Charlie Sexton – The Austin Kid
A few weeks before my most recent conversation with Charlie Sexton, my daughters were flipping through some family photos and found a real howler. Some guy in his early 20s with wild, bushy hair, a wisp of a beard, wearing a pink-and-white striped tank top (a muscle shirt showing little muscle), glasses so oversized they now look like goggles (or perhaps a Harry Caray homage), and a cockeyed, goofy grin.
What was I thinking? If this scrawny, scraggly geek was initially unrecognizable to my daughters as their father, he was barely recognizable to me. At different stages of your life, you look different, think different, act different. And, in the case of recording artists, sound different. Many of us have some photos tucked away that might embarrass if we shared them with the public at large (as if the public at large were all that interested). The difference between the rest of us and Charlie Sexton is that the multitalented Texan has spent practically his entire life growing up in the public’s eye, his every incarnation documented within the photo album that is the collective consciousness of musical Austin.
While it has been two decades since his debut album as a 17-year-old wonderboy and a full decade since his last disc, the new Cruel And Gentle Things — to be released September 13 on Back Porch Records — shows he has reached a rich, reflective place in his life, though it also suggests the struggle it has been for him to get there. No one has enjoyed (or endured) a career like Sexton, who has recorded only four albums under his own name over that span of twenty years, plus one as a founding member of the bluesier Arc Angels (and another with his brother Will that remains unreleased).
For those of us who have watched him come of age, the very fact that Charlie Sexton, the perennial phenom, is now 37 years old is unfathomable. Even Charlie seems a little surprised, and a little dismayed, that a career he began with such prolific promise has seen him record so few albums under his own name, and with so long in between, though the new album reflects the benefits of the other projects with which he’s been involved.
“I’m going to try to make up for lost time, but with quality attached,” says Sexton, who expects this release to launch a prolific period while reintroducing him as a singer-songwriter. Not that he has been sitting at home playing dominos during the interim. He spent more than three years on the road as Bob Dylan’s guitarslinger of choice, while supporting Dylan in the studio on the acclaimed Love And Theft. He has also established his credentials as a producer on projects ranging from Lucinda Williams’ Essence to Jon Dee Graham’s The Great Battle to Los Super Seven’s Heard It On The X to Shannon McNally’s Geronimo.
If it’s hard to reconcile the pensive, smoky-voiced maturity of Sexton’s new album with flashbacks to the videogenic kid who had a mid-’80s teenage breakthrough with “Beat’s So Lonely”, no apology is necessary from Sexton. By the time he signed with MCA at age 16, he’d already established his Austin musical bona fides — with an apprenticeship at Antone’s, a stint with Joe Ely, and frontman billing with the neo-rockabilly Little Charlie & the Eager Beaver Boys. From an early age, it was obvious to everyone that Charlie was going places.
And so he went — to Los Angeles, after signing with MCA. In L.A., he recorded a very different sort of debut album than the folks back home were expecting. When Austin next saw its great young hope, he’d been transformed into a bionic pop star with the sheen of a fashion model, the plastic visage of a Billy Idol, and even a hint of a British accent. The barrage of hype surrounding him — which included an appearance on the cover of Spin magazine in May 1986, just as “Beat’s So Lonely” had peaked at #17 on the pop charts — focused more on his chiseled cheekbones and boyish sensuality than on the musical chops he’d sharpened in Austin.
It was as if the music industry had performed a Dr. Frankenstein on Austin’s native son, with Sexton as both raw material and willing accomplice. Austin turned on the teenage Charlie as if he were Benedict Arnold for betraying the roots-rocking verities in which he’d been schooled, the ones beloved by his elders and mentors, in favor of the sounds on the radio more popular with his own generation.
“I’d been really fortunate to grow up in Austin and be close with Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan and W.C. Clark, and to hear all those great blues players and rock ‘n’ rollers,” he says. “It wasn’t like learning the blues from a Led Zeppelin record. But I was also interested in a lot of English stuff coming out, Steve Lillywhite productions, U2 and Simple Minds and whoever. I had a rockabilly band when I signed with MCA, but then the Stray Cats had their big hit, and it was like that fifteen minutes had ended. There was somewhere else to go, because I had all these interests.”
He still does, even more so, having expanded his circle of interests and influences significantly over the subsequent span of two decades. That the artist who could pass in the 1980s as a British new waver now sounds like such a weathered, Dylanesque troubadour suggests a chameleon quality to Sexton’s musical progression, yet the material throughout his career carries a thematic imprint. There’s a restless, yearning, occasionally desperate quality within the soul of Sexton’s music, from the brooding insistence of “Beat’s So Lonely”, to the fatalism of his signature anthem with the Arc Angels, “Too Many Ways To Fall”, to the introspection of the new album’s “Once In A While”, where a “blue boy” with a “haunted heart”…”sings to be free, if only in his dreams.”
“It would be an easy conclusion to say my music is like therapy, but it’s more the ‘write what you know’ cliche,” he explains. “And unfortunately, this is a lot of what I know. I know other things, too. I’ve lived a charmed life. I’ve led a horrific life. And a lot of times it goes hand in hand.”