By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A few weeks ago, word circulated through the Denton-rock grapevine that Brunswick was hit by a car--jarring news indeed about the mascot of the cozy indie scene. But there he is nonetheless, sitting in the cab of his owner's pickup truck, alert at the window, swinging his tail like the happy mutt he is. He looks intact. The dog's owner--Chris Flemmons, singer-songwriter for the Denton band the Baptist Generals--also looks unmarred, and thoroughly relieved.
"He's gonna be OK," Flemmons says after pulling into a Lower Greenville Avenue parking lot. Brunswick apparently spends a lot of time in the truck, and one day he jumped through an open window right into traffic. It was a close call. The result, Flemmons says, was "some internal injuries that the vet's treated. He'll be fine." Flemmons rubs the dog's big black-and-white head and then shuts the truck door.
Flemmons looks exhausted. It's the tail end of a hard day at work, a harder couple of weeks, and a damned awful year. The dog, in some ways, was the least of his worries. This is a man who titled his debut cassette excretio: the difficult years. Rarely has anyone had more right to give his first release such a miserable title.
But at least Flemmons has his music. For a while, it seemed he wouldn't be allowed even that.
"About a year ago, it started mattering," Flemmons says. "Up to that point, music was just something I picked away at. Now it's the only thing that can save me--that one thing that can give me solace."
These are compelling words from a just-emerging Denton songwriter, but the phrasing perfectly matches the tone of Flemmons' output. Up until a few months ago, Flemmons called his band--which also includes guitarist Jake Williams and drummer Steve Hill--Poor Bastard Sons. But, he insists, "there are just too many Texas bands with the word bastard in the name." So he changed it to the Baptist Generals, a project that has become the center of Flemmons' world--and, in such a short time, a raspy, trad-injected force to be reckoned with.
After nearly 10 years of an on-and-off love affair with a $20 acoustic guitar, Flemmons is carefully lurching toward recognition. His passive running-in-place has given way to mincing steps: the release of a formidable tape of his older songs; his preparation to record a CD of new work; and his friendly connection with the Gourds, who so often invite the Generals to open for them whenever they play such venues as the Gypsy Tea Room or Austin's Liberty Lunch. And then there's Flemmons' determination to spend his every late-night moment playing his guitar, come hell or high water.
"It's late, I'm tired, and I have to get up at 6 a.m., so I know it's not good for me," Flemmons insists. "But when I get home tonight, I know I'm gonna play for a couple of hours. I can't help it."
Flemmons is--and he doesn't exactly mind the comparisons--the bona fide brethren of some of the most satisfying, ghost-chasing songwriters in the book: Robbie Robertson during his days in The Band, Palace's Will Oldham, the Gourds' Kevin Russell, Shane McGowan. Flemmons' plucked-and-strummed melodic turns epitomize the artful use of negative space and goose-bump resolution, and the pared-down sparks often build a quiet fire of hootenanny purge. Flemmons' vocals pack a lazy, on-key sandpaper wheeze of a man drunk on both anguish and hope. He's 30 going on 79, and his songs--many of which can be found on the band's first cassette-only demo release, excretio: the difficult years--carry generations' worth of depression and romance and confession. To listen to Flemmons is to step into a twofold transporter--one that takes you back to a land of pre-electric musings, another that takes you straight to the marrow of Denton.
"I'm not a music-phile," he says. "I don't have much patience; I get bored with a lot of music pretty quickly. But I really like the spirit that exists in traditional-sounding music."
Ornery, wrenching, sentimental, and texturally fascinating, excretio's hallmark is the darkening sepia tone that outlines every song. Despite the scattered humor of some of the lyrics, these are the sounds of mountain hollows and old, festering wounds. As the cassette tape unwinds, all kinds of 20th-century iconography drifts into the mind like a West Virginia mist: Deliverance, coal-miner strikes, rattlesnake handlers, and long, hot evenings on a sprawling front porch. The sparseness of the tunes' claptrap arrangements sets off the lushness and complexity of their evocations: the circular cadences and buried vocals in "Damn the Bloom"; the melancholic pleas of "Sweet Red Wine" ("You're makin' promises that you're sure to sleep away"); the modestly soaring chorus of "Martha Jean." Listen to excretio and commune with broken hearts, comic relief, and the fringe-dwelling souls of yesteryear.
For now, Flemmons sells excretio for four bucks at shows, but doesn't push it. He didn't send the tape to the Dallas Observer; one of his Denton buddies passed it on without Flemmons' knowledge. Too bad: The debut deserves a wider audience.
Kevin Russell of the Gourds is a fan of both the tape and the songwriter. Flemmons is "the Roger Miller of the 21st century," Russell says. "If you listen to his songs, you can tell he's got this sorta dark, nasty thing about his writing, but he's got this goofy way of singing."