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Crafting The Texas Music Sound

The Texas Gentlemen may be the state's best kept secret. But music makers have known the backing band for years. Now they're trying to make a name for themselves outside the studio.

by Hady Mawajdeh 28 Sep 2017
The Texas Gentlemen

The Texas Gentlemen are a group of musicians from across Dallas-Fort Worth. They work as session musicians or backing bands for acts like Kris Kristofferson, George Strait and many others. Now, they're setting out to create and record their own music.

The group's core members are Beau Bedford, Nik Lee, Daniel Creamer, Scott Lee, McKenzie Smith, Matt McDonald, Aaron Haynes and Ryan Ake.

Jump to the Q and A

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Veteran backing bands and session players have played a major role in shaping contemporary music. From The Funk Brothers to The Wrecking Crew, they toiled behind the scenes — and went unappreciated for decades. The Texas Gentlemen aren’t so patient. In this week’s Artist Spotlight, I talk with the renowned North Texas backing band about stepping out of the studio and taking center stage.

On a hot summer day in June, musicians cram into a suite at the Belmont Hotel. They’re here for a week of recordings.

Drums, guitars and cocktail glasses litter the living room. All the furniture is stashed in one bedroom. The other’s full of recording equipment. About a dozen musicians are lined up to record here this week. The Texas Gentlemen will back them all.

Drummer Aaron Haynes says the musicians aren’t necessarily here to record anything specific. They’re just coming to jam with The Gents.

“If you show up with the whole thing, we got you,” says Haynes. “And if you show up with just a notion, we can work that and build something together or we can take your vision and run with it too. That’s kind of what we do.”

Country’s Jack Ingram thinks he can put a twist on Miranda Lambert’s hit, “Tin Man.” He co-wrote the tune.

“Everyone knows Miranda’s take,” Ingram says. “But when a woman sings the song it has a certain specific meaning. When a guy sings it though, it really changes the song.”

Ingram plays the song only once for the crew. Immediately, they’re all jamming.

““I just love what they’re doing,” Ingram explains. “I think what they’re going for and what they’re achieving is kind of like The Band for Texas music, which is a lofty goal, but I think they’re really on to something.”

Aaron Haynes on a cigarette break during the Belmont recording session. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Aaron Haynes on a cigarette break during the Belmont recording session.
Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

About 90 minutes later, the group has cooked up a lush version of the song. Guitarist Nik Lee stands out on Dobro. Here’s what he thinks about life as a session musician:

““It’s kind of one of those things where you don’t know what you’re going to be playing tomorrow,” Lee says. “You don’t know what music you’re going to be playing, but you know it’s going to be worth its salt.”

Using a hotel room for a week-long session may seem funky and old school. Backing up top artists like this, that’s the norm for The Gents.

They’ve made their reputation with icons like George Strait and Joe Ely. But the group’s so versatile, they’ve worked with pop stars like Ed Sheeran and Leon Bridges.

“We’ve had the pleasure of backing up some amazing artists and played on some amazing records,” says Beau Bedford. Bedford’s the groups de facto leader. He also runs the Dallas studio Modern Electric Sound Recorders. He says the group’s spent the past 10 years growing up together and expanding their musical abilities.

“There is a core group of guys who represent the main part of The Gents,” he explains. “And when we go out and say ‘we’re The Texas Gentlemen’ that’s usually who you’re going to see.”

But you never know who else might sit in. About 50 musicians from around the country are part of The Gents’ posse.

“You might have 10 other dudes come up and sing songs with us or play guitar with us,” says Bedford.  “We really have a huge extended family.”

The core members of The Texas Gentlemen all got their start performing in churches across North Texas, which Haynes says it’s pretty common.

“That’s a place where a lot of the bands [that] you’ll see on Saturday night, you’ll see on Sunday morning. If you go to the right church,” he says.

Bedford says that churches can be a good place to get started in music, even if it’s not your favorite sort of music to play. And they pay well.

“The blessing was that a lot of us were able to start making a living [playing] full time,” Bedford says.

The Gents also say that performing in churches helped them get out of their musical comfort zones.

““That’s been a big part of our growth process. Figuring out how to take things that maybe aren’t in our wheelhouse and still make them exceptional and unique,” says Bedford.

These days, almost every member of The Gentlemen has a side project. Haynes is in The Quaker City Night Hawks. Keyboard player Dan Creamer plays in several groups. There are dozens of affiliations. But the guys are most excited about their first album as The Texas Gentlemen.

 

The Gentlemen’s album is called “TX Jelly.” The album’s sound sprawls, just like The Gents. There are songs driven by keyboards that remind you of Dr. John or Leon Russell. Psychedelic tracks are reminiscent of The Birds or the Beatles. And of course, there’s classic Texas country.

