Llano Avenue

Darryl Lee Rush released his debut album just a year shy of his 40th birthday. How's that for a mid-life crisis?

"With music, you think it's a young man's game," local country crooner Darryl Lee Rush says. "But at 39, it's like I can finally make some moves." With his graying beard and receding hairline, Rush looks more like a middle school teacher than a country up-and-comer, but his dark eyes and deep features reveal a quiet intensity not often seen in social studies class.

"I've been playing since sixth grade and always ended up with a lot of crap," Rush deadpans. Things changed last year when Rush won the Shiner Rising Star Contest and was awarded $15,000 to make a record. Rush's circuitous journey has taken him from the small Gulf Coast town of Markham to a stint in an Austin cover band and finally to the Lakewood area of Dallas, where he has been performing for nearly nine years.

Rush built a local following playing the Balcony Club while amassing an extensive backlog of forlorn country/folk. With the August release of his candid debut album, Llano Avenue, things have blossomed quickly. Several tracks from the disc have been picking up airplay on local roots station 95.3 The Range, and he and his band have just completed their first extended tour away from Texas, including a slot at the Americana Music Conference in Nashville in September.

Rush is surprised by the buzz that the CD has generated, particularly since he'd predicted that the making of the record would be a disaster. Rush was worried that the choice of producer he earned for his contest victory, the semi-legendary Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen), would scoff at the thought of recording with someone so little-known.

"I was just some guy who won some contest," says Rush, adding, "I got the impression that Gurf was reserved about putting his name on it."

Put his name on it he did--and more. Besides playing on the disc, Morlix also acted as chief editor. "I just went to his house and played him nearly every song I had written," Rush says. "He sat there saying, 'OK, that's a good one.' The ones he liked the most, we put them on the CD."

Morlix's choices were spot-on. The characters within the songs of Llano Avenue reflect a writer's appreciation of detail and strong narrative. In "Truale," Rush sings of the trials of a small-town girl who not only accepts her lot in life but revels in it. "She drove a T-bird with the top down, a cold beer between her thighs," Rush sings as Morlix adds a plaintive guitar solo.

The best cut is the title song, a sad elegy to a lost love and a friend who wandered the States in a van "because we could all use a little windshield time now and again." The song, which also pays tribute to Rush's life in East Dallas, is filled with the honest reflection and regret so often missing from hip Nashville hayseeds more interested in black trench coats, extra-large hats and sticking boots up asses.

"It's so much like therapy to write a song like 'Llano Avenue,'" Rush says. "I try to write about the simple stuff. Some young kids try to tackle such grandiose things, but I write about the people I've known and what they've told me."

As fine as his originals are, Rush proves his chops with a keen eye for covers. Whether it's classic Texana (Guy Clark and Terry Allen's "Queenie's Song") or little-known songsmiths like Hank Riddle (whose "I Believe in the Sun" is one of the album's highlights), Rush makes choices that mesh seamlessly with his own clearheaded, rural mindset.

The finest pick might well be Chris Knight's "Miles to Memphis," a song perfectly suited to Rush's weary baritone. "The song on the radio used to make me cry," Rush sings, grabbing hold of the song's quiet expression of remembrance and regret; this simple tale about a long, lonely drive mirrors Rush's own resolve.

Rush claims his influences include Harry Chapin and Jim Croce, but his muse is much closer to the late, great Doug Sahm and Guy Clark. While his storyteller's flair is similar to singer-songwriters of the '70s, his grit and demeanor are pure Texas.

"With me and my band, if we hit a wrong note, we are gonna hit it loud and we are gonna hit it fearlessly," he says when discussing the bluegrass version of the Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" included on the new CD. A very unlikely choice for a cover, the song is nonetheless transformed into a funny and engaging hillbilly romp.

With his short, national tour now complete and a big opening gig with Robert Earl Keen in Rockwall coming this weekend, Rush is taking stock of his life and the possibility of making music a full-time job. Rush sells parts to the semiconductor industry, and in the past, he has sold cars, stereos and even tried his hand at real estate. But now, approaching the dreaded four-oh, he has a chance at a career that has always eluded him.

"Sometimes I think, 'Could this have happened earlier?'" Rush says, pausing, careful with his words. "Maybe it was meant to be that I get to this point in my life and have experienced life enough for success to happen."

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