Doug Burr released his debut album, Sickles & Sheaves, in 2003.
The record was a mix of gothic Americana and gospel. And looking back, it was probably that album that set the stage for Denton’s indie-folk and Americana scene — or at least embodied the naked, poetic lyrics and acoustic arrangements that lingered in the shadows among the city’s folk musicians. Burr started picking up awards and critical praise almost immediately, especially among the singer-songwriter circle that likes its music a little literary.
Six years later, Denton guitar maestro and singer Robert Gomez would release Pine Sticks and Phosphorus, a full-length record that was as much a chamber-pop record as it was an atmospheric, folk-tinged record that swathed Gomez’s lyrics with symphonic melodies.
Were it not for the enterprising pens of musicians like Burr and Gomez — and later, Sarah Jaffe — Denton’s folk scene would probably be confined to downtown coffeehouses.
Denton Americana is still on the skinny side, but a pint-size scene shouldn’t be mistaken for pipsqueak sound. A new generation of folk and folk-influenced musicians are on the hustle in Little D.
MATHEW GRIGSBY: Folk, pure and simple
His catalog: His debut album, Restless & Waiting, came out in March.
Listen at: mathewgrigsby.com
He doesn’t do swagger.
Mathew Grigsby is as unaffected as his music — and that’s a good thing.
And he has at least one thing in common with Doug Burr.
“I didn’t grow up playing music. I didn’t pick up the guitar until I was 19 years old,” Grigsby says. “I was living in East Texas, going to junior college. I was actually studying theater.”
Grigsby is gigging as a solo artist and with his band, the Merry Monsters, with Jake Dill on upright bass and Trent Reeves on drums.
He moved to Denton from Kilgore with the idea of enrolling at the University of North Texas. When he got to Denton, Grigsby says, a couple of things happened — he started going to shows (largely with a group of friends who faded away over time), and his father was incarcerated.
“When my dad went to prison, it didn’t seem like a good idea to go to school,” he says. “I have two brothers, and my mom was going to have to take care of them all by herself.”
Theater lent the artist a flair for words and an ear for mood, and years in public school choir (“I pretty much came out of the womb singing,” he says) gave him an easy tenor — no baroque fireworks, thanks — that evokes Willie Nelson.
Grigsby wasted little time when the songwriting bug bit. He put a band together, the Poison Whiskeys.
“We did bluegrass,” he says. “Apocalyptic bluegrass, we called it.”
By then, Grigsby says he was determined to do music. Restless & Waiting is a quiet record, with a chord organ here and a toy glockenspiel there. Grigsby writes from his experience — a working man without a car or much in the way of money. It begins with “Walkin’,” an ambling ode to Grigsby’s second favorite pastime: strolling and reflecting. “I go walkin’ towards Jerusalem, the holy city. They got all the best guns,” he sings, before explaining that he’s not resentful about his lack of money and wheels. “I got legs and I got dreams,” Grigsby says. He’ll walk until his feet give out.
It’s “Sidewalk Bird” and “Ada and the Wandering Spirit” that show Grigsby’s songwriting chops as well as his talent for lyrics. “Sidewalk Bird” is a tribute to a stone-dead bird he noticed on one of his many walks. What could be a macabre discovery becomes a hat-over-heart sermon about the fleeting gifts and graces that visit even the smallest of God’s creatures. Grigsby sings: “Sidewalk bird, I walk by you everyday. Sidewalk bird, I been watching you decay. Used to sing, used to fly, till your joy was spent and you had to die, oh sidewalk friend of mine.” Then he finds the spot where their lives intersect: “World didn’t know you very long, never appreciated your song. Now you’re gone and I can see the inspiration a death can be.”
In “Ada,” Grigsby sings from the point of view of another man who walks, but whose wandering is more emotional and spiritual than literal. The narrator has wandered far enough from his commitments that now he needs to make amends to a certain heart he left idling by the hearth.
“Ada, oh Ada, I done you wrong, I done you wrong, left you standing on a dead-end street, left you whiskey bottles and debts at your feet. ... These teary eyes ask you to to forgive me. Let this wandering spirit finally sleep, and sleep.”
Grigsby says he’s trying to make music in the vein of “divine folk.” He cites Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. (He nearly channels Dylan on “Humble as a Child,” a song that settles in the back of his throat — just above the heart chakra, to be more Buddhist about it.)
“I write about characters who are down in the muck,” Grigsby says. “The songwriting has been really different with different songs. A lot of songs start with me walking around — that’s no big surprise, I guess.
“It starts with a mood, mostly. I try to let the songs write themselves. You can’t limit yourself. If a song takes you someplace, let it.”
Grigsby takes a page out of the Rufus Wainwright school of songwriting — morbid or downer lyrics are buoyed by sweetly upbeat tunes. Put the question to the songwriter himself, though, and he’ll tell you his songs are a distilled pull of gladness. In “Can’t Do Right,” Grigsby sings about a man who could be lucky enough to win “the key to the holy gates” but likely to “lose it in a poker game or trade it for a couple of bucks.”
