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In 2008, a bar stool in Lewisville's Old Town Flying Pig was as prime a place as any from which to witness two examples of North Texas' country greatness. Back then, on Tuesday nights, honky-tonk vets Mo Robson and Nate Kipp shared a residency in the downtown Lewisville bar where the solo artists would swap songs, stories and share tips.
Since then, both artists have gone on to play countless gigs in the best barrooms, saloons and patios the state has to offer. Such a schedule isn't glamorous, but it's reality for these Dallas-based country artists, who purposely look to swing into the opposite direction of what is blaring from radio stations and stuffing virtual cash registers these days.
Robson and Kipp have both recently released stellar examples of Texas-inflected country and Western. That's right: country and Western. In the process, both artists avoided trend-watching when crafting their albums, as both Robson's Can't Afford the Luck and Kipp's The Holding Pattern offer tips of the hats to sounds of the recent and not-so-recent past.
While acts like Casey Donahew and Josh Abbott continue to blow up commercially, thanks to the made-for-mass-consumption ditties that get sorority girls swaying as they raise their wine coolers in the air, these two new albums made by long-time friends and stage-sharers are clearly made to get those sorority girls dancing. That is, if those short-jean-skirted, trendy country-pop fans will just give these albums a shot.
Over the last several years, Robson has stormed stages from the Granada Theater in Dallas to the massive annual Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, and beyond, with the biggest names in Red Dirt music. When discussing this latest album, Robson readily admits that he and his chief cohorts, drummer Brandon Rice and guitar player and producer Robby Baxter, wanted it to carry a killer '70s aura.
"We wanted to make an album that had the sound of that era," he says. "I like the warmer sound of the older music as well as the simplicity of it. By simplicity, I mean letting the room and the microphones do the work, not the computer."
The album's title track and lead single proves that Robson isn't paying cheap lip service. The cascading pedal steel and the lyrics that are anything but sunny certainly won't remind anyone of the minivan country that dominates Top 40 these days.
Following up on his two previous releases, Even Angels Fall and a live album recorded at Adair's in Dallas, Robson hopes that this record will help spread his busy touring schedule farther than it has been in the past. His odds will improve if the new album ends up appealing to more than just local hard-core honky-tonkers. In fact, sales of Robson's albums have been solid enough overseas that an international tour is being planned.
While making an album that carried the warmth of the past was a priority for Robson, avoiding the slick sounds of the homogenized mainstream wasn't necessarily a primary goal.
"I'm not an anti-Top 40 guy; it's just that a vast majority of that isn't my thing," he says. "I've always written and made music that makes sense to me, and then I let the chips land where they may. I don't think it was really a conscious thing as much as it was a that's-just-not-what-I-do thing."
While Robson has enjoyed some success with regional country radio and has stayed busy recording and playing in the past few years, Kipp is using the release of his new album to perhaps re-establish his presence. In fact, he's doing so with a little help from some talented friends.
A West Texas native, Kipp has been gigging around these parts for the last six years. During that time, he has connected with some musical folks who were more than happy to help him when it came time to record the new album. For those who've been to a show at Adair's or Love and War in Texas in recent years, it's near impossible to not be impressed by Kipp's collaborators. Dallas Observer Best of Dallas® winner for best DJ "Big Gus" Samuelson — a talented musician and vocalist in his own right — and lead Tejas Brother Dave Perez both co-wrote songs for the album with Kipp. Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs and Colin Boyd each chipped in some instrumental and vocal assistance throughout the album.
Using a phrase such as The Holding Pattern as the title for Kipp's first record in four years is perhaps a nod to the time that has passed since his self-titled debut was released. Such a length between albums can be looked upon as an eternity, but Kipp already has specific, practical hopes for what this record can mean for his artistic prospects. "I truly hope that this record does enough to pave the way for another one," he says.
While those expectations seem modest, Kipp places a high value on what he views as honest authenticity.
"I didn't set out to color the new album with any kind of brush except an authentic one. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel by any means," he says. "I just wanted to make one that will get me down the road a little ways, and then to have somebody say, 'Hey, I recognize that,' even if they don't know why they do. Kind of like a new old friend."
Songs like the Telecaster-laden, pun-intensive "Frank," and "Already Forgotten," a zydeco-flavored tune sure to be heard at crawfish boils, are perhaps the best examples of the album's vintage-chic appeal. Both songs recall a time when a tune could draw a laugh without being hokey. It wasn't too long ago that Kipp's album might have easily found its way onto Top 40 radio. While the album boasts the genuineness of some of the mid-'90s hits by fellow Texans such as Tracy Byrd, Rick Trevino and Mark Chestnutt, Kipp just hears an album that represents him, regardless of what era the album may inadvertently resemble.
"The overall feel just comes from the way that the songs translated from pen to CD," he says. "Whether it's through the production, the personality, the players, or West Texas, or even the writing, that's just how the album developed."
As he continues to look toward the future, Kipp feels good about getting the word out and people into his shows. "The market will fluctuate many different ways, but if you have a few happy fans that leave your show and can't wait to come back, I think that's good honest growth," he says.
Kipp describes what fate could befall both him and Robson should the fun-time climate of Texas change anytime soon. "If two-stepping around the dance floor and feeling that old-school human connection ever goes out of style, then I'm in trouble."