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"I tended bar for two years," he says. "I hated it. I liked the people. I liked the money. In retrospect, it provided me with a lot of material, but at the time I thought, 'What am I doing?' Now it's the main inspiration. It's crazy. My life now is six days, six gigs, 2,000 miles, so it's really valuable. You can't really write about touring."
At the bar, he met Piccolo Joe, Bobby, Joe Brush, Chooch, and various others who popped up on songs from his two Mercury Records albums (1995's Big as Life and 1997's The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword) and are also featured on Choochtown, Hamell on Trial's first non-Mercury album, which he released on his own Such-A-Punch Media label last year. He played in a band while he was tending bar, but it wasn't going anywhere. The economy was bad, and the music scene was worse. A friend told him he should move to Austin because people there would respect his music, so he and his wife, Linda, moved there.
Asphalt the Recorder and Cavedweller open
"I really didn't know much about Austin, just Willie Nelson and the Butthole Surfers," he says. "I'd been battered around and underappreciated for several years. I came to Austin at the same time the Electric Lounge was getting started. They were really open to all sorts of things. They were doing plays, having shows, art, open-mike. It was really idiosyncratic. I knew it was going to be pivotal, and I wanted to be part of this."
The Electric Lounge's owner, who is now Hamell's manager, let him play. At shows he sold tapes of a song he wrote as a letter to a friend back home. A copy landed in the hands of Jeff Cole, who was just starting Doolittle Records. ASCAP and BMI asked Cole to set up a singer-songwriter showcase for the 1994 South by Southwest Music Festival, and Cole asked Hamell to play. "He asked what I was doing and I said, honestly, 'I'm looking for a record deal. What are you doing?' Jeff said, 'I'm starting a record label.' I said, 'Good deal,'" Hamell says. "I battled obscurity for four years before that, and I told my wife that the first person who approaches me for a record deal, I don't care who it is, I'm taking it. Jeff came to the show the next night, and we talked."
Someone from Mercury Records took notice of Hamell at SXSW, and true to his word, he signed on. A team of studio musicians augmented his guy-and-a-guitar sound on Big as Life, adding harpsichord flourishes, samples, and nifty special effects. Somewhere under it all was Hamell, if you could find him. A soundtrack-like background was added to the stunning spoken-word piece "Piccolo Joe," where silence would have been more devastating. At least Mercury got him booked at clubs. "When I started out, people had a hard time accepting me," he says. "Acoustic clubs were reluctant to book me because I'm so aggressive. Rock clubs didn't know what to think since I didn't have a bass player and a drummer. Mercury really opened doors for me."
The Butcher Brothers (also known as producers Joe and Phil Nicolo) were brought in to produce The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword, and once again the recorded Hamell was just a shadow of the live Hamell. On stage, he played to wear the shine of the strings, more powerful alone than most quartets are at full volume. He cracked jokes between (and sometimes during) songs, and his lyrics stood on their own -- no loops, violins, or horns needed. Unfortunately, no one knew what to do with him in the studio. Mercury released the album, but the label's work stopped there. It didn't promote it at all. Then the label went out of business.
"I knew Mercury was folding," he says. "I wasn't stupid. I knew I didn't sell a million records and that they were dropping bands since they were folding." He wasn't disappointed when they dropped him; Mercury had made the introductions, but he made connections at clubs and with bookers himself. He was also well known in the towns he played. He filled up Denton's Argo whenever he came through town. "I think that when I got dropped from Mercury, my feelings were 'How can I make the best of this?' Many people would think of it as a devastating blow, but I took it as a good thing. I do wish they had been more supportive of me, but it did open up a lot of doors. I started my own label. Since I was touring all the time, I knew it wasn't going to be a problem. I got a great manager and a great agent."