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Amateur Theater Available Now

Posted by on Monday, 14 October, 2019

Every now and then, a songwriter is gifted by their subconscious — or perhaps even a higher, more mysterious power — with a song in a dream. It might be just a fragment: a key line or chorus, a snatch of melody that lingers through the fog of waking up, or perhaps even a world-shaking riff on the order of “Satisfaction.” Dustin Welch can attest to the phenomenon himself, having been blessed with not just a couple of legitimate “dream songs” over the years, but something on a far grander scale. Once upon a time, he dreamed a whole sound.

“It was profound,” he would recall years later, “and I’d never heard anything like it.” It was a chaotic but surreally harmonious maelstrom of ramshackle folk, stomping blues, gypsy jazz and driving rock that was gritty, raw, and archaic but also somehow futuristic, like a steampunk chamber orchestra playing a backwoods hootenanny or a post-apocalypse dive-bar. He didn’t just hear that sound, either; it was a full-sensory experience that he could see and feel too, “like horses running wild.” 

Welch would spend the better part of his teens and early 20s chasing that sound/vision before finally cornering it on his 2009 debut, Whisky Priest but he knew from the very start of that project that one album alone would not be enough to corral its full sonic and thematic scope. It demanded, at the very least, a trilogy. And time: time for each of the songs to reveal themselves in full, unforced, and find their own alignment in the cycle, and time for the songwriter himself to continue to grow along the way. Thus it would be four years before Welch delivered the second chapter (2013’s Tijuana Bible), and another six years after that before bringing the trilogy to its proper close. Not, as he’d originally predicted, before the altar of some church (be it sacred or profane), but rather full circle to a stage where art — and dreams — often as not don’t end, but begin. 

Welcome to Dustin Welch’s Amateur Theater. 

I just thought the theater was more appropriate than a church,” he explains with a grin, “and I kind like the chaos of the amateur theater in particular. But I also like the implied freshness of it, too. There’s a line in the song ‘Poster Child’: ‘The entire audience suffocates on opening night.’ I like the idea of it being opening night … again, where it all becomes new again, reborn.”

That there’s also more than a hint of devilish mischief and outright menace in that same line of course goes without saying; going all the way back to “One False Move,” the bracing opening track on Whisky Priest, the entire trilogy has been fraught with a palpable sense of danger and adversity at every turn. But through all that darkness there’s always been a thread of hope, too: either running parallel to the despair, just beneath the surface, or dangled just out of reach like the proverbial carrot. At its bleakest, Amateur Theater at times feels even more harrowing than either of its two predecessors. But it’s also the light at the end of a tunnel and, true to classical form, a sort of homecoming. 

“It’s the Hero’s Journey,” explains Welch, a voracious reader and student of literature, philosophy, and history who could spend an entire evening discussing Joseph Campbell and mono-mythic theory as happily as he could swapping songs anywhere from Austin to Amsterdam. Needless to say, he knows his Dante, too. 

“It’s pretty loose,” Welch says of his trilogy’s debt to Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, “but I was definitely conscious of it, as far as the first record being the descent into hell, the second one being purgatory, and this one being sort of the redemption. And in a lot of ways it sort of resembles my own life and what I was going through at the time. But the character in all of these songs is really just that archetype of anybody that is looking for truth, looking for some kind of value and redemption for the soul. In any kind of mythology, you establish the struggle and conflict, and how does that resolve itself? By holding onto by some kind of faith. That’s the little glimmer of hope that I keep striving for, and I feel like by the end of Amateur Theater, this character has finally achieved that. You’ve come out on the other side, and that’s where the character becomes the hero.”

