An Oral History of the Dallas Music Scene
For years, Deep Ellum sat vacant. By the late '70s, the neighborhood that had once served as the playground for blues icons of the early 20th century — Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, T-Bone Walker and even Robert Johnson — was a collection of vacant warehouses and storefronts.
The only thing that the neighborhood had retained, it seemed, was the element of danger made legend by the traditional folk song about the area. "Deep Ellum Blues" warned would-be visitors of the one-time red-light district's temptations, its political corruption and its inhabitants' pickpocketing ways; by the early '80s, these dangers had been replaced by groups of skinheads who trolled the streets. In the following years, however, the skinheads would be weeded out, and music again would lead the neighborhood's revival.
And quite the return it's been: By the late '80s, the small neighborhood just east of downtown had regained its status as North Texas' musical epicenter. With few exceptions — most notably a return of crime in the late '90s and early '00s, when the neighborhood once again fell into a lull — Deep Ellum has held that distinction since.
This week, we celebrate Deep Ellum. On Saturday, October 15, our fifth annual showcase of Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees will feature 54 performances on 10 stages located throughout the neighborhood. The event will be highlighted by outdoor performances from the Toadies, the Old 97's, Centro-matic and Sarah Jaffe. Three days later, our free-to-attend, 23rd annual Dallas Observer Music Awards Ceremony at the House of Blues will feature a headlining performance from Erykah Badu.
With such local music luminaries participating in this year's shows, we figured it fitting to look back at the recent history of the Dallas music scene. So here it is, the cultural backbone of our city, in the words of the people who helped create it.
The Early Years
In the late '80s and early '90s, after a decade of establishing itself as an arts and music mecca in Dallas, Deep Ellum started to take shape as an entertainment district dependent on the burgeoning Dallas music scene. In 1987, New York City-based Island Records released a compilation album called The Sound of Deep Ellum, highlighting bands that regularly played the neighborhood. Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians led the charge, followed closely behind by bands such as Course of Empire, Shallow Reign and Three on a Hill. The Toadies had just formed. Tripping Daisy and Funland were in their early stages. Their members played in other bands, but Centro-matic and the Old 97's were still a few years off. Erykah Badu was in college. Sarah Jaffe was a toddler.
Rhett Miller (Old 97's guitarist and vocalist): Those memories are fuzzy, some of them. I'll tell you what I remember, though: Oh my God, we were so poor back then. It was unbelievable. Just everybody, everybody I can think of. I know that I, for one, didn't crack 20K until the time I was 30. It was just ramen noodles every day.
Vaden Todd Lewis (Toadies guitarist and vocalist): The first Toadies show was at a place called The Axis in Fort Worth. It was kick-ass, this shitty little dive. It was tiny, holds like 50 people. It's a power or utilities office now. We had to think of a name and go do the gig. We worked on it a lot, but Toadies is what we thought of.
Will Johnson (Centro-matic guitarist and vocalist, Funland drummer): I was a small-town kid for all my life up until I moved to Dallas, and I remember feeling a little bit overwhelmed with all the traffic and all that stuff. The scenes were a little different at that point. I seem to remember some Denton friends raising their eyebrows, like, 'Oh, you're moving down to Dallas?' It wasn't a municipal stand-off, but the scenes were a little more separated. I think that goes with the cities being more separated at that point; now it's all more connected by sprawl and, because of that, the music scenes are a little more connected.
Lewis: Back in the day, Dallas people were real shitty to Fort Worth people. I mean, real shitty. Like, 'You're from Fort Worth? Fuck you.' That kind of shitty. Real bad, real dicks. We wanted to play anywhere and everywhere. But we just played Fort Worth and kept playing and playing. Eventually we got an afternoon show at, like, The Prophet Bar. It was a while before we got 'in' in Dallas. I remember, one night, we were playing in Florida, in Tampa-St. Pete, and played to, I dunno, 1,500 or 2,000 people or something like that, and we were just like, 'What the fuck? This is great!' And then we drove home overnight and two days later played Dallas to 60 people.
