By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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Far from the dark-clouded pessimist he's often portrayed as on the radio, singer-songwriter/radio producer/radio host Danny Balis is, at least on this day, in a great mood. And why shouldn't he be? The former Sorta and current King Bucks bassist is just about to self-release his debut solo effort, Too Much Living, a killer collection of hardcore country that's perfectly suited to Balis' rich baritone.
"I just put one song up on my MySpace page the other day, and it's already gotten almost 17,000 listens," Balis says with a tone of bemused excitement.
But, even outside of the music world, things are looking up for Balis. He recently returned from a trip to Boston, where he met his biological mother for the first time since being given up for adoption. Consider that the cap to quite a whirlwind summer for a guy who's normally screening phone calls from irate Dallas Cowboys fans as part of The Hardline on KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket.
"If I sat down and tried to get my mind around all of this stuff, I think my head would explode," Balis says. "It's been a lot to handle."
Yet handle it he has. Because whatever joy Balis may feel in reconnecting with his birth mother or in releasing his first solo record, such pleasures will always be tainted by the death of his best friend and Sorta bandmate Carter Albrecht.
It's been nearly two years since Albrecht's much-chronicled demise, and his death has obviously had a far-reaching impact on Balis' life and music. For months after the incident, Balis found himself in the worst mental condition of his entire life.
"Carter's death ruined me for a long time," Balis admits. "For a long time, I wasn't doing shit other than living a nihilistic lifestyle, really not giving a damn about anything other than being self-destructive and not grieving well."
Ironically, coming to grips with the depression caused by Albrecht's death was the catalyst to Balis' making Too Much Living.
"Carter always told me that I needed to do country, that my voice was best suited for that," Balis says over lunch in Deep Ellum. "Carter always encouraged me to play country, and now I have the inspiration to do so."
A chance invitation to play as the bassist for local country cover band The King Bucks allowed Balis the opportunity to get a respite from his inner demons as well as become better acquainted with the kind of country music he knew in his youth. Growing up in Knox City, Balis was exposed to the music of Don Williams and Jim Reeves at an early age. That kind of deep-throated, tear-in-your-beer country was directly influenced by Hank Williams and, in turn, influenced the likes of Randy Travis and Alan Jackson.
Balis has no problem with his music being associated with any of those artists. In fact, Too Much Living is remarkable in its near total embrace of old-school country. Unlike area alt-country stalwarts such as Old 97's and Slobberbone, Balis' music has no "alt" to it at all. Songs like "Never Have to Crawl" and "Beyond the Walls of Loneliness" are richly emotional gems that would sound comfortable in the hands of Dwight Yoakam.
Folks looking for the indie rock of Sorta will find Balis' work monumentally different, like a time machine that vaults back and forth between Hank Williams' appearances in the late '40s on the Grand Ole Opry and Don Williams' more cosmopolitan country of the early '70s.
"I have no perspective on whether or not this new stuff is good," Balis modestly offers. "I mean, I like it and I think it's good and I'm proud of it, but I don't know what the masses like."
Judging by the early Internet and word-of-mouth hype, Too Much Living might just have a chance of appealing to those perplexing masses. And like the irony in having a great record come about, at least partly, because of the death of his closest friend, so does the irony play out in Balis' recent meeting with his birth mother. His adoptive mother was part of a regionally successful country swing band, and his adoptive father was adept at many stringed instruments, so it's not much of a reach to see how he ended up playing music professionally.
Of course, if Balis had never been adopted, chances are he would have never been exposed to the music that defines what he does today. Born to a single mother in Boston, his life could have taken a radically different path if he weren't put up for adoption, and such truth is not lost on Balis.
"If I weren't adopted, I probably wouldn't even be a musician," Balis says. "I wouldn't have a son, and I wouldn't live in Texas. And I'm really happy with the way things are right now."
And, right now, Balis seems to have some closure. He'd been searching for his biological mother for more than 20 years. But only recently were several Internet databases allowed to release long withheld medical information. After that, it took just a few Google searches for Balis to track down his birth mother.
He recently visited her for more than a week, also meeting other blood relatives who were still living in the Boston area. It was a cathartic experience for all involved, but Balis admits that his friends back in Texas had their own ideas about the mother/child reunion.
"I think people were expecting some sort of Oprah story," Balis says with a laugh. "It wasn't like that at all. It was a big hug and absolutely no tears."
Of course, upon returning, Balis was peppered with questions, both on and off the air. And now with the release of Too Much Living, he's expecting more of the same. Surely, being a part of one of the most listened to radio programs in the area must be a promotional boost for Balis and his music, but Balis says he feels it unfair to other local musicians that he gets promotion via the Ticket, and he's come to realize that such promotion comes with its share of backlash.
"A lot of the exposure I get for my music is because of where I work," Balis says. "But I still get e-mails from listeners saying, 'We don't give a fuck about you or your music.'"
At the upcoming CD release show at the Granada on Friday night, where he'll open up for Slobberbone at the theater's five-year anniversary party, Balis expects a few loyal Ticket listeners to shout various phrases that have become a part of his on-air persona.
Shouts of Balis' go-to on-air radio lines like "I like steak" are sure to ring out, he admits. This time, though, they'll hopefully come after the applause.