The Full Monte
Up on the seventh floor, amid tight security, the elevator doors opened and out stepped a teenage boy holding a guitar case, his ever-watchful mother on one side and Ely's manager Michael Brovsky on the other. As if enveloped by a golden aura, Monte Warden emerged, Boy-Scout handsome with a fresh-faced smile and a quick "Yes, ma'm" for his mother whispering in his ear. Had a heavenly chorus of hosannas gone up just then, it would not have been surprising. If this had been a silent film, the subtitles would have read, "I am going to be a star."
Monte Warden's future was that plain to see.
From the vantage of his back porch, Monte Warden looks out over a plain wooden fence to an open field and farmhouse on this, a windy, partly cloudy Sunday. The wintry gray-brown of the field offers desolate comfort to the eye, but it is ample evidence of hardscrabble Texas survival. It's the kind of view appropriate to an up-and-coming country music star before, say, moving up to a West End mansion with Greek columns in Nashville.
Scattered about Warden's yard are the more obvious and mundane aspects of suburban and off-the-road living: a bat, toy trucks, toy guitar and case, plastic swimming pool shaped like a turtle, barbecue grill, and an aging family dog named Peanut. The sliding glass doors whoosh open and a solemn-faced towhead appears. This is Sam Houston Warden, six. Behind him is his older brother, Carson Van Zandt Warden, nine.
"Can we play ball?"
"We can in a little while."
Warden excuses himself to help Sam while Van crawls into a nearby chair to keep his father's guest company. The youngster's smiling face bears the classic features of Down's Syndrome, but his personality is undaunted by anything more than the usual childhood stumbling blocks. Sam returns with his father, and assumes the pilot's seat in a kid-size wooden airplane in the grass as Monte sits by Van.
If this sounds as idyllic as a country song, it is. The sun shines brightly on 31-year-old Monte Warden, and it seems like it always has. It hasn't. When the local singer's marriage to his teenage sweetheart Bonnie fell apart two years ago, it went dizzyingly fast. Warden was so devastated, he found himself playing before a Continental Club crowd on his birthday and not wanting to be there. For someone who had been performing publicly over half his life, it was "an epiphany."
"I'm not glad [the breakup] happened, because I miss my children every day," says Warden, "but the irony is that divorce got me on a major label. And I've always written about what I've known, and what I was living."
A seventh-generation Texan who has lived in Austin since he was six months old, Warden comes from a comfortable background. He grew up at a spacious Enfield address and attended Austin High School. Yet while most young men his age were worried about getting dates or making the team, Warden was busy booking gigs and picking up an 1983 Austin Music Award for "Best New Band" with Whoa, Trigger!
A three-piece rockabilly outfit, Whoa, Trigger! was no better or worse than any other well-coiffed local band of its kind in the early Eighties -- except for the fact that the group's lead guitarist/singer/songwriter was playing in clubs he wasn't old enough to patronize. He did manage to squeeze a video out of "Short Order Fantasy" in those early days of MTV, but Whoa, Trigger! was simply a proving ground for what was to come.
"I was 14 when I started playing open mikes at emmajoe's, and 15 when Whoa, Trigger! got together. I was 17 when it ended and 18 when I got married. I listen to the tapes, and that's not a very good musical band. But I remember the shows, and people adored it. What Whoa, Trigger! did was make me realize I could write a pretty good song, and I wanted to write good songs consistently."
That realization could well have come in the form of a little ditty Warden wrote called "Hook, Line and Sinker." With the song, he demonstrated a sophisticated talent for songwriting that was well-suited to the rock-star charisma he exuded onstage. For a 15-year-old, it was pretty heady stuff, but Warden maintained an unusually mature attitude toward temptation and excess.
"I learned very early on that the women in the clubs didn't want to sleep with me, they wanted to sleep with the cool skinny guy who stood in the middle. But that person doesn't exist. Hell, I wish I were as cool as that guy onstage, but that's not who I am. That's the entertainer part of me.
"Not only was I faithful because I was with Bonnie, I was faithful because I realized the person at home loved me. If I had not been standing in the middle, people on the road would not have had anything to do with me. And I figured out after Whoa, Trigger! broke up that you're not nearly as attractive when there's nothing going on."
"In regards to drugs, I've been hanging out in clubs since I was 14 and have seen the downside of it. I also came up in a time when the focus was on not doing them. They never appealed to me, I never wanted to do any of that stuff. Not doing drugs never felt like a sacrifice. And I was faithful because I wanted to be. I had promised."
