Clip: Charlie Sexton
Breaking The Record-Making Code
After a decade, onetime boy wonder Charlie Sexton returns with a new CD
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 4, 2005
When Charlie Sexton's new CD hits the stores on Sept. 13, a full decade will have passed between album releases.
"I didn't realize it had been so long until I saw the press release," says the onetime boy wonder of the Austin, Texas, music scene. "In hindsight it's pretty sad that I made my first record when I was 16, and now I'm gonna be 37 and I've only made four. What happened?"
Anyone who's kept their eye on credits in Americana and country-rock music in recent years can answer that question. For much of the time between 1995's Under the Wishing Tree and the new Cruel and Gentle Things, Sexton has been one of the most valued hired guns in the business. For three-and-a-half years, from 1999 through 2002, he played guitar in Bob Dylan's band, to the tune of about 150 concerts a year, plus pivotal participation in the recording of the 2001 album Love and Theft and the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous. And his enormous list of recording achievements ranges from work with such members of his Texas musical family as Terry Allen, Michael Fracasso and Los Super Seven to production responsibility for Lucinda Williams' Essence and Shannon McNally's Geronimo.
For Sexton, who performs Tuesday, Aug. 16, at the Café du Nord in San Francisco and goes out on tour in support of John Mayer on Sept. 23, the hiatus from recording his own music was only partially his own decision. "About eight or so years ago, as soon as we finished The Wishing Tree tour," he explained in a phone call from his home in Austin last week, "we went straight back into the studio and ended up with probably a couple albums' worth of material. Then we got a deal with A&M, and right as we were finishing the album, the whole merger [of Polygram with Universal] occurred and we lost the deal. I'd been through the machine for so many years, I just said, 'I don't want to deal with this more.'"
Sexton had been something of the golden boy of country blues-rock -- hailed early on as a guitar prodigy, he toured as a member of Joe Ely's band, released his debut album as a teenager, jammed with Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Ronson and Ron Wood, and put together a supergroup, the Arc Angels, with fellow guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and Stevie Ray's Double Trouble rhythm section. His matinee-idol good looks seemed to further ensure a pop profile as high as his sculpted cheekbones.
But the combination of his sour experiences with record labels and the demands of raising a young family tipped Sexton toward doing what he calls "the responsible thing," which included signing on to Bob Dylan's "never-ending tour" in June 1999. Initially handed a list of 130 songs to learn, Sexton had mastered some 220 Dylan compositions by the end of his tenure.
"When you're in the studio with him, you can't really hear what he's singing, and you're not able to sit back and listen because you're playing it," he explained. "Then you go into the control room to hear it, and all of a sudden you go, 'Jesus, this is a Bob Dylan song!' I had the same sensation about six months into playing with him -- one night I went, 'Oh my God, I'm playing 'Like a Rolling Stone' with him.' He's a brilliant singer. His phrasing is amazing, and he's fearless about sorting out what needs to happen in terms of changing it up. But everything you learn from him you have to figure out on your own."
During his stint with Dylan, Sexton was called to add his guitar playing to the Lucinda Williams sessions that became the 2001 release Essence. After the six-year ordeal of making Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams, according to Sexton, "had a real clear concept of what type of record she wanted to make." She had recorded the basic tracks with Iowa alt-country/blues guitarist Bo Ramsey and the rhythm section from Dylan's Time Out of Mind album, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Tony Garnier.
"I came in as guitar player," Sexton said, "and after I went back on tour with Bob, I got a call from Lucinda's manager, who said, 'By the way, when you come back here there's a chance you'll become the producer.' Lucinda wanted to re-record four songs, but I sat down with the whole record and came to the conclusion that the performances were there -- everything was there in the basic tracks. So I said, 'Lucinda, give me three or four days with these songs and I'll fix 'em.'" And he did -- adding drums, live loops, harmony vocals, piano and a variety of guitars.
Although he calls himself "completely untrained -- a low-rent, junkyard orchestral guy," Sexton acknowledges that producing records had always been his calling. "A friend of mine once told me, 'You know, you're more comfortable in a studio than you are in your own house.' And there's a lot of truth to that. When I was a kid, my favorite record, the one that I listened to constantly, was [the Beatles'] Magical Mystery Tour. I would sit in my room with my guitar and try to learn how to play the songs, which is tortuous. That record is so chopped together -- string sections that go into guitar parts and backward vocals -- that trying to teach yourself to it is really, really difficult, if not impossible.
"A few years ago I had the realization that when I was in my bedroom listening to that record, I didn't necessarily want to be in the band or onstage with them, I wanted to be in the record. I wanted to be George Martin. That kind of set my path for the way I hear things and put things together."
Sexton's orchestral approach is abundantly evident throughout Cruel and Gentle Things, which bears such alt-country hallmarks as heavily strummed acoustic guitars and weepy slide guitar but also boasts rich, atmospheric layers of other instruments, including keyboards, drums and strings, that lend color and gravity to Sexton's warm, breathy lead vocals. "Whenever I get a song idea, I don't just hear the guitar part," Sexton explained. "I hear every part, the whole thing. I love the challenge of sorting out why something is or isn't working, and there's a kind of euphoria there when you break the code."
Sexton had pretty much put his songwriting on hold while he toured with Dylan, but the floodgates opened after he penned what became the new album's closer, the contemplative, romantic ballad "It Don't Take Long."
