Up on Cripple Creek
A few weeks ago, word circulated through the Denton-rock grapevine that Brunswick was hit by a car--jarring news indeed about the mascot of the cozy indie scene. But there he is nonetheless, sitting in the cab of his owner's pickup truck, alert at the window, swinging his tail like the happy mutt he is. He looks intact. The dog's owner--Chris Flemmons, singer-songwriter for the Denton band the Baptist Generals--also looks unmarred, and thoroughly relieved.
"He's gonna be OK," Flemmons says after pulling into a Lower Greenville Avenue parking lot. Brunswick apparently spends a lot of time in the truck, and one day he jumped through an open window right into traffic. It was a close call. The result, Flemmons says, was "some internal injuries that the vet's treated. He'll be fine." Flemmons rubs the dog's big black-and-white head and then shuts the truck door.
Flemmons looks exhausted. It's the tail end of a hard day at work, a harder couple of weeks, and a damned awful year. The dog, in some ways, was the least of his worries. This is a man who titled his debut cassette excretio: the difficult years. Rarely has anyone had more right to give his first release such a miserable title.
But at least Flemmons has his music. For a while, it seemed he wouldn't be allowed even that.
"About a year ago, it started mattering," Flemmons says. "Up to that point, music was just something I picked away at. Now it's the only thing that can save me--that one thing that can give me solace."
These are compelling words from a just-emerging Denton songwriter, but the phrasing perfectly matches the tone of Flemmons' output. Up until a few months ago, Flemmons called his band--which also includes guitarist Jake Williams and drummer Steve Hill--Poor Bastard Sons. But, he insists, "there are just too many Texas bands with the word bastard in the name." So he changed it to the Baptist Generals, a project that has become the center of Flemmons' world--and, in such a short time, a raspy, trad-injected force to be reckoned with.
After nearly 10 years of an on-and-off love affair with a $20 acoustic guitar, Flemmons is carefully lurching toward recognition. His passive running-in-place has given way to mincing steps: the release of a formidable tape of his older songs; his preparation to record a CD of new work; and his friendly connection with the Gourds, who so often invite the Generals to open for them whenever they play such venues as the Gypsy Tea Room or Austin's Liberty Lunch. And then there's Flemmons' determination to spend his every late-night moment playing his guitar, come hell or high water.
"It's late, I'm tired, and I have to get up at 6 a.m., so I know it's not good for me," Flemmons insists. "But when I get home tonight, I know I'm gonna play for a couple of hours. I can't help it."
Flemmons is--and he doesn't exactly mind the comparisons--the bona fide brethren of some of the most satisfying, ghost-chasing songwriters in the book: Robbie Robertson during his days in The Band, Palace's Will Oldham, the Gourds' Kevin Russell, Shane McGowan. Flemmons' plucked-and-strummed melodic turns epitomize the artful use of negative space and goose-bump resolution, and the pared-down sparks often build a quiet fire of hootenanny purge. Flemmons' vocals pack a lazy, on-key sandpaper wheeze of a man drunk on both anguish and hope. He's 30 going on 79, and his songs--many of which can be found on the band's first cassette-only demo release, excretio: the difficult years--carry generations' worth of depression and romance and confession. To listen to Flemmons is to step into a twofold transporter--one that takes you back to a land of pre-electric musings, another that takes you straight to the marrow of Denton.
"I'm not a music-phile," he says. "I don't have much patience; I get bored with a lot of music pretty quickly. But I really like the spirit that exists in traditional-sounding music."
Ornery, wrenching, sentimental, and texturally fascinating, excretio's hallmark is the darkening sepia tone that outlines every song. Despite the scattered humor of some of the lyrics, these are the sounds of mountain hollows and old, festering wounds. As the cassette tape unwinds, all kinds of 20th-century iconography drifts into the mind like a West Virginia mist: Deliverance, coal-miner strikes, rattlesnake handlers, and long, hot evenings on a sprawling front porch. The sparseness of the tunes' claptrap arrangements sets off the lushness and complexity of their evocations: the circular cadences and buried vocals in "Damn the Bloom"; the melancholic pleas of "Sweet Red Wine" ("You're makin' promises that you're sure to sleep away"); the modestly soaring chorus of "Martha Jean." Listen to excretio and commune with broken hearts, comic relief, and the fringe-dwelling souls of yesteryear.
For now, Flemmons sells excretio for four bucks at shows, but doesn't push it. He didn't send the tape to the Dallas Observer; one of his Denton buddies passed it on without Flemmons' knowledge. Too bad: The debut deserves a wider audience.
Kevin Russell of the Gourds is a fan of both the tape and the songwriter. Flemmons is "the Roger Miller of the 21st century," Russell says. "If you listen to his songs, you can tell he's got this sorta dark, nasty thing about his writing, but he's got this goofy way of singing."
Like many artists who cull inspiration from their roots and environment, Flemmons hasn't strayed far from his birthplace. He was raised in Fort Worth by his dad, Jerry, the senior travel editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 35 years. Chris ended up in Denton 10 years ago to do what so many quasi-collegiate Dentonites do: hang out, take a few classes, drink beer, and tap into the local music scene. He had banged on drums since he was 13; he started playing guitar the year before he hit the university town.