Warden's tone is sincere and affirmative.
"Dad? Can I have a drink?"
"Can you use your big words to ask me that?"
"May I have a drink, please?"
"Now who can argue with that?" beams Warden. "Excuse me while I help Sam."
There's no getting around the fact that Monte Warden is a good Texan. At seven, he could recite from memory Col. Travis' speech at the surrender of the Alamo and has always taken great pride in his family's tenure in Texas history.
"I remember being at the San Jacinto monument when I was a little older than Sam, maybe seven or eight, and I just wanted to go, the way kids do. My dad took my finger and ran it across my great-great-great-great-grandfather's name, William Burditt. It was in Lamar's cavalry.
"I hadn't thought about that for years. About a year and half ago, I was at the monument with Sam. I didn't do the finger, but I did point and show him the name. When I did, it hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I called my dad and said, 'I did what you did. I see why you did it.' It's that feeling."
"I became Baptist on my own," says Warden. "I know my Bible well -- better'n some, not as well as others. I go for more the friendlier churches, rather than the hellfire and brimstone. The craziest thing was when I heard 'Shout' in church. My church. I was shocked.
"'You know he makes me wanna shout!'" sings Warden. "I mean, early rock & roll is basically gospel music set to secular lyrics. Certainly the first wave of rock & roll -- Little Richard, Presley. Especially Presley. I think that's what he sang best. His only two Grammys were for gospel singing.
"Presley was a snapshot of everything. He was the Fifties to the 10th power and he was also, unfortunately, the Seventies to the 10th power. It's like Dave Marsh said about the 'Suspicious Minds' sessions: 'He flexed muscles he forgot he had.' Hell, he recorded 'Moody Blue' and 'Way Down' in '76.
"Now, there's a lot of crap there. No amount of revision is going to make Roustabout a good soundtrack. The movie stuff was terrible. Except Viva Las Vegas -- great movie. It was campy on purpose; all the songs are great. The tension and sexual energy coming from Presley and Ann-Margret drips off the screen. But out of the what? Twenty-nine pictures -- 33 counting the performance pictures -- there's four that are good. Five or six are even watchable, but the rest are just crap, bless his heart."
"What are ya doin', Sammy?"
"I wanna play football."
"We'll play football later, OK? Would you like to play a game on the computer?"
"Alright, then. I sure like your good manners."
Van joins in.
"Hey, Van. How are ya, bud?"
Van wanders over to the swings with Sam and climbs aboard.
The next verse of Monte Warden's life tells of a young man stepping up to the challenge of a musician's lot.
"I was 20 when the Wagoneers started up. We were signed to A&M seven months after our first show at Steamboat. In 1988, there were few young people playing and writing country. This is pre-Garth Brooks, but when Dwight came along, every label had to have one. We were from Austin, we were a real band, and we had good, original songs. It started out as a band in my living room, and the next thing we know, we're on a six-month tour with Emmylou Harris or Willie Nelson or the Judds or k.d.lang -- remember what was going on in country then. Wherever we went, we were the cool thing to do that evening, in whatever town we were in."
"I felt I was writing all the songs and singing all the songs and arranging all the songs, and I resented the guys for it and felt underappreciated. The guys began to resent me, because I was getting the attention for writing all the songs and singing all the songs and arranging all the songs. But I am extremely proud of Stout and High. I will be able to listen to that album my whole life. The Wagoneers' second record, Good Fortune, the songs are better than Stout and High, but I can't listen to that record. It's not a good record. Everything right with an A&R department happened with Stout and High, but for the second album, the A&R department didn't know country music from a hole in the ground, and they were telling us how to make our record. After that, I said that I would never again release a record I wasn't completely proud of.
"The Wagoneers broke up in 1991. In hindsight, we broke up at the height of our popularity -- better two years too soon than five minutes too late. Van had been born in 1989 and my whole world had been turned upside down. Bonnie took [the Down's Syndrome] real hard -- we all did. But I got to focus my energy on her, which was a good defense mechanism for me, because I had a purpose. My heart wasn't in the band and no one else's was either. So we called it a day."
"About 1992, I got my first Patty Loveless cut, 'If You Don't Want Me.' And that was great, not just financially, but because someone other than my friends were cutting my songs. There wasn't any act more established, more Music Row, more Nashville than Patty Loveless. It wasn't a friend of a friend of a friend thing -- she cut my song because she dug it."
