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Dan's Silverleaf is the town hall of Denton music. The art scattered around the venue is purposefully random, but one of the first things you'll see is above the merch table: a striking six-foot-tall painting of a naked woman clutching her chest. A winding bar stretches from the stage back to the patio, where just about every musician in Denton has taken a smoke break or found some fresh air.
On a recent Saturday night in the venue's semi-filled main room, all six members of The Baptist Generals are standing on the stage as their new tune "Oblivion Overture" plays through the P.A. Lead singer Chris Flemmons takes a healthy pull from his bottle of Red Guitar wine. No need for a glass — it's going to be that kind of evening. He waves the bottle in the face of bassist Ryan Williams, who playfully pushes it away.
The crowd is growing and pressing up near the stage, and the shaggy white dog that was lying up front during the opening act flees for the back patio. It's a testament to the Generals' place in Denton's cultural and civic landscape: a city councilwoman, Pete Kamp, has a reserved table near the front. Standing nearby is Craig Welch, lead singer of the seminal area metal band Brutal Juice, one of many luminaries of the DFW music scene here to pay their respects.
It's been 10 years since The Baptist Generals celebrated the release of a new album. That was the critically acclaimed No Silver/No Gold, put out by Seattle-based Sub Pop — the label that first signed Nirvana and more recently counted The Shins and Fleet Foxes among its roster. The band wore that record out on a successful national tour, and watched its star rise. Then a string of obligations, unexpected roadblocks and opportunities kept them in Denton, for a year and then five and then 10. Flemmons was always working on music, but he found himself with other battles to fight, against out-of-town developers and the perception that Denton isn't a serious artistic hub. It started to seem like the Generals might simply fade away.
As "Oblivion Overture" comes to a soft, slow end, the band launches into "Machine En Prolepses," the first track on their new album, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, and the audience loses it. Peter Salisbury uses his iPad to trigger a sound like a cricket chirping. Flemmons, dressed in the black button-up formal vest over a red button-up long-sleeved shirt he's almost always seen in, strums his 30-year-old Trump acoustic to the percussive thrums of the beat. The rest of the band soon joins in: Paul Slavens on marimba, Jeff Ryan on drums, Ryan Williams on bass and Jason Reimer on lead guitar.
They finish the two-minute instrumental, and Flemmons takes a few moments for the applause to settle. "Hello Denton!" he bellows. He mentions that they've been recording this album since January of 2012. Reimer doesn't miss a beat: "I think it was January 2004," he says.
Flemmons has a habit of hanging onto things that matter to him. Like that guitar he's clutching on stage: He bought it 25 years ago at a pawn shop in Fort Worth for $20.
Its most visible scar is on the front: The wood is severely worn away in the shape of a kidney just above the soundhole, in the middle of an intricate design of Saturnian rings with a crisscrossing thick ring of diamonds at its center. The neck is thicker than a standard acoustic guitar because it's a classical: It uses nylon strings instead of steel, and you can hear the difference on all of The Baptist Generals' albums. The strings are also part of the reason that Flemmons refers to the instrument on stage as his "plastic guitar." He's taped lyrics he sometimes forgets to the top.
For now, anyway, the Trump is the only guitar he owns. He's spent hundreds of dollars over the years modifying and fixing the instrument. In order to electrify it, he had the bridge bored out and put a transducer pickup in it. One year the neck just snapped in half.
"It's been patched and rejointed," he says. "I can't even begin to name all of the things that have been done to that guitar."
Flemmons had owned it for 12 years already when he started The Baptist Generals with his friend, drummer Steve Hill. They played outside on Fry Street in Denton, in a stairwell near a long-gone beer and wine shop called The Corkscrew. Flemmons, then 30, played his pawnshop Trump guitar while Hill cradled a snare drum in his legs. They filled up that Denton inlet with the minimalist sound that's still the core of the band's music. But life quickly got more complicated than playing in a stairwell.
A year after they formed, Flemmons' dad, Jerry, fell ill. By then, the former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter had been simplifying and getting rid of material possessions. He battled cancer and endured a heart transplant, but in 1999, at 63, they took him off life support. It took eight days for his new heart to stop beating.