Sentimental Family Band Isn’t Hung Up on the High Times

The softie ex-art-rockers arrive at Austin’s honky-tonk revival

l-r: Matthew Shepherd, Kyle Albrecht, and Camille Lewis outside the semi-demolished Frank Erwin Center (Photo by Elena Reynolds (@elenarey) / Design by Zeke Barbaro)

This is what Sagebrush was made for. The South Congress honky-tonk is full to the brim. Dancers swirl on the packed dance floor and looky-loos line the border all around, watching the movement as much as the band. I recognize my old boss from an office job, then a TikTok influencer; they’re all twirling.

Between the red curtains, Sentimental Family Band has almost wrapped their first-ever album, Sweethearts Only, at their first-ever album release show.

“Well, we crunched the numbers and everybody here is a sweetheart,” says singer Camille Lewis, who makes up the group’s core trio with her husband/bassist Kyle Albrecht and drummer Matthew Shepherd. “This is the last song from that, then it’s time for some real country music.”

With her addictive hard stare, Lewis kicks off the first non-original, “Country Baptizing,” with only her vocals and acoustic guitar. It’s just like Emmylou Harris on the 1973 live version with Gram Parsons. When the band comes in, if the floor was spinning before, it’s expert-level now, hyperspeed.

Onstage, “How ’bout you Simon?” points to Simon Page on swoony pedal steel guitar, J.J. Swinn rips between piano and organ, and “Give it to ’em Jack” is for the group’s youngest, Jack Montesinos of the Point, on lead guitar. Jenny and the Corn Ponies’ Jenn Miori Hodges, who Lewis says was one of the first to welcome the scene newcomers back around 2019, joins on vocals for “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” After falling for the sounds of midcentury country, the trio used the metric of “sweethearts only” to gather their regular cast.

“We wanted great players, but we wanted big sweetie pies too, you know?” says Lewis on a phone call that morning. “We’re not like rockers or heavy partiers or anything, so we wanted to find people who are sweet and sensitive and could mesh well with the type of country music we were making.”

“I mean, don’t forget, we’re here to kick ass and hold hands,” adds Shepherd.

In a city renowned for roots rocking, this is soft, oldies, genuinely sentimental stuff. I’d been thinking about their catchy, Bakersfield-sounding originals as some potential bridge between your grandparents’ Fifties favorites and modern pedal-steel-loving pop acts like Faye Webster, as both encapsulate loneliness so well. But looking out on the Sagebrush scene, the city audience is already here. The group of George Jones-loving ex-art-rockers have arrived just in time for Austin’s current honky-tonk revival.

Photo by Elena Reynolds (@elenarey)

Broken-Heart Dogs

It’s Thursday night over at Sam’s Town Point, the most off-the-beaten-path contender among Austin’s hip country joints. Twosomes shuffle semi-awkwardly on the small wooden floor (slow, slow, quick, quick) in beginner two-step lessons, where any gender is allowed to lead and a two-year-old Waxahatchee song plays. Though still a little intimidating, the since-1981 honky-tonk isn’t just for South Austin traditionalists.

Even in a place where time is meant to stand still, between wood-paneled walls and ancient armchairs, nothing ever stays the same. Five years after the Chronicle first featured “Austin’s Real-Life Roadhouse,” the dive has undoubtedly increased in popularity, weathered the recent passing of founding matriarch Penny Grossman, and posted a sign on the door warning that pups can no longer wander inside the bar.

Co-owner Ramsay Midwood, a man who comes up again and again in the tales of Austin country bands, stops by an interview being conducted on his patio. He calls the lot’s newest resident, a mopey black-and-white puppy named Marfa, “a broken-heart dog.” The puppy’s heart is fine – it’s the broken-up couple who dropped it off he’s referring to.

Midwood keeps the calendar churning with a slow rotation of residency spots, which has included Sentimental Family Band for the past few years. As to how they landed the Thursday slot, years after plans to start a country-classics-covering wedding band evolved into backyard gigs? “Just by hanging around, like the dogs,” says Shepherd, wearing a Baja hoodie and overalls.

“It started like that, and our biggest vision of grandeur was like, 'Man, what if we could do a weekly thing at Sam’s?’” says Albrecht. “Now that we’ve done that for a few years, it’s like, 'Aww, I don’t want to have any other goals.’ I’m trying to find some.”

