Working Class Hero

Stephen Doster

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

In 1984, Nanci Griffith left Austin to record her Nashville debut, Once In A Very Blue Moon. In Austin, albums are cut with your band, but in Nashville, putting together the perfect group of studio musicians is far more important than any set of personal loyalties. Since Griffith was on the verge of a country crossover from the acoustic folk market, finding just the right assemblage of studio pros seemed that much more important to producer Jim Rooney (John Prine, Arlo Guthrie) and Rounder Records. They didn't do too bad.

Griffith and her team rounded up a young, but accomplished cast, including fiddler Mark O'Conner, banjo phenom Béla Fleck, and drummer Kenny Malone. Additionally, Lyle Lovett, an Austinite still two years away from his own Nashville debut, wound up adding background vocals. Finding a guitarist, however, proved to be a problem. Finally, Griffith put in a call back home. "Hey, you know anybody that plays like Stephen Doster?" Griffith asked an old friend. Yes, of course, replied the friend, none other than Doster himself, who hopped the next plane to Music City.

Beginning with the recording of Once In A Very Blue Moon and continuing through the ensuing tour, Doster's flight to Nashville seemed like it would necessistate only a one-way ticket. But after only a year of being on the road with Griffith, Doster ended his commitment to her amicably with a taping of Austin City Limits. That this final Doster/ Griffith gig was taped directly across the street from where the two had met, at the Hole in the Wall, is somewhat ironic. After all, it was at the small club on the corner of 26th & Guadalupe that Doster, Griffith, and Lovett had played their share of standing-room-only shows in the late Seventies, so the appearance of all three musicians on Once In A Very Blue Moon and the ACL debut of Griffith marked the culmination of the Hole's singer-songwriter years (one era of it, anyway).

And yet, a dozen years later, Lovett and Griffith have combined for nearly 20 releases while Doster released his debut, Rosebud, only this past March. If you're keeping score at home, that's 21 years in Austin for Doster and just one album to show for it. What happened? "It's your typical Austin story," replies Doster, who says he stayed in Austin after the ACL taping, because he knew Nashville couldn't fulfill him. Fine, but all too often local musicians whose work hinges on artistic good intentions, end with failed deals. True to form, Doster may not have released albums prolifically in the years that followed, but he recorded them prolifically nonetheless.

As a matter of fact, Griffith's phone call had pulled Doster out of a two-year artistic slump caused by the death of James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders' guitarist who'd started producing Doster's debut. When the project ended prematurely, all Doster had to fall back on was his one fail-safe, playing live. Although Doster would go on to amass a pile of masters commissioned by, but never released on, Manhattan/EMI, Capricorn, and most recently, Interscope, he's managed to make a living almost entirely from playing live music.

That's right, live music, no day jobs, no graveyard shifts, just one three-hour set five nights a week. Who else has been as routinely in favor with Austin's fickle clubgoers for nearly as long? Even now, Doster plays out with three separate projects: one with Will Sexton, another with blues historian Leighton Hamilton, and the third with his own band the Libertines, featuring drummer JJ Johnson and celloist Brian Standefer. And although gig pay hasn't risen with the cost of living, each time Doster left town for any number of late-Eighties tours with Tommy Elskes and Hal Ketchum, there was always a local following waiting at home to allow the guitarist raise a family.

And because Doster has been concentrating on survival and not self-promotion, he's still best known in Austin as the guy who produces and stars in the annual John Lennon birthday hoot night. That may be changing with the release of Rosebud, a debut that's not only worth the wait, but one that exists only perhaps because of that wait and what it taught Doster about himself and the music industry.

"The business has always frustrated me, but never the playing," explains Doster. "I guess I just never had the ambition to put out a bunch of independent records just to see something with my name on it. It's not that I ever had a fear of success or failure, I just knew I couldn't do it by myself with only my own meager finances. And I always figured if I got out there and played every night with my best foot forward, maybe someone will take notice."

In 1995, just after Doster ended a set of long and frustrating negotiations with Interscope, another record label did indeed take notice. Ironically, given Doster's long and exhaustive search for help outside Austin, it was Villa Muse, a local label owned and operated by guitarist and studio owner Jay Aaron Podolnick, that sat up and took notice. Doster and Podolnick had been mutual friends of Eric Johnson's for almost as long as Doster has lived in Austin, yet it was Doster's experiments with drummer Chris Searles and celloist Frank Kammerdiener that got Podolnick interested in launching his label's efforts with a Doster release.

By the time Doster and Podolnick actually recorded Rosebud, bassist Brain Walsh had been added to the band and the injured Kammerdiener replaced by Brian Standefer. Also, getting the album out in time for a South by Southwest '97 showcase meant recording it relatively quickly, sacrificing some of Doster's long-held ideas for a lush pop production. "I've always felt the process of making records is an on-going learning experience," Doster says. "So, it's ironic I wound up throwing everything I'd learned towards the wind to make a mostly live record."

Instead of pulling songs from a 20-year-old backlog of material, Doster wrote new songs for Rosebud, giving the album a solid internal structure and an overall tone more sophisticated and powerful than its parts. Thematically, with narratives on fatherhood ("Kid Django") and his own career ("Nobody Loves a Quitter"), Rosebud plays out like the kind of debut only a veteran could make. Best of all, on the poppy and gloomy tunes alike, Rosebud rarely fails to convey the songs' delicate melodicism and Doster's conversational delivery.

While KGSR and KUT have apparently recognized the album's radio potential, playing assorted cuts, there's now talk of the album being remixed for radio. In fact, Villa Muse recently shipped a remix of "Sleepwalking," produced by Lee DeCarlo, Lennon's post-Beatles engineer, to regional radio in hopes of getting more airplay. "One of the things I've learned from this record is a lot about radio," says Doster. "I've discovered that some of the darker and more raw stuff that's appealing to me isn't going to fly on radio. You never want to think about writing for radio, but to figure out which of your songs are more likely to get airplay isn't wrong either. I have a keener eye towards that now, and all I can do is think about how much better I'll do if I get another shot."

Doster's next shot may have to wait, although maybe not another 20 years. Since the release of Rosebud, Doster has been fielding serious offers for both management and booking, while Villa Muse has used the record to foster potential deals for better distribution and radio promotion.

"In many ways, it feels like Rosebud just came out yesterday," enthuses Doster, who's planning for his first national tour to begin early next year. "In the last four months, the time Rosebud's really been out, I've probably accomplished more in the business world than I have in the last five years. The moral of my story is that now I think it's important to go ahead and get stuff out there anyway you can and that maybe I was wrong not to release things earlier. Then again, the one thing you know once you do put out a record is that although it can be a nice vanity project, unless you're prepared to really go out and get your ducks in line there's no point."

For Doster, the ducks started lining up in Corpus Christi where he was born. Because his father worked for the government, Doster spent much of his childhood overseas, attending elementary school in London and France, and high school in Germany. Stateside, in both Abilene and West San Antonio (where Steve Earle was the other neighborhood rock star) young Doster put together a series of garage bands -- a new band for each town the family moved to. After spending his first year out of high-school in a musically depressed, pre-punk, London, Doster's diet of influences shifted away from Cream and Traffic to more eclectic, folk-influenced artists like John Martin and Nick Drake. That's when he enrolled in music theory courses at North Texas State in Denton.

A year later, he transferred to the University of Texas in Austin where he majored in music at the Hole in the Wall. Musically, Doster's original folky, solo acoustic approach eventually gave way to a cello and upright bass configuration that was more popular with the clubgoers than the club. "We gradually started getting louder and louder," says Doster, "and eventually the club posted a sign that said something like, `Please turn the fuck down.' I knew it was directed at us."

As the national buzz over Austin's new acoustic/singer-songwriter scene grew, Doster began spending as many as six months a year on the road. After returning home in 1982 to record a live album at Liberty Lunch, Doster was told by his label Capricorn that those plans had been scrapped and he was being sent instead to Muscle Shoals. "I met all my idols from all those great Muscle Shoals records," recounts Doster, "but I was getting into a more contemporary thing and they wanted me to sing songs from their catalogue that I couldn't relate to. I think they were trying to send me in the direction of Southern rock."

After another round trip ticket landed him back in Austin, Doster decided on a whim that he'd like to play with the guitarist from his favorite bands, the Pretenders. And as it wound up, Honeyman-Scott's sister-in-law lived in Austin, and Doster had already penned a song about her that she liked enough to play for Scott. In turn, Scott liked it enough to agree to a meeting with Doster after a Pretender's gig at the Austin Opera House.

