It wasn't all bad — 2019, we mean. Sure, politics were a trash fire; tensions over policing, gender and economic inequality hit Dallas as hard as anywhere else; and if we don't manage to throttle one another before, the climate crisis is standing by, ready to kill us all. (Ten tornadoes at once, in October? Message received, Mother Nature.)
But the year had one brilliant spot. We might all be taking a ride to Hell in a handbasket, but Dallas will make the trip jamming to a really great soundtrack.
Thank you, Dallas music makers, sincerely.
They're a bunch worthy of gratitude and celebration for lifting our spirits this year, and we're ready with the 31st Dallas Observer Music Awards, our annual party and sloppy kiss to the musicians, singers, producers and venues who did their part to keep art and hope alive in Big D in 2019.
If ever a time needed a party, this is it.
Think we're exaggerating in our usual pessimistic way? Let's recall some of what happened in Dallas, a city that walks the edge of woke culture and alt-right obtuseness: Ex-Dallas cop Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering Botham Jean, the neighbor she shot after mistaking his apartment for her own. Guyger is white, and Jean was black, and Guyger's 10-year sentence infuriated many who thought she got off lightly.
Then Jean’s brother Brandt hugged Guyger in court and forgave her, deflating much of the anger, but also prompting another debate on forgiveness.
Just as we wrapped our heads around that draining ordeal, a Fort Worth policeman killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home.
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Also on 2019's low-light reel: Several transgender women were attacked in Dallas; L’Daijohnique Lee, a black woman, was beaten by a white Deep Ellum bartender over a parking lot dispute; shootings in Deep Ellum seemed to increase in frequency — in irony, too, when a man was shot outside a fundraiser for a victim of a shooting in Deep Ellum.
The local music scene had its share of grimness. In January, heavy metal singer Bruce Corbitt died. In September, New Mexico authorities alleged that North Texas country singer Kylie Rae Harris was driving drunk and speeding before a three-way car crash that killed Harris and a New Mexico teen.
Some musicians responded directly to themes of violence and police brutality, like in the track “Lunacy,” released this past week by Rodrick Rules, Rakim Al-Jabbaar and Jui$e Leroy, which speaks loudly through its artwork alone: a picture of a police badge splattered with blood.
All the protests and battles reminded us of another time when the nation's political and cultural landscape was screwed up, but the music still grand: the '60s. That's why the theme for this year's DOMA ceremony is inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, that free-love-era hub of avant-garde music and art. It's also why this issue's cover image is an homage to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, from 1967. Both are reminders that cultural friction is a great way to spark creativity.
There are reasons to hope that the sparks will continue to fly from artists in a city in transition. New blood from the million or so newcomers who have settled here over the past decade will bring new inspiration, though even that will come with a price. The number of visitors to Deep Ellum keeps rising, but as the heart of Dallas' live music scene appears to be flourishing, some of the entertainment district's business owners say the growing crowds and lack of parking are keeping away old regulars.
Historic venues like The Curtain Club closed shop, and Deep Ellum Art Co. announced it was dangerously close to going out of business because of patrons "freeloading” and not paying for drinks and covers. Denton has also been in flux, with beloved venue Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios reopening with a new owner and Backyard on Bell unexpectedly announcing its closing.
While those losses sting, North Texas had much to celebrate as local musicians made national headlines this year. Maelyn Jarmon won on The Voice. Leon Bridges became a Grammy winner for his outstanding “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” and continued playing local streets in venues large and small. In November, the 2020 Grammy nominations included Booker T. Washington high school alum Jazzmeia Horn and producer John Congleton.
A string of visits from music stars also helped lift Dallas' spirits this year. Pop star Selena Gomez, who made an impromptu stop at her old middle school in Midlothian, and Erykah Badu paid a visit to Booker T. students along with Common. But the wildest celebrity spotting came courtesy of Tenacious D when they joined tribute band Tenacious NR/CD onstage in October.
Other superstars joined local musicians in the studio. Medicine Man Revival began collaborating with John Mayer, and St. Vincent collaborated with Taylor Swift on "Cruel Summer."
Rappers like Trapboy Freddy continued to break out, while Helium Queens’ Poppy Xander announced she was joining The Polyphonic Spree. Guitar virtuoso Nick Snyder joined rockers The Roomsounds, and Charley Crockett planted his bluesy roots in country history when he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
Elsewhere, Asian Doll changed her name to Asian Da Brat as she and Tay Money continued establishing themselves as hip-hop contenders, with rising rappers M3cca and Ravs coming up quickly behind them.
Offstage, as vinyl continues to outsell CDs, North Texas record stores kept expanding. Josey Records debuted a label that focuses on vinyl, and Top Ten Records, under the leadership of Lily Taylor and EV Borman, became a space for experimental shows as well as an archive of local music.
While some local bands memorialized their sound on analog vinyl, others found their audience online, like electronic musician Marc Rebillet, who went from a weekly residency in Deep Ellum to selling out large European venues in little over a year.
Fort Worth, meanwhile, dug deeper into its own rootsy heritage. Instead of riding a wave, it dropped anchor in traditional country, with acts like Joshua Ray Walker and Vincent Neil Emerson, who earned a fan this year in Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa.
John Pedigo, from the O’s, who debuted a beer brand, band and album under the name Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner, also found the time this year to produce, with work including Walker’s Best Album nominee Wish You Were Here on State Fair Records.
For our DOMA issue, we chose a group shot representative of Dallas culture, primarily made up of this year’s nominees. Also present are Dallas notables through various periods of time, among them Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie and Clyde, poet Rawlins Gilliland and DOMA nominee and last year's multiple winner Bobby Sessions.
For the “Beatles” we chose four nominees who represent different sounds: Leah Lane, bandleader of electro-goth-rock Rosegarden Funeral Party, who are up for multiple awards the second year in a row and who will soon pack their gear and try their talents in California; singer Flower Child, who’s up for her first award as Best New Artist and whose witty lyrics flow from neo-soul to hip-hop; hypnotically joyous live R&B performer Kierra Gray, who’s up for her first nomination as Best Female Singer; and pianist Poppy Xander, who’s nominated as an interplanetary neon-clad character for the Helium Queens and for her part in Madonna cover band PriMadonna.
The cover subjects had individual photo sessions in a daylong shoot set up on the stage at nominated venue The Free Man in Deep Ellum. Some brought props, most wore their DOMA best. Notable nominees who popped by to take part in the cover shot included Grammy-winning guitarist Mark Lettieri and drummer/producer Jordan Richardson, who are still invested enough in their city to participate in its awards.
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Sealion’s Hunter Moehring remarked about how rare it was to see so many artists together without anyone having to work or perform. Photographers Sarah Reyes and Daniel Driensky from creative agency Exploredinary pulled off the ambitious concept, through a detailed labor that included making props — like the letters that spell out "DOMA" instead of "Beatles," which required the individual arrangement of close to 200 flowers — and the design of other Easter egg details. For instance, the bust on the right of the drum is the face of Observer music photographer Mike Brooks. It's a snapshot of the year in Dallas music, with its main contributors, past and present.
And what about the future? Let's be honest, 2020 isn't looking too promising. Could we be facing another year of bad news and good tunes? Could be, but we'll take that trade-off this year, next year or any year. We'll let Orson Welles' line from the film The Third Man, tell you why:
"Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Here's to a future with great sounds, successful artists and absolutely no cuckoo clocks.