By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
This mid-'90s tale isn't unusual: Young, buzzed-about band gains the attention of several major record labels. After a bidding war that includes Madonna herself, the band selects a home. Using the marketing machinery of its new label, the band plays the prime stages of everything from European festivals to late-night television shows.
Then, sales of the act's debut album fail to meet expectations, so the band goes back into studio to make an artistic, and perhaps indignant, statement with their second record—one that the label bosses don't particularly care for. After the label undergoes many structural changes and sits on the album for a while, the band takes its music elsewhere, bidding adieu to a what once was a living dream.
For many bands in the latter days of major labels' halcyon era, the story either ends there or proceeds to an ending that's anything but happy or promising. But for Celeste's John David Kent, of the country band John David Kent and the Dumb Angels, that tale is an opening chapter, not the whole book.
Kent and his childhood best friend, solo artist Ben Kweller, rode the '90s alt-rock gravy train as the teenage core members of Radish, from Greenville. In 1996, the post-grunge sound wasn't only alive, it was profitable, and after a couple of independent releases, Radish signed with Mercury Records, only to find themselves looking for the next stop in their creative lives four years later. Mercury had already ousted label head Danny Goldberg, perhaps the still-young band's biggest fan, and the group secured its release after failing to become the household names so many had predicted they would become.
While Kweller took his talents to New York, where he laid the foundation for his success, Kent, who was raised on a varied musical diet consisting of Waylon Jennings, Run DMC and The Beach Boys, stayed close to home and eventually began a life that more closely resembled that of a typical family man.
Save for the times that he has toured the globe as a drummer for Kweller and occasionally for Evan Dando's The Lemonheads, Kent has sought out the musical options of North Texas to keep him employed and artistically alive. In the decade since Radish dissolved—the members are still on amicable terms—Kent immersed himself into a crash-course in Music Biz 101. As it turned out, forming a new band, the short-lived Pony League, was merely the beginning.
He's now owner of a music venue in Greenville (Stonewall Music Hall), of Blackland Records (home to indie-rock act Hymns) and a public recording studio (The Vault). He's also a producer (Grant Jones, Lost Immigrants) and former disc jockey.
"I don't know that I've done any of my jobs incredibly well, and it drives my wife crazy for me to have so many irons in the fire," Kent says as he sits outside the studio where he is recording his current band's debut full-length album. "But all of these roles are closely correlated and are threads that get woven together."
Kent's latest musical venture came about thanks to a foray into cyberspace. In 2008, Kent's brother and current Dumb Angels drummer, Tony, put a few country-tinged demos onto a MySpace page, just to garner reaction and see what might come from it. One of the people who heard the demo tunes was Clint Scribner. A friend from Kent's past, Scribner not only became John's manager but matched him up with a couple of members from Dallas Southern-rock outfit Salute, led by lead guitarist Mike Graska and bass player Jamey Gleaves. After adding Jason Andrew, a crack fiddle player with an impressive lineage, the band was complete.
The group's members see their combination of varying musical backgrounds as a strength. Graska, who has assumed the role as co-leader and even sings lead on some of his old band's tunes during Dumb Angels shows, thinks that going from swampy, Southern rock to Texas country isn't much of a stretch, even though he hadn't ever performed with a fiddle player before joining Kent two years ago.
"I was very lucky to have Jason playing fiddle for my first time," Graska says. "Also, I think that almost anyone that has grown up in Texas has been a country music fan, at one time or another."
Another factor that has encouraged this group's direction is the success of their signature tune, "My Girl." The infectious tune is on the self-titled EP, which was quickly released after the band's formation, and has come to signify this band's unique potential as an outfit that retains gritty distinction while showcasing a polished tone that makes it easily palatable to fans of just about any type of country music.
"I didn't think we were changing the world with this EP," Kent says. "So many people, whether it's in rock or Texas country, think that you can't have good songs and be credible at the same time. I did think that 'My Girl' had a chance to do something, though."
And do something it did. After gaining heavy rotation on KHYI 95.3 in Dallas, the video for the song became a hit on CMT's Pure Country channel and its corresponding website, getting enough votes in its first week to win the site's "Video of the Week" in 2009.
The band's debut full-length record, being recorded in Garland with Mike Gage engineering and co-producing with the entire band, will offer listeners more of what many have already appreciated from the song that helped open doors for them. While fiddle has begun to disappear from much of the Texas country landscape, Andrew's eloquent sawing joins Graska's scorching lead guitar in carrying much of the sonic weight, teaming together much like the bass and drums do for most bands.
The band understands that the golden opportunity Kent enjoyed many years ago may not happen for them—not easily, at least. And that seems to suit the members just fine.
"Everything you want in life is outside of your comfort zone," Graska says with a chuckle as he repeats the mantra that Kent has lived by.
For Kent, understanding his comfort zone as an adult in comparison to where it was as an artistically minded teenager is something vital as well.
"I don't get caught up in the credibility thing, anymore," he says. "I just want to be a true artist and let that show."