It's nearing 3 a.m., and Amanda Newman is finally getting her boys ready for bed. Jesse sits cross-legged on Newman's wide leather couch and smiles shyly as she tosses a blanket beside him. She already made sure he and Dave, who will have to share the couch, have a late-night drink of water. Newman's brunette hair was all done up in a fancy coif hours before, but after an evening of running around after Jesse and Dave, frizz has set in. She plops down on the couch and pats Jesse's shoulder. She's exhausted. After all, she already worked a full day at her big, corporate job for Verizon. But Newman is dedicated.
Newman does whatever she can for her boys. This week it's Jesse and Dave from Washington, D.C., better known as neo-folk acts These United States and Paleo, respectively, who are exhausted after playing her Thursday night showcase at Club Dada. Next week it'll be another set of musicians who get the TLC Newman is known for: decent pay, heartfelt onstage introductions and a fair amount of genuine dotage. But, wait, this is Dallas! Fans are ambivalent, promoters are jerks and club owners are nothing if not stingy, right? There's just no room in this inn for genuine dotage.
Or, there wasn't until a new guard of booking agents, managers and promoters started rebuilding Dallas music's reputation one good idea at a time. Nightly showcases. Roundtable discussions. Cheaper cover charges. Take a not-so-close look at the people behind it all, and a trend emerges: It's the girls who are pulling the scene up by its bootstraps. While the bands sweat it out onstage, booking agent Chelsea Callahan at the Double Wide trolls for new acts. Carlin Stultz of Callithump Productions hosts networking roundtables and a Tuesday new music showcase at Dada. Amanda Newman and Cindy Chaffin of FineLineLive.com run the online ground zero for show info in Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth. There are many, many more: Elizabeth Eshelman of Halo Entertainment. Robin Phillips with Daughter Entertainment. All are changing the behind-the-scenes scene in Dallas, and it's starting to show on the outside.
"This new rebirth in [Dallas music] is in the hands of the ladies," Club Dada co-owner Bob Cummins says via e-mail, "as most births are!" Womb humor: It'd be kind of creepy if it wasn't kind of appropriate. Whether it's booking, promoting, managing or just plain making it out to three shows in a night, these are labors of love.
"I have just got a big-assed passion for music," says Newman, perched in a booth late one afternoon at Club Dada. She practically bleeds enthusiasm, talking a mile a minute about the bands she still can't believe agree to play her showcases. After getting riled up by a Dallas music-dissing letter to the editor in the Dallas Observer last April, she decided to do whatever she could for the scene.
"I'm a nobody," she says, incredulous, "a nobody." She got in touch with Bob Cummins, who asked her to help book Dada shows when the club famously reopened early this year. Soon, her Thursday night showcases were bringing big crowds and Cindy Chaffin, formerly of Texas Gigs, asked Amanda to partner with her on a new project, FineLineLive.com. Together, they break music news on the Fine Line blog and do a lot of virtual squealing about the bands they love and good venues around town. They speak highly of Club Dada, a club pushing Deep Ellum out of its slump with evening showcases on weekdays. Carlin Stultz runs one of the shows, which she calls New Music Tuesdays.
"There is great music here," Stultz says in a phone interview as she prepares for another Tuesday showcase, "and I just want to elevate it." That kind of attitude makes what these girls are doing all the more important. For a lot of them, it just can't be all about the Benjamins: paying the bands comes first. After trying to do Callithump full time for a year, 32-year-old Stultz will soon go back to working a 9-to-5 job. If Callithump won't pay the bills, she'll just have to work twice as hard.
Dutifully manning the Dada door, Stultz and her cat-eye glasses are the first to greet the diverse crowd forking over the $3 cover for one of her Tuesday showcases. Three bands, three bucks. Affordable cover is a big deal to Stultz, and Dada added on a half-price pint special to offset even that meager charge. Stultz also starts her Tuesday shows early, around nine, so working stiffs can be home in time to get a decent night's sleep.
The night is about giving new bands a place to play, rather than forming a cohesive lineup. This week, Stultz put together Denton folk-rock, some L.A. shoegaze and an experimental group. Frat boys in button-downs followed by hipsters wearing pearl-snaps. A gray-haired man in khakis carrying a paperback novel even wandered in for a listen. It's not a crowd most people would expect to find anywhere in Dallas, let alone Deep Ellum on a Tuesday. But the pint special is as tempting as the melodies drifting out to Elm Street.
Stultz also manages local psych-rockers Prayer for Animals when she's not listening to countless CDs, calling booking agents or organizing one of her Dallas music roundtable groups. Every month, Stultz puts together a different group of musicians, artists, promoters, business owners--anybody with a stake in the scene, really--for a dinner out in Oak Cliff. Arguments, inside jokes and good ideas ensue.
Chelsea Callahan's work is more focused but no less hectic. By day, Callahan works at Crystal Clear Distribution, the company that presses and even releases records from a whole host of Texas artists, including the pAper chAse, [DARYL], Brave Combo, Gary P. Nunn and hundreds more. That puts Callahan in record stores and on one of her two cell phones all day making sure the albums are on shelves. By night, Callahan books bands for the Double Wide, the trailer-themed venue that nearly tanked last April before it was bought by employees Kim Finch, Whitney King and Jill Sabeh. Once again, the ladies saved the day.
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Finch and Sabeh work the bar early one evening as Callahan sips a Hoegaarden. Brash and friendly, Callahan's a good fit for the Double Wide, which she keeps well stocked with punk, country and rock shows. When she started booking there last October, some guys in bands around town "copped attitude" because she was a girl.
"I don't really bow down to that," she says, and eventually the guys backed off. And if someone keeps up the attitude, Callahan says she won't book them again. Callahan refuses to name another particular band, but she says it's a prime example of a booker's nightmare. The Double Wide's a 21-and-up venue, but the club reluctantly agreed to allow an underage group to play. When the kids showed up with a van full of underage friends, they tried to tell Callahan and Finch that the whole posse was in the group.
"You don't cop attitudes with an owner and lie," says Callahan. "That band won't play here anymore." It's hard to imagine Callahan at her old job as an accountant, especially when she's telling tales of tough love at the Double Wide. She took a big pay cut to work at Crystal Clear, but she says it's worth it.
"I get to do something I care a whole lot about all day, everyday." Over the phone, in the bar, via e-mail: Every girl interviewed expressed that same passion. Though their methods may differ, from Chelsea Callahan's punk rock attitude to Carlin Stultz's quiet enthusiasm and Amanda Newman's unabashed doting, they're all adding a feminine touch to a music scene in need of some serious mothering.