Tom McElvain: Life Lessons & Dirty Pesos

This business of music is populated with characters of every variety that humanity has to offer. The rule seems to be the more topsy-turvy the character, the more interesting and valid the artist. In the bohemian cast of troubadours popularly known as Texas Music (Yes, the Lone Star State has its own brand…you’ve never heard of “Connecticut Music“, have you?) there exists the usual and varying degrees of talent and relevance. Tom McElvain, when we’re speaking of the current wave of the North Texas region, represents the higher order of that rank-and-file. He is, at the time of this writing, about to introduce his second album which will be called Whiskey Angel, slated for a fall release. A video for the title track has been filmed in Nocona, Texas and will be unveiled at a time which will, of course, correlate to the release date of the album. A review for the new release is forthcoming.

First, let’s become acquainted with the man who stands front and center for this outfit, Tom McElvain. His ride has been an interesting one and he bears the dings of that journey like brass on his shoulder. This introduction, as with any good Texas tale, ought to begin with some background: mamas, daddies, in-laws (and outlaws), grandpas, grandmas, and where, exactly, that damned guitar came into the picture.

Grandpa Alexander McElvain was in the carnival business, in the management aspect of that oft maligned profession. Being the Irishman of his time that he was (and of the profession that he chose), it isn’t a stretch to understand that he was often no stranger to violence. Settling disputes with fists, or by whatever means necessary were no doubt commonplace. Grandma Lucille McElvain, on the other hand, was given to a passion for theater and music, and would, as Tom recalls, take her grandson to plays and spend hours with him listening to music that would prove to be a great influence on the young boy’s future. Records by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and a young Kenny Rogers (& The First Edition, in those days) were prevalent on the turntable but it was ultimately the voice of Dean Martin that proved to be a foundational influence. That influence is evident in McElvain’s voice today. Lest we, as Texans, raise a wary eyebrow let’s not forget that our own Willie Nelson cited Frank Sinatra as one his biggest influences, (from which Willie admittedly acquired his famous “off-beat” phrasing). Tom recently performed a show in McKinney, TX in which he included, during an encore, the Martin classic “Everybody Loves Somebody (Sometime)” with enduring reverence for the grandmother who introduced this future rough-and-tumbler to the arts. Given the influence his paternal grandmother exerted, he began his first attempts at songwriting and began acting in school plays, being chosen to play the cold-blooded, capitalistic tyrant General Bullmoose in a school production of creator Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner”, a role for which McElvain grins and says, “I was the only kid who brought my own accent”.

McElvain and his younger sister were but small children when his mother, Brenda, who was embroiled in a struggle with substance demons, exited their lives and left the children and their father to continue the journey on their own. His father, Tom Sr., raised the two siblings by himself, a feat that was, and still is, a noble accomplishment by anyone’s standards and Tom looks back upon his father’s life with respect and no small degree of admiration. The elder McElvain was devoted to the task of being a diligent and hard-working provider for his children and he employed his tough Texas work ethic to accomplish it. He had perhaps a passing interest in music, but his brother, Keith, was a working jazz musician. Keith McElvain, back in the day, had an altercation with local mobsters over a territorial “dues paying” infraction, which resulted in his instrument being destroyed. He still plays trombone in the “big band” genre today. Tom Sr., possibly based on his knowledge of his own brother’s lifestyle as a jazz player, preferred his son’s proclivity as a painter, and offered his support for that inclination. The boy took to the canvas around the age of thirteen and developed a style that he jokingly refers to now as “unintentional Van Gogh”. This seemed to be the talent Tom Sr. approved of and hoped his son would pursue. It wouldn’t be long, though, until the typical southern, hard-working father and rebellious teenaged art-minded son would begin the dance of defiant contention, and when Tom was a senior in high school he made the decision to leave.

Houston became the new frontier Tom sought to explore. This period entailed a “yard boy” job at an on-shore oil rig supply company, to about 10 years driving over-the-road for a trucking firm, “lookin’ at the world through a windshield”. The call of the honky-tonks in Houston drew McElvain to playing in local venues, lots of alcohol, meth use, and bare-knuckle fights. Several “no-shows” had begun to ruin his reputation as a viable local performer. The romanticized life of the bohemian Texas hell-raiser proved to be a deep pit from which there seemed no escape and Tom made the decision, in 2001, to relocate to Muenster, Texas, disappear for a couple years and get clean of the substances that were fraying his life. After a reunion with his father, he moved into Tom Sr.’s RV and began a clear-eyed campaign to revitalize his aspirations as a songwriter and recording artist. As we are all the product of generations before us, the proclivities of some of his forebears had taken their turn genetically prompting him into holes and brick walls, but now the grace of that grandmother, Lucille McElvain, and the steadfast influence of a devoted father, Tom Sr., came to the fore, emerging internally like biological saviors to guide their boy to the next phase of his too-often tumultuous life. He began making contacts and reaching out, revisiting bridges feared burned, to find that there were some folks willing to let this prodigal son return to the fold. The White Elephant, a historic venue in the Ft. Worth Stockyards, was the important forgiving hand McElvain found extended. It became the stage from which he would begin the process of proving himself to be a relevant and reliable player in the often hard to crack Ft. Worth scene. With substance issues, no shows, and general public turbulence well behind him he began to sculpt himself into the artist he was aspiring to be.