Of course, none of this mono-mythic “hero” talk would matter if the actual songs didn’t hold up. But from the fearsome opening salvo of “Stick to the Facts,” a swaggering tall-tail wagger boasting “the means to take your dreams and tear them all apart / or turn an empty canvas to a priceless piece of art,” straight through to the redemptive closing prayer of “Far Horizon,” Amateur Theater is more than “just” the triumphant culmination of a decade-long trilogy; it’s a compelling document of a years-in-the-making epic journey unto itself. The earliest tracks were recorded back in 2014 at a state-of-the-art studio in Copenhagen, where Dustin and his father, renowned Americana singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, had originally planned to work on a different project entirely, using many of the ace Danish musician featured on Kevin’s 2002 album, Millionaire. Unfortunately, almost as soon as they got there, Kevin ended up laid out with three herniated discs in his neck. Having travelled halfway around the world and already booked the studio for a full week, though, they decided to make the best out of a bad situation. 

“We were able to cut a couple of songs with my dad at the beginning, but after it got to where he couldn’t even play, most of the week just ended up being my session,” says Dustin. “We had this fantastic band come in, and we cut like 16 songs in five days. Those guys were incredible — you could throw anything at them! A lot of the songs we got were first takes.”

As productive as that first session in Denmark was, though, Welch still had a long way to go after returning home to Texas. Additional recording and post-production would be done piecemeal, as funds and scheduling allowed, over the next four years at various friends’ studios in and around Austin, Nashville, and Norman, Oklahoma. All the while Welch continued to write, fine tuning new songs and revisiting others he’d long held in reserve, including “Dresden Snow,” a co-write with Cary Ann Hurst of Shovels and Rope and Bill Carson. That one, inspired by the 2005 Jonathan Safran Foer novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, actually dates all the way back to the early days of Whisky Priest. “We wrote it the same day that we wrote [Whisky Priest‘s] ‘Don’t Tell ‘Em Nothin’,’ but I knew it just wasn’t the time for that song yet,” Welch says. “I was always thinking in terms of the big picture, thematically.” 

Other co-writing friends featured on Amateur Theater, many of whom also play or sing on the record, include John Fullbright, John Hadley, Javi Garcia, Jamie Lin Wilson, Jeremiah Nelson, Jeremy Nail, Mark Germino, Scotty Melton, and Chris Luedeke. Welch also wrote three songs with his dad, each an undeniable highlight: the aforementioned “Far Horizon,” written during two of their tours together, a year apart, in Australia; the sobering “Man of Stone,” which originated as a poem Kevin wrote about a fan who’d committed suicide; and the life-affirming “After the Music” — inspired by an elderly couple Dustin witnessed waltzing together, sans music, in the middle of an empty Texas dancehall while he was packing up his gear after a show. 

Welch never actually mentions that incident in the song, let alone his belief that the couple he saw might well have been ghosts, but the beauty of the moment shook him to the soul — every bit as much as the harrowing stories of war and PTSD that he’s heard first hand from the veterans he’s worked with over the years through his songwriting-as-therapy program, Soldiers Songs and Voices. Their experiences aren’t his own, but they’re all very much a part of the “big picture” that he’s devoted the last decade of his life and art to framing. “It’s all about survival,” he offers. “The whole album — the whole trilogy — is really about going through all hell, but knowing that you’ve got to be able to press through, to keep that hope and faith, and come back home.”

Welcome home, then, to Amateur Theater. Where it’s opening night … again — and time for the restless hero’s journey to be born anew. 

“To be honest, I have no idea yet where I’ll go from here, but after being tied to this one thing for so long, now that it’s done, I feel sort of set loose.” says Welch. “What that means exactly, I don’t know — but I do think the next record’s going to be a whole different deal.”

After a little more thought, though, he can’t help but laugh.

“Maybe I’ll do a prequel trilogy …” 

AUSTIN-BASED DUSTIN WELCH EXPLORES THEMES SACRED AND PROFANE ON SELF-RELEASED SECOND ALBUM, TIJUANA BIBLE, DUE OUT FEB. 12

Posted by on Thursday, 18 October, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — Building on the thrilling strengths of his fearsomely original 2010 debut, Whisky Priest (which LoneStarMusic magazine deemed “one of the most compelling albums to come out of Texas in the past year”), Austin-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dustin Welch is set to release his second album, Tijuana Bible, on Feb. 12 via his own Super Rooster Records.

Like Whisky Priest before it, Tijuana Bible finds the Nashville-born Welch playing the part of a wickedly mysterious carnival barker, bouncing strains of Americana, rock, and folk music off of each other like a hall of funhouse mirrors. His lyrics are similarly multifaceted, reflecting literary influences ranging from American gothic to gritty pulp fiction and themes both sacred and profane. Welch calls Whisky Priest and Tijuana Bible (named after the hand-drawn pornographic pamphlets that were passed around in Depression-era work camps) the first two parts of a projected trilogy. Although the songs are neither overtly religious nor linked to each other as part of a conceptual story, many of them do share a sense of desperation-hardened fortitude — along with hints of mono-mythic mysticism. Welch, a voracious reader who home-schooled his way out of high school and now cites authors like Graham Greene, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, has read his share of Joseph Campbell, too.

“I’ve thought a lot about [Campbell’s writings on] myth and storytelling, because it’s so much a part of our fabric, and there’s a lot of that kind of mysticism in it,” Welch says. “I think a lot of these songs have a kind of glimmer of hope to them. They’re about these folks who are going through really hard times, but there’s that little bit of hope that keeps them going. Which, again, is a lot like the heroes that Joseph Campbell talked about. That’s the kind of state they’re in; I just drag these characters through all hell, but they’re holding on against all odds for this one chance of redemption.”

As for the music, well, Welch will swear on a bible — Tijuana, King James, whatever you’ve got on hand — that he dreamt it all up. And not just a song, à la Keith Richards and “Satisfaction,” but a whole damn sound. It came to him as a vision — so loud and clear he could see it like a moving picture in his mind, the notes and colors and shapes coming into sharp relief just as he was drifting off to sleep. The melody was strange and complex, a beautiful cacophony of disparate styles clashing together all at once: Celtic and Appalachian folk music set to driving rock and dexterous jazz rhythms, with big harmonies sung in a “gritty and raw,” “archaic” sounding language. “It was profound,” he recalls. “It felt like horses running wild. And I’d never heard anything like it.”

That was half his life ago, but that sound still resonates within him. And through him, because that music Welch first heard in a dream some 15 years ago is now very much his own sound, still wild and untamed but corralled into the digital grooves of Tijuana Bible, which he recorded in Austin at the home studio of producer/drummer Eldridge Goins. In addition to writing or co-writing all 11 songs, Welch plays banjo and acoustic and gut-string guitar on the album; other players include electric guitarist Jeremy Nail, violinist Trisha Keefer, pianist Scotty Bucklin, and bassist Steve Bernal, among others.

“We ended up doing some overdubs, but mostly we recorded everything live in the same room in three different sessions in three days,” says Welch, who made himself right at home on Austin’s celebrated live music scene upon moving to town just a few years ago. “This group of guys, they’re all really sophisticated musicians, and it’s funny because a lot of real sophisticated musicians like that, really all they want to do deep down is rock.”

Listen to Welch snarl, stomp, and tear his way through the songs on Tijuana Bible, or watch him ratchet up the intensity even higher onstage (even when playing solo acoustic!), and you’d naturally assume the guy was born wanting to rock himself. Fact is, he was a bit of a late bloomer, at least to that side of his musical personality. As happens when your father is a renowned songwriter (Kevin Welch) with a Nashville publishing deal and you grow up around some of the most gifted writers and hottest pickers in Music City, U.S.A., Welch was born and raised surrounded by music and displayed a natural affinity for any instrument he could get his hands on practically from the time he was in diapers. But as a teenager, most of the music other kids his age were into just didn’t speak to him. He avoided MTV and VH1. “I remember the first time I heard Nirvana’s Nevermind, I thought was the worst shit I’d ever heard,” he admits with a laugh. (Jimi Hendrix didn’t impress him much at the time, either — though he’s quick to note that he’s since learned to appreciate both.)

