Kids and Family

Un-glam Rock: Parents in Music Share the Joy and Struggle of Raising Kids — and Hell Onstage

DJ Christy Ray spends weekdays with her son and performs on the weekend.
DJ Christy Ray spends weekdays with her son and performs on the weekend. Kathy Tran
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in April, Grady Don Sandlin walks toward the patio of Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, forgetting he’s due on stage with country cover band Straight Tequila Night at that exact moment. His kids, 2-year-old Rita and 7-year-old Willie, have kept him and his wife, Jessica, more than a little busy for the first part of the concert.

“It’s chaotic being at a show with your kids,” he says. He hears his name called out over the mic and rushes to the stage with a cold Topo Chico in hand to help play two country hits — John Anderson’s “Swingin’” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs.” In the audience he sees Rita dancing and twirling in front of the venue’s antique jukebox, and Willie, a big fan of his musical father, looking on.

A stay-at-home dad by day, Sandlin is one of North Texas’ top drummers, having success with both of his bands, Raised Right Men and RTB2, in the country and garage rock circuits for the past several years. But it’s not always easy breezy afternoon shows with the kids at one of his favorite local venues. Playing about 10 to 15 gigs a month these days, he’s had to make sacrifices for his creative career after starting a family. And he’s certainly not the only one. Plenty of local parent musicians attest to the struggles of making their demanding careers possible when Baby makes three (or four, or…).
click to enlarge Grady Don Sandlin juggles being a dad with being a drummer in North Texas. - KATHY TRAN
Grady Don Sandlin juggles being a dad with being a drummer in North Texas.
Kathy Tran

Keeping Time

A few minutes before speaking with us about his own experience as a musician father, Vandoliers frontman Josh Fleming experiences one of the many pangs of arranging childcare for a toddler with two full-time working parents.

“We just lost our babysitter for the next couple of months,” he says.

He and his band are scheduled for a European tour in June.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, God,’” he says, audibly stressed but seemingly positive nonetheless. As with all parents in similar moments, the show must go on. “We’ll figure it out,” he says.

He talks with us on a rare day off between a month on the road and another gig the next night followed by the band’s East Coast tour the next week. (Despite the physical strain of his job, Fleming is quick to say he hasn’t traded his Chuck Taylors for a pair of clean, comfortable white ‘"dad sneakers" just yet, but does use sole inserts.)

“[Converse] weren't made for people who want to go to the gym but still want to be punk,” he says.

Fleming’s success with Vandoliers has earned him the ability to check off some bucket list items, like opening for Flogging Molly in March and Turnpike Troubadours earlier this month. But with all the excitement of this long-awaited stardom — about seven years in the making — comes the reality that calling in sick, so to speak, isn’t an option (well, besides a positive COVID-19 test, he says). So he soaks up all the time he can when he’s home with his 17-month-old daughter Ruby and wife, Lindsey.

“I think between the band and the team there's, like, 20 people relying on me for income. So [canceling a show] isn’t an option anymore.”

But anyone who’s passionate about what they’re doing doesn’t always need a big team of people around them to stay disciplined and on schedule. After three pregnancies in six years (one being a surrogacy) Angel Weaver has started and stopped pursuing her musical ambitions multiple times because of the restraints of motherhood, so she knows the hardships of trying to create a musical career with very little free time. While caring for her daughters, 6-year-old Vera and 3-year-old Faye, she’s faced unique challenges in a field that often dismisses her particular situation.

“The idea of going out every weekend and being away just got less and less exciting.” - musician Grady Don Sandlin

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“It was hard to have a band as a woman, as a mom, because when we had practices, I'd have to wear the baby or I'd have to get a babysitter,” Weaver says. “If [my husband] had band practice, I’d just be at home with the kids.” Weaver’s husband, Dave, is also a musician.

