Friday, April 19, 2024

Song of the Fathers

by Michael Corcoran for AAS 2014

Ray Wylie Hubbard made his debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in January 2014 by singing the story of a notorious Dallas rock club with an underage girl at the door checking IDs. Weaving through the lyrics of “Mother Blues” is a tantalizing guitar and its continued presence in a life of ups and downs. Hubbard wrapped up the tuneful yarn by revealing that he ended up marrying that door girl 23 years ago and they have a son Lucas, who’s 19. “That’s him playing guitar,” Hubbard nodded slightly to his right. Matter of fact, Lucas Hubbard was playing the same gold top Gibson Les Paul guitar that made his father choose the life of a musician.

“I don’t know if he’s going to hang his life on that guitar or not, but I’m very grateful for the time I get to spend on the stage with my son Lucas,” the proud father told the national audience to the rhythm of the redemption song. Keep your expectations high, but your gratitude higher, was the tune’s final message.

Those are words with which Will Sexton, Sterling Lands II, Kevin Welch and Navor  Romo Jr. can relate. Musician fathers whose children also pursue the craft cherish the times when family and music are intertwined. Music is the higher power, granting harmony to life. It can bring a father and child closer.

But as Ray Wylie’s parting words implied, it’s important to not push your children into a musical profession. You want them to love it like you do and the best way for that to happen is to let them find the joy without pressure.

Of course, a parent can nudge. When the offspring of musicians start to crawl, the toys left laying around are guitars, horns, drums. When they visit their parents at work, they’re babysat by an adoring audience. And the bartender keeps the Shirley Temples coming. When the talent’s in the genes, the life just gets in the blood.

“I didn’t encourage or discourage my kids from playing music,” says Kevin Welch, a seasoned troubadour who has seen the highs and lows of the musician life. “Their musicianship is up to them. But one night, about 15 years ago, I was in the midst of a bad streak out on the road. I went to the club and the dressing room was just the cold, dank landing, with rat droppings at the bottom of the stairs,” he says. “I climbed right up those stairs- this was before cellphones- and I got on a pay phone and called (16-year-old) Dustin in Nashville and I said ‘I don’t ever want you to go through what I’m going through right now’ and he just said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, Dad.’ That’s when I knew Dustin was in all the way.”

The Lands family

The sons of Sterling Lands II also embraced the life of musician early on. “Some of my earliest memories are of me playing drums in my pajamas,” recalls Richard, now 45. His brother Kristoffer, five years younger, laughs in recognition. When Kris was old enough to keep time, about 7 or 8, he took over the drum chair of the his father’s group, while Richard moved on to saxophone.

Currently the pastor of Greater Calvary Bible Church on Berkman Drive and a newly-ordained bishop, the senior Lands says “Music is the universal language and learning how to play helps round a person out. It teaches you math and history and science. If you follow it, it can be your guide for life.”

But there are downsides to being the child of a musician dad: the long periods of separation during touring season, the battle with Dad’s muse for attention, the financial uncertainty. Later, there are high expectations and daunting comparisons because of the last name. There is often the struggle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s son Colin said when he was just starting his musical career in 2002, “of being thought of as just a sequel.”

An old picture of a little girl asleep inside her father’s guitar case hangs on the wall of the Saxon Pub. But 10 years after that shot was taken, Finley Rose Sexton says she doesn’t consider playing music to be following in her father Will’s footsteps as much as doing what comes natural. “I’m pretty sure I’d be playing music even if my Dad didn’t,” she says. “Music is really all I ever think about.”

Proud papa Will was onstage next to Finley when she practically stole the show from a stage of veterans, including her uncle Charlie Sexton, at South By Southwest in March. A few weeks later, Will, 42, who’s been signed to three major labels and now releases solo albums on his own, received a call from a top song publisher in Hollywood with whom he’d done business with in the past. After the small talk So, Will asked what was up. “I’m calling about your daughter, who I’ve been hearing about,” the publisher said. Finley is 12.

Will was just four years older when he signed with MCA Records, which had just had a hit with Charlie, two years older. But he said he’s going to make sure his home-schooled daughter with the pink hair doesn’t repeat some of the mistakes he made. Chief among his concerns is that her original material is as strong as possible.

“I can always trust my father to tell me the truth,” says Finley, who’s always performed solo, yet just started a band with Jon Dee Graham’s 13-year-old son William. “Everyone else says, ‘oh, that’s great, you’re so good,’” she says, patting herself on the head. “But my Dad will tell me ‘I think you need to work on the lyrics a little more.’ And he’ll be right.” Finley hasn’t finished a song, she says, until she plays it for her father.

The music business is notoriously flakey, so finding veterans that have your back like a parent is an asset. “You could say our father is a disciplinarian,” says Kris Lands, who runs the Greater Calvary Academy of grades K-6. “But he just drilled the fundamentals into us because he wanted to give us the foundation to grow as musicians. I’d be all over the drums and he’d come over and say, ‘you stay here,’ pointing to the snare, ‘and forget about this and that,’ pointing to the cymbals and the floor tom. Only until they mastered the basics were they allowed to get creative.

Conjunto Romo is an anomaly in this group because it was the son, accordion wizard Cedrick, who taught the father and his brothers how to play music. As a student at Lehman High in Kyle, Cedrick joined the school mariachi and wanted to have a band around him at all times so he showed his father Navor, now 38, how to play the bass and his brothers J.J. and Noe their parts on the drums and bajo sexton, respectively.

The first gig was a New Year’s Eve show in 2008, with J.J., then 13, playing a toy drum set from Wal-Mart and his father playing bass on a borrowed six-string guitar. “Oh, man, we were so sad,” says Navor, who’s been married to the boys’ mother for 20 years. “But we had heart. If I knew how much fun it is to be playing music with my sons I would’ve done it a long time ago.”

Conjunto Romo was less than two years old when they signed a three-album deal in 2010 with Joey Records of San Antonio. They keep the Wal-Mart drum set in the practice room to remind themselves how far they’ve come. But they still face challenges on the road. “We once drove for a few hours to play a festival and the promoter gave us only $130,” says Navor Jr. The guarantee was $800, but the turnout was disappointing. “My boys were very down. They were counting on that money. But I had to tell them, ‘look, it’s not always fair in the music business, but you have to keep going if you’re going to make it.’”

There are children who dive into music like a room full of plastic balls and some who try out their moves in private for awhile. And there are some kids who just aren’t into playing music, at least that which a parent is known for.

“Finley’s older brother (19-year-old) McCauley is also an amazing musician,” says Will Sexton. “But he took a completely different path than she did. He creates music in the studio and he’s a rapper, but he resisted learning how to play the guitar.”

Kevin Welch’s youngest daughter Ada “has no interest in being part of the Welch Family Musical Experience,” he says, hoping that doesn’t make her feel left out.

“A lot of times in the past few years when I’ve done interviews, they’ll ask me about my two kids,” says Welch, whose daughter Savannah is in the Trishas, a popular American act, while son Dustin is more of a rocker. “I have to remind them that I have three children. Ada has chosen to live out of the spotlight, but we’re still a tight family.”

The Welches Kevin, Dustin and Savannah

Welch and his children’s mother Jennifer split up a few years after Ada was born, but he was as active in their lives growing up in Nashville as his touring schedule would allow. “I remember once when he opened a tour for Bob Seger and he had a tour bus and we each had our own bunks,” says Savannah, 28, who made Kevin a grandfather last year with the birth of Charlie.

Where Dustin, her older brother by 3 ½ years, displayed a passion for music at a very young age, Savannah kept most of her singing and songwriting hidden. “I wasn’t just intimidated by my father,” she says. “It was all of Nashville. Our family would go to the Bluebird (the famous listening room) and all the performers would be the folks who were at our barbecue that day. I grew up thinking that everybody was a great musician.”

Father Kevin was stunned in 2005 when Savannah told him she planned to sing a song he’d written for her mother at a “Chip Off the Block” concert in Austin. After Savannah nailed “The Other Side,” not only was her father proud, but brother Dustin was grinning from ear-to-ear.

Some kids take to sports and that becomes their focus. And sometimes it’s music. Welch recalls following Dustin’s teenaged band the Swindlers from gig to gig. “Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes was also in the group and they played this one dive in Nashville that Steve and I used to play in the ‘70s. And it was a dive then. There were pork chop bones on the pool table. When the band started playing, even in this setting, Steve and I were watching like we were at our sons’ Little League game.”

In the case of Lucas Hubbard, his choice at the moment is sports AND music. In the past two years, the Texas State sophomore has become a bowling fanatic, rolling a 300 game earlier this year. At 19, the youngest to bowl a perfect game at Sundet Lanes in San Marcos, where he also works. “I love to bowl and I love to play music,” says Lucas, who plans to juggle both passions until he graduates from college.

“I just want him to do what makes him happiest,” says father Ray Wylie, who bought Lucas his first guitar almost by mistake. “Judy (his wife/manager) and I have a deal about buying guitars,” Ray Wylie says. “If I buy a guitar, she gets a major appliance. I was at a guitar show once and I bought myself a little Supro guitar, but it was Judy’s turn. When she saw the guitar, she said ‘what’s this?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I bought that for Lucas.’”

The kid, then 12, had shown no interest in playing music, even as he went on tour with his dad. But with a Supro to call his own, he took to it, with a special interest in gritty blues. One day before a show at Gruene Hall in 2007, Ray Wylie’s guitarist Gurf Morlix was running a little late, so Lucas took his place at soundcheck and stunned his father with his fluid licks. Morlix came in during one solo and called Lucas up onstage that night. “Don’t show off, just play the song,” Morlix said under his breath.

“Lucas is absolutely fearless,” Ray Wylie marvels. “The day before we were going to fly up to New York to do Letterman, Lucas completely changed his part on the song. He said ‘I think it would sound better with an open E tuning’ and I said ‘Have you ever played in open E?’ and he said no. But that’s how he played it and it turned out great.”

As previously noted, the proud papa said in “Mother Blues” that he didn’t know if his son would follow him and devote his life to music. But though he didn’t come out and say it, he cares. “Listen, Ray Wylie Hubbard is a total pro,” says his sometime bassist Billy Cassis. “He’s got this whole touring thing wired. But he’s noticeably happier when Lucas is playing guitar with us. I mean, he can’t wait to get to the gig.”







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