Miller: The very early days of Deep Ellum were Shallow Reign and Three on a Hill. My first real gig, I played on a bill between Three on a Hill and Murry [Hammond]'s band, The Peyote Cowboys, at 500 Café. Murry was my entrée into the scene. For some reason, it was no big deal to have this 16-year-old kid be in the Theatre Gallery. It was so wheels-off. It was so Wild West. Deep Ellum was nothing. It was a few warehouse and a couple of art galleries.
Murry Hammond (Old 97's bassist and vocalist): I started going down there, and I didn't even know it was called Deep Ellum back then. It was back in the old hardcore punk days. Frank Campagna was running Studio D. It was an art gallery. ... I remember he put on the Dead Kennedys in August of 1982. There's fliers of it on Facebook, like on the "Dallas Punk Rock Archives" or whatever. That was my first entry into what was eventually Deep Ellum. It was all punk rock, punk rock and punk rock for a few years there.
Miller: Those were great, great days. But, in the very early days, when it was just the Prophet Bar and the Theatre Gallery, it was also pretty dangerous. I got beat up one night by the skinheads in front of the Theatre Gallery. There was this really drunk skinhead, and I was standing out front of the venue with a bunch of girls. I had really long hair and my glasses on, and he came up to me and he put his arm around me and started to try and kiss me. I was like, 'Dude! Whoa! Whoa!' and he goes, 'Oh, my God! You're a fucking dude! I thought you were a chick!' And I was like, 'Well, I'm not.' Then he goes, 'Why don't you punch me so I have a reason to beat the shit out of you.' I was like, 'That's a horrible offer.' I remember exactly what I said — and it was the stupidest thing I could've said. I said, 'Hate creates hate and violence creates more violence. And I don't want to be a part of that cycle.' Soon as I finished, he punched me so hard in my face. My glasses just exploded. And, in my right ear, I couldn't hear for the rest of the night. The Peyote Cowboys were playing and they kind of let me hide out behind the stage. Going out to my car later that night, I remember that they were, like, lingering and hanging around. I had to take this circuitous route. Like I made him gay. And I was driving a hearse at the time, like a really conspicuous car.
Clark Vogeler (Toadies guitarist, Funland guitarist): Well, I lived with Rhett. I met Rhett when I worked at Terilli's, like '91. He was a host at the door. I was a cashier. We became buddies there, and he moved in with me. We were living together on Goliad, just off Greenville. I remember seeing him in the Observer in maybe '85 or '86. There was this article in there on his start, and there was this picture of him. He had this long hair. He looked like a model, and he sang with kind of an English accent. We used to always tease him about the English accent and all that stuff. First he did this band, Rhett's Exploding. Then he tried something else. It wasn't for a couple years that he started with the Old 97's guys. Immediately, that was fun. He sang with more twang, which was interesting. He'd just come from this rock band where he was screaming, and he goes straight into country-tinged rock, and you hear his Texas accent in every line. I remember them playing early on at this little bar over on Canton, I think? It had a woman's name. I can't remember what it was called. But it was one of those places where you've got to set up next to the pool table. They only sold beer in cans. You could only fit maybe 30 people in there.
Miller: Naomi's became, like, this really big deal for us to play. It was over by where the AllGood Café is now, but a block farther out. Man, those shows were fun. You would just squeeze 80 people in there. It's funny; I've heard people talk about those Naomi's shows. If all the people who say they were at those shows — like when my tooth came out during a Cramps cover — if they were really there, Naomi's would've been 400 capacity. But it was 80 people, and way overfilled at that.
Mark Reznicek (Toadies drummer): Back in those days, Toadies kind of always had a chip on our shoulders. It seemed like other bands would get more attention on the radio from The Edge, on their local show. I don't know if it was because we were from Fort Worth or just 'cause we had a bad attitude. In some regard, it felt like we were in competition with certain bands. I always felt that there was a little bit of a competition with Funland and with Tripping Daisy. Sometime during the first year that I was in the band, we opened for Tripping Daisy somewhere. I've gotten to know them a little bit since then, and they're good guys. But back then, it was a little bit of posturing. They were the big thing for a while, and when they were playing at Trees, there would be, like, a line going down the block and everything. We'd still be walking up and down the streets, handing out fliers, trying to get people to come out to our show. This was all before we put out any recordings. It seemed like locally, it was steadily building. We went and recorded [Rubberneck] in the fall of '93, and it didn't come out until almost a year later.