In lieu of rock, Welch’s earliest musical influences just naturally skewed more towards jazz, classical, blues and country. In high school, he flirted with jammy hippie fare in a band called the Groundlings (featuring singer Cary Ann Hearst, now of the Americana duo Shovels and Rope), and he later spent his early 20s playing rootsy, old-timey country and blues in Nashville’s the Swindlers with fellow “Music Row brats” Justin Townes Earle, Travis Nicholson and Cory Younts (Old Crow Medicine Show, Jack White). But then fate came knocking via an offer to join a West Coast Celtic punk band called the Scotch Greens in need of a touring utility player. It wasn’t long before Welch was reveling in the rush of playing full-throttle punk rock (on banjo and Resonator slide guitar, no less) in front of moshing Warped Tour fans.

“I think it made a big impression on me the way that people reacted to that stuff, and just the energy of it,” he says. “I’d see 500 people in a crowd of 1,500 all singing along, pumping their fists in the air. I think music can really be something that the listener can participate in. It’s the same way with some speakers and preachers; their message might not be anything real profound, but the way they deliver it, that intensity just builds and builds until everybody is empowered and feels like making a difference in the world.

All that energy and intensity certainly made a difference in Welch’s own music, once he finished his time with the Scotch Greens and moved to Austin to begin his solo career in earnest. “It came through in both my writing and my delivery,” he says. “It gave me the confidence to just make things slightly more . . . exaggerated. Exaggerated rather than glorified, though, which is what you hear in a lot of more commercial music. When it’s over-glorified, I think it robs it of its soul. But I’ve really been getting pretty idealistic about how much music can change the world, and I think the more heartfelt communication we have, the better place the world can be.”

That’s not a belief he holds on blind faith, either; he’s witnessed it in action. Welch has spent the better part of the past year and a half volunteering for the Texas chapter of the Soldier Songs & Voices program, a national organization he helped found that provides free music and songwriting lessons — and even guitars — to Armed Forces veterans. Twice a week, he meets with men and women who are finding through song a means to not only share their stories, but also cope with and make sense of their own journeys to hell and back again. “These guys we’re working with, they’re really getting their lives back, and I see it more and more every week,” Welch marvels. “And music can work that way across the board, with anybody, because it really is our common denominator. It’s the universal language, and it resonates with people on this subconscious, emotional way.”

And on Tijuana Bible, Welch uses that language to tell the trials and tribulations of a varied cast of battered and broken but not quite entirely beaten souls, ranging from the Vietnam vet of “Sparrows” to the fragile Hollywood China doll of “Party Girl” to the fire-starting whore’s son of the album’s chaotic closing title track. There are more sinners than saints here, and some of them are admittedly a lot farther off from redemption than others. As the protagonist in “St. Lucy’s Eyes” warns, “This life I lead, it’s not for the faint of heart.” But even at its darkest, Welch’s music still thunders with the exuberant spirit of horses running wild, indifferent to the line between fever dream and prophecy.###

For more information about Dustin Welch, please contact Conqueroo:
Cary Baker • (323) 656-1600 • cary@conqueroo.com

Soldier Songs & Voices featured on NPR’s All Things Considered

Posted by on Monday, 10 October, 2011

Welcome to DustinWelch.com. I’m pleased to note, my veterans’ songwriting workshop was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered as part of their Veterans’ Day coverage. Here’s a link to listen to the story: www.npr.org/2011/11/11/142230881/vets-write-music-to-heal-the-wounds-of-war. If you or anyone you know is an armed forces veteran interested in learning how to write a song or play the guitar, we meet every Monday from 5-7 at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, TX. I’m also currently finalizing the mixes on my second album entitled, Tijuana Bible, and beginning a new project with my former bandmates from Scotch Greens. You can check out some sneak previews of both at www.patronism.com/DustinWelch. Thank you all for your on-going support.