Elephants and Pygmies
Throwing Darts With Roger Wallace
Tucked back in a quiet neighborhood on Wilson Street in South Austin is an apartment complex known to local musicians by its nickname: "Hillbilly Heights." Cheap and comfortable, with a row of cottages nearby and within easy reach of South Congress and South First, the dwelling at one time boasted among its tenants Austin country/roots talent such as Teri Joyce (who gave the place its unofficial moniker), Susanna Van Tassel, Karen Poston, the Damnations, and Sue Foley. On any given evening, denizens of the complex would walk back and forth to gigs and practices toting guitars and equipment, playing together, drinking beer, eating barbecue, and just generally hanging out. Into this unusually fertile environment came Roger Wallace, aspiring honky-tonker. Flip the calendar forward several years, to September 1999, and Wallace now resides in a different complex, though one imagines his current, sparsely furnished abode probably resembles the last. Sitting on the couch is a National hollowbody guitar; nearby is a battered Fender amp. There's also a CD jambox with several towering stacks of discs, but that's about it. Wallace looks somewhat younger than his 28 years, and the singer's lanky build makes him seem a bit taller than he really is. We sit and drink Cokes as two dogs parade in and out of the room. His words come easily and his mannerisms are unpretentious and forthright. His voice and songwriting, though, are those of someone who's been around the block more than once in a fairly short time.
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Wallace's speaking voice betrays a slight trace of his mountainous home state. Knoxville, a city of approximately 200,000, is nestled in a gorgeous part of the Smokies, an old mid-South city with a rich history. Here, in Austin, we don't think about places like Knoxville much, but according to Wallace, there's more going on there than one might think.
"There's a cool part of town there called the Old City," says Wallace. "Six or seven clubs, live music going on all the time -- a jazz school. It's a cool place to go. There's a lot of history, lots of historic buildings and such, excellent players, but nobody to give a shit. Nashville could care less about Knoxville, or anything else for that matter."
Raised on the traditions of country and bluegrass that prevail in the area, Wallace cut his teeth playing in country, rockabilly, and blues bands starting at the age of l7. Eventually, he found the scope of Knoxville to be somewhat confining, so when friend and fellow native Preston Rumbaugh migrated to Austin a few years back and played with Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson, among others, Wallace followed suit. Moving into "Hillbilly Heights" in 1994, Wallace began playing gigs in town and soon rose to the level of most local newcomers: relative obscurity. Last year, Donnie Ayers, president of one local indie, Stockade Records, discovered Wallace and tipped off the president of another small local label, Dave Sanger of Lazy SOB Records.
"The first time I hooked up with Donnie, I was sitting in on a gig with Susanna Van Tassel," recalls Wallace. "It was at the Chaparral and we were there just to watch a gig and I did a couple of songs and somebody introduced us."
Ayers had enough confidence in the young honky-tonker that he bankrolled studio time for Wallace himself. A batch of covers and original compositions was recorded at Top Hat Studios and Jim Stringer's Music Room, with Wallace and Sanger pulling together a Who's Who of local C&W talent for the sessions, including Hot Club of Cowtown's Elena Fremmerman on fiddle, Jim Stringer on guitar, Marty Muse on pedal steel, and Lisa Pankratz on drums. The resulting debut, Hillbilly Heights, released on Texas Round-up Records, is an honest country effort sporting seamless playing, unfussy production, and eight of Wallace's songs standing tall next to tunes by Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Reed, and Wynn Stewart. His songwriting is a mixture of humor and world-weary honky-tonk realities, with a voice that calls to mind Merle, George, Faron, and Hank, without sounding distinctly like any of them.
Since it hit shelves earlier this summer, Hillbilly Heights has been doing well for a small label release, benefiting from the distribution network setup by Texas Round-up Records, an Austin indie label collective comprised of Sanger's Lazy SOB label, Chris Wall's Cold Spring Records, and Matt Eskey's Freedom Records. The album received recognition in England, Holland, and assorted Scandinavian locales, and even with the CD on its third pressing, the picture in the U.S. is somewhat more nebulous.
"I don't really know about actual store sales," acknowledges Wallace. "I know that the distributor sales look good, but the stores keep buying them, so people keep buying them, and they're getting rid of them."
Press reaction to the CD has been favorable -- for the most part.
"There was one bad review, and goddammit, Sanger wouldn't show it to me!" complains the singer. "He said, "No, you don't wanna see it, otherwise you'll start believing that crap!'
"They said they expected it to show up on the Americana charts in the next month or so. The label wasn't gonna hire a radio guy, but then it started doing well, and they did hire a radio guy, but I don't know. I guess we'll see in the next couple of weeks or months."
One of the striking things about Wallace is his lack of affectation and pretense. On the one hand, there are cliquish rockabilly hipsters with not a lubricated hair out of place and carefully groomed obsessions with clothes, cars, and guitars, keepers of the flame yearning for a perpetual 1957 frame of mind. On the other, there are kickers with big mustaches, neckwarmer haircuts, eye-wrenching Western shirts, and tight Wranglers blasting Tim McGraw out of their truck radios and swilling back longnecks. Wallace eschews both camps for the purity of what he's doing himself.
"What I like is that I've seen evidence that Nashville is destroying itself," posits Wallace. "Current Nashville country is eating itself alive. A bunch of us little pygmies have been throwing darts at this giant elephant for 10 years, and finally the wretched fuckin' beast is gonna fall. It's finally filtering down to mainstream America: "Hey, this does suck! All this crap we've been listening to!'"
"[In Nashville], some guy says, "I wanna be a country singer,' he hooks up with the right people, and they make him a star. He may not be hard enough to be a rock singer, so they put a cowboy hat on him and tell him, "Here, sing this song, sing that song,' and they don't really care about making records past that. They get a couple of tunes and they're hopefully set for life, but then it's, "Oh shit, we weren't planning on making another record!'"
That attitude may not endear an artist to the Country Machine, but it also means they won't get caught up by it, or have all the life sucked out of their music by it, either. And that doesn't just apply to the recorded medium; Austin is a notoriously difficult town for trying to carve out a living from playing, and with a mind-boggling number of bands in town, shares of the pie get slimmer and slimmer for everyone.
"You definitely can't stay in town," says Wallace, who has yet to tour. "You'd have to be playing seven nights a week, and you can forget it if you want to have a wife, kid, or a dog. Not if you want to have a life, other than living by yourself in a little cubicle.
"I don't know about being a road warrior like Dale [Watson], living out of a van, but that's what this music is about anyway. It's all about playing live, that's the way this music sells."
It's a late summer night and a long way from Knoxville. Wallace talks about George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Sr., Buck Owens, all the honky-tonk heroes that every self-respecting country fan and player holds dear. It's nice to hear someone who can assimilate those sort of influences without aping them, pick up where the forebears left off, and hammer out something new. After all, it all had to start somewhere, but the honky-tonk that Roger Wallace practices is strictly his own.