It's a cry as somber as the one Americana artists often sing about: "The business of music sucks the reason you even started to play music out of you," says Rebecca Scott, wife and manager for Dallas-based Americana artist Jay Johnson. Her husband, along with fellow area music vets Merrol Ray and Darryl Lee Rush, helps make up an overlooked realm that can best be described as an awkward, country-focused, Middle Earth that lies above the indie-approved, local honky-tonk core and just below the upper crust of the red dirt world.
This is where joy clashes with reality—and where fantasy often takes a back seat to compromise.
For these songwriters—each of whom is already into his 40s—gone are the days when crashing on a friend's couch and playing for a six-pack equals a successful night. But the days of rolling in sleek tour buses and collecting gold records have yet to arrive. Or, more likely, they never will.
There's some clear talent here, though: Ray and Rush are both winners of the Shiner Rising Star competition held annually by KHYI-95.3 FM The Range and Shiner Bock Beer's boutique imprint, Shiner Records. The local contest has given its champions a helpful push by matching triumphant artists up with well-known, accomplished producers to record albums that have been distributed nationally. Rush's Llano Avenue was produced by Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard), and Ray's album with his former band, Miles From Nowhere, saw Dan Baird (of The Georgia Satellites) at the helm for their self-titled debut. After the release of their respective albums, both Rush and Miles From Nowhere saw their profiles, as well as expectations, rise considerably, thanks mainly to radio airplay on not only stations all over Texas, but even on both pre-merger satellite outlets.
"We had dreams of Shiner sending us a case of beer every now and then," says Merrol Ray.
Those sudsy visions were never fully realized, though, as the hard-charging country-rockers Miles From Nowhere reached a bitter end soon after the release of their only album on Shiner.
"It was like a bad divorce; you love them, but you just can't live with them anymore," Ray says when remembering his former mates.
After his band's demise, Ray, who's been performing since he was 19, took some time to regroup and begin work on a solo album, the recently released Stanley. But once the self-financed album was complete, Ray found it difficult to garner the same attention he had gained with his previous record deal.
"Once I paid for the record, I didn't have enough money to push it," Ray says. "The music is the easy part, really."
Still, it's a living: While Ray has toiled at odd jobs in the past, at this time, he's able to rely solely on his art to provide his livelihood—something he truly considers success.
"If I can pay my bills and put my music out there and still do the family thing, I feel like that's success," he says.
But how long can it really last?
"There's nothing but roadblocks in front of them," says longtime, Austin-based publicist, Pigeon O'Brien, when speaking of artists similar to Ray. "Most radio stations are controlled by national corporations. Not every market has a KHYI."
Joshua Jones, the general manager for KHYI, as well as a managing partner of Shiner Records, understands that even the winners of the Shiner Rising Star are still underdogs.
"Don't think American Idol," he says of these artists' odds of lasting success. "Think Rocky."
If artists like Ray and Rush are Rocky, then money, age and major-label power is their Apollo Creed. Like Ray, East Dallas dweller Rush—a married father who excels at jangly, rock-inflected country that screams, "I'm From Texas"—juggles the continuation of his dreams with the realities of a dedicated family man, working a full-time job.
Congenial and seemingly always bearing a grin, Rush has released two of the top-selling albums on Shiner's roster, and yet is still seeking a home for his upcoming release. While "DLR" is sure that his new creation will see the light of day, his uncertainty regarding the timeliness of the release is a common concern among most independent artists—even ones like DLR, who regularly welcomes hundreds of fans to his occasional Sunday afternoon shows at Love & War in Texas in Plano. As a veteran of the campfires that were held at Sons of Hermann Hall back in the late 1990s, Rush, a sales rep for a raw materials company, has traveled the peaks and valleys of the artistic life and looks back with an even-keeled perspective.
"A long time ago, I resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to always play music," Rush says. "You have to find a place for it."
The place for music in the life of folk-country tunesmith Jay Johnson—who, like Rush, is a sales rep during the day and a tie-dye-wearing troubadour at night—had become nonexistent in recent months. Stress from a combination of increased responsibility with his day job and the organizing and financing of touring on the weekends with a full band forced Johnson and his wife to reevaluate their strategy.
Even though the last few years had seen Johnson receive considerable airplay as far away as New Jersey and even Scotland, a time-out needed to be called.
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"When life started slapping us in the face, we just had to take a step back for a while," says Scott, his wife and manager. Recently, after revisiting the joys that music has brought to the 46-year-old, Johnson has seen a reawakening within his artistic soul. "We've gone back to sitting in our backyard with Jay's guitar and just playing to the trees."
While the specific wording of what each artist considers as their definition of personal success differs, the conviction, of course, was the same across the board. These artists, thanks to optimism that's attuned with a prudence born out of obligation, and wisdom attained from adversity, have formulated a wiser, more grounded interpretation of "living the dream."
Like Ray, Rush sees success at this stage of life as an enviable but altogether realistic combination of family togetherness, simplicity and artistic acceptance—like Rocky, before and after each of his movies' climaxes.
"I want to be a good father and a great husband," Rush says. "And I want to write great songs and get them out there, so they can affect people. I want to be relevant."