“That’s gonna be the big pull quote: I don’t want to have any other goals,” says Lewis, who keeps getting interrupted by friends walking up and down the ramp behind her head. Imitating writing on a notepad, she says they studied the tempos of Sam’s residents, especially the quieter ones, in the band’s early days. They’re not the types to bark orders, or wear cowboy hats.

“The dancers are conducting themselves,” says Albrecht. “We’re, at best, a soundtrack to other people having a good night.”

“That’s the goal: Cater to the dancers,” agrees Shepherd. “And be as little perceived as possible,” adds Albrecht, which Lewis expands on with advice once received from a seasoned player.

“They said, 'I think this music feels really useful.’ You don’t need everyone to stop what they’re doing and listen to you. They can engage, or it can be something in the background. I think that’s really cool.”

That subtle conduction comes into play during their Thursday residency set, proving ground for the two-step students. Eight songs in, Lewis speaks for the first time, before breezy album cut “Count Your Luck.” “Here’s the one waltz we’re gonna do, for the intermediate advanced dancers, or simply the brave.”

I’d planned to avoid describing Lewis as a “tough cookie” – for being short, blondish, and steely-eyed – until another Sam’s fan, unprompted, called her the same thing. Albrecht, who she’s been with for almost 10 years, lovingly calls her “so salty” in one conversation. The no-frills exterior only adds cool to Lewis’ Loretta Lynn-level voice, especially on songs about broken hearts.

That’s what drew in piano player Swinn, who heard the band in a clip posted by the Broken Spoke in 2022, a week after he moved down from Canada. “Camille’s voice – I heard that and was like, 'I gotta go see that band,’” he says. “They reminded me a bit of the Band when I first saw them – everyone kind of had their own unique character ... old-school country with more rootsy seeds, Americana, swampy, a bit cosmic country too. But controlled.” (A full Sam’s convert himself, Swinn now runs sound and plays Tuesdays with his band, the Swindlers.)

A residency in the front dining room at the Spoke hosted the band’s first country creations, never announced as such, in the set list mix of Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies not-quite-standards.

“Having the gall to throw originals in amongst some of our favorite songs that have ever existed on Earth, that was when it shifted from something recreational to substantial,” says Albrecht.

“We’d never say anything about it,” says Shepherd. “Like, 'Okay, they swallowed that pill.’”

“Nobody spit out their chicken-fried steak,” says Lewis.

Photo by Elena Reynolds (@elenarey)

Ain’t Got No Armadillo

In high school, Lewis and Albrecht’s friend Avalon Hancock, granddaughter of original cosmic cowboy Tommy X Hancock, gave them a CD.

Hancock and the Supernatural Family Band’s 1975 At the Little Bear performance introduced the duo, who had been making music together since meeting as freshmen at Westlake High, to the world of country. The mix of synthesizers, blues, and Western swing won them over, and inspired their band name years later. Austin music buff Albrecht, who works days in grant management at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, recommends I watch the 2012 documentary Tommy Hancock: West Texas Muse.

For her part, Lewis grew up going to country and bluegrass shows with her parents, including the Hancock family women as the Texana Dames at Güero’s. As for the currently-being-disassembled Frank Erwin Center – the skeletal frame of which has provided an ominous backdrop to Austinites’ March commutes – she remembers falling asleep as a third-grader at the Chicks, and later being particularly excited to see Fleetwood Mac after Christine McVie rejoined. Albrecht chimes in with Black Sabbath.

“I mean, I did high school graduation, saw a circus and monster trucks there,” says Lewis. “It’s just a place you drive by and every day, it’s there. It’s part of the skyline that you take for granted and don’t think about until it starts to get torn down.”

The topic comes up when I ask about a lyric from mellow album closer “Hung Up on the High Times,” which the artist Taylor Rushing placed on the release show poster. A mustachioed groover guy and a smoking cactus sing together, “ain’t got no Armadillo, ain’t got no Skyline Club,” referencing shuttered Austin music halls of yesteryear. The Albrecht-led vocals continue, “All those places were gone when I came up.”

Lewis and Albrecht, both 29, intend the nostalgic song as pushback to the old “you missed out on the real Austin” mentality.

“Being musicians, we’re always hearing that. We’re always trying to pull from that history and inspiration, but also keep looking forward and find our community in places like Sam’s Town Point or Sagebrush or the White Horse – which feel like what we have now, instead of places like the Armadillo [World Headquarters],” says Lewis. “It’s encouraging to see so many young people finding this music and getting into two-step and keeping that culture alive.”