Doni Blair (Toadies bassist, Hagfish bassist): We saw [Toadies] open for The Rollins Band. We were just little punk kids and we didn't care. But then we saw them play and we were like, 'OK, they killed it.' We were totally into it. We even made up our own Toadies shirts. Just for us. We were total nerds for them. I still have that shirt somewhere. And there's only four of these things. There's no way in hell I would ever get rid of it.
The Expansion of Deep Ellum
While the early '80s featured only a handful of stages in Deep Ellum — places such as Sons of Hermann Hall, Studio D, Theatre Gallery, Prophet Bar — the '90s saw a vast increase in the number of clubs. The neighborhood had become a full-on entertainment district, thanks in part to the clubs, but also because of a new generation of musicians and fans, who filled the neighborhood on a near-nightly basis.
Hammond: Once the dust settled from that original Deep Ellum scene, the people that you still had standing were in it for the right reasons. All of a sudden you had the Toadies. And Deathray Davies came along, and Baboon and UFOFU and all the different offshoots of that, like the people that would one day become the Secret Machines. It was Deep Ellum 2.0, and it was different than Deep Ellum 1.0. I liked 2.0 better.
Miller: When Rubberneck came out, it was such a great record, and it was so obviously a great record. There was this weird lag thing where it came out and took it a while before it got huge. [Toadies] were always pretty big, but they were big like a local band is. Then a Florida station started hitting the single, and suddenly they went to the next level.
Reznicek: We played a record release show at Trees. It was the Friday or Saturday after Rubberneck came out. Maybe the first time we had played in town in almost a year. It was the same day as Lollapalooza. Billy Corgan and Green Day — those are the two I heard — after they played Lollapalooza, they were at Trees that night for our big record release party. That was really huge. They opened up the garage door behind the stage while we were playing. People were spilling out into the street. It was jam-packed inside and out. We were kind of freaked out. It was like, 'Wow, this is a lot bigger than we ever expected.'
Vogeler: I have these really fond memories of the street and parking lot out in front of Club Clearview on Fourth of July weekend. The streets would just fill up, and people would just shoot bottle rockets at one another and shoot fireworks. It was as much like a riot as I've ever seen downtown. One time, six cop cars pulled up on the streets trying to slow everything down. A fury of bottles and fireworks were just thrown their way and they just jetted out of there. They just split.
Miller: There was this building, the Mitchell Building, where all the artists lived. It was kind of a flophouse. I was 16 and my parents were going through a divorce, and they didn't care, so I would just go sleep on the floor in the Mitchell Building. Now it's fancy apartments. Back then, half the windows were busted out. No one really paid rent. There were these homeless cats that just wandered throughout every space in the building. Those were total halcyon days. I loved it. I say this sounding like an old guy, but I don't really think any of that could happen anymore. The nature of society has become more litigious, the spaces are more monitored. But this was a building full of artists that were just randomly staying there. I made my first real demo there.
Scott Danbom (Centro-matic multi-instrumentalist, Sarah Jaffe multi-instrumentalist): When I was a kid, 18, 19 years old, I thought I hit the jackpot. Growing up in Oklahoma, there were some cool places to see shows and stuff, but nothing like that.
Reznicek: It sounds cliché to say it, but it was kind of a golden era for Dallas music. When Deep Ellum was really hopping, you could just go down there any night of the week and go from bar to bar and you'd see other people in bands that you knew. And you usually knew all the bartenders, knew which bartenders would give you a break on the prices, slide you a shot or whatever. I was always surprised that there wasn't all that much made of it in the national press. We've had everything, from what I've read at least, that the early Seattle scene had. Everybody knew each other, played on each other's side projects, were roommates, neighbors or whatever.
