Local Musicians Are Suddenly Dabbling In Politics
Levi Weaver just left me a Facebook message, a text and a voicemail.
He just got off the phone with a councilman in Fort Worth. Apparently, there had been some he-said-he-said that left the air between the two awfully muddy, and Levi had called to clear that air. Now, he wants to make sure he didn't misrepresent anything in our conversation earlier.
Weaver isn't out to make enemies with Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman—or even Fort Worth City Hall.
Actually, the full-time musician hopes to buy the troubled Ridglea Theater from its current owners and preserve the historic building. If that happens, he'll have to work with city hall. But his plan is a long shot.
The Ridglea Theater has been in trouble for some time. Its current owner is Bank of America, whose executives hope to demolish at least part of the complex. Weaver, who splits his time between his native Fort Worth and Nashville, was married in the storied building, but says his interest in seeing the Ridglea saved goes beyond any personal nostalgia.
"It was personal reasons that got me involved," Weaver says. "But the more I looked into it, the more reason I found to keep up the fight. When I first stepped on the scene, there were a lot of people saying, 'We're angry! What do we do? How do we keep this from happening?'"
Musicians have mixed art and activism on an international scale for decades. It was there long before George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh or Bob Geldof's Live Aid, and it's almost become passe thanks to Bono's globetrotting for photo shoots with world leaders.
But the past decade or so has seen more civic involvement by artists here in DFW—and there's reason to take notice. Similar movements have notably affected cities like Omaha and Portland; in these reputable music and arts communities, policies and business practices have been implemented to help foster and enhance growth and support.
Slowly but surely, the same is happening locally.
Dallas' Jason Reimer has played in History At Our Disposal since 2000, and though the band is currently on hiatus, Reimer's staying plenty busy; his time is now spent on the board for the historic Texas Theatre.
Reimer lived in Denton for the past decade, and only moved to Oak Cliff last October due to economic reasons—he was sick of commuting and, worse, couldn't find work in Denton. He participated in the arts community while in Denton through The Pyramid Scheme—an arts collective he started to organize art shows, concerts and album releases around town—and though he didn't get too involved in Denton's civic matters, he almost immediately did so in Oak Cliff. Within a month of his move south on Interstate 35E, he was regularly visiting local haunts like the Kessler Theater and making connections, trying to get the pulse of the community. Then, one day, he asked a friend in music about the historic Texas Theatre, its renovations, its regular events. His acquaintance was Stuart Sikes, renowned producer and chairman of the board for the Texas Theatre/Oak Cliff Foundation. Soon, Reimer was working alongside Sikes, organizing film screenings at the theater. Before long, he was asked to join the board as its creative director. While he has no political aspirations per se, Reimer says he's ready to get involved.
"If I know something is going on and I can do something, I'm at least going to check it out. If someone's doing something positive, it's just inspirational to me. If you want to make something better so some 20-year-old kid has a place to show his photography, I think that's an artist's job."
Denton musicians Chris Flemmons and Howard Draper are a little more hands-on with their local government. Instead of merely complaining about council decisions, or acting at arm's-length, the two represent a growing number of musicians in Denton who are joining forces with their local government to assist or provide accountability.
Flemmons is the mastermind behind both the band The Baptist Generals and the NX35 Conferette. Although he's lived in Denton for 22 years, it was home ownership and paying property taxes that got him involved in city affairs outside of the music community. In 2003, when a large development project started right across from Flemmons' house while he was on tour, Flemmons' inability to speak out about that particular issue especially frustrated his opinion of local government. But it directly led him to becoming more involved upon his return.
He spent years building relationships and exchanging ideas with city leaders—relationships that proved valuable when Flemmons decided to expand his NX35 baby from a SXSW day party and into a full-fledged festival held within the city it honored.
"When I was 20, I just wanted to throw bombs at everything," Flemmons says. "I thought that was the proper way to solve things. But you have to learn to work with others and find some common place to operate from."
Meanwhile, Tre Orsi bassist Howard Draper participates in a very specific niche. An avid cyclist, Draper serves on Denton's Traffic Safety Commission. He also runs the blog BikeDenton.org, which provides fresh information on cyclist rights and traffic-related issues around Denton, including accident reports, updates on stolen bikes and links to other relevant websites. Like Flemmons, Draper says it took him a while before he realized just how much power citizens can have.
"Each citizen has far more power than they realize," he says. "I was apathetic and silent for 10 years, but now I see that simply voicing an opinion or taking a stand can have a huge impact."
Sometimes it just takes the guts to stand up and speak your mind, to express concerns or even bear one's heart and soul, and to not be concerned with the reaction of whomever is listening.
"One connection is with playing music," Reimer says, "especially because it's so immediate, and you're not freaked out about getting up in front of strangers and having them judge you immediately."
These traits aren't unique to musicians. Neither is travel, necessarily. But the way that musicians travel can offer a unique perspective. Instead of hitting historic landmarks or being stuck in stuffy meetings, musicians will often travel from one like-minded community to another and perform, trade ideas, see what is and what isn't working in other places and take those ideas home. Denton's continued growth as a home for in-demand touring and session musicians finds instances like these more and more frequent.
Draper toured extensively with Austin-based bands Okkervil River and Shearwater from 2003 to 2008 and says his travels found him questioning his choice of residence.
"During that travel, I visited some great places, and my first thought was always, 'This place is great, I should move here,'" he admits. "But after counting my reasons to stay in Denton, I couldn't help but wonder how it could incorporate aspects of the places I visited."
Flemmons echoes that sentiment: "When I was touring, I had the opportunity to go to every 'creative' burg in the country. I drove all through these towns and centers and thought, 'Gosh, I want to move here.'"
In the end though, he didn't. Rather than change his place of residence, he figured it more fitting to help his residence change.
"I knew Denton wasn't quite there yet," he says.
Thanks to his efforts and the efforts of others like him, these days, it—along with the rest of the metroplex—is at least on its way.
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