He Gave Music a Shot
It’s hard to imagine anyone hearing his calling while tending bar. But that’s exactly what happened to Chris Wall 20 years ago while mixing cocktails at the Quiet Woman in Corona del Mar.
“That’s where I really got interested in music . . . seeing Hollywood Fats, Steve Wood from Honk and guys from Kenny Loggins’ band jam there--they all played quite a bit back then,” said Wall, a country singer-songwriter now living in Austin, Texas. “That led me to the new country stuff they were playing down at the Swallow’s [Inn in San Juan Capistrano] . . . like Rosie [Flores] & the Screamers and [Fullerton-bred steel guitarist and Dobro player] Greg Leisz.”
Wall left Orange County after the death of his father on Easter Sunday 1980 and moved to his uncle’s ranch in Montana to “play cowboy for a while.” After working as a ranch hand, Wall moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to work as a bartender at the famous Million-Dollar Cowboy Bar. He began writing songs, and after some prodding by friends, Wall decided to go public.
Filling in for a lead singer with laryngitis, Wall joined the Western band Pinto Bennett & the Famous Motel Cowboys. Oddly enough, his first paying gig in 1987 brought him back to the Swallow’s Inn, where he had also worked behind the bar for a spell.
Wall, who’s lived in Texas since 1988, is excited about coming full circle with his return to the Swallow’s tonight, where he’ll play with guitarist Chris Claridy, bassist Gary Miles and drummer K.W. Turnbow.
“I really enjoyed Southern California,” said Wall, 46, who grew up on Balboa Island, graduated from Corona del Mar High, attended Orange Coast College and received a master’s degree in history from Whittier College. He taught history and coached football briefly at Corona del Mar High (1973-74).
The performer got his big break when he met acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark in 1986 at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival in Idaho. Later that night, the two swapped songs over dinner.
Clark was soon singing Wall’s praises to his buddy, Jerry Jeff Walker, who eventually caught one of Wall’s sets in Jackson Hole, then invited him to Austin to open some of his shows. Within a month, Wall moved to the Lone Star State and was being managed by Walker’s wife, Susan.
That association lasted three years, yielding two albums (“Honky Tonk Heart,” “No Sweat”) and helping Wall build a cult following as he played mostly in honky-tonks and Texas dance halls. Then tensions surfaced between the Walkers and Wall over what Wall felt was inadequate promotion of his music, prompting Wall to strike out on his own.
With no new album or tour in sight, Wall grew anxious. Then a novelty song he had written years before rode to his rescue.
“Trashy Women,” a tongue-in-cheek ditty about females sporting “tight jeans and too much lipstick and rouge,” became a No. 1 country hit for Confederate Railroad in 1993.
Songwriting job offers suddenly came pouring in from Nashville. But Wall instead used his songwriting royalties to start his own label, Cold Spring Records. The roots-oriented company has released three of his albums, including “Cowboy Nation” (1994), the live album “Any Saturday Night in Texas” (1997) and last year’s excellent “Tainted Angel.”
Influenced by singer-songwriters from Ray Wylie Hubbard and Merle Haggard to such contemporaries as Joe Ely, John Prine and Guy Clark, Wall uses his whiskey-stained baritone to croon timeless tales of longing, cheatin’ hearts, busted dreams and dusty, endless highways.
He sings about how true love can give life purpose (“Better Things to Do”). Then there’s the one about the marginal musician who really just longs for his wife and kids (“He Lives My Dream”). His stories of gun-toting rednecks, town drunks and rodeo riders aren’t pretty, yet there’s an underlying compassion for his characters.
“I’m just trying to do what all of these great Texans have done before me . . . that is, write a good story that has a different spin on it. Songwriters like Butch Hancock, Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen stand out because they bring people and places to life with vivid imagery and strong melodies.”
Cold Spring Records was originally intended only as a way he could maintain creative control over his music. But Wall and his business partner have since signed three other Texas-based acts to their roster, including the Asylum Street Spankers, an acoustic-powered blues and swing band; Reckless Kelly, young upstarts who backed Wall on “Tainted Angel”; and James Hand, a young country traditionalist (think Hank Williams meets Wayne Hancock). The label also has released “Bullriders: Chasing the Dream,” a movie soundtrack featuring songs by Wall, the Derailers, Don Walser, Doug Supernaw, Jack Ingram and Reckless Kelly.
“If you would have told me five years ago that I’d have a business partner, three full-time employees and four acts, I would have said you’re crazy,” Wall said with a laugh. “But actually, I knew from my experience with Jerry Jeff’s [Tried & True] label that there is a little niche market out there for us. As long as you can keep costs down, and the artists are really willing to tour and work the record, you can do OK.”
“Honestly, I wondered at the outset if we’d have anywhere to get this stuff played. What’s really come through for us is the Americana radio format. It has lasted and grown little by little. Plus, because of our distribution deal [with Steve Earle’s E-Squared/ADA], our artists get better national and international exposure. Heck, you can even find our CDs at retail stores.
“I’m not on a crusade,” he continued. “I just write the best songs that I can and get out there and play them. There’s a lot of Nashville-bashing going on, and frankly, it’s become kind of boring to me. It doesn’t make much difference to us what the big labels are doing over there. I mean, Cold Spring is Texas music--that’s our market.”
Still, Wall realizes that he and his musical comrades can’t make music solely for their own pleasure.
“There has to be an audience in order for us to make a living,” Wall said. “We’ve got to sell some records somewhere, or we’ll go out of business. Plain and simple.
“You try to be as pure and true to your art as you can, but at some point, you’ve got to make a buck. The good news is that in choosing our talent carefully, and scaling back our expenses, we can turn a little profit and make music we can all be proud of. That’s what keeps you going.”
* Chris Wall plays tonight at the Swallow’s Inn, 31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 7 p.m. Free. (949) 493-3188. Also Thursday with Mark Insley at Jacks Sugar Shack, 1707 N. Vine St., Los Angeles. 9 p.m. $10. (323) 466-7005.