Blair: When the Toadies got signed, it all blew up. Hagfish got signed in '94. Then the Nixons got signed. Deep Blue Something got signed. By '95, '96, everyone was signed. Tablet. Brutal Juice. Funland. Everyone. Course of Empire had been signed and they were out. Tripping Daisy had started to pop up. And, at the same time, Reverend Horton Heat was signed to Sub Pop and just killing it. And everyone, musically, stood on their own. But, man, it was so incestuous. That's the kick-ass thing: 'Possum Kingdom' was fucking killing it for the Toadies, 'I Got a Girl' was doing huge for Tripping Daisy and 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' was doing great for Deep Blue Something. You listen to those three songs and you think, 'There's no way that these three bands know each other.' But they did! And they all lived within a 20-mile radius of each other. And they were friends!
Reznicek: We'd of course heard of Erykah Badu. That first song of hers that I'd heard was that 'Call Tyrone,' and I was just like, 'Oh, man! This is cool!' We started reading her name all over the place. But I just didn't know where to go to watch live hip-hop. It might've even been in Deep Ellum. If it was, I just wasn't aware of it. I had blinders on.
Erykah Badu: When I came back from school, I would frequent this club called Dread-N-Irie's in Deep Ellum. It was a real underground hip-hop scene. Very important for Dallas. I saw Notorious B.I.G. there. Yes, Biggie played Deep Ellum! I saw Mobb Deep. My first performance was actually opening for Mobb Deep. My very first performance. At that club. I got the gig from Kasaan the Don, who booked the club. I met him through this young guy Jah Born, who went on to produce 'On and On' and now he's a member of the Cannabinoids. I called Kasaan and said I wanted to perform. I actually sang to him over the phone. I played a track that my cousin Rob Free, who is also a Cannabinoid, had sent me to sing over. We got our feet wet, specifically, at Dread-N-Irie. I was petrified. But it went so good!
Miller: There was a long period where Deep Ellum really did not feel dangerous at all. It was crowded enough, but the skinheads had kind of disappeared, and it hadn't turned into the sort of weird thing that it became later on, where there were racial overtones and class overtones that contributed to what happened in Deep Ellum later. It was great.
Johnson: Coming home from our first Funland tour, I remember being in a phase at that time of taking North Texas for granted, taking just some of the opportunities to see great bands for granted. We went out and we played some cities that were great, but I could kind of get a feeling that maybe they didn't have quite as much going on and quite as many options to see great music as we did in North Texas. I remember coming home from that first tour, thinking to myself that I need to take advantage of it more, and that I need to do better about not taking that energy for granted.
Vogeler: It was right at the end of Funland. Will [Johnson] just started bringing in these cassettes of songs he'd recorded on a jambox. They were catchy songs, but then he started filling them out with piano and guitar and, y'know, all of a sudden, it was a cool rock band that we had sitting behind our drum kit. It really surprised all of us.
Matt Pence (Centro-matic drummer): Will didn't write a song until he was 26 years old. He played lots of parts, but no full songs. The very first song he wrote was called 'My Test.' It's actually a great song. I have the original recording of it. He just came out of the gates writing great songs because he waited so long in the process. He let it all percolate inside and then he finally stepped forward and said, 'Yeah, this is it. I'm gonna go forward and do this.' Incredibly mature.
Hammond: When I heard his first cassette, it was pretty damn impressive. Like, 'Oh, wow, did you know that our friend has been writing all this really kick-ass music?' We had Centro-matic there in our midst the whole time, but didn't know it.