“I’ve been guilty of every single one of those conversations about Austin changing for the worse, but I don’t ever want to have them again,” adds Albrecht. “There’s a way to be proud that you’re from Austin, and not let it jade you as you watch the city change.”

“The bottom line is, it’s really easy to lament bygone eras that are enshrined in local legend,” says Shepherd. “But we have a special time in Austin right now too. I mean, who knows how people will be talking about this era in 10 years?”

Over a decade older than his bandmates, 41-year-old Austin transplant Shepherd is in it for the long haul. He’s currently studying agriculture at Texas State and expanding the nonprofit microfarm he runs with his wife, the Training Kitchen, which provides meals to food banks. They have two daughters and, like Lewis and Albrecht, live in South Austin near Sam’s.

Another gardener by day, Lewis is a horticulturist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I ask if her job inspired the central metaphor of album standout “Hot House Flower,” about a temperamental somebody “wilting every hour.” She says the title is actually an insult lobbed by Uncle Junior on The Sopranos: “He’s a goddamn hothouse flower!”

Still, quite a few Sweethearts Only selects swirl around themes of misty-eyed lonesomeness, under titles like “Talking to Strangers” and “Never Love Again.” Lewis points to the record’s Sixties Nashville country inspiration, as well as their entrance to the local scene.

“There are psychological studies with combinations of certain notes and chord progressions, basically just trying to say, like, the sad songs hurt so good,” says Lewis. “And a lot of lyrics talk about social anxiety or alienation, because a lot of the songs are influenced by us hanging out and playing all these honky-tonks. Everybody has that experience of going out and sometimes feeling like you’re surrounded by friends, and sometimes feeling like you’re a stranger to everybody.”

“These are the pressures that sort of inspire people to join together and form these communities,” says Shepherd. “We’re all trying to protect ourselves from these feelings of loneliness.”

Sentimental Family Band at Sagebrush (Photo by Isabella Martinez)

Old-People Music

Lewis and Albrecht’s honky-tonk journey flashed before their eyes in 2022, when prominent Philadelphia art-rockers Palm came through town (on what ended up being their final Texas date), and asked the couple to open.

The request was for their former, electronically-dabbling rock project Dead Recipe, heavily indebted to Animal Collective and involving what Lewis sarcastically describes as “really just expressing ourselves and our creativity and belief in personal freedom and individuality.” Palm became online admirers after the Austin natives took their trio to the Bay Area, while Albrecht studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“We were like, 'Damn, if this offer had happened a few years ago, it would have been the greatest thing,” says Lewis. “We were telling them that we make country music now, and people dance to it. They were like, 'What? We’re just used to people, like, arms crossed.’”

Instead of opening, country evangelist Albrecht gave Palm’s Kasra Kurt his first George Jones record. Still being an all-genre die-hard who wrote his college thesis on Krautrock, he also recorded a bootleg of the concert. Pre-country, Sentimental Family Band’s résumés as hired guns carve out a nice corner in the last decade of Austin-connected indie pop and folk rock.

Dead Recipe first connected the couple on a shared bill with Shepherd, who toured to California with Abram Shook and Christopher Cox in the Austin trio Feverbones. Shepherd has played and recorded with local acts Dana Falconberry, Molly Burch, and Jesse Woods, while Lewis has recently toured in Sun June and Tele Novella, the latter with Albrecht. I first saw the two play at South by Southwest 2018 with Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney, who of course they’re now trying to convince to move here and become a honky-tonk pianist.

“I’ve played in a bunch of bands that were, like, art music, and definitely not as accessible as what we’re doing now,” says Shepherd. “I just got tired of playing to rooms full of people, and then after we get done with the song, everyone has their little PBR or Lone Star, and they can’t even clap because their hands are full. Zero interaction between the crowd and the band.

“That’s something that we get out of this experience: The dancers really give back what we give to them.”

Lewis typically plays drums in other projects, including a recent set at Luck Reunion in rising French country crooner Theo Lawrence’s band. Another devotee drawn into Austin roots music, Lawrence’s label Tomika Records, which has released like-minded LPs by Texas acts the Mellows and Phil Hollie, supports vinyl pressings of Sweethearts Only. After many immersive visits, and being put up on the property at Sam’s, Lawrence got a work visa and relocated from Bordeaux to Austin last fall.

He made the move with label manager Leila, who just goes by her first name, and guitarist Thibault “T.Bo” Ripault, who also plays on Sentimental Family Band’s new record. Joining the patio chat, Leila remarks on the microscene they’ve migrated into. “Oh my gosh, here, you can call a piano player and a mandolin player,” she says. “You have people that know and appreciate that. Back in France, there was literally no one to call, 'Hey, do you want to come play?’

