Musician and Radio Host Paul Slavens Looks Back on 25 Years of North Texas Music
Stephen Masker Paul Slavens performs with The Baptist Generals at 35 Denton in 2012.
Editor: This year, we're celebrating the 25th Dallas Observer Music Awards. Our coverage will include recollections from last quarter century of North Texas music. Paul Slavens was one of the only musicians to be nominated for the first DOMA, in 1988, and also this year. Here, the musician, radio host and North Texas music lover reflects.
The Dallas Observer Music Awards are 25 years old this year. A lot has changed in North Texas and in the world of music since then. When the first DOMAs were awarded, the vinyl album and the cassette were the dominant formats. KERA was a music station. Central Expressway had stoplights on the entrance ramps. We still had blue laws. I had lots of hair.
I was just getting started then, fresh from Nebraska and blissfully ignorant. I lived in Denton for three years before I worked up the nerve to come to Dallas. I grew up in the cornfields and Dallas was the big city. When my band Ten Hands booked gigs at the Prophet Bar, it was the first time I had set foot in Deep Ellum. Then, there was nothing but the Prophet Bar, Theater Gallery, empty warehouses and some bums. Props to Russ Hobbs (who at the time owned Theater Gallery and Prophet Bar) and Jeff Liles (who booked bands, there and elsewhere). I always felt like they started the whole thing down there.
I was half scared of being mugged and half delirious with amazement that I was playing music on a real stage in a big city. I still have the copies of the Observer in which our first club listings appeared. Not articles about us. Not blurbs. Just the name listed in print in the listings. I have the first blurb printed about us, too. In fact, I have a box that has pretty much every Observer where I have been mentioned. Twenty-five years' worth. For some reason it just means something to me, or my ego, or whatever, to have my name appear in the Observer. Somehow, I have always considered the DO to be the paper of note concerning local rock music. I figured, a hundred years from now, this will be the source for what happened during my musical lifetime in North Texas, and I want my name to appear as much as possible. Narcissistic? Of course, but when you are a band trying to get noticed, it is a good thing to be noticed by someone who gets paid to notice bands. Back in 1988, when the first DOMAs were held, Clay McNear was the music editor. I can't honestly remember if I ever met him, though I probably did.
But the thing is, I didn't want to meet him. I wanted him to be unapproachable, passing some kind of ultimate righteous authoritative judgment on the music scene. The eye that saw all. That way , when he said nice things about me or my band, I could feel really good about it. You just held your breath every Thursday when you cracked the magazine open and found Street Beat, praying for good press, praying you didn't get bad press.
In 1988, there were just a scant few places where a musician could hope to get some press, and for young bands the Observer was the place you wanted to get it. The big papers would swoop down and do a little blurb about a local band once they got established, every once in a while. But the Observer had a whole section on local music every week.
So when the Observer decided to hold their first DOMAs, it was a pretty big deal to those of us who were vying for attention in the Deep Ellum music scene. There are some pretty heavy hitters on the list of nominees for the first DOMAs: Brave Combo, New Bohemians, Reverend Horton Heat, Sara Hickman, Bugs Henderson, Rhett Miller, The Legendary Revelations. They all went on to great success. Most are still making music, 25 years later. There is a laundry list of long-gone bands that reads like a history of early Deep Ellum: The Trees, Shallow Reign, DDT, Three on a Hill, Café Noir, Loco Gringos, the Daylights, Rigor Mortis. And there in the New Music category (whatever that meant) was Ten Hands. My band. You cannot even imagine how excited I was. It was validation, handed down from on high by the Almighty Dallas Observer and its Omniscient Benevolent Music Editor. It was like a dream.
Bobby Jack Pack
As the music editors came and went I actually got to know some of them. They were not superhuman. Talented, nice people, don't get me wrong. But I came to realize that the Observer was just people trying to keep up with what was happening, have an opinion on it and put out a paper every week. It was still a thrill to get nominated, but I had changed too.
By 1992 my band had started to fall on hard times. Deep Ellum was changing, our fans were getting older, and the new fans liked newer bands. Grunge was just beginning to happen and we didn't really fit with the harder, more aggressive music that Denton was producing or the smart pop that was taking over in Dallas. Also, band member changes and domestic life took its toll. Ten Hands stopped showing up on the nominee lists. I tried to tell myself it didn't mean anything. And it probably didn't.