"All I did was write songs, and work real hard at getting better to write songs. I had written a bunch of good songs, a few really good songs, but I wanted to write great songs. And the only way to do that is to write. I don't think you can 'become' a real songwriter. You're born with it or not. I think you can learn the craft of songwriting, and that was the part I didn't know. I had the raw ability to put songs together, but I didn't really understand the craft of it. That's what I learned in the three years between the Wags and the Watermelon record."
"Dad, something broke," says Sam, inspecting the swingset.
"I know, son. We'll fix it soon."
What is the craft of songwriting? "To say exactly what I want to say, how I want to say it, and yet have the situations in the song be general enough for everyone to relate to. That sounds simple, but it's difficult. Especially since my songwriting is so direct, devoid of any irony -- you know exactly what the song is about. That directness comes from the influences: the Hollies, Everlys, early Lennon/McCartney, Roy Orbison. I've admired but never been attracted to the more ironic end of songwriting."
"I've always liked commercial music, so what comes out of Nashville appeals to me. Not everything, of course; most of what's on the charts is bad. I don't dig everything I hear, but the stuff that I do dig, I dig the hell out of. When I was going through my divorce, one of the songs that gave me solace was Faith Hill's 'It Matters to Me.' She's as straight-up-the-gut Nashville as you get.
"Now, I'm not a big admirer of hers. I don't own any of her records except that one. I don't view her as an 'important act,' but that song sure helped me. I just remember when it came on the radio, how I'd ask my ex certain questions after she'd left and she'd say, 'What does it matter?' I thought, well, it matters to me.
"And I haven't been made to do anything in Nashville. I never had to move to Nashville. Not that I wouldn't have, but I never had to. I certainly never wanted to. I've lived in Austin since I was six months old. I got my publishing deal living here. I got my record deal living here. I've been asked to do certain things, but I've said no. I could have had a major label debut in '92 if I'd wanted to starch my shirt and put on a hat, but that wasn't something I was gonna do.
"What I learned with the Wagoneers is, if the record's successful, everybody's successful. If the record flops, it's your record. It's like JFK said at the Bay of Pigs: 'Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.'"
More than a simple exercise, songwriting was Monte Warden's built-in remedy for a broken heart. Once his marriage began to unravel, the threads of it were so torn and frayed, he found that his primary way of expressing happiness -- songwriting -- was also his best instrument for stitching up his wounds. It was a talent Warden would rather not have had to exercise, but once Pandora's box was open, there was no closing it.
"I was lying on the couch watching TV and Bonnie came and sat by the couch and said, 'I think we need some time apart.' Which completely shocked me. And I asked why and she said, 'Because I'm not sure I love you anymore.' That was the beginning of my whole world turning upside down.
"So I said, 'Let's go into this saying divorce isn't an option.' And Bonnie looked at me and said, 'But divorce is an option.' And that's when I knew my marriage was over. I didn't know the reasons why or anything, but the lessons I learned are that you can't make somebody love you, and the only end of a bargain you can hold up is your own.
"Then she moved out. Then I filed for divorce. Then I saw my kids just half of the week. Then I began dating and I hadn't dated since I was 17 years old. Then the divorce happened. Then she moved to Lubbock and I get to see the kids every other weekend.
"And Bruce [Robison] and Kelly [Willis] were so wonderful to me when Bonnie left. The nature of their relationship is that they have been through a lot and made it work. They've been on both sides of the fence as far as the darker aspect of relationships, so I could go over to the little studio in back of their house and sit down and visit with them. I could talk to them or not talk to them. They could leave me alone or I'd visit. They didn't try to tell me everything happens for a reason or you've got to get back on your feet. They just let it be bad. And when something bad happens, you just gotta let it be bad. They let it be bad.
"There are certain aspects of my life that are unfortunate -- the circumstances of my divorce, a handicapped child -- but I have played music exclusively for a living since I was 18 years old, and have been able to provide for my family. That is a wonderful thing to be able to say. I hope my best days are in front of me. And I'm glad I have my church and my faith and my friends."
Van perks up at the talk of church as he spins the wheels of a toy truck.
"Who do you like at church?" asks Warden.
Van rattles off a string of names as Warden nods. "They're nice, aren't they?"
"They're sweet," agrees Van in his own sweet voice and goes back to playing with the truck.
