Any artist who's in it for the long haul is bound to weather changes and collect experiences over time. And when enough history builds up behind them, they may feel the irresistible tug of nostalgia and find ways to revisit the past — with songs idealizing the "old home place," albums of time-tested standards, lavishly packaged reissues or anniversary tours. Those reflections on the bygone days tend to be reverent affairs.
But for Wade Bowen, conjuring the musical melting pot of a youth and young adulthood spent in Texas has yielded the most wild-eyed work of his career.
Bowen came up in the Red Dirt scene, learning to appease rowdy bar crowds and venerating songwriters like Guy Clark as archetypes. He released a few regional albums in the early 2000s, then gained national notice as the sort of artist who had something for fans of contemporary country and serious singer-songwriter fare alike. Every so often, he and his fellow hard-touring Texan Randy Rogers team up for droll duets and share the stage with more mainstream hitmakers like Miranda Lambert and Kip Moore.
Bowen hired his longtime buddy Keith Gattis to produce Solid Ground, his first proper solo album in nearly four years. Rather than taking an easy stroll down memory lane together, they chased down imagery of desperation and indulgence and untamed, vital performances, working out of Gattis' rugged hideaway of a studio in East Nashville.
Bowen called World Cafe to talk about what an all-consuming process it was, and when his phone reception got spotty, resorted to finishing his thoughts in an email.
Jewly Hight: I remember visiting the studio last year to hear parts of your then-unfinished album. There was a sense that he was really forcing you out of your familiar routines. What was that like?
Wade Bowen: I mean, I kind of asked for it. ...I said, "I really want someone to push me as a songwriter more than I've ever been pushed." Be careful what you wish for. I can't tell you how many times I called [Keith] and said, "What do you think of this song? Don't you think we're ready to record?" And he would say, "Man you're on a roll. Why would we go and record now when you're writing the best you've ever written? Keep writing." It was a great point, even though it pissed me off. Every morning in the studio we wrote before the musicians got there, and recorded something that night that we'd written that morning. All of that was new to me, and I asked for it.
How do you hear that in the album?
I hear a different-sounding Wade Bowen. It's like it's more mature. I sing things differently. There's a confidence about it. There's a swagger to this album that I've never had before. ...We play 150 shows a year, so I feel like our live shows are a little edgier, a little more in your face than my records have been. I've really focused in the past on being lyric-driven and making sure that the songs are perfect. I feel like with this one we let loose more.
In interviews over the years you've emphasized that you're not a Texas artist but an artist from Texas. What made you want paint the landscape of Texas now?
I just think it was important sonically more than anything. Lyrically, there was a lot of Texas stuff in there, but I don't even think I say the word Texas on the entire record.
You don't even have to.
I'm a big Springsteen fan. I named my son Bruce, for crying out loud. I don't know anything about Jersey, but I sure feel like I do listening to his records. That sound that he has is a Jersey sound. I really wanted to accomplish that with this record. To me, East Texas music is so many different things. It's rock. It's country. It's Americana. It's blues. It's Tejano. I wanted people to feel that. I wanted people to understand that I'm proud of that. I also think it's more universal than just fans in Texas. People write about their hometowns all the time, and even if you might not know that hometown that they're writing about, you can relate to it and feel it in the song. That's really the point that I wanna make with this record.
What textures and details in the songs make these people, places and times come alive for you?
"Acuna" is a great example of this. I used to go to Concan, Tex. every September when I was in college with a bunch of friends. One or two of those nights, we'd slide down through Del Rio and cross the border into the Mexico border town of Acuna and hang at the Corona Club. Many great memories there, of course. And now you can't go because it's not as safe. So I miss it. And I hate that kids can't experience that like I did.
Same with dancehalls in Texas slowly disappearing. ...It breaks my heart at times, because [those places] instilled in me as a kid how to be a gentleman and be kind to a lady and treat everyone with respect. It taught me family values and love for each other, no matter how stupid ya look on the dance floor.