“That’s in a lot of ways why it’s called ‘TX Jelly,'” says Bedford.  “It is an amalgamation of all these unique voices that create this jam that you’re getting to listen to.”

To make this jam, the band headed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They recorded at the studio of their idols, The Swampers. Those legendary session players helped craft the sound of 1960s soul. The Gents hope they will be the ones to craft a new Texas sound.

What are the Texas Gentlemen? 

BB: The Texas Gentlemen initially started off as a studio band and a backing band. In fact, I just found a Facebook post back in 2012 where we first called ourselves the Texas Gentlemen. We were backing up a guy named Larry g(EE) at the time.

Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of backing up some amazing artists and played on some amazing records. Really, we’ve spent the last 10 years together kind of growing up musically, and this is our first time that we’ve been able to put a record out on our own with a lot of help from our friends. We’re really excited.

Can you talk a little more about who the band is and how that origin started? 

NL: The first rule about the Texas Gentlemen is that you don’t talk about the Texas Gentlemen … but, if you insist.

BB: There is a core group of guys who represent the main backing musical part of the Gents. That is Mr. Nik Lee here to my left. There’s a man named Daniel Creamer, who is just as much a part of the backbone as Nik. Then, we’ve got some amazing dudes named Scott Lee … Aaron Haynes and McKenzie Smith, who both play drums for us. Ryan Ake on guitar. We’ve got another really good buddy named Matt McDonald who sings and plays bass and acoustic with us. That’s really kind of like our core, musically. When we go out and say “We’re the Texas Gentlemen,” that’s usually who you’re going to see playing.

But, in the middle of that, you might have ten other dudes come up and sing songs with us or dudes come up and play guitar with us. We really have a huge extended family, and a big part of that is this amazing music lineage we have here, not just in Dallas but in Fort Worth and Denton. The music community here is really unbelievable. We travel a bunch: Nashville, New York, L.A. We get to see a lot of amazing bands, and there’s something very special about what’s happening here in the metroplex. So, the Texas Gentlemen as the fraternal order is kind of our whole scene that we really want to invite people to come in and take part with us as we really celebrate the music that’s happening here in the DFW area.

Groups like this are finally getting their moment … Can you talk about being the sound of North Texas? 

NL: I think, naturally, what ends up happening is that when you’re aspiring to do your best and you want to surround yourself with people that push you and compliment what you want to do … if you are constantly looking to that, you’ll end up where you want to be. You’ll end up where you need to be to take the next step. With every single musician that we’re playing with right now, I would say it’s just kind of like a shortcut to thinking, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this where we oughta be?” You just look around and think, “Absolutely. There’s no question.” It’s just one of those things where you don’t know what you’re going to be playing tomorrow, but you know it’s going to be worth its salt.

Can you talk about having your own album? What that means for you? 

NL: It’s exciting. I’m very proud to be a part of it, and I’m very proud to have made it with the people that we’ve made it with. I hope it’s one of many, but looking at it as the first release, it’s not a conceptual record or anything like that. It was literally us saying, “Hey, let’s just go play some songs. Maybe it’ll be something we want to release. Maybe not.” In four days, we cut some 20 odd songs.

BB: We did 27 in four days, and we tacked on a fifth day too where we did four more songs on a reel of tape that we haven’t even listened to. I feel like TX Jelly was just an exercise in us really celebrating the camaraderie of all the musicians, of all of us playing together. As Nik said, there was no plan going into the album.

NL: We didn’t even have the songs picked or anything like that.

BB: We had nothing.

NL: We literally just looked at each other and like, “You have a song? Oh cool, let’s do that one. You have a song? Cool, let’s do that one.”

BB: It was supposed to be a time of joy. Zero pressure. Just a celebration of the community that we’ve created and that we’re blessed to be a part of. That’s in a lot of ways why it’s called TX Jelly. It is an amalgamation of all these unique voices, both musically and vocally, that creates this jam that you’re getting to listen to.

NL: Can we plug the actual preserves?

BB: Yeah, we do have some preserves that we are making in celebration of TX Jelly … We haven’t decided how we’re going to release it yet. We might give away some of it on our album release party — September 30 at the Kessler.

NL: What is it? Butter Pecan?

BB: It’s Peach Jalapeño, and we’ll also have a Peach Jalapeño Pecan for those nuts out there.

NL: It’s goood.

Have you been able to quit your day job? 

NL: Yes!

This might be where we go back to the church … 

BB: This has been a long time ago we quit day jobs.

That’s what I’m saying … when you’re wanting to play and one of the only places where you can get paid to play is the place where you got your start. 

BB: It’s funny you’re bringing this up. I was literally just asked about this yesterday. Truly, the great blessing of growing up in the Bible Belt. There’s some things, like real religiosity … some stuff that’s not as savory to us as a band, but the blessing was that a lot of us were able to start making a living full-time and not having to have any other job because we had jobs in churches that paid well on Sunday morning. While that wasn’t music that necessarily our passion in any kind of way, it was a real opportunity … I can’t say that it hurt us.

When we went into the studio and people started putting on headphones, it was nothing new. We already had in-ears on and playing click tracks. There was a whole process that, I think, benefited almost everybody that took part in that. Obviously, it allowed everybody to step out of any kind of day job. Speaking for myself, I never had a day job. I played at church, and then I left on the road with Jonathan Tyler. Then, I started making records after that. I think everybody has a unique story that’s similar to that where we’ve literally been able to focus on music 100% of the time. Not necessarily always playing the music we want to play. But even when you’re doing music that’s out of your wheelhouse, that can be a good thing. It can push you — to make something you think is not cool and make it cool. That’s been a big part of our growth process as a band is figuring out how to take things that maybe aren’t in our wheelhouse and still make them exceptional and unique from a live show to even a studio recording. It’s something we love doing.

NL: Playing in churches is also a great excuse to play lots of BB King licks.

BB: [Laughs] I think Nik and I are maybe the only guys in the group that got to play at some gospel-type churches, and that’s a total joy. Really no rules apply when you get into that side of things. It’s really, really fun.

How do you maintain balance in your life? 

BB: Get used to no balance? [Laughs]

We’ve all been really blessed to only have done music for so long. I think at this point, the life and lifestyles that each of us live are like our normal. There’s nothing abnormal about the struggle of figuring out how to make a living on the road. Everybody’s so entrenched in … not that any of us want to be poor and broke the rest of our lives but if we’re doing what we love and pursuing it adamantly and making music that matters, money is not the first thing that comes to our minds. It really is, “Are we doing great things?” I think success can come after that, but success can come in so many different ways.

For us, I feel like we do have great balance. Right now, we’re making the best music — both between our own records and on the records that we’re making with other people in the studio. To me, the balance keeps getting sweeter and sweeter because the projects keep growing along with our own art form.

NL: I feel like as long as my dog still recognizes me when I get home, then I haven’t been gone too long. Maybe, that’s about the only balance I need. [Laughs]

Proud gents 📸 by @deitchphoto

A post shared by The Texas Gentlemen (@texasgentlemen) on

Are you creatively satisfied? 

BB: I think, in some ways … As I just mentioned, we’re doing what we love. Completely satisfied? Absolutely not. We feel like we should always be pushing and reaching for the next thing. To sit down and say something’s done or you’re satisfied with life, then what’s next? That’s when people get into things of faith. You should pursue and pursue and pursue and never stop and be content. Just speaking for myself, there’s no end date in music or growth stop. It’s constantly a pursuit of doing something righteous.

NL: I’m just blessed by the intensity of it all, honestly. As long as you’re still feeling that … before you go on stage or when you’re listening to something you’ve done or when you’re sitting back over a song you’ve written and you feel accomplished … that tingle in your spine is what we’re all looking for. I can pretty safely say that that intensity is still totally there. If you put yourself around the right people, you’re all aspiring for the same thing. You help each other get that feeling. It’s a good thing.

What makes the Texas Gentlemen different from other bands? 

NL: Quite possibly, our history together … We’ve all played with other people throughout this quite a bit, outside of the collective. I would just say our history together being a choice. We’re still here together because we choose to.

BB: I think a big thing that I think is really unique and cool about this band is that we didn’t start really becoming a big group together and considering ourselves a collective playing live shows. We found it making records together in the studio.

Our pursuit of trying to get to that place where we’re getting a brand new song on the first take. That’s the pursuit. We haven’t achieved it yet, but going after that has really paved the way for us to get in these live shows.

When we stepped on stage with Kris Kristofferson for the first time, we had never played with him. We had no idea how he was doing song arrangements. We didn’t know what keys he was doing songs in. For our band, we were confident walking into that moment. There was no trepidation or fear of the unknown. We embrace the unknown because we’ve prepared ourselves in the studio to be ready in that moment.

For our live show when we’re just the Texas Gentlemen, there really is something that’s unique. We don’t have to play the song the same way every time. We can go on an extended jam because we’re listening to each other and communicating without having to say anything. I think, in a lot of ways, that really sets the Texas Gentlemen apart from what’s happening musically. I hope more bands pursue music that way. We’ve lost jazz in pop culture … not that we’re a jazz band, but in the same way that there’s this improvisation that happens in the moment. We want to be taking that to our live shows. I think that’s a unique experience both for us as a band and as the listener.

NL: I mean, you can play the song correctly and still not have that sort of tributary of conversation. A lot of bands just get assembled, y’know? A lot of bands just show up to the same gigs … You just get a different sound. You get the song as it’s written, not as it could be reinterpreted. Every night, we reinterpret the songs differently.

BB: That’s true.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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