"I got to a point a few years ago where if I didn't believe what I was saying, I wasn't going to do it anymore," he said. He calls "It Don't Take Long" the "root" of the new album. "I'd never really written anything like that before," Sexton explained. "It really meant a lot to me, and the music kind of broke the code for me for making a certain kind of song." What Sexton calls "satellite songs," such as "Gospel" and "Once in a While," naturally fell into orbit. "The thing I'm most happy with about this new record is that nothing's there because it rhymes. Every line's got something behind it."
Charlie Sexton performs Tuesday, Aug. 16, at Café du Nord, 2170 Market St., SF; showtime 9 pm; Tickets $15; Paula Frazer opens. For more information, call (415) 861-7374.
A long way from `Lonely,' Sexton's back on stage
By Chrissie Dickinson
Special to the Tribune
Published October 14, 2005
It's been 10 years since singer-songwriter-guitarist Charlie Sexton has
released a new record of his own, but it's not as though the former Austin,
Texas, wunderkind hasn't been busy with plenty of projects. He's toured as
a guitarist with Bob Dylan. He's been active in the recording studio with
other artists, producing releases by Lucinda Williams, Edie Brickell,
Shannon McNally and Los Super Seven.
Despite that busy resume, he says it's a good and strange feeling to play
his own songs again on stage.
"It is odd," Sexton says, calling from a tour date in Minneapolis. "It's
fun, because I'd just kind of been locked in rooms with these songs for
Sexton, who appears Friday at the Double Door, wrote or co-wrote all 10
tracks on his new album, the self-produced "Cruel and Gentle Things" (Back
Porch/EMI). Singing in a worn, dusty voice, he moves from the spare,
acoustic opening track "Gospel" to the restrained pop atmospherics of the
title track, to the rocking, real-world meditation "Regular Grind."
It's been a long and sometimes rocky career path for Sexton, 37. An Austin
guitar prodigy who was just a kid when he started jamming with the likes of
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Ely, Sexton decided early on that a life in
music was his only option. With the guitar chops of a seasoned veteran and
the sharp features of a matinee idol, Sexton was 16 when he first signed to
the major label MCA.
But instead of going full-steam down the expected roots-rock-blues path,
Sexton initially followed the pop muse. By age 17, he was touring behind
his 1985 debut album "Pictures for Pleasure," and saw his single "Beat's So
Lonely" go to No. 17 on the Billboard pop charts. Sporting a big-haired,
New Wave makeover that made him look more like a member of Duran Duran than
his earlier incarnation as a gritty blues comer, he made the cover of Spin
The MTV-fueled hype surrounding his debut dismayed his original Austin
audience, but Sexton says he never saw himself as the next great blues hope.
"It went from me being this blues rock 'n' roll kid from Texas, then I made
a real pop record on my first record," he says. "It was about finding the
voice, but also revealing what my musical interests were -- and who I
As it turned out, that person was a young artist with wide-ranging and
evolving musical tastes that extended from Hank Williams to Albert King,
from the Beatles to Frank Zappa to U2. Over the years, he also found
himself exploring his growing love of flamenco, African and Irish music
"That took a long time to pull it all together and make songs of my own out
of that," he says.
Although Sexton released a couple more records -- including one with the
Austin-based roots-rockers the Arc Angels -- he points to his 1995 release
"Under the Wishing Tree" as his major artistic turning point. In
particular, he singles out "Sunday Clothes," a song co-written with
singer-songwriter James McMurtry, as an epiphany in his writerly
"It's a song about growing up in Texas, staying with your grandparents,
putting on a scratchy suit on Sunday and going to church in 100-degree
weather, wearing horrific clothing you could barely breathe in," Sexton
says with a laugh. "Afterward, I had countless people come up and say
that's just what it was like when they were kids. That means more to me
than selling a lot of records or having your face on a magazine. That was
more important, that shared experience. So that became very infectious for
me, looking for things people could identify with, things that were
personal for me but universal to other people."
Why the decade lapse between releases?
In short, major label vagaries. Although "Under the Wishing Tree" was an
artistic breakthrough for Sexton, it wasn't a commercial one. He left MCA,
then teamed with his brother Will and signed a major label deal with A&M.
The brothers soon found themselves lost in the midst of major label
consolidation. Their project fell into limbo in the ensuing shuffle, and
they were eventually dropped.
Sexton had also become a new father and found himself in "pretty dire
financial straits." When he got a call from Bob Dylan, who was looking for
a touring guitarist, Sexton gladly took the gig. Besides touring with the
legend, Sexton also played on Dylan's critically hailed "Love and Theft" CD.
Sexton also found he had a growing gift for producing other artists. Among
other releases, he helmed Lucinda Williams' 2001 CD "Essence." As with a
lot of musicians he knows, Sexton goes back a long way with the critically
revered Williams. He was 11 when he first played on stage with the budding
singer-songwriter at the Alamo Hotel in Austin.
"There was this little bar in the lobby, and it became the folk songwriter
venue, it was really small," Sexton recalls. "Townes Van Zandt would work
there. Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, Guy Clark, the Texas writing crew. At
that point, Lucinda was just figuring it out. . . . [Afterward], I went off
and did what I did, and she went off and became Lucinda Williams."
- Great article, Carl! I had no idea Sexton is that young - never seen a
picture of him and I'd always assumed he was a much older bloke.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Carl Zimring" <cz28@...>
Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2005 4:17 PM
Subject: [fearnwhiskey] Clip: Charlie Sexton