I look back on times I spent in the West Texas desert around Terlingua, Alpine, the Marfa lights and Lajitas, which is in the song "Day of The Dead". I can vividly remember standing in Lajitas, staring at the Mexican border intrigued by how easy it would have been to just simply slide across.
"So Long 6th Street" has been taken literally at times when I've been asked about it, but it's not [meant that way]. It's more about moving on and being grateful for all a place has given you. I struggled more in the two years I lived in Austin than any other time in my career, so I'm thankful for all it taught me.
How did you balance nostalgia with being grounded in the present?
I've tried to escape present-day perspective, because to me, music—particularly country music—used to employ simple production and straightforward writing to reveal truths about complex, emotional issues. The beauty of a Hank Williams or Guy Clark song was that it took life-changing situations and concepts like losing hope or ending a relationship and illustrated the weight of it using the simplest examples or metaphors like drinking too much or the worn beauty of a pocket knife. A lot of today's music seems to do exactly the opposite. Songs are built these days, not written. Too many writers and overproduction at times takes away from a simple straightforward lyric. For me, this record is about to trying to move back in the other direction.
I read an interview you did with a Texas-based publication a couple of years back where you sort of scoffed at the idea that others in the Red Dirt scene might look up to you as a veteran. What's made you begin to think more about legacy?
I don't mind being called a veteran. I used to think that was people calling me old, but I'm over that now. ...If you're really working and busting your ass, I feel like songwriters are probably better the older they get, because they've got more experience underneath 'em and they've got this wisdom. I've been a sponge for the last 20 years as a songwriter, just trying to figure out how to get better. ...I feel like I know way more now how to get to a hook, what substance you want to have within the song, how to get in and out of topics. There was a time there when I really doubted that about two years ago, when I was really uncertain. I think this record, this process, just having Keith around to show me how talented he thought I was, to pull that out of me on this record gives me the confidence moving forward. ...I'm not at the end of my career. I know I've maybe had some success and done some things, but this to me is just the middle, or the start of something brand new.
You grew up thinking that pursuing a career in country music would require moving to Nashville, then saw Texas-based singer-songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and realized you could have a career staying put. Eventually you also started coming to Nashville and made a major label album. Some people view those two music communities as being incompatible, with different aesthetic values and business cultures. How has your perspective on both evolved over the years?
I have a lot of ties in Nashville, almost as many as I do in Texas musically. I got there quite a bit to write. There's a lot of amazing writers there. I've had business in Nashville for 15 years or so. I was never one of the artists that drew the line in the sand. ...I've never been one of those to say, "You're wrong and I'm right," because I don't believe that. ...I like being the guy that bridges the gap. I'm the guy that loves to play shows with Chris Stapleton and Kip Moore and Miranda.
You've said that it was a point of connection for you and your dad when you discovered the artists that he loved, like Willie Nelson and Guy Clark. Have you begun to have that kind of exchange with your own kids?
Oh yeah. It's very important to me to have that. ...I think as parents it can be a blessings and a curse, but we always want them to experience their childhood the way that our childhood was, especially if your childhood was really good like mine. I kind of beat myself up a lot of times, because their childhood is so different from mine, because their dad's always on the road being a musician. ...I'm always bringing music to 'em. [One of my sons] is named after Springsteen and he knew it, and he hadn't seen him yet so I booked a last second trip to see Springsteen in Phoenix, just the two of us. He's obsessed with the Beatles and Springsteen and Billy Joel. He loves the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. He's getting into arguments at school with his friends about how old music is way better than new music. ...I think a critical time in a child's musical direction for the rest of their life is that age from, like, 12 to 18 or so. That's when they really start figuring themselves out and finding their musical passion for who they're going to follow and love and get in fights with their friends about.
Which is why it makes sense that you would, at this point in your life and career, reconnect you're your own musical memories. It's a full circle deal.
It is. It always is.