A whole new generation of bands and musicians took over: young, talented and ready. Bands like Sorta flooded the scene with new, virtuosic musicians. Bands like the Paper Chase, The Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Old 97's and Erykah Badu found success beyond what most of the old Deep Ellum bands could muster.
By the time Ten Hands officially broke up, I had moved into doing comedy and voice work. I was writing music that was very different from what I had done with the band. For the next 10 years, I didn't make the list. And I could feel it, I could feel that I needed to do something to transcend the past and be relevant again. Not being on the nominee list didn't tell me that. I knew it in my heart, but not making the list confirmed it.
One day my friend Joe Cripps gave me some good advice. He suggested I get involved in other people's projects instead of just working on my own. It sounds simple, but I had never really thought of it. I joined a band, then another and kept on doing it. I met people, felt useful and started reconnecting with the music community.
About the same time, I lucked into a Sunday night slot playing whatever the hell I wanted on KERA-FM 90.1 (Thanks forever to Abby Goldstein). I took the job seriously and drew on my love of the shows Chris Douridas and Liza Richardson used to do on the station back in the old Deep Ellum days. And you know what? I showed up on the nominee lists again. The DOMAs didn't put me back on the radar, but they confirmed that I was there.
I am proud of my show (now on KKXT-FM 91.7) and I work hard to make it great. And it is always a great honor when it is nominated, because it's a category that fits me well. It doesn't always work like that. You can feel a bit embarrassed to be nominated if you get stuck in a category you don't feel you belong in. I was nominated as Best Jazz Act a couple years ago, and to my horror I won. I've got news for you: I'm not the best jazz act in town. I live in Denton, and I'm not even the best jazz player on my block.
The process is imperfect, and sometimes it's laughable and frustrating. But in the end the DOMAs are just trying to celebrate what we have. To give encouragement to new voices, to reassure older artists that they still matter, to say thanks to the people and entities that surround and create and nurture the music scene. That's why, when they handed me my jazz award, I accepted it and tried to be as appreciative as I could be. I was on the radar as a musician again, I made the list.
Mike Brooks The Granada won Best Venue at last year's DOMA.
I made the list this year. I don't see many names from the old days. But that is just fine. The names that do appear are of a new generation of musicians. It makes me proud of my hometown, proud of the new friends I've made and proud of myself to be in their excellent company.
I was in Deep Ellum at the Index Festival recently. It was nice to be on the street I know and love so well, with Trees and Dada both open and full of music and people, hearing it blasting out over the street, seeing crowds of people watching local and national bands right in the heart of Deep Ellum, where it all started. Checking out new clubs and old clubs reborn as new clubs.
Things are much more "together" now, which is good and not so good. I ran into a lot of people I hadn't seen in awhile, including one of the true pioneers of Deep Ellum. I asked what he thought of the festival, Deep Ellum now and then and the DOMAs. He described the atmosphere in the '80s as "wild abandon." People giving their lives and spending themselves into debt making music, starting clubs, living the dream. It was a dream. A dream we all lived together, which made it possible for it to become reality for just a brief while. But you can't live a dream for long, and you can't live someone else's long-gone dream, and you cant re-dream.
We can talk all day about the DOMAs and who is who and who is what and who made the almighty list. We can celebrate and pat ourselves on the back and say, "Look what a nice scene we have. Look at all the talent." But without an audience, without the crowd, the hardcore fans, the weekend people who still would rather see a band live than look at a screen on their night off, without you none of it works. Hopefully what the DOMAs can do is spark interest in local talent and make people come out and be participants. To rock. To drink (responsibly), to scream and laugh. To give the energy to the band so they can amplify it and blast it back at you. To buy the CD, or pay the cover or wear the T-shirt. And in the end, even though voting is a crappy way to pick a winner, it's the best way. It's the way that the fans get to have their say, because the fans are the gas that makes the car go vroom.
They are the difference between a band standing on stage in an empty club and the same band in a packed room. One of those bands is missing a member. The other one is where the dream can be lived for a few minutes. So spend some time with the DOMA winners, and spend more time with the nominees. Take the whole thing with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila) and be a part of the celebration. Who knows? Maybe we can make some new dreams happen.