Junkyard jazz

It's obvious that tonight--with Deep Ellum roiling in the aftermath of the Texas-OU game--was not the best night to schedule an interview at Sol's Taco Lounge. An orange-and-white Winnebago at the curb is but a faint warning of the mayhem within: a crush of spilled beer, red faces, and bellowing voices. This, you think, is what a rugby game between teams of Viking real-estate agents must be like.

The three Calways, sitting by a window, are slightly bemused by the high-volume carnage. If you were casting an old World War II movie--the kind with Van Johnson in it--bassist Todd Pertll would be "the quiet one," and drummer Jesse Hall and leader Todd Deatherage would probably have to arm-wrestle to see who'd get to be "Sarge" and who'd be the one known as "The Joker."

As a band, they don't have a whole lot of use for conventions, be they the kind that govern music or the ones that--tonight at least--seem to insist on very loud, spittle-flinging discussions about a certain state university to the north.

"You just can't be too conscious of playing in a certain style or everything comes out piecemeal," Hall explains over the din. "We don't think about a song's 'sound' too much."

"You've got to get it all to mesh together," Pertll adds. "Without trying." Diverse influences, though, sometimes make identification difficult, and past models of the Calways have featured steel guitar and Pertll on upright rather than his current electric bass. This has often led to them being lumped in with the Old 97's. Granted, there are similarities: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Deatherage is in fact a friend of the Old 97's Rhett Miller (he even puts Miller's singing in the background of the Calways song "Losing My Cool"); his country listening crops up all over the Calways' music; and the band is a group of smart, attractive fellows who generate a certain chick magnetism.

Deatherage, however, came to this spot through a long association with jazz, influenced by Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery and a host of other jazz guitarists "too numerous to mention" and nurtured by the arts magnet high-school program. After graduating, he dove into the area blues scene, where he played with mouth harpist Memo Gonzales and bluesman Hash Brown, the latter of whom became such a mentor to him that Deatherage borrowed Brown's real last name--Calway--for his band.

"The first bar I ever played in was Schooner's," Deatherage remembers. "I grew up with that scene. When I was about 15, Hash Brown saw me and kind of took me under his wing...He used to work at this pawn shop, and my mom would drop me off there, and he'd just take hours showing me stuff on the guitar."

But Deatherage was always listening to country, too, picking up on classic sounds recommended by school chum Matt "The Cat" Hilliard (Lone Star Trio) and Donny Ray Ford; he also played with Ford. That listening surfaces in all sorts of places, like the gallop of "Losing My Cool" and the lament "Why Must I Have a Heart?" But while the Old 97's go for the twang, the Calways swing; Deatherage's jazz background shows up in his atypical chords and sometimes-odd rhythm patterns.

"I don't think that we sound that country," says Hall, who previously has played with acts like Denton's Little Jack Melody. "It's more like the Rolling Stones when they were hanging around Gram Parsons, but we're all into jazz. That's what keeps us together."

"Jazz players have better interaction," Deatherage adds.
"You gotta listen," Hall says, noting that the Calways listen to everything from Buck Owens to rap to Weezer. "You have to know what's going on, when to end a solo, and that's important to us when we could be playing the Barley House one night and Trees the next."

"We just want to be a damn good rock group," Deatherage says, mentioning Reverend Horton Heat and Tom Petty as ideals.

With pal Steve Visneau on drums, Deatherage experimented with different instrumentation and forms for the band, including "a whole bunch of bass players." Deatherage and Visneau hit upon Pertll about a year ago, and the three of them put out the six-song 96 Summer Demo. When Visneau's other band, the punky Mess, moved from the ma-and-pa label Direct Hit to Last Beat, Visneau decided to devote all of his time to that band. The current incarnation of the Calways--with Hall on board in Visneau's place--has been together since early September.

"We're just now clicking as a rhythm section," Hall says as Pertll nods his head. Pertll, originally inspired by rockabilly slap bass, has only been playing for three years. Some might see him as sort of a junior member: Deatherage writes the lyrics and chord changes to the songs, and then the group susses out the tunes' final forms; often, both in rehearsal and live, the big bassist seems to be just watching the interaction between guitar and drums, but he says it's all part of his role.