Twenty years ago, our local music scene was a bustling cauldron of rock goodness. Whether it be to the surprise of many or to a few, a couple of bands that made Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth proud back then are not only still making us proud, but are selling out rooms and slinging albums across the Great 48 to this day.
The Old 97's, the Dallas-raised alt-country flag bearers, have a new album out very soon (the excellent, cowpunk-filled Most Messed Up) and will be celebrating its release with a couple of thousand fans at the AT&T Performing Arts Center on Saturday before embarking on what is sure to be another successful string of dates in some of the nation's greatest, most-storied clubs and theaters. Meanwhile, the Toadies, formed in Fort Worth in 1989, are on a triumphant 20th anniversary tour of Rubberneck, the record that spawned "Possum Kingdom," which might still be the most recognizable tune from the metroplex in the past two decades.
Which local act playing the clubs of North Texas will be able to celebrate its early days 20 years from now in front of sold-out crowds across the country? Are there any artists that will even come close to such notoriety?
Of course, these two seminal bands have traveled wildly differing paths since 1994. For the most part, the 97's have remained relatively productive and consistent in terms of releasing new music, taking a brief break here or there. Through it all, however, no other band associated with the ascension of the alt-country explosion in the mid-1990s has managed to keep everyone together in order to keep the tunes coming. Perhaps even more impressive than that is how Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples are now making music that rivals the best stuff of their hallowed early years.
On the flip side of that vinyl slab, the Toadies have likely seen their commercial peak come and go with Rubberneck as major lineup changes and record label troubles have certainly taken their toll on the group's timeline. Of course, that doesn't mean the records they've put out since the band returned to full-time status following a lengthy stoppage aren't legit guitar-rock records, because they are. Last year's underrated Play. Rock. Music. wasn't the second coming of Rubberneck, but when bundled together with 2008's No Deliverance and the 2010 release of "lost album" Feeler, it's easy to hear that Vaden Lewis and crew are still angry, fierce and busting amps with great effectiveness. When the band started its celebratory tour a few weeks ago, sold-out crowds greeted them along the West Coast, and it's reasonable to think that many more await them in other corners of the country in the coming weeks.
Make no mistake: These two bands are not only active, but indeed still relevant. They still matter and people still care. A group doesn't have to fill a massive arena or collect several platinum records to remain vibrant in the hearts of their fans.
It's reasonable to think that Tripping Daisy would've been in the same boat today had Tim DeLaughter kept the band going after the 1999 death of guitarist Wes Berggren. At least partial evidence of that is apparent in the fact that the DeLaughter-led Polyphonic Spree aren't only loved here at home, but across the globe -- though the Spree are a far different animal from Tripping Daisy, of course. There are other great bands from 20 years ago that, at the time at least, were considered to be candidates for long-terms success. Hagfish, Funland and Doosu are a few bands that come to mind quickly. Slobberbone certainly seemed destined for a massive breakthrough, but that never came, though a fantastic set of records and a feverishly loyal local fan base remain.
That's a long time ago, however. Who do we have in the area now that's in the midst of a journey that will lead them to truly matter to fans outside of our friendly area in 2024, let alone 2034?
Before we go any further, it's important to note that massive commercial success isn't the primary metric for quality; any idiot knows that. If that were so, Telegraph Canyon, Maleveller, Somebody's Darling and A.Dd+ would grace the same magazine covers as St. Vincent. While sales numbers aren't necessarily representative of quality, the commercial aspect of the music business does mirror a greater public demand for how well an album is remembered many years down the road.
Bethea, the Old 97's guitar player who still lives in Dallas, sees long-term, large-scale success as a twofold issue that combines the commercial and indefinable.
"I think it takes two things to stay relevant for a long period of time," he says. "You do have to sell records. Maybe not millions of them, but a band does have to sell a good bit. And second, you have to be creative and have a signature sound that is so distinct that anyone who listens knows that it's your band and no one else."
Indeed, the Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth triangle boast distinctive artists who are easily discerned. But as Bethea says, that isn't necessarily enough to begin booking a victory lap many years from now.
Will we see a Suburban Nature anniversary tour in 2030 from Sarah Jaffe in which a thousand people in 30 cities cram themselves into a legendary club to remember the time they first fell in love with one of the great artists North Texas has produced in recent memory?
In a more perfect society, True Widow will be able to travel the world (as they have done for the past few years already) to some of the largest crowds they've ever seen in 2033 to perform concerts where they play Circumambulation in its entirety for the fans that come to treasure it. Perhaps The O's will finally achieve Avett Brothers-level commercial success and, as a result, in 2029, popular demand will send John Pedigo and Taylor Young on a trek to soak up the adoration of fans who can't get enough after all the passing years since their debut was issued.
Unfortunately, none of these wishful scenarios seem terribly likely -- not now, at least. Of course, in all fairness, it's tough to imagine even the most hardcore fans figured they'd be able to see the Old 97's play "Doreen" many years down the road when booking a babysitter would be required for them to catch a show.
Speaking of St. Vincent, whether she (or the Old 97's, for that matter) is truly local or not is up for debate, but Annie Clark seems to have a great chance at being extremely relevant on a massive scale in two decades. Maybe the aforementioned Spree or even Denton's Midlake will continue to capitalize on the global notoriety they've achieved thus far, fueling their early releases to such lofty heights as to warrant an anniversary tour in the years ahead.
The list of reasons why our area may not be rife with artists that will be lauded two decades from now isn't due to a shortage of actual talent, surely. The digital world of the present is a far different one from the mostly analog environment of 1994. But it's a safe bet that things were also different for the Old 97's and the Toadies in 1994 than they were for the notable Dallas bands of 1974.
But the question remains: Which artists hailing from our area at this very moment are going to be the ones forcing fans from around the world to look at North Texas 20 years from now?
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.