Weaver decided to start the indie soul pop band Bereah about 7 years ago, when she was pregnant with Vera. A few years later, when Faye was about 3 months old, the band was finally able to start working in the studio. Weaver recalls breastfeeding Faye during practices while singing, and had to meticulously carve out time over the past two years to record the upcoming album, This Joy Is Hard to Hold This Joy Is Hard to Hold, due out June 24 — Weaver’s 35th birthday, a milestone she purposefully set to keep her on track. That meant including practicing at a neighbor’s house after the kids went to bed so as not to wake them, equipped with baby monitors and a keen, motherly sense of when to run back home, soothe a fussy toddler back to sleep, lock the door and head back to practice (rinse and repeat). Bereah is scheduled to perform at The Bearded Monk in Denton on the day of the album's release.

But kids don’t have to live on this side of the womb to interrupt a mom’s musical ambitions. Jennifer Sturges, a 35-week pregnant music promoter and frontwoman of alt-rock band Ex-Regrets, says she’s still played the same number of shows since getting a baby bump but sits down during band practice these days. “It’s very different when you’re pregnant,” she says. “I feel like, you know, the character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who becomes a blueberry.”

Sturges even has a half serious bet going on whether she’ll go into labor at their 45-minute set May 7 at Double Wide, as she’ll be hitting the last stretch of her 9-month baby-making journey. “I’ve got the hospital bag packed and in the car,” she says, letting this potential reality sink in. “It’s a lot of activity. There’s going to be a lot of oxytocin released.”

Highway Blues

Sometimes this level of hard work pays off in a very big, commercially successful way, making time away from home inevitable. That’s been the case for Midlake’s Jesse Chandler, who shares custody of his two kids — 11-year-old Nico and 9-year-old Harper.

Chandler says he felt tremendous guilt while touring when his children were in their baby and toddler years. “You're just like, ‘What am I doing? I'm going out and just, you know, playing these shows for people and it seems like we're living this super glamorous life,’ when in reality my mind is only half there,” he says. “I'm just thinking about the kids and the moments that I'm missing and moments I could be helping out. So there’s a lot of convincing yourself that what you're doing is OK and right.”

Last month, Midlake released their first album in nine years, For The Sake of Bethel Woods, and spent two weeks on tour in Europe earlier this month. Chandler says touring is a little easier now that his kids are older, thanks to FaceTime and texting. Although with budding preteens, he says, he has to initiate conversations a little more these days.

But marriage and a baby carriage are only two of oodles of reasons why someone’s career and lifestyle may shift dramatically. Sandlin says it’s a big factor in why he decided to start Raised Right Men.

“Getting married and all that stuff becomes, like, well your priorities change,” Sandlin says. “The idea of going out every weekend and being away just got less and less exciting.”

Before Raised Right Men, Sandlin, who lives in Denton, was out of town, loading up in a van and playing shows as far away as West Texas on a regular basis. “Eventually, this idea came up of, you know, maybe we should start our own thing, and we could stay in town, make money and I could sleep in my own bed. Because that just became more of a priority,” he says.

Raised Right Men celebrated their eighth anniversary in January, and Sandlin’s son Willie turns 8 in June. “You know, no big coincidence there,” he says with a laugh.

Fleming says the days and weeks spent away from home and being “FaceTime Dad” are certainly hard enough, but being on the road in a rock band after starting a family feels different in many ways: “You can’t act like a complete fucking idiot [on tour], you know? It’s like, can I come home and look my baby in the eye and be like, ‘Did I do the right thing?’”


Fan Base

Paul Slavens is undoubtedly one of North Texas’ most notable and accomplished musicians. He hosts the weekly listener-curated The Paul Slavens Show on Sunday nights on 97.1 KXT, is a keyboard and piano virtuoso, a composer, the lead vocalist and keyboardist for rock band Ten Hands, has his debut solo album, Alphabet Girls Vol.2, coming out May 20 (with an album reveal show May 22 at Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park) and occasionally holds a comedic impromptu music gig at Dan’s Silverleaf.

But despite how cool we think he is, he has a 13-year-old son with his own musical ambitions and interest — and it doesn’t always include him.

“Gus has a polite interest in what I do,” Slavens says of his son. “But he is so involved in his own music creation.”

Slavens’ time with Gus these days is special because he says since his life has slowed down a bit from the early days of Ten Hands, he’s able to spend more time with him. Slavens also has an adult daughter, Maddie, who is a dental assistant. Slavens says he didn’t spend as much time with his daughter during those first years, and he apologizes often to Maddie.