The love of a good woman and the redemptive qualities thereof have often been the turning point in the lives of men throughout history, and this became a reality for Tom. In 2006, the once hard-living hellion met the woman who would have that very effect on him. Christi Secrest would be the final balancing factor in Tom’s personal life, a union that culminated in their marriage in the poetically significant spring of 2011. In a perfect world, every Johnny finds his June. Tom McElvain’s world graciously provided him that moment of perfection. A new birth, new chances and possibilities, and a new partner with whom to weather the storms and share in the glories, great and small provided the framework for good things to come.

With the wheels moving in positive and productive directions, McElvain secured a publishing deal, a nice endorsement by Pawless Guitars, affiliated himself with BMI, and released the album Empty Bottle in 2009 through Acid Country Productions. The CD features songs that are still staples in his live shows, such as crowd favorites “Robbing Banks” and “OCPUD, TX.”

Over the course of more recent years stages were shared, friendships were forged, and alliances created that have brought Tom to this present stage of his life and career. Many live performances in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area with friends like Robby White and Ronny Spears have helped propel McElvain into a place of notoriety as a live performer not achieved in the past. Tom called upon friends (soon to be band mates) Kyle Wade Smith (keys, harmonica, and producer) and Mark Lafon (Texas guitar player extraordinaire) to begin the process of musical arrangements of the songs that make up the new release. The three amigos booked time at Bent Leaf Studio in Denison, TX and began tracking songs with Dustin Hendricks (chief engineer at the studio) on drums, and Jesse Sims (Bent Leaf co-founder) on bass guitar. Most of the tunes were penned by McElvain just a matter of weeks before the studio was booked. The Title track “Whiskey Angel” (written by Tom nearly ten years ago) and “Favorite Beer” (written by the legendary Dean Dillon) are the only exceptions.

A decision, now, needed to be made regarding the moniker that would adorn show flyers, promotional material, and cd covers. Wisely, McElvain considered the contributions of his brothers-in-arms. With that consideration, it became clear that this is, and had been from its inception, a group effort. There would be no brandishing of his own name to the diminishment of the others. The business, the music, the arrangements, and the recording process had been the collective and tireless efforts of all of them. The name for the group would be “The Dirty Pesos”, providing coequal status for each member. So here we are. It’s mid-August 2012, and the cosmos is shuffling its deck and preparing to deal a hand to Tom McElvain and his troubadourian brethren.

The Dirty Pesos consist of a pedigreed group of musicians with resumes that include important tenures with artists such as The Texas Hippie Coalition, Jay Johnson, Eric Beatty, and Robby White & The Tejas Gringos among others. They are a team of musical mercenaries that seem born to play together. Scott “Cowboy” Lytle’s impeccable drum skills and Brad King battening down the bass hatches provide the rock solid foundation. The tasteful versatility of lead guitarist Mark Lafon is perfectly dove-tailed by the masterful keyboard flourishes, harmonica, and harmony vocals of Kyle Wade Smith.

The Dirty Pesos are not the brain child of a producer, nor are they strangers who answered classified ads for musicians. They are all personal friends, some for many years. They have poured their sweat and souls out on shared stages all over the region. They’ve shared liquor bottles, sleepless nights, long midnight drives, good crowds, dead crowds, big venues and little dives, sometimes together and sometimes not. The fates have determined that now is the time to bring these compadres together, and together they are. Regional, hell, national highways are about to be alight with the flames of the tracks these guys leave behind them. Don’t let ‘em roar by without venturing into your local venue to see them live. Don’t wake up the next day and regret having missed the experience of The Dirty Pesos. Your friends that went will rub it in. You know you hate that. There’s a rumble in the distance, and dust rising above the horizon.

Get ready for the Texas maelstrom known in these here parts as The Dirty Pesos.

~ Jeff Hopson


Jeff Hopson resides in Garland, TX and has been in the Lone Star State since September of 1989, when he moved here from his native Tennessee. After three and a half years in Nashville, he channeled the spirit of his upper East Tennessee kinsman, a certain diplomat named Crockett, and stated, “You may all go to hell…I will go to Texas”.  Jeff is a songwriter and performs often in the North Texas region, and has a collection of short fiction in the works.

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