Al Staehely Interview
Americana Highways recently chatted with former Spirit band member and songwriter, Al Staehely, about his new solo album (recorded with Fran Christina, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and Chris Maresh) Somewhere in West Texas. The album is real, precise, catchy and layered Texas Americana music. Al was having coffee in Joe’s Coffee shop in Austin, across from the Austin Hotel, while we talked.
Americana Highways: So you were in a band called Spirit, which is a rock band, and now you’re a little more Americana. Would you say you identify with each of these separately or combine them?
Al Staehely: I guess to the extent I have an identity it’s a dual identity, because I’m a third generation Austinite. My musical style is kind of mixed. Some people associate me with Texas and some with West Coast music.
I grew up in Texas. But just as the whole outlaw country thing was getting started in the early 70s I went to L.A.. I joined Spirit there and so then most of my recording career was associated with the West Coast through Spirit.
Then also in the early eighties I did a couple of tours of Europe and tour of the US with a Bay Area guy, John Cipollina, who was a guitar player for Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Nick Gravenite who was in The Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield who wrote for Paul Butterfield. Then we did an album over in Germany called Monkey Medicine at the end of one of the tours.
I came back to Texas in late 79 and the early eighties and by happenstance ended up in Houston when they were doing the Urban Cowboy movie in 79. I came to town for what I thought was a week or so to pitch some songs to my friend who was music supervisor on the movie. The one that stuck was “Don’t It Make Ya Wannna Dance” that Bonnie Raitt did. That was a Rusty Wier song.
I was staying with my buddy there in Houston who’d been my drummer in college and who, years earlier, had talked me into going to law school to stay out of Vietnam. This was when I got the solo deal and was halfway through the record with guys like Steve Cropper playing on it and all sorts of other great musicians but suddenly the record company went out of business.
Next thing I knew, I was practicing law in Houston but still doing tours of Europe. And then I did a solo album that I recorded in Austin back in the 80s that was released in Europe on Polydor and then later reissued in the US on Steady Boy Records.
And I did another album with Andy Johns producing, the famous engineer who worked with Led Zeppelin. That album has never been released. One of these days I’m going to release that. But right after that, my son was born in ’85 and I decided I better concentrate on the entertainment law practice and be a good dad. And so I didn’t go out and perform for almost 20 years. It was worth it. He went to Princeton and has been a great guy and great son. But there’s quite a gap in my discography.
Fast forward and this album, Somewhere in West Texas came about during the Pandemic. Although I live in Houston most of the time, we have a house out in the Big Bend area in far west Texas, in little town called Marathon, which is like 20 minutes from Alpine and another 20 minutes to Marfa.
AH: That area has musical potential.
AS: Yes. During the Pandemic, Wilma and I were at our place in Marathon for a month and I was thinking, I’ve got all these songs that keep saying I’m going to record and I haven’t done them. And I’ve heard there’s one studio in Marfa and I know two great musicians that live in Marfa.
One, Fran Christina, who was then the drummer with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and all their records that you remember, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb the guitar player who is a big part of the Austin scene, but he had relocated to Marfa.
I was thinking of doing some demos just to get these songs down. So I called them, they said, yeah, there’s a studio here. One studio guy named with the unbelievable name of Gory Smelly. I asked them to record my songs and they said, hey by the way, Chris Maresh is coming to town to do another session with us. And if you’re not familiar with him, he’s a really great bass player from Austin that played with Eric Johnson for years.
And he and Scrappy play with Johnny Nicholas. I knew they were really good together. And even though I’m a bass player, I didn’t want to play bass on this record because the song got written on acoustic guitar and it ended up that Chris wanted to play bass.
So we had one rehearsal and ran through five or six songs and laid all the basic tracks down in one day. It’s probably more relaxed, too, because we weren’t thinking, okay, we’re going to do an album.
They were excited about the material and encouraged me to come back with five or six more songs for an album.
So this is what I refer to as my accidental album. Maybe that’s the best way to do them when you’re not tightening up.
