocking Chair” or the aforementioned “Friends.” Timeless snapshots of lives well lived and friendships and places treasured in the deepest parts of the heart. The common thread in Texas music is about those very things. It’s about freedom and an expansiveness of the soul, about individuality predicated on excellence.
Mark Allan Atwood and Brimstone. Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band. Expansive excellence is par for the life where these two are concerned. They’re as different as night and day, as varied as menudo and chicken fried steak. And as Texas as the day is long.
Maybe one day radio will get past its Red Dirt fetish and its wallet-centered passion for sonic sameness. Last night at Love and War provided an exceptional view of what that world could look like, and just how engaging and entertaining and profound our world could be if the DJs would stop and remember what Texas music really is.
~ Dave Pilot
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. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.