“I was an idiot. I was young and busy and had people telling me I'm gonna be a rockstar. … And I'm all thinking about myself. And I'm stupid, you know,” he says of Maddie’s childhood years.

"I am very much of the mind of not pushing a kid to play music, if they just don’t really have it on their own.” - musician Paul Slavens

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Gus spends about two or three days a week with his dad and the rest with his mom. During his time with Gus, Slavens says that rather than take his son to a bunch of concerts, as one may expect of such a musical man about town, they explore the woods near his house, go on walks or play whatever video game Gus is into at the time. "On some nights he likes to make music in his room when I'm sleeping and I always find that comforting," Gus says.

“I've always, probably unfortunately, but I've always kept a bit of a wall between my family life and my artistic life,” Slavens says. “[And] I am very much of the mind of not pushing a kid to play music, if they just don’t really have it on their own.”

Despite his lack of pressure, Gus has shown a tremendous interest in music. He recalls excitedly exploring his dad's record collection when he was younger, and hearing Syro by Aphex Twin for the first time in the car, which has remained a favorite for the teen who has started making music of his own.

Slavens says: “He’s kind of branching out, and getting into programming synthesizers and writing in pitches and chords and stuff. He works more in the realm of timbre and rhythm and pitches … [But] he’s not like me. He’s not an attention hound. He’s not a theater boy.”

Maybe not, but we’ll keep an ear out for him, anyway.

Keite Young, frontman for Medicine Man Revival, one of Dallas’ favorite R&B bands, is undoubtedly one of the coolest performers in the city. But Young still has a bit of a critic in his teenage son, also named Keite — as most parents of teenagers do.

“He’s 16. I’m cool, but I’m still his dad. I'm only cool when he sees everybody else thinking I'm cool,” Keite Sr. says with a laugh.

But Keite Jr., who lives with his mother in Tulsa, does have his own musical interests as a trumpet player in his high school’s marching band. When he was 10 years old, he saw his dad perform for the first time. It was at RBC in Deep Ellum. “I could imagine he probably saw a whole other person,” he says. And being the showman he is on stage, it’s understandable that his son saw him in a foreign way that night.

“I think there was a certain time where he was a little intimidated by what I did. And it kind of made him a little bit gun-shy,” Keite Sr. says. But now, he’s embracing his own creativity. “I think he just liked how he felt when he expressed himself on a trumpet, and he's kind of on the path of forming his own little love.”

But Keite Sr.'s affect has not gone unnoticed by his son. "Having a dad who is a musician is life-changing for me," Keite Jr. says. He remembers his dad pulling him up to the stage one night to sing the last lyric of "Dem Don't Know" in front of more than a hundred people. "I will never forget that night," he says.

But plenty of musicians have kids exploring entirely different hobbies than their own.

Lauren Upshaw has spent almost 20 years playing in The Hope Trust with her brother Kelly and recently teamed up with Chelsey Danielle of Helium Queens to form Side Chicks. She has a son and stepson who primarily live with their other parents.

Upshaw, who was married to her stepson's mother until her death in 2019, says that while he is a great baseball player, her other son is more of a performer.

“But I don't think {he] has found his thing yet, you know? He's got it. I think it's just him finding his voice and his place and his comfort in the world, which isn't the easiest thing when ... your dad's a woman,” says Upshaw, who is transgender.

But her kids do like seeing her play shows when they can. “They think it's cool. They like going to shows and stuff, but they’re not, like, following my footsteps or anything.”

But sometimes music is just in the gene pool. Christy Ray, a notable Dallas DJ and mother of 3-year-old son Tatum, grew up with a very popular musical mom, DJ Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa. But Ray says her mom never once pushed her into a music career.

“It was made clear very early that this is something that my mom did, and it was very cool,” she says. “But it didn't have to define who I was, or even be what I was supposed to do with my life.”

click to enlarge DJ Christy Ray spins a record with her son, Tatum. - KATHY TRAN
DJ Christy Ray spins a record with her son, Tatum.
Kathy Tran

Rocky Questions

Parenthood is a lot like living in the teenage years in that both are times that require finding some sense of identity. For teens, their adult lives are still untouched and full of possibilities. For many parents, it can be a struggle to maintain an identity they've spent part of those adult years carefully creating and nourishing. And it can be scary.