"I missed playing live," says Warden of the period before the release of his third album, Here I Am on Watermelon Records. "I missed the camaraderie of the boys -- I missed the road. I love the road. I guess it's a grind, but so is loading boxes in a warehouse. Kelly wasn't on the road, so Mas [Palermo] and I were writing a whole bunch of songs together. I certainly wanted that record to be on a Nashville major, but country music at that time wasn't making my kind of music. Or, I should say, I wasn't making their kind of music. Being on an indie, though, gave me the autonomy to make exactly the record I wanted to make."
Here I Am also provided Warden with his first local hit, "Just to Hear Your Voice," which Toni Price also recorded. Eleven years after picking up an award for "Best New Band," he picked up "Songwriter" and "Song of the Year" in two consecutive years at the Austin Music Awards for a song that is Warden at his most romantic. It's also a song he wanted to get right, so he re-recorded it for his major label bow, A Stranger to Me Now. Due in March on Nashville stalwart Asylum Records, Warden's debut owes its life in part to label president Evelyn Shriver, who was Warden's manager and one-time publicist for the Wagoneers before she made the local country star her first signing for Asylum.
"I wrote 'Just to Hear Your Voice' about Kelly and Mas, from the outside looking in. After my divorce, I was on the inside. I certainly knew what was going on. When I cut it this time, I wasn't singing about someone else, I was singing about me.
"I've heard the song at many an open mike night, a chick copping Toni's version of it, and many a roots-rock band playing it. The version on this record, I actually cop some phrasing from Toni. I adore her version. When I cut it for Austin City Limits, Riley Osborn played organ and he played such an amazing musical part that wasn't on the Watermelon record that this time I brought in a string section and had them cop Riley's part. I sang them my part and they came in and kicked my idea's ass. So, I put the song on this record and it's one thing to have written a song, but it's another to have lived it. But I've always written about what I've known, and what I was living."
The blessings in Warden's professional and personal life are many, but his collaborations have been particularly successful. In a savvy business move, he bought back not only his publishing, but that of Willis' ex-husband Mas Palermo from Carlyne Majer. His own catalog includes the Wagoneers and Patty Loveless songs, and continues to grow with the music from A Stranger to Me Now. An eye towards the future is what makes Warden pragmatic, and he regards the ownership of his songs as his children's future.
"Warner-Chappell offered to buy my catalog, but keep in mind selling something like that is taking money away from Van and Sammy. Van is a lifelong commitment. He's not going to turn 18 and get an apartment somewhere. He will always have to be cared for. I don't view that as a burden -- I have no room for that. I have spent time feeling sorry for myself, but never in regards to my son. He's very healthy. High functioning.
"Becoming a writer for Warner-Chappell is good because it's the biggest publishing company in the world, and it's bad because it's the biggest publishing company in the world. You get lost in the shuffle easily if you don't have a cheerleader there. I had the luxury of getting to write with all these great Nashville songwriters before I had my record deal, so when the deal came through, I had all my songs ready to go, and not a year-long process of picking songs."
"And I am looking forward to getting onstage and showing these songs to everybody. Wanna know what I've been up to? Here's what I've been up to. I don't know how to write about anything else. No one can say, 'We've been listening to these songs for three years at the Continental.' I think 'Someday' is a good first single. A good, commercial, catchy, solid country song."
"I like 'It's Only Love,'" offers Van.
"You like that one?" Warden nods. "What else do you like?"
"'The Love You Promised Me,'" smiles Van happily, his pale brown hair shining in the cloud-diffused sun.
"Good. What else?"
"'A Stranger to Me Now'."
"You named a good bunch there, Van. You like 'For You'?"
"Yeah. It's a good song," Van opines. "Bruce! I like the way he plays the guitar. He's great."
"Yeah," agrees Warden.
"Aunt Kelly plays guitar too."
"Yes, she does."
In the last verse of a country song, life is either looking great or it's shot to hell. For Monte Warden, the broken marriage is nearly two years past and a former Nashville publicist named Brandi Thomas, who now manages Arlyn Studios, shares his life today. He sees his sons as often as he can. His new album is due in time for South by Southwest, but "Someday" is already climbing Billboard and Gavin charts. The release will bring the usual round of touring, and give Warden a chance to get back on the road and perform with ex-Wagoneers Tom Lewis and Brad Fordham plus guitarist Eddie Perez and occasionally fiddler Amy Ferris.
"Love is the fence that surrounds the heart, holds in the light, keeps out the dark," goes the gentle reassurance of "Another Try." It's a simple message that belies the complexity of love, but Monte Warden should know. After all, he wrote the song.