AH: So you got a great little mix of some songs you’d written along the way.
AS: There’s probably a song from each decade up to the present decade.
AH: And you have made some videos too.
AS: That first song on the album was the first single “Something Good Is Going to Happen,” and we made a video for that.
AH: I love that video, and the song is so catchy: “I can feel it in the air!”.
AS: Thank you. We have another video for “Mercy of the Moon,” which was directed by Charlie Schwann, a 27 year old director in LA. He grew up in Austin and I’ve known him since he was born, so this shows the intergenerational connections of this project. Charlie is the son of the same drummer from college I was referring to earlier. After he went to UT Film School he did a couple of award winning film shorts and has done other music videos and is out there doing the LA hustle. We just recorded the second video for “Mercy of the Moon,” last week back out in Marathon, Texas. This video is a very different one. Charlie is a guy to watch going forward. He’s a real director.
AH: Tell us about some more of the songs on the album.
AS. There’s at least one from every decade and I have been playing them live for a long time but just haven’t recorded.
I wrote that first song on the album, “Something Good is Gonna Happen,” probably in 1978, but it was a very different style from what I was doing at the time. Some of the songs you write to fit a group you’re in or the thing that you’re doing at that time and this was so much of a kind of a straight buckle and style country song.
Generally people think that songwriters write sad songs because they’re sad, or happy songs because they’re happy. But I found myself writing a song to cheer myself up when I was ending about a four or five year relationship. I was moving out and I went back to the apartment to get those last of my things and she was there and I said, “I wrote a new song. Do you want to hear it?” “Okay.” So I started, “Something Good is Gonna Happen.” I don’t think that was the kind of song that she was expecting to hear. I didn’t think of it as a serious song at the time. And then later I found out that people really like it.
Songwriters aren’t always the best judge of their own material.
AH: That is true. I have a lot of songwriter friends and songs that they think are not good, and people tend to love them.
AS: Just because you work hard on a song doesn’t mean it’s the best song you wrote. Sometimes songwriters just think, man, I really worked hard on this so it has to be good.
On the other hand I also think sometimes it’s almost a cliche that great songs are written in a flash. How many times have we read about songwriters saying, I wrote it in 15 minutes? I don’t think every great song is written in 15 minutes. But just because you did write it in 15 minutes doesn’t mean it’s not a great song.
AH: Do you plan on a tour to promote this album?
AS: Yes, I will be doing some out of state gigs. I’m going to be getting out.
There are places that I’ve worked in Northern California in recent years that I will go back to.
And I’ve got a couple of gigs already in New England in the fall that I’m going to try to build around and get down to New York and do some other East Coast stuff.
I will get to LA. and it would be great to do something in San Diego.
AH: Yeah, that’d be cool. Will it be solo or with a band?
AS: Sometimes I work solo, and I also love playing with the right band. I worked with a band at last night’s gig at Saxon in Austin. It was with the same guys that played on the record, except for the drummer because he just really doesn’t tour anymore. Coach normally plays drums with me now and he played with me last night. It’s such a great band. In fact, it’s got Scrappy.
AH: Scrappy Jud Newcomb is still playing with you regularly?
AS: Yes, we play together a bunch. You’ve probably seen or heard about him before. He’s played with so many people. Most recently, in fact, he produced Slaid Cleaves‘ album just released this spring Together Through the Dark. (See Americana Highways’ review here: REVIEW: Slaid Cleaves Together Through the Dark)
AH: That’s a great album.
AS Scrappy is so good. Even my brother, who is an incredible guitar player and has played live with me lots, was wowed by Scrappy. When he heard this record, he said, “Man, Scrappy really brought something fresh to your material.” He said, “He’s my new favorite guitar player.” (laughs)
AH: All of your tour information will be available on your website for people to check out?
AH: Thanks so much for talking with us Al!
AS: It was my pleasure.
Find Al Staehely tour dates and more information here: http://www.alstaehely.com
Enjoy our previous interview here: Interview: Al Staehely and the Return of the Past
And his music here: