Playback: White Hats at the White Horse

The White Horse expands its empire – into nonprofits and a record label

East of Cameron good guys: (l-r) Travis Warren and Denis O'Donnell
East of Cameron good guys: (l-r) Travis Warren and Denis O'Donnell (Photo by John Anderson)

Since opening in late 2011, the White Horse has provided community essentials: homegrown roots music, inexpensive whiskey, and women in cowboy boots. This summer they diversify with a nonprofit and a record label.

The Eastside honky-tonk's tight-knit staff launches East of Cameron, a program delivering free vocational training in automotive repair, carpentry, cosmetology, and hospitality to 12- to 15-year-olds. The nonprofit, headed up by longtime White Horse employee Travis Warren, his wife Morgan Wommack, and bar owner Denis O'Donnell, will host afterschool and summer classes taught by volunteer instructors. Students will leave the program with references and résumé experience.

"It's about building confidence and teaching students job skills in stable industries that will give them a leg up whether they want to go to college or start their own business," explains O'Donnell.

"The experience itself will be therapeutic," adds Warren. "I hand-picked instructors who are relatable and will make the kids feel better about themselves."

Thus far, they've assembled a board, which includes UT educators Scott Nelson and Lynn Cowles, as well as treasurer Debra Bernstein and events coordinator Kristian Caballero, and they're raising funds for legal representation and 501(c)(3) status. East of Cameron launches in spirit this Saturday, 7pm, at the Hole in the Wall, with a fundraiser concert featuring Clyde and Clem's Whiskey Business, Leo Rondeau, Jonathan Terrell, Dad Jim, Ben Ballinger, Buried Cities, Street Lions, Carson McHone, Carpet Bagger, and a popular surprise guest.

In other White Horse news, O'Donnell has teamed up with producer Ivan Evangelista, engineer Daniel McNeill, and PR/distribution specialist Lori Barbero to found Good Horse Records, a vinyl label with national distribution that showcases Austin's roots music milieu with an old school aesthetic. Recordings are live-tracked on a vintage tape system and produced in analog all the way to the master lacquers. Record covers recall old jazz label issues with a consistent art layout and literary liner notes.

O'Donnell says he's inked deals and cut tape with introspective folkie Ben Ballinger and swamp blues romantic Mrs. Glass, both projects set for July release. He also has handshake deals with four other White Horse staples.

"I want this to be a conduit to bringing great Texas music to the rest of the world," O'Donnell states proudly. "They need to know that it's not all Red Dirt and bro-country bullshit. We'll show them the finest quality roots music isn't in Nashville, it's in Austin."

Switched On Again

Playback: White Hats at the White Horse
Photo by John Anderson

Like a drum machine moving from one programmed sequence to the next, Switched On music electronics closes its 11th Street storefront on Saturday evening and reopens at 2400 E. Cesar Chavez the next day without missing a beat. The move consolidates the repair shop and showroom of John French and Chad Allen's electronic music tool emporium for a more sophisticated operation. The latter partner estimates that no other vintage synthesizer store on Earth does repair at Switched On's level.

Five techs, ranging in expertise from electro-mechanics to amps and tubes, take on any job, like recently, when they refurbished an ultra-mega-rare mid-Seventies Wavemaker for the UT School of Music. The sales floor is equally world-class, moving such items as a $35,000 Moog 3C Modulator. The highly specialized stock, integrating new technology with the fat sounds of analog equipment, has made the store a common pilgrimage for both local electro junkies and touring musicians.

"With so much of vintage electronic sales done over eBay," considers Allen, "it's a rare opportunity for musicians in the community to be able to come in and actually touch, test, and hear a piece of equipment."

Switched On also doubles as a library, offering a sample rental program where musicians can record sounds from the sales stock and, soon, a classroom. They plan to host community classes on building and understanding synthesizers. Knob-twiddlers, key pushers, square wave surfers, oscillation obsessives, and modular madmen, welcome to the mother lode.

Christopher Denny

Playback: White Hats at the White Horse
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

With a warbling vibrato made slightly hoarse by 1,000 misspent nights, Christopher Denny possesses a voice so beautiful and fragile it could soften any heart of stone.

If you haven't heard his arresting gospel tenor, it's because the Arkansas native hasn't put out an album since 2007's Age Old Hunger, and its follow-up, If the Roses Don't Kill Us, won't arrive until the end of summer. Seven years is a lot of air for a young artist to put between albums, but capitalizing on momentum wasn't much of a concern for the 30-year-old singer-songwriter, his personal journey concentrating on survival, sobriety, and just growing up.

Denny's weathered a lot since generating an ample buzz for his debut LP: falling into the depths of addiction, getting divorced, breaking ties with his label, 2:59 Records, turning down a deal with Atlantic, getting remarried, caring for his dying father, and moving to Austin.

"Seven years is a long time," breathes Denny between puffs on a menthol. "But when you're taking stuff from people and carrying it to the pawn shop so you can score, the days and years just fly by."

Denny's demons – the bottle, pills, and ultimately needle drugs – scared him off success.

"I was terrified of what I would do with a bunch of money in my hands because I knew I had issues with drugs," he shrugs. "Then, a couple years ago, I had $20,000 coming in from Marlboro for some songs and I had to make a decision."

Denny chose life and, now two years clean, he's gotten back to his old goals, which include making his sophomore album. If the Roses Don't Kill Us, produced locally by Asleep at the Wheel drummer Dave Sanger and recorded with an A-List Austin band, outlines Denny's history and hope in personal folk, soul, and country tunes.

"Someday I want to get away from singing about the hard times," he offers. "I got enough hard times to write a million albums. I want to experience some good times so I can sing about them."

Christopher Denny hits the road with his resilient voice for his first tour in four years next week, kicking off with a solo show at Lamberts Saturday night.

Half Notes

› Experience Walker Lukens chopped up, pitch shifted, and thrown over dance beats on his new Devoted Remixed EP, for which he commissioned DJs nationwide to reimagine the tracks of his 2013 debut full-length. "It feels like someone thanking me for wrecking their car," Lukens joked. Grab a copy on Saturday night at Stubb's where the local songwriter shares a bill with Ruby Jane and Hello Wheels.

› Within the punk and metal boot-print of Timmy Hefner's Chaos in Tejas, there's traction for experimental music. That contingent gets repped at ongoing mini-Chaos fest "A Weekend in Austin" by local tape label Holodeck Records, which offers up Troller, Thousand Foot Whale Claw, and Dylan C. to Friday's Untold bill at Empire Control Room and Ssleeperhold to Sunday's Arizona-heavy North Door lineup of Jock Club and Marshstepper. Survive, whose hard-to-acquire debut LP will soon see a domestic re-release from Hefner's 540 Records and Holodeck, join When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Trans Am at Red 7 on Saturday.

Kana Harris wrote us last week to let us know that her femme-punk trio Foreign Mothers, whose Chaos in Tejas show we recommended, had actually disbanded a couple of months ago. Her new project with Gospel Truth bassist David Petro (guitar/vox) and badass Brain Attack drummer Matt Buie, called Xetas, plays Friday with Protomartyr at Holy Mountain.

› Country rock upstarts the Harvest Thieves have an inaugural release in their sweet slab of 7-inch vinyl, which finds their "Escape From the Paper City" splitting wax with Minneapolis songwriter Sam Cassidy. The group, led by former Guns of Navarone frontman Cory Reinisch, play a release show next Thursday at Holy Mountain.

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East of Cameron, Christopher Denny, Walker Lukens, Holodeck, Foreign Mothers

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