By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As The Will Callers' Jake Murphy adjusted to a bit of bracing, life-altering news, he was already making up his mind about his group's immediate future.
He didn't have any choice but to make a decision in quick order—the band was set to play a show just a few days later. And it was a big show, too, the finals of the Shiner Rising Star competition, where his band had the chance to win a record deal.
"A chance to make a record for free isn't something we could turn down, really," Murphy says.
And so his band decided to soldier on and move forward, despite losing its two newest members to an automobile accident only days before the biggest concert of the young group's existence. It also proved to be the correct call: The band took home the top prize they so coveted.
In recent weeks, two North Texas-based bands have been faced with the collision of unexpected catastrophe and real-life logistics that affect lifelong dreams, creating surreal scenarios that are quite real, indeed. For both The Will Callers and Dallas country veterans Grant Jones & the Pistol Grip Lassos, the recent losses of beloved bandmates have led each group into similar territory, searching for avenues in which they can move on with their careers. Even though both cases have differing variables, the question for both acts is the same: How does a band continue to function when it is no longer whole?
For Fort Worth's The Will Callers, a young group that specializes in rollicking country with a healthy dose of Rolling Stones swagger, the loss of bandmates Chase Monks and Bradley Schroeder in an October 14 car accident represented the depletion of leadership the band had come to treasure in but a short time. What had been blossoming into a long-lasting bond amongst new bandmates and friends was violently torn apart—just four shows into The Will Callers' most recent lineup's short existence.
"A lot of other members we've had, we've needed to mold them into what we wanted," says lead singer Murphy over the phone, just a few days removed from his group's win in the Shiner Rising Star competition. "The first day we met Chase and Brad, I knew it was a good match immediately."
Monks, who played lead guitar, and the bass-playing Schroeder were both experienced players who have been a part of some of Texas' brighter young groups, and were both grizzled road warriors compared to their new cohorts, who are still in their early 20s. And, judging by how well that lineup performed over the course of its two-week life, the skilled hired guns clearly knew how to work their way into an unfamiliar musical setting. It was the band's booking agent, Trey Newman, who acted as matchmaker when it was evident that seasoned perspectives were in order for his verdant clients.
"As much as Brad and Chase had toured in the past, I felt they would add some excitement to the band," explains Newman. "Having Brad and Chase on the road with them gave The Will Callers such insight into the music, as well as showing them the ropes of being on the road."
But after absorbing the shock that the news of their mates' passing brought, Murphy and drummer Daniel Slatton had but a very small window in which to decide to play in that week's finale concert for the Shiner Rising Star prize. For Slatton, even with—and perhaps especially because of—the bad news, the plan was quite clear.
"It didn't cross our minds not to play in the finals," says the drummer. "It was a no-brainer. We knew it was something we didn't want to give up, and that we would move forward with Chase and Brad in mind. What they brought to us was really special."
For now, Murphy and Slatton are forging ahead as a duo, hoping to soon find players who are worthy of filling such exceptional roles in their outfit. An air of uncertainty from the newly signed duo is understandable, even if, according to Slatton, the goal is already formulated.
"In the long run," Slatton says, "we'd like to have the same type of band as before because that's what we're most comfortable with."
To be certain, losing someone, just as the fruit of a new relationship begins to show, is harrowing enough. But when a band suddenly misses their long-standing emotional core, the complexity of the future can be as overwhelming as the path of moving on is shrouded.
The Will Callers aren't the only recent Shiner prize-winner to suffer a tremendous loss just as a long-awaited milestone was reached. Back in August, Grant Jones & The Pistol Grip Lassos finally released their self-titled Shiner Records album, only to be blindsided by tragedy a week later.
"There's so much guilt involved, because while I've just lost one of my best friends, I've now got some business decisions to make," admits 2009 Shiner Rising Star winner Grant Jones as he remembers the days immediately following the August 10 passing of his close friend and bass player, Ace McNeely. "I had to call the guy that does some booking for us and cancel some gigs, and as much as I hate to admit it, as much as I was crying my eyes out with his family, I had to ask, 'Where are we now?'"
Such quandaries are often overlooked by those who aren't directly associated with a band that endures traumatic times, but the delicate balancing of sorrow and practicality will typically span a lengthy period of time. After playing with McNeely as a part of his band for five years—and knowing him for more than twice that amount of time—Jones is still searching for a replacement solution that he hopes can be a lasting one.
Sure, for the Pistol Grip Lassos, the function of a bass player will be fulfilled soon, but Jones finds himself concerned over the intangible aspects that will remain missing and what to expect from the future as well.
"His honesty is probably the biggest thing we'll miss," says Jones. "It's like that feeling when you move to a new city or go off to college. There's an exciting sense of the unknown, even though you're completely scared. It's a new chapter."
Similar to The Will Callers, Jones had virtually no qualms deciding his band would continue to perform as a unit, even without McNeely's key steadying presence. In the case of both acts, commencing with the music that their departed friends helped them create has seemed the ideal way in which to honor their memories, even if the compromise was awkward and hard to understand for those looking from the outside.
"We wanted to avoid saying, 'Well, Ace would've wanted to do this or that,'" says Jones, chuckling at the understandable nature of such habits. "We've got to make our own decisions, but we, for sure, know that Ace would've kicked all of our asses if we had just given up. So that's not even an option."