Vogeler: Funland decided to break up early in '96. When I first joined the Toadies, I was like, 'Yeah! Right on! Let's go play some shows! Let's kick ass!' About a year later, it began to get frustrating. We were just basically writing. It was eight months before we'd even played a show. From my perspective, it was kind of like playing in a cover band because I knew all these songs, and I liked all these songs, and I'm trying to play them like they were on the record. So, on the one hand, it was a fun gig. I'm getting to play all these songs even though they're not mine. But, on the other hand, the first time I got to play 'Tyler' live, which was my favorite Toadies song, like with a lot of people, and I start it off, and half a second into it, 3,000 people erupt into that sound that only happens when you start that song. It was like a caterwaul that just knocked me on my ass. The force of the crowd feeding back to us was something that I'd never really experienced before. But we were constantly waiting for the imminent album to be released, which took, like, five years. We didn't play a lot of shows. We'd still go out, though. I remember, like, Pimpadelic was big. They were filling up clubs. I didn't really know what was happening then. It did seem like the scene had changed.
Deep Ellum's reputation had grown vastly since its punk rock beginnings, and all the attention and hype being thrust onto the neighborhood soon began to consume it. There were shootings, arrests, an increased police presence, beatings — things that the music scene hadn't seen since carving its niche out in the neighborhood more than a decade earlier. By the early '00s, it became too big to control.
Hammond: I just thought that the initial spark of DIY and forming your band and having a community of musicians and everyone being all for one and one for all, I thought it had been lost. I thought that it was a lot of people trying to get record contracts. You've polluted your own thing, you've poisoned your own well. And we just thought Deep Ellum was full of that. These were the days of the funk-rock bands, the rap-metal bands. It just felt like there was enough industry smelling around that it became industry-driven.
Miller: It was the end of the '90s when the Gypsy Tea Room opened up, and that became a great place for us to play. Mike Snider was booking it, and we were doing well enough where we could headline and kind of have our choice of places to play, and that was great. The Gypsy Tea Room for a while there was just such a great room to play. We have so many great memories there. It's kind of ironic and sad that was the site of the event that kind of sent Deep Ellum into a spiral at the beginning of the '00s. I didn't know anything about what had happened until the next morning. It was a horrible feeling to know that it was at our show. David Cunniff, who remains a friend of mine — thank God he recovered as much as he did. But just, at the time, knowing that these two girls had watched their dad get stomped to what looked like, basically, to death. ... One of the only things about it that made me feel better was that it wasn't a fan of ours that did it. It was some friend of a bouncer. And then there was that civil suit that sort of bankrupted that club, and it all stemmed from our show? It made me feel really bad.
Badu: That's around when the Polyphonic Spree formed. It was the gospel side of it that really got me. It's sad that black people do not document their own history. But Tim [DeLaughter, previously of Tripping Daisy] took an interest, and because he was from the Bible Belt, it made sense to me and it was fascinating to me. Our history is blues. Deep Ellum blues is what it's about, from Johnny Taylor to Robert Johnson. The blues is in the air here. It's in the atmosphere.
Vogeler: When Deep Ellum went tits up, I'd come back to town and you couldn't even see a semblance of a scene. Like in 2005 or 2006. It was really sad to see what Deep Ellum had become in the mid-'00s. Like literally a ghost town. I've got 15 years or memories of roaming those streets and, during that time, it went from kind of a ghost town to this thriving commercial district with thousands of people on the weekends on the streets. And, then, just a few years later, a ghost town again. With Deep Ellum, the scene had a base. When that's gone, I don't really know what kind of a connection the bands would've had with each other. It was sad to see what was really like a center for the scene to just disappear.
Sarah Jaffe: I just remember showing up with my parents, and I remember, looking back now, not being very familiar with Deep Ellum's history at all. It was where you went to go play shows. It was alive on the weekends and most weekdays. I remember going to see a couple shows at Trees, and, right after that, Trees went under. And Club Dada was kind of having trouble there for a while, too. I came along to start playing shows in what was really like the dying days. It was definitely down there for a while.
