By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
What would you do if you were Deatherage? Think about it for a second: You get a record deal. Your band breaks up, or you break up the band, or however you want to think about it. You get a new record deal. You record an album. Your label disappears and so does your deal. You find someone else to put out the album, and you decide to re-record it. You finish it again. Kind of. You wait. You finish it for real. You wait some more. That's the picture Deatherage has been looking at, only in much broader strokes. The real thing has the kind of details that are almost excruciating to even think about, the little cuts that bleed you dry. What would you do? What can you do? You either move on, or you don't move at all.
For the most part, that's what Deatherage has been doing since 1999. Or maybe it was 1998. Sitting at a picnic table on the roof of the Dallas Observer's downtown office, squinting into the afternoon sun, he's not positive when it all began. Whatever, it's been a long time, that much is certain. Now, however, Deatherage's new album--Dream Upon a Fallen Star, his first solo effort--is finally in stores, and he can relax a little. As long as he doesn't think about what he had to go through to get Dream Upon a Fallen Star out of his hands and into yours. "Gotta remember to sound upbeat," he says.
"Everything that could go wrong..." Deatherage begins before trailing off. "This has been the hardest thing to put out, I swear. It's bounced from three different labels, recorded twice. We finished recording in October, then Matt went to Europe, so we couldn't mix it until February. It's been mixed and done since February. We sent it off to get mastered, and then the files were bad. Finally, it came back, and we sent the stuff off to Crystal Clear recently, and the artwork had to be fixed up." He laughs. "It's been a big ordeal."
Deatherage may not know exactly when the ordeal began, but it's safe to say it started when The Calways (the band Deatherage was fronting) began working on a new album, following up 1998's Starting at the End. The group made a deal with Pineapple Records to release the disc, but soon enough there was no group and, consequently, no deal. When Deatherage broke up The Calways in late 1999, Pineapple went with it. "That was not a good deal, to put it lightly. I realize I'm being recorded here," Deatherage says, laughing. "We got out of that, and I'm glad we did."
Breaking up the band made sense, if there was even a band to break up; by the end, The Calways were little more than another name for Deatherage. He was the only constant in the four years the group was in existence, and almost all of the songs were his anyway. The other Calways changed with almost every show, leading Deatherage to a decision: If he was already pretty much a solo act, then he might as well make it official.
"We'd gone through so many members," Deatherage says. "I think when I counted it was like 20-something members over a period of four years, just in and out and in and out. I was just like, 'This is ridiculous, because people are going to think it's a band, and every time they show up, someone else is different.' I figured I'd just start going under my name, and so I played solo for a while, then started playing again with a band. And you know that I'm gonna be there, so my name's there." He laughs. "That's a guarantee."
Of course, that doesn't mean Deatherage is working with a completely new cast these days. Dream Upon a Fallen Star reunites The Calways' original lineup, with bassist Todd Pertll and drummer Steve Visneau joining Deatherage on most songs, and both are usually onstage at Deatherage's shows (in addition to another former Calway, Danny Adair). But the new disc takes Deatherage even further back than the beginning of his former band, all the way back to when he first sat down with his guitar and tried to write a song.
At that time, Deatherage was just starting to decide what he wanted to do as a musician. He was a talented guitar player, studying at arts-magnet Booker T. Washington High School. It was there where he met two of his best friends, Matt Hillyer and Drew Flemming (now a member of Deatherage's band). They called themselves the Three Musketeers, Deatherage says, laughing a little at the memory of the trio. ("We'd get into so much trouble every day in school. We were like the teachers' worst nightmare.") Until then, Deatherage was content to stick to classical and jazz, maybe a little blues. He was happy to be a sideman, just another player. But watching Hillyer--who has fronted Lone Star Trio and Strap, and now does the same for Eleven Hundred Springs--gave Deatherage different ideas.
"Matt's always been the same, always into rockabilly and country," Deatherage says. "Just being his friend, he got me into all of that stuff. Then we started playing together in The Collyers, and I had to learn the stuff. I wanted to sing, and that's what I reached for: Hank Williams. I was 18 when I decided to do that. I wanted to be the frontman. I wanted to sing and write my own songs. Being Matt's best friend, of course, watching him do that, I was like, 'I wanna do that too.' He helped me along."
To get back to that time and those songs for Dream Upon a Fallen Star, he needed some more help. Deatherage credits Slowride's Dan Phillips for gently forcing him to make an album that included every single aspect of his songwriting, from country to rock to jazz to blues to whatever else happened when he picked up a guitar and began playing. They began working together in 1999; "It was more like a hey-I've-got-a-studio-in-my-warehouse sort of thing, and we're friends, and let's record it," Deatherage says. The resulting album included most of the songs that eventually ended up on Dream Upon a Fallen Star, but once it was finished, so was the label (13 Recordings) that was supposed to release it. The recordings with Phillips were eventually scrapped, but the ideas that came out of those sessions are what hold Dream Upon a Fallen Star together.
"The Calways was a little more rock, the Tom Petty sort of rock and roll, that sort of thing," Deatherage explains. "But when we started recording with Dan, he was like, 'You know, we just need to record Todd music--like, everything.' Because I write in all different styles of music--jazz and blues and country, rock. 'Just do all your songs, and put them on one record.' Just make it an eclectic mix of something. So that's what we started with Dan, and then we just kind of did it over again. I like it a lot better. I feel comfortable with what I'm writing, because I don't have to be worried if it's in the right genre, or if it doesn't fit in some category.
"The songs on it [Dream Upon a Fallen Star], some of them are very old," he continues. "Some of them are seven or eight years old. Some of them are some of the first songs I ever wrote. Stuff I could never fit into anything else. Before we started recording, Dan and I sat down, and I must have recorded about 40 songs, everything I've ever written. We put it down, with just me and my guitar, and then we listened and picked the ones we thought would work the best for what we were trying to do. I think the newest song is maybe a year old. Which I guess would be two years old, considering it took a long time to get out."
It took even longer than it might have because Summer Break Records, the label that released Dream Upon a Fallen Star, offered to have Deatherage re-record the album with Matt Pence at The Echo Lab in Argyle. For once, it was a wait that was worth it, because the extra time gave Deatherage a chance to fill out the album with guest appearances by the Old 97's Rhett Miller, percussionist Joe Cripps, fiddle player Reggie Rueffer, Centro-matic's Scott Danbom and Pence, Hillyer and Cowboys & Indians' horn player Jim Lehnert, among others.
While Deatherage was happy to have a chance to put out the best album possible, all he really wanted was for it to be in a store or a stereo. Not in a studio.
"People were starting to disbelieve me that the record was ever going to come out," he says. "After two years of saying, 'It's going to come out in March,' people were just like, 'Yeah, whatever.' At the end, I was just saying, 'Soon. Soon. Soon it will come out.' Everything happens for a reason, I guess they say, but I'm a very impatient person. Guess I have a reason to be, too."
If anyone has a reason to be impatient, it's Deatherage. He's only 25, but you'd assume he's at least a few years older, due to the fact that he's been playing around since he was 15, standing onstage at Schooner's with Hash Brown. He's allowed to be impatient, because he's already been waiting too long.
"The thing is, is that everyone has seen me play for so long, I think they just write me off sometimes," Deatherage says, laughing. "You know? They're like, 'Oh, Todd. I've been watching him since he was 15 or 16.' It's the opposite effect. Either you're the child prodigy, you know, where, like, everyone watches you for the whole time. And then this other way, where they're just like, 'Ah you're old news,' and they'll pop in every once in a while just to say hey, so if something ever happens, they knew you way back then." He laughs again, and stops for a second. "It's cool and it's not."