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 …”