Separate Ways

Over the past decade, few Dallas bands have rivaled Slobberbone--a scraggly and swaggering group of musicians capable of both bruising live performances and songs that grew richer with each solitary listen. But after 13 years, four full-lengths and more tours than a truckload of carnies, Slobberbone is calling it quits.

"It's time, I guess," says lead singer Brent Best with a sigh. "We've been touring since 1996, doing 200-plus gigs a year. It's better to go out now, you know?"

Formed in early 1994, give or take a few dozen lost weekends, Slobberbone emerged from a thriving Denton scene that included such bands as Baboon, Brutal Juice and Caulk. They weren't interested in major labels or longevity; they wanted smokes and cheap booze--but it was impossible to miss the talent of singer-songwriter Best, a front man with the good looks of Jay Farrar and the besotted heartache of Jeff Tweedy.

"In September of '94, Brent gave me a cassette with an early mix of 'I Can Tell Your Love Is Waning' on it," remembers Will Johnson, front man for Centro-matic. "I don't think I ever told him, but I took some stupefyingly long way home, listening to it seven times over. I kept rewinding and listening. I'd never heard a song or a story quite like that and was overwhelmed with this kid-like wave of pride that I could actually know the creator of something so powerful."

Critics took note of the band, too, although in an admittedly less heartfelt way. In 1995, Robert Wilonsky wrote, "I have seen the future of local music, and its name is stupid."

"Well, it's a joke," Best says of Slobberbone, his childhood term for a dog's chew toy. "We started a band to get free beer, and we needed a name for the flier. I don't know how many fans over the years told me, 'I'd heard of Slobberbone, but I thought you were some metal band.' It was like a passkey in the club. It's a stupid name, but maybe it kept things pure. We weren't winning over any casual fans."

Instead, they won them over with catchy, beer-bitter songs and explosive live shows.

"I must have been 16 when I first saw them," says Jess Barr, Slobberbone guitarist for the past eight years. "They were loud as fuck. I remember thinking, 'I want my band to sound like that.'"

Of course, Barr did become part of that band, joining a lineup that included, in addition to Best, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper. Throughout the '90s, the band toured with the Gourds, packed European halls and won enough Dallas Observer Music Awards to start a small cottage industry. But last year, things started to sputter. Barr got married. Lane not only got hitched, but he also moved to Florida. Harper started playing with American Werewolf Academy. Best knocked around town doing solo sets and hit the road with his acoustic. In the last post on the band's Web site--which hasn't been updated in almost a year--Best announced the band would take a break, hoping to remember "what it's like to be normal before our normal became what wasn't once normal."

"I pretty much knew then that I wanted to move on," Best says. "It's not really sad. That's what bands do. They break up."

True. And yet, it's hard not to mourn a more widespread success for Slobberbone, a band with more blood and fingernail grime than a breakout like the Jayhawks. But the band distrusted that alt-country label--well, who didn't?--and the major-label interest that came along with it. Eventually, they put away their fiddle and pedal steel and, on 2002's Slippage, knuckled into a more classic rock sound. It wasn't a clear break, just a natural evolution, the way musicians are supposed to develop, growing into new sounds over time. In the end, they remained in Denton and Dallas. Which was perfectly fine.

"If we'd moved to L.A., it would have gone against what we wanted to do," Barr says. "It was never about getting rich and famous. It was, 'What the hell did I do last night? And where are we gonna play tomorrow?' For a band that started out in a beer store, this is success."

The band's last Dallas show is at the Barley House on New Year's Eve, followed by a short farewell tour through the Midwest.

Both Best and Barr are reluctant to discuss their future musical paths, although they both plan to keep playing.

"We've never made plans in Slobberbone," Barr says. "We shouldn't start now."

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Sarah Hepola

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