“People were like, 'Why do you listen to this old-people music?’”

l-r: (top) J.J. Swinn, Jack Montesinos, Camille Lewis, Thibault Ripault; (bottom) Simon Page, Kyle Albrecht, Matthew Shepherd (Photo by Elena Reynolds (@elenarey))

Talking to Strangers

Sitting on tons of demos for live-honed country tracks, Sentimental Family Band planned to record the album at home, like Lewis and Albrecht’s past projects. A few days before planned sessions with their lead players – and to fully capture the magic of Page’s museum-worthy pedal steel instruments – they decided to scrap the DIY stuff and go a more professional route. Ripault suggested producer Billy Horton’s Wyldwood, Texas, studio, where the guitarist had recorded on Lawrence’s latest album, and where Charley Crockett has said he found his sound.

The band shared their influences – namely Gram, Loretta, and the Everly Brothers – and whittled down the tracklist even further between weekend sessions.

“That completely converted me to working with a producer,” says Albrecht. “We still have the bedroom gear, and I’m sure we’ll always do that in our spare time, but I’m in no rush to make the bedroom opus.”

“We’re not going to be shaping the reverb at three in the morning,” adds Lewis.

Indeed, the result is warm, clean, and remarkably era-specific for millennial ears. I ask how they feel about being received as vintage-sounding (or, in some enthusiastic Instagram stories, “the real shit”). Lewis points to the opinion of producer Horton, who, to clarify, they’ve already mentioned is a big sweetheart.

“It’s funny, sometimes we hear that it sounds like really old-school country,” she says. “But then from people like Billy, who only listen to country – I mean, he likes our music – but he’ll be like, 'This is cheap. This is like, country knockoff.’ And we’re happy to be that too. We’re happy for some people to hear it as faithful, and some people hear it as bastardized.”

I point the authenticity discussion to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, which happened to share a release day with Sweethearts Only. Lewis says she’s a big fan of the Texan’s country pivot. “I think that Beyoncé putting out her singles absolutely trickles down into more people showing up for Vanessa’s two-step lessons, just out of curiosity,” she says, referencing local instructor Vanessa Vaught. “That makes it accessible to a whole different level of audience.”

Previously only open to two-steppers, couch-sitters, and pool players at Sam’s Town Point, the hurts-so-good sounds of Sentimental Family Band are now available on record, in addition to every Thursday for the foreseeable future. Last year they even played on Thanksgiving. Looking back to when they first started hanging there, early in our patio conversation, I ask if it ever felt like there wasn’t room for new bands.

“A little bit,” says Lewis. “Sometimes when we would come here and be like, 'Okay, the dance floor is packed. It feels so far away from what we’re doing, but this looks so fun. We want to be a part of this.’ But then, there are certain people we met who were just so insanely welcoming.”

Albrecht adds, “The people who you thought were super cool are actually sweethearts too.”

Sentimental Family Band celebrates their debut album Sweethearts Only with an in-store performance at Waterloo Records on Friday, April 12, at 5pm.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Sentimental Family Band
Alex Maas’ Captivating 13th Floor Lineup and More Crucial Concerts This Week
Alex Maas’ Captivating 13th Floor Lineup and More Crucial Concerts This Week
From sunn O))) to Carolyn Wonderland, Shelley King, Marcia Ball’s holiday show

Kevin Curtin, Nov. 24, 2023

Magna Carda's Wild West Refresh and Four More Songs From Austin Artists
Magna Carda's Wild West Refresh and Four More Songs From Austin Artists
New music picks from Farmer's Wife, Sentimental Family Band, and more

Rachel Rascoe, July 14, 2023

More by Rachel Rascoe
The Week in Recommended Live Music
The Week in Recommended Live Music
Narrow Head, Pussy Gillette, the Nude Party, and even some innuendo-less acts to see

May 3, 2024

Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Lido Pimienta, and More Austin Psych Fest Reviews
Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Lido Pimienta, and More Austin Psych Fest Reviews
Dispatches from three days at the Far Out Lounge

April 29, 2024


Sentimental Family Band, Camille Lewis, Kyle Albrecht, Matthew Shepherd, Sagebrush, Sam’s Town Point, Simon Page, J.J. Swinn, Jack Montesinos, Ramsay Midwood, Tommy X Hancock, Theo Lawrence

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle