Rave new world

Tom Faulkner explores his musical horizons

History abounds with the sort of mythical real estate that inspires song: Oz, Atlantis, heaven and hell, even Atlantic City. Unto each has been written some form of musical tribute or another, from the dope-heavy "Way down below the ocean" stanza during Donovan's "Atlantis" to countless evocations of Paradise and Hades to Judy Garland and Elton John raving about a yellow brick road.

But only Tom Faulkner's Texico--a sprawling state of mind that melds Cajun, Texan, and New Mexican seasonings with rural acoustic blues, pop balladry, country, and folk-pop--is a territory whose borders are solely melodic. Try to imagine a Metroplex consisting of Santa Fe, Austin, New Orleans, and San Antonio, presided over by mayor Flaco Jimenez, superintendent of schools Cyril Neville, and town little-league coach Joe Ely.

Or you could just listen to Faulkner's masterful album, Lost in the Land of Texico, which is located at the crossroads where the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, now 45, reconciled the close-but-futile rock star dreams of his youth with a wildly successful yet accidental career as a jingle writer. Conde Nast Traveler--or Rolling Stone--might say Texico is a pleasantly familiar yet strikingly unique bit of musical geography unlike anything you've heard before.

Those who haven't listened to the album--released on Faulkner's own Serrano Records--are part of a slowly diminishing population. Already, Lost in the Land of Texico has been picked up by Japan's Kaigan Records, is being distributed nationally in the United States by Abbey Road (a branch of Alliance Distribution), and has been the subject of much speculation by a variety of national recording labels and stars. No less than Emmylou Harris, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell--calling out of the blue from his car phone--and famed record producer Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Heart, Santana, the Grateful Dead) have waxed ecstatic about the album.

All have had the same cautionary advice for Faulkner as sales start to soar and major labels start sniffing around: Don't change a thing. The record is finished--perfect the way it is--and don't let the suits take it and add hip-hop arrangements to it, have the Chemical Brothers remix it, or get Ozzy Osbourne to duet on it. None of those people would really fit into the land of Texico anyway, and, by this point in his career, Faulkner isn't inclined to pander to major-label tinkering. Texico sounds the way it does for many good reasons.

"Logistically, the songs put you in a certain place," Faulkner says from behind his desk at Tom Faulkner Productions, the wildly successful jingle company he never meant to build. "Depending on the song, a listener might imagine South Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, or old Mexico. Or, for people who know anything about New Orleans, 'River on the Rise' certainly suggests Louisiana and the strong musical spirit they have down there. But in the end, the songs all stylistically overlap. They had to overlap, because that's what pop music does."

To listen to the whole album is indeed a sort of travelogue chronicling Faulkner's experiences; basically of the hop-in-the-car-and-cruise variety. But, inasmuch as many of these voyages are separated by dozens of years, various states of mind, and sundry purposes, they all have a pleasantly yellowed quality, like postcards from an old and beloved college roommate who eschewed the real world and hit the perpetual highway.

The title cut, for example, is about waiting for a storm in a border cantina. "There was an angel of darkness and an angel of light/Put a hold on all my calls/I'll be lost in the land of Texico tonight," Faulkner sings in his distinctively gritty but wonderfully pretty voice--as behind him the music percolates with the rhythms of Lyle Lovett and Mingo Saldivar playing with a second-line Mardi Gras rhythm section. Meanwhile, the lush lyrics of "River on the Rise" evoke a springtime night of partying in New Orleans underpinned by a free-flowing, Top-heavy (as in ZZ), slow Texas shuffle.

The entire collection of tunes is similarly constructed: "Angelina" is the best gringo ballad the Texas Tornados never wrote; on "Fried Chicken Skin," Leadbelly waxes nostalgic for Popeye's; "Nobody There to Love Me" is gospel music for wistful single folk sleeping in on Sunday morning; and "When You Call Upon the Heart" and "Sign of Love" are the hauntingly lovely bookend pieces that might serve as twin national anthems for Texico.

For all the disparity in subject matter and feel, Faulkner is absolutely aware of the recurring musical motifs amid his thematic wanderings; he designed it that way. "There were three unifying threads I wanted to run through the album," he explains. "My voice has got to be the number one thing, and it's got to carry me through. I also wanted a bottleneck slide throughout, and I wanted a sympathetic drummer, whom, in Dan Wojochieski, I have."

Faulkner also relied heavily on a blues-based roux. "Eric Clapton playing the blues," he says, "isn't my cup of tea. But he applies the blues to what's indigenous to him on 'Tears in Heaven' or 'Badge'--and that's what I did. I applied blues with the music of South Texas--Steve Jordan, Flaco, Mingo Saldivar--along with New Orleans, where I was born, and with the Hendrix and Beatles stuff I grew up listening to. And along with the mood of the songs and the geographic logistics of the material, well, it's just what happened."