"Immediately, he said he noticed it wasn't quite as American sounding as some of the stuff going on then," recalls Doster. "It was kind of in the same vein as what [the Pretenders] were doing, I guess. His take on it was, `Stephen, I should produce you, because they'll probably try to make you sound like one of those Southern California guys and you're really more about Rubber Soul than that.' He got it."

In May and June of 1982, Doster and Honeyman-Scott recorded demos and basic tracks for what was to be Doster's Monument debut. Because Honeyman-Scott had never actually produced any sessions outside of his work with the Pretenders, he hired famed Neil Young producer Eliot Mazer to co-produce the Doster album. Midway through the recording, Honeyman-Scott was called back to London to work on what would much later become the Pretender's Learning To Crawl, and two days later he was found dead of an apparent drug overdose.

After the tragedy, Doster was trying to decide what to do with the material he and Honeyman-Scott had completed. Only problem was, he couldn't seem to locate the tapes. Turns out, they'd been stolen by a disgruntled engineer Honeyman-Scott had fired just prior to leaving Austin. "At the time," remembers Doster, "Jimmy said, `Screw it, we can do better when I get back. Little did we know..."

What Doster also didn't know was that some of the Monument brass had an ongoing feud with Mazer and were reluctant to handle anything associated with him. Not that it really mattered in the end, however, since Monument folded a few months later. "I just walked away from it," Doster says. "It wouldn't have been right to put Jimmy's name on anything that we changed, and we just weren't done. The best tapes had been stolen and all we really had were some demos. It was okay, though, because my feeling was that if I couldn't do it with Jimmy it wasn't going to be much fun anyway."

Throughout 1983 and 1984, Doster found that coping with Honeyman-Scott's death wasn't much fun either, and Griffith's phone call came at just the right time. "Nanci's project was a neat thing to be asked to do," says Doster, "and I began thinking that [Nashville] might be where I'd feel more at home. I was leaning towards the acoustic thing more and more anyway, because the rock & roll world seemed like such a volatile way to live. I was broken hearted over a lot of things I'd seen, chiefly the loss of Jimmy... such a young bright talent. I think a lot of it was the stressful life he was living."

Since Doster wasn't enjoying life on the road with Griffith as much as life in Austin, he promised himself that when he returned home he'd make better attempts at finding direction. "When I went out with Nanci it was because I lost my feel for it here," explains Doster. "My heart wasn't in it, so I needed to try something different. But Nashville wasn't it either. I just wanted to do my thing, whatever that may be. I felt if I could get on my feet here, I wouldn't have to compromise what I was working on just to bend to fit into Nashville or bend to fit into L.A. And as usual, Austin became the perfect place not to bend. That's the whole story here."

Today, Doster operates what he calls a "cottage industry." So far, the product has been himself and the business strategy has been to work on at least one outside project a year. To that end, Doster played on the first Will & The Kill album, co-produced albums for local songwriters Jane Gillman and Tommy Elskes, scored a pair of independent films, and toured with Hal Ketchum. In between, Doster's managed to record a half dozen unreleased albums, get married, and father a son, Django, to whom Rosebud is dedicated.

"I always thought I'd put out a record before I had a son," says Doster. "But I wasn't walking around looking at my friends with deals and thinking, `Damn it, it should be me.' I've always felt that if it was going to be, I hope we can do it right. I'd rather do one record right than do four or five things that weren't fully realized."

And Rosebud certainly is that fully realized album. With tentative plans for remixing and touring behind it, Doster says the prospect of concentrating his time on the support of his one and only album marks the most exciting and challenging period of his career. After all, how many artists get to live out the dream of their debut record at 41 years-old?

"I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to keep doing this as long as they'll let me," concludes Doster. "I think I'm a lot better prepared if I get to make a few records in the next few years, which is really my goal. I really do feel younger and more happening now than I did at 28. But until now, I never thought about it, because I always lived in the present. And now it's like, `What am I going to be doing at 64?' If my fingers are working, I'll keep playing."

It was at the small club on the corner of 26th & Guadalupe that Doster, Griffith, and Lovett had played their share of standing-room-only shows in the late Seventies

A dozen years later, Lovett and Griffith have combined for nearly 20 releases while Doster released his debut, Rosebud, only this past March.

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