"I was fucking awful at it," he says. "Just dead fucking awful. You get to a point where you're not quite as intimidated about playing, then you come to Denton and hear all these great people, and you just go back in your room and practice some more."
It would be a few long years of observing from the wings before Flemmons would start to stake his natural place among Denton's oddest-cum-finest: Jon Cunningham of Corn Mo, John Freeman of Dooms U.K., Brent Best of Slobberbone, and Will Johnson of Centro-matic. It was his teaming with drummer Hill and bassist Mark Hughes of Baboon that led to Flemmons' first performances in the mid-'90s.
"We played behind the Corkscrew, for beer money," Flemmons says of those sidewalk-gig days, naming one of Denton's most venerable and well-trodden institutions--a beer store on the corner of Fry and Oak streets. "Mark and I had built this washtub bass--he learned how to play it pretty well. He was just sitting in for fun. I only had four or five songs back then. That was the first Brent [Best] ever saw of it."
And while Best and company came round to support Flemmons and his pawn-shop guitar ways, it would be several more years before Flemmons would actually record this music for a bigger audience. "I drag my feet on everything," he says. "It's active passivity. I didn't get off my ass." Eventually, Steve Hill gave up on Flemmons and moved back to his native Wisconsin. Then, as though he needed any more excuses to procrastinate, Flemmons couldn't find a consistent lineup, suffered an ego-shattering breakup with his girlfriend, and, finally, discovered that his father had both cancer and pneumonia.
Last summer, Flemmons was preparing to go into the studio for the first time. Hill had returned to Denton after a four-year absence; finally, the Poor Bastard Sons were moving in the right direction--although just moving would have been good enough. But Jerry Flemmons was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. As the only child of a single father, the brunt of familial responsibility fell on Chris, who essentially put his life on hold to spend time down in Houston, where his father was undergoing months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
When Chris tells the story, his words slow down, and his gaze takes on a strained distance. Weeks traveling back and forth between his home in Denton, his day job in Dallas, and bleak motel rooms in Houston coupled with the gnawing fear that accompanies the "c" word--that kind of weight would tank most anyone. But for Flemmons, the compulsion to create something suddenly felt crucial.
"We were gonna record a CD in August, and then I couldn't do the full-blown studio thing at that point," Flemmons says. "But I had to get something out there. Five years' worth of material was just sitting." In the end, excretio essentially turned out as a demo, a catalog of old songs.
The tracks on excretio are lo-fi recordings made in Flemmons' kitchen with a four-track; some also were recorded at Best's house, with Flemmons on guitar and lead vocals, Hill on percussion, and UNT-music-school student Williams on second guitar. Mark Hughes stepped in to play bass on a few tracks. While the hiss and groan of a no-budget process are clear through the nine-song offering, there's nothing cloying or precious about the aesthetic. It's just matter-of-fact. Flemmons didn't have the time, money, or energy to pour into a tape. Besides, he never viewed the collection as a bid for exposure, but merely as a bookmark of a certain time--stolen moments in a bleak period, a few years of start-stop catharsis.
Eventually, Jerry Flemmons went into remission but didn't feel any stronger--turns out pneumonia had set in. By the holiday season, the Flemmons party had moved back to specialists in Houston. Only now is the elder Flemmons back at home and up to speed and the younger Flemmons breathing easier. A new start and a new band profile loom ahead, and Flemmons is gearing up for the long haul. The follow-up to excretio: the difficult years is in the works. It will, go figure, be produced by Denton wunderkind Matt Pence (of Centro-matic) and released this summer on Denton's Hot Link label.
"For the newer songs, I don't want to be so purely traditional," Flemmons says. "I think I'm starting to move away from that a bit, to incorporate parts of it rather than the whole...The music's changing. I've changed. The more you do it, the easier it gets." It's soul-healing news for all of us.
The Baptist Generals open for the Gourds March 6 at the Gypsy Tea Room.
After releasing one of 1998's best locally produced discs, The Calways will be recording their next album for Pineapple Records, a tiny indie based out of Arlington. The label--which used to be Twin Buddha, till it was bought out (for what?)--owns its own studio in Arlington, and the band will go into the studio in May and begin recording a full-length album for a fall release. "I'm excited," says frontman Todd Deatherage--who is, in fact, far more giddy about his band's opening gig for Billy Ray Cyrus March 4 at the Bronco Bowl. The Calways and Brian Houser both landed a gig opening for the reformed mullet, which is so frightening a prospect we can't even think of a joke--how do you laugh in the face of such tragedy? "It's beautiful," Deatherage says with a straight face. "It's a great opportunity. We're gonna be in front of thousands of people. I just hope we didn't lose any artistic credibility for that." Seriously, dude...
It's the bill of the month--or a lifetime, if it lives up to its potential. On March 12, Bobby Blue Bland and Bobby Patterson--two men with the word legend somewhere on their driver's licenses--will share a stage at the is-it-still-open? Longhorn Ballroom. The show, titled "The Dirty Rat Blues Festival and Birthday Bash," is a birthday party of sorts for Bobby "T.C.B. or T.Y.A." Patterson, who's currently hosting a mile-a-minute radio show from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on KKDA-AM (730). Quiet, do not disturb while he's making love to a microphone.
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