“That was a fear of mine. Like, how was I gonna be this hot club DJ and also be this lactating mom?” Ray says. “I've noticed that since I’ve become a mom, my gigs have definitely become a mom as well.” Since motherhood began for her, Ray says she plays less “clubby” sets into the early morning hours and more daytime and early evening ones, like at hotel lounges, members-only clubs and private parties.

Ray spends weekdays at home with Tatum and has continued her DJ career on the weekends when he is at his father’s house. It’s a schedule she says she’s blessed with “because not a lot of women can have that.” Still, she’s had her share of hard times since becoming a mom in 2019.

Ray says that finding herself again during the postpartum period was a major hurdle. “It did add to the postpartum depression, just being like ‘OK, what do I do now? He's here, who am I?’ And I feel like the last time I asked myself [this question] I was like, 14. Like, a kid,” she says. “So here I am, again, kind of back in this. I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing.”

Weaver has a similar experience as a mom: “It's taken a toll, you know, but it's really important to be able to have this outlet. And as a parent, you feel like your existence kind of disappears.”

Although she knew she’d have to fight to maintain her musical identity after having her kids, Weaver says: “I just never wanted to be a mom [who] was so obsessed with my kids that I lost myself.”

Studies show that postpartum depression and anxiety affect up to one in seven new moms. Lump that into an already chaotic time of constant monitoring and overnight feeding sessions with a baby and the maintenance of self identity can seem impossible, if not a luxury.

“Having a baby is, like, as beautiful as it is, it is a trauma. And I feel like people maybe don't understand that,” Ray says. “ And I think that's because we're being told how we should feel about it all the time.”

Pandemic Babies

In about 20 years, a generation of "pandemic babies" will look back and wonder how their parents made it work. And many of those babies, some of whom are already into their toddler years, will especially wonder how their "nonessential worker" parents made it work.

Fleming, who found out he would be a dad about two weeks into COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, is one of those parents who wasn’t sure how his music would survive. He says of the time: “I am a nonessential worker who's about to be a dad. I spent most of my life pursuing music. I didn't know if I was gonna come back or not.”

But when Ruby was born, he says, “everything kind of stopped feeling like the end of the world and more of like, maybe just a new, better chapter.” And out of this better chapter came one of Fleming’s newest favorite memories. Last October, his daughter saw him on stage for the first time, performing with his band. He played a song he wrote for her called “The Lighthouse.”

“That made me feel good as a dad,” Fleming says. But it may take a few more shows for the 17-month-old to really understand what’s going on. “She doesn't recognize ‘stage dad.’ ‘At-home dad’ is always in sweatpants and tank tops. Stage dad has hats and bandanas and jackets, yelling into a metal thing.”


CODA

Despite the hardships common to parents who play music — from making time during the sleeping hours to begin a career, to spending days, weeks and months on the road earning a living — there are lessons learned along the way to ease the guilt and make the process a little easier.

It took a lot of patience and self discovery for Weaver to get this far in her career, and she says what has helped the most is giving herself grace when things don’t happen right away: “Remind yourself that you’re in a phase, and just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you have to give up your identity.”

Ray agrees with the sentiment, adding that her son has, despite her predictions in those early days of motherhood, actually helped her achieve a lot creatively. “I don't know if I would’ve been able to accomplish [as much] as the woman I was before. So there's a strength here that I didn't have before and just a general confidence in who I am,” she says. “And I think a lot of that has to do with [Tatum].”

Chandler still has a hard time reckoning his career choice as it relates to his children. But, he says, through personal growth, he’s come to accept it as part of his life, “the vagabond life of a musician,” as he puts it. And he hopes one day Nico and Harper understand the sacrifices they’ve made with a parent in the music business because, Chandler says, “a world without music is hardly a world worth living in.”
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Diamond Rodrigue
Contact: Diamond Rodrigue