Playback: Altered States

Three Austin artists that are changing their tune

This ain't no April Fools. Every musician desires maximum artistic latitude, so it's only a moderate coincidence that, in one week, three notable Austin music-makers are debuting new creative transformations. One diversifies with an old-school approach, another dons a genre disguise, and the last finds freedom flying solo. Here are three local acts changing their tune.

Monte Warden Goes Trad Pop

Monte Warden (Photo by John Anderson)

The story of Monte Warden branching out from country to classic pop begins with an ill-advised sled run.

Last October, making the most of a snow day in Telluride, Colo., the Wagoneers frontman loaded himself into a flimsy plastic sled and bombed a hill. While sturdier vessels launched gloriously off a bump at the bottom of the slope, Warden's rinky-dink deathtrap plowed into the jump with the grace of a wrecking ball – breaking his leg in two places.

While convalescing, the platinum-selling songwriter – co-author of George Strait smash hit "Desperately" – indulged his passion for Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, and Burt Bacharach, and began penning romantic, mature, irony-free songs with fancy chord progressions. Frank Sinatra fodder, today, is a lost art.

"It doesn't make any sense that the 'Great American Songbook' closed 40 years ago, never to reopen," Warden preaches. "Rock & roll didn't close with the Beatles, country didn't close with Hank [Williams]. This genre, for some reason, became about just those standards, instead of giving new songs opportunities."

Once he could walk, Warden brought his trad-pop aspirations to fruition, assembling a local combo featuring trumpeter Erik Telford, pianist T Jarrod Bonta, Wags bassist Craig Pettigrew, and drummer Mas Palermo. Meet Warden's Dangerous Few. Thursday, April 7, the five romantics commence a weekly residency at the Continental Club Gallery, 8:45pm. No covers of "Fly Me to the Moon," no Wagoneers tunes, just new love songs.

"I like singing grownup songs. Shit man, I'm 48 years old," laughs the bandleader.

After 35 years of perfecting his act as the honky-tonk Buddy Holly, Warden knows the risk of trying out classic pop.

"I've never gone this far out on the artistic limb," he admits. "I'm way the fuck out there, and it feels good."

Royal Forest Goes Rural

Royal Forest (Photo by John Anderson)

Fans of Royal Forest know to expect the unexpected. Previously, the psych-spiked indie rock quartet has recorded in a single-prop airplane midflight, achieved natural reverb by performing in a submarine, and created an elaborate song entirely using the Vine app on an iPhone. Last week – without notice – they released a country record under the name Rural Forest.

"We've all done a lot of work as sidemen on the dance hall circuit because it actually pays – $200, per gig, per person," explains guitarist/pedal steel player/producer Justin Douglas, who learned to chicken pick in country bars. Royal Forest thus gained appreciation for genre classics and the experimental recording techniques of early country records, which Douglas says has consistently underpinned the group's studio work.

Like bananas and bacon, indie rock and honky-tonk pair together better than you might imagine – at least the way Royal Forest spins it on their collection of classic country covers including Conway Twitty's barroom classic "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" and Gram Parsons' stony "Blue Eyes." Douglas' colorful pedal steel picking earns the project instant musical credibility (see their Lloyd Green cover), while singer Cody Ground eschews the manly thrust of country vocals in favor of his earnest, geeky delivery. The result births a groundbreaking new genre: sweater country.

"Most country records suck, and most Americana records around here are boring," shrugs Douglas, who debuts the new project live at Sidewinder on Friday. "We went in with the premise of making a country record as an indie band and being cocky about it, like, 'Yeah, we don't do this music, but our record's gonna be better than yours!'"

Evan Charles Goes Solo


Rock & roll epitomizes freedom – in sound and state of mind – but after a decade conjuring crunch and punch, Evan Charles now seeks independence though an acoustic guitar. The 27-year-old Texan, who blossomed with teen rockers the Daze then made the scene fronting garage heavies the Sweet Nuthin', blew the doors off the Austin Music Awards two weeks ago, summoning his inner Jagger to lead the Happen-Ins through Rolling Stones' spark plug "Rip This Joint." Unbeknown to the audience, his two-year term in the Haps had already passed.

"I didn't build that house, I just lived in it," allows Charles.

With no band commitments, the time's currently right for Charles to take his first solo sojourn. On Saturday, he issues his debut as Altamesa, The Long Ride Home, with a release show at Lamberts. The 10-track effort packs existential introspection and heartbreak into cool Americana, fingerpicked folk, and piano ballads in a way that recalls Ryan Adams with hints of Neil Young. The title track showcases Charles' heavy pen:

"On the long ride home, take me to where I can no longer roam/ Not down the painted streets where they've hidden love inside the greed/ Not where my heart would fly only for my soul to die/ But where desire ends, where the pain of a lifetime mends."

When asked where the proverbial "Long Ride Home" is returning from, Charles offers a response matching the album's contemplative, melancholy tone.

"Whatever idea you can strive for throughout life and never get to."

Half Notes

John Winsor 1982-2016: Devastating sadness swept through Austin's music community Saturday after John Winsor took his own life. The immensely talented bassist/drummer/guitarist had played with a multitude of bands including Sounds del Mar, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Carry Illinois, the Blackwells, and Rosie & the Ramblers. A ubiquitous presence on the scene, Winsor was also a sound engineer at Mohawk since 2009. The morning of his death, the 33-year-old Winsor posted the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" on Facebook. He was right.

Riverboat Gamblers singer Mike Wiebe, known for high-flying onstage theatrics, plunged backwards from Jackalope's bar into an inattentive audience on March 18. He was hospitalized with several broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Chipper Jones changed their name to A/B – pronounced "A to B." The popular guitar-n-drums loop duo, who previously shared a name with the Atlanta Braves' legendary third baseman, wrote to fans: "We have always felt eager to take on a name more uniquely our own, and one more representative of our music."

Eternal Jam is only a slight overstatement for an event where rotating musicians improvise for 24 hours straight, beginning Saturday, 5pm, a the Salvage Vanguard Theater. Among the 40 artists participating: Foot Patrol, Human Circuit, and Earth Bunny. Dare you to watch the whole thing.

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Monte Warden, Rural Forest, Evan Charles, Wagoneers, Royal Forest, Justin Douglas, Happen-Ins, Altamesa, John Winsor, Chipper Jones, Riverboat Gamblers, Mike Wiebe

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