Grigsby says he owes his musical ambitions to Denton, where musicians like to help each other out. Restless & Waiting was recorded on the Denton indie label Metamorphosis Records, run by local musician Taylor Moseley.
“I don’t know that I’d become a songwriter if I weren’t in Denton,” Grigsby says. “It’s not as small as people think, but Denton has a real small-town feel. But it’s big enough that you can do things you can’t really do in a small town, as opposed to where I grew up.
“In Denton, you can be a hippie or a hipster and no one minds.”
L.E. TAYLOR: Folk tunes, poppy vocals
Sounds like: Abigail Washburn reinterpreted the songbook of Sweet Honey in the Rock, including some of the vocal flourishes reminiscent of Dolores O’Riordan and Sixpence None the Richer.
L.E. Taylor deserves more recognition in Denton, but it’s probably on its way.
Angelic harmonies, chimes and banjo played with a delectable touch make Taylor an artist who is perfect for the coffeehouse, but deserving of the Austin City Limits stage at the very least.
And yet Taylor hasn’t let the slow slog of self-promotion weigh her music down.
That’s the thing that makes her a musician to watch. Folk music in general (and Denton folk in particular) can be a dour affair. You know the routine: Lay your soul bare with a whisper, and accompany it with sober acoustic guitar.
Each of her songs creeps upward, like the rising sun. “Faithful and True” starts off with the typical earnestness that makes the form ripe for SNL parody. But before it gets mired down with the sighing folk music hey-man-life-is-a-riddle posture, Taylor lets the light in.
Taylor’s music has an unexpected heft to it. “Oh Lord” sounds like a damn good bookend to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ “Nothing But the Water.” Where Potter pleads loudly with the heavens to let the water wash clean what baptism and the Bible couldn’t, Taylor nearly whispers about an urgent need to get things right before the last hour comes, like the proverbial thief in the night. It’s a slow burn that builds, hope shimmering off of intensifying banjo, guitar and cymbal.
The artist observes the majesty of creation with a prayerful praise, then gradually breaks into full-on Appalachian begging for redemption that transforms. She ends with a sated whisper.
If Taylor can produce folk like this with her own ear, voice and guitar skills, imagine what she could do with focused artist development.
KARYNA MICAELA: Pop with a dash of folk
Her catalog: Micaela has an album worth of songs in the hopper.
Sounds like: Erin Austin meets Sara Bareilles, with a retro twist.
Listen at: reverbnation.com/karynamicaela
Karyna Micaela is more pop than folk, but she’s absorbed a thing or two in her many sets at Banter, a downtown bar and restaurant that has been incubating a goodly number of Denton’s rising folk artists.
The California native came to Denton about three years ago. A choir student who majored in music, Micaela did her homework and knew Denton would be a good place to concentrate on music. She works full time in a University of North Texas residence hall, and has been hard at work with Dallas musician Zach Balch, who is producing her debut album. Micaela has recorded piano, vocals, drums and horns; all that remains is to mix and engineer the album.
“Denton is a good place to pursue music,” Micaela says. “Maybe because it’s not oversaturated, like Austin or Nashville. It’s accessible. Where we’re sitting is pretty much the heart of the singer-songwriter scene locally.”
And she was sitting at a table at Banter, where a two-person crew was setting up the sound system for the open mic that would begin in three hours. Like folk artist Mathew Grigsby and Balch, who plays Denton regularly, Micaela has found a reliable testing ground in Banter. The snug restaurant — with its small coffee menu and generous beer, wine and food menu — has continued to nurture the local music scene. Banter is as committed to jazz as it is to indie music; Le Not So Hot Klub du Denton earned its big following on the small corner stage.
Micaela makes the kind of music that gets picked up for shiny-happy advertising campaigns by Target, the Gap and J.C. Penney, and she admits that she worries that could be a liability in the North Texas music scene, which tends to favor insider music by not-so-radio-ripe acts like Midlake, the Angelus and Seryn — all of whom come by critical gushing honestly. Denton’s favorite music only reaches as far as public radio, unless you consider pop acts like Bowling for Soup — and they claim Dallas as home base.
“It’s been a challenge,” Micaela says. “It’s not an easy scene to break into. My record is a fully fledged pop record. Zach and I are interested in licensing and writing, and that’s not the focus of most of the music here. I’ve kind of wanted to go down to Dallas, because it’s closer to that part of the business.”
Micaela is right. Denton musicians emphasize community over cash, and sometimes, process over product. Take the now-dormant tradition of Rock Lottery, which created new Denton bands for one day by inviting musicians to draw names out of a hat, then write and perform a full set on the same day. The result isn’t always good, but it’s definitely enthusiastic.
But make no mistake: Micaela isn’t trash-talking community. The community was one of the reasons she left the temperate summers of San Jose for Denton.
So far, Micaela has created a set list of music that shows off her training — she studied classical music for a while before she realized she wanted to study vocal jazz. And both show in her lilting voice and stage presence.
Regardless of geography, Micaela will do her music — piano pop with that Billie Holiday vibrato — and she’ll tailor it to the venue.
“I can’t do anything else,” Micaela says. “It’s such a part of my identity that I’d feel like something was missing if I didn’t do music.”