Although the CD is a particularly mature and cohesive work, it nevertheless might never have happened. The entire Texico state of mind has been a gradual epiphany--if such a thing is possible--for Faulkner, borne of countless hoops jumped through at the whims of sundry record company suitors and advisors.

A former philosophy major at Washington & Lee, Faulkner courted major-label fame as a member of immensely popular Dallas bands the Coconuts ('70s) and Flyer (early '80s). When none of the deals they were offered worked out, Faulkner fell into the jingle business by accident. A friend asked him to write a jingle--and dangled a thousand-dollar fee.

Fast-forward through 13 years of such national advertising anthems for Coors Light, Motel 6 (yes, that's Faulkner behind Tom Bodett), J.C. Penney, and Southwest Airlines. Faulkner stockpiled equipment and contacts, garnered a shelf full of Clio awards, got married, and lives an ecstatic family life with his wife and two kids.

But those developments and his original musical musings have never been mutually exclusive. Faulkner continued to compose, perform, and shop original rock music. At one point, Jimmy Iovine strung him along for a year and a half before calling to say he wanted Faulkner on his A&M Records label and would be down the next week to sign him. Faulkner never spoke to him again.

"It seems Jimmy got a call the next day," Faulkner says with a laugh. "U2 wanted him to go on the road with them to document a 'year in the life' sort of thing."

By that point, Faulkner was beginning to think he was best off pursuing and producing his own vision. "I'd had producers tell me to rough my songs up--that they were too pop. So I'd do that, and the next guy would say, 'Hey, these are great songs but they sound a little rough. Let's pop 'em up a bit.'"

Still, though he'd already decided to make his own album, it wasn't until Faulkner heard Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time album that he heard what was, in his mind, the spiritual predecessor to Lost in the Land of Texico.

"I'd never listened to Bonnie's music," he remembers. "And I just happened to hear Redbeard interview her on my car radio one day--and it was so great, I just had to pull over and listen. They were talking about her career and Nick of Time, which at that point was a new record.

"I didn't really relate to her sort of rough and tough past, but I definitely related to her melodies, and I related to every song on that album. Every song has its own character--but it's all her, and it has that unifying thread of bottleneck. That really stayed with me."

Meanwhile, Faulkner had unconsciously chosen a thematic direction for his then-formless record through three songs he'd already recorded for film soundtracks. Faulkner wrote "When You Call Upon the Heart" for Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, working from a set of lyrics by California gospel writer Patrick Henderson. A second tune, "Lost in the Land of Texico," was solicited, and a third song ("Sign of Love") was used in an original HBO motion picture, Annie-O.

Reflecting on those songs, as well as the implications of his past and the conclusions he drew from hearing Raitt, it all came together for Faulkner.

"I chased major-label rainbows for a decade," he recalls. "And when I heard Nick of Time, I said, 'It doesn't have to be one way or the other; Bonnie had pop and blues and funk. I'm gonna do my best on each song and not worry about the implications of them individually."

And, though Faulkner was "unaware and completely ignorant" of the machinations of marketing or independent labels, the completed album took on a life of its own. Hand-picked by Borders' promotions magnate Bill Steenbergen from the piles of indie releases he receives daily, Lost in the Land of Texico roared like a freight train through the chain. Word-of-mouth began creeping across the country, followed by the phone calls of support and enthusiasm from Olsen and Crowell.

After Kaigan jumped aboard, Faulkner was summoned by the label to help on a collaborative tribute album honoring the songs of Lowell George. Just returned from Nashville, Faulkner contributed lead and slide guitar and vocals (with Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris) on George's classic "Willin'." It was there that Harris heard Texico and exulted effusively.

Live performances, of course, have been another inevitable extension of the album's groundswell. To that end, Faulkner--who played many of the instruments in the studio--has assembled an amazing band: drummer Wojochieski, bassist Bob Gentry, lead guitarist Jamey Perrenot, accordionist Adrian Cabello, and background vocalist-percussionist Pat Peterson, a group able to replicate the nuances of Texico with the aplomb and effortlessness of 10-year veteran tour guides.

Without question, the potential for the boundaries of Texico to expand are enormous. And for sure, in an age of despots and dictators, Faulkner is proving to be quite the philosopher king.

"This release of the album," he says, "in and of itself, is fulfillment of a lifelong dream. The reward of the general public embracing it is truly a secondary dream--but no less important. You want to create and be accepted. I admire the artist who creates and doesn't care what everybody else thinks, but I don't embrace that. I like to play my music and see people's faces light up. It's a gratifying feeling, and it's one I want to see grow."

Tom Faulkner will open for Storyville on Friday, August 29, at the Bedford Blues Festival and then play at the Pepsi KidAround on Sunday, August 31.

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