Hammond: We're learning the cycles of something like that. We hadn't seen a cycle. We hadn't completed one. ... We're learning now what the behavior of the Dallas music fan is with all this. And we've learned some lessons about Deep Ellum, about what works and what doesn't work. It's a sweet and sour thing. When there was a lot of crime down there and a lot of bad stuff, I was like, 'Fuck Deep Ellum. This place sucks. I will never play down here when it's like this. It was a good time then, but it's not a good time now. Everybody just go home.' That whole time was mostly sour. ... Now it feels more like it used to be. It just has that comfort that it had back then. It feels like the old days, minus the hype and with all the comfort, like when the old days had gotten a little healthier retail-wise. Now, it's like an old sweater. And I like it. And it can get bigger and I won't complain. It doesn't have to stay like this. It can now grow and become giant if it wants to. It shook off some badness, but it's not the same. It's a different chapter of that community.
The Second Coming
For the better part of the '00s, Deep Ellum had reverted to the ghost town it had been after the blues and vaudeville days ended. Clubs sat vacant. Neon lights hung unlit in windows. By 2010, though, things began to change once more. Trees, which had been closed for years, reopened and the Toadies performed a two-night stay there on New Year's Eve. Across the street that same weekend, La Grange opened. Dada soon followed suit, with City Tavern owner Josh Florence reopening the long-revered space. Bars started to pop up once more. Restaurants, too. Eventually, the crowds started to return.
Vogeler: I was back recently. There were people downtown on a Saturday night. It made me really optimistic again. There's cool stuff coming out of Dallas. The overall sound has really spread out. There's Ishi doing their synth-y and dance stuff. You've got True Widow doing their thing. Then you've got these rock bands — I've only heard a bit of this RTB2, but I hear great things.
Hammond: I love Sarah Jaffe. After her album came out, I remember I had a sleepless night and I just dined on some Sarah Jaffe to find out why, why, why. I just couldn't stop listening. I'm like, 'All right. Sign me up.'
Lewis: I talk to these young bands all the time. They're a lot more optimistic than I was.
Danbom: Look at what John Congleton [producer and member of the pAper chAse] has done. And then you have St. Vincent and she's on the cover of Spin? And all the Polyphonic Spree guys and what they've done, like with Good Records? If you start shouting names like that, it's crazy. I was at that My Morning Jacket show a few years back, and when friends like that come in, you just want it to be cool. Like, 'Come on, Dallas! Don't do something dumb!' It was a really fun show, and I didn't even know that they were gonna have Erykah Badu on the show. It gave me this huge lift, like, 'Hey, that's pretty awesome!' Here's this huge band, and they're taking an interest in Dallas music.
Badu: Dallas has changed a lot. Because of the economy. Because of the people who were very involved at that point now becoming adults and having families. It kind of faded away with us. I formed the Cannabinoids because I just wanted to put some fire under Dallas' ass, remind them of who we are and what we could do. What a Cannabinoid is, that's the receptor in marijuana that causes the brain to react a certain way chemically. I thought we could bring that about musically.
Hammond: There is definitely a real scene again. It's got a huge toe in folk music and roots music now. We didn't really have that back in the day. You can trace the unbroken line to the old Naomi's days, maybe. But it's far enough away from that where it has its own thing and it has a whole bunch of flavors.
Miller: Dallas as a city presents a great opportunity for musicians because it's the obstacles that make us who we are, probably in everything, but certainly in music. Dallas presents itself with a lot of obstacles, just in terms of the overall culture and the ups and downs of nightclubs. It's not easy; it's not a gimme to make any type of a living or name for yourself playing music in Dallas. But here's the thing: You can make a name for yourself once you've overcome those obstacles. Obviously, I owe my livelihood to the loyalty of the Dallas music fan. That's a big deal. I don't discount that. I just think it's a very special place.
Jaffe: I think that's one of the really wonderful things about Dallas in general. There's such a wonderful sense of community. And the fans are so endlessly supportive. I haven't really lived anywhere else, but I haven't really found that anywhere else. There's just such an amazing amount of support and character.
Badu: I have unshakable faith in Dallas, in its people and its music. What we say is relevant. I never underestimate the capability of the audience to realize who we are.
The Dallas Observer Music Awards Showcase starts at 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, in Deep Ellum.
The Dallas Observer Music Awards Ceremony starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 18, at the House of Blues.
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