Coming across Dallas songwriter Max Stalling's One of the Ways in the Texas music section of the local record store is like discovering a pack of Gauloise cigarettes in a truckload of Virginia Slims or a copy of Camus' The Stranger in a box of Harlequin romances. By quietly breaking ranks with the genre's fluffy endless mantra in praise of beer, back roads, sunsets, hell-raising border weekends, Jerry Jeff and Luckenbach, One of the Ways puts considerable distance between Stalling and the Ball Cap Nation crowd.
Following Wide Afternoon, which peaked at No. 3 on the Gavin Americana chart and first brought critical attention to existentialist elements in Stalling's work, One of the Ways finds Stalling divorcing himself from the Lone Star flag-waving regionalism that defines many alt-Texas acts.
"I hope the album makes a subtle statement against all the yee-haw stuff in Texas music right now," Stalling says. "I also wanted it to be able to cross the Red River, so I consciously eliminated the local references that can limit acceptance outside the region. And just as a personal growth thing, after doing this more than 10 years I've come to realize that about the highest thing a guy like me can aspire to is to be a writer like Guy Clark or Bruce Robison, who are thought of as songwriters who just happen to be from Texas, instead of as Texas songwriters."
Max Stalling performs May 9 at the Top Rail Ballroom.
Stalling's almost-love songs explore the psychological seams and stitches that cause relationships to grow or wither. As an on-and-off small-town couple goes through the weekend ritual on "Ain't Fallin' in Love," Stalling lays the foundations of the dry, plain-spoken fictional voice he sustains throughout the album: "This old town's been all we've known/Everybody else has all moved on/Let's be honest now, convenience has had its price/I ain't falling in love with you tonight."
According to Stalling, the characters he describes as being "part Bud and Sissy from Urban Cowboy and part Romeo and Juliet" have taken on a life outside the album.
"Folks come up at shows all the time and tell me they know people like these. I didn't realize it when I was writing the songs, but they do seem to have some residual characteristics that have universal appeal. They honestly aren't anyone I know specifically, but these two characters just keep popping into my head. They were even in several songs that didn't make the final cut, and for a while I toyed with the idea of a concept album that revolved around them. Might still try that someday."
The centerpiece of One of the Ways is "The Beatles and the Thunder," a purely Stalling invention that features these same anonymous characters. Chip Dolan's accordion provides a Parisian sidewalk cafe feel as Stalling wistfully sings, "There it is in his head again, that old Beatles song/It's fuzzy now but he remembers how/They played it at his senior prom."
"When I got that melody and the first line of the chorus, I was using 'that old Bob Wills song' instead of Beatles. But fortunately I kept thinking how overdone that is."
"That old Beatles song" just happens to be "Michelle," wherein Paul McCartney took a famous foray into French. Asked if he studied French, Stalling, who has a master's degree in food science from Texas A&M, replies, "Hell, no. That line from 'Michelle' was just stuck in my head. I actually first used it as a nonsensical filler line. But once the song really started to develop, I bought Rubber Soul and I e-mailed a friend who was studying in Paris so I could get a solid translation and proper pronunciation. When she told me that it basically translates as 'these are things that go together well,' I snapped to the fact that the Beatles quote was a key element, that it really caused the scenario developing around this couple to resonate."
Apropos of the Beatles line at the core of the song ("Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble"), Stalling portrays the couple at a point where "they go nice together." He avoids the temptation for syrupy resolutions with loose ends neatly tied. All we know is "their bodies are so much closer than their lives are," but they've reached a stage where they are satisfied to be together without a purely logical rationale or an illusion of the schmaltzy stock-in-trade "perfect love" of Top 40 country.
Dave Heath produced Stalling's first two albums but was unable to take on One of the Ways, which led Stalling to snare one of his songwriting heroes to produce.
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"With Dave's schedule not meshing with mine, I sent my demos to Bruce Robison just to explore the possibility of him producing. Then serendipitously, just a couple of weeks after I'd sent the tapes, I got a call from a promoter who asked if I'd open for Bruce and Charlie's 'My Brother and Me' tour in Fort Worth. So Bruce and I met at his hotel and talked, discussing different ways to approach the project, what studio to use and players to get, etc. Then I went to check out Bruce's studio, which had this comfortable roughed-out deer-camp feel and top-notch gear. That sealed the deal for me."
One of the Ways was Robison's first producing venture, and Stalling had a few lingering qualms as the sessions began.
"Not knowing Bruce very well, my big fear was that he might try to overimpose his vision, maybe micromanage to the point of fiddling with the lyrics. But his influence was just the opposite, more about the overall vibe than specific lines or words. Bruce saw the big picture; like, I never had keyboards on my albums, but Bruce saw where they would work. He brought in some great players, and we ended up with this lush, warm sound. He also was insistent and, as it turned out, dead right that we record 'Something to See' like a pop song, which terrified me. But that ended up being the single we sent to radio."
One of the Ways is Stalling's most poetic album, and the few Texas references in "Probably Corsicana" and the grisly Joe Ely-ish "Pila Song" occur naturally within the context of good stories rather than as calculated pandering chauvinisms that many Texas performers use as a crutch. On the strength of Wide Afternoon, Stalling has already been described as Hank Williams meets Albert Camus. While that seems like a made-to-order blurb, in the 35-year-old Stalling's case it just may apply. Not bad for an Aggie food science major with minimal education in literature and none in French.