- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
When she was an aspiring young musician at McCallum High School, Carson McHone saved the money she’d made from giving horseback-riding lessons and bought a ticket to a fundraiser at Gibson Guitar Showroom featuring one of her favorite songwriters, Patty Griffin. She remembers getting to go backstage “to meet this very friendly, quiet woman, and bring her hot water with lemon,” and then seeing Griffin deliver an incendiary performance.
Such magical moments inevitably inspire a few local hopefuls to follow their own dreams and dive headlong into the city’s musical culture. This weekend, McHone celebrates a major milestone in her own journey as she unveils “Goodluck Man,” her first full-length album, with record-release shows Saturday at the White Horse and Sunday at the Saxon Pub.
It’s the latest big step in what has been a remarkable climb over the past two years for the 23-year-old native Austinite. After issuing a self-titled EP in 2013, McHone played her first South by Southwest last year and then got invited to join the inaugural class of Project ATX6, which helped bring six Austin musicians to Toronto’s NXNE and Germany’s Reeperbahn festivals. Prominent singer-songwriter Charlie Mars also invited her to sing with him at the 2014 Blues on the Green series, putting her in front of thousands at Zilker Park.
Similar opportunities arose early this year when she was booked for a “Viva the Diva” segment of the Austin Music Awards and scored an Auditorium Shores gig at SXSW with Ryan Bingham and others. In April, new releases from top-drawing local roots acts Ray Wylie Hubbard and Shinyribs featured McHone on backing vocals. Next came a cameo duet with rising Austin star Shakey Graves at a taping for an “Austin City Limits” episode that should air this fall, followed by a monthlong national tour with her backing band that included eight dates opening for Shakey Graves plus a return visit to NXNE.
“It’s been an amazing year so far,” McHone said, sounding as if she still can’t quite believe it all as she retraces the steps. “In the past eight months, I’ve learned so much. And I’d like to think that I’ve done some growing up.”
In the midst of everything, McHone found time to record “Goodluck Man” and continued playing regularly at the White Horse and Hole in the Wall, “whose walls have raised me right (or wrong),” she credits in the album’s liner notes. Former Hole in the Wall and current White Horse owner Denis O’Donnell also heads up Good Horse Records, the label issuing “Goodluck Man.”
Good Horse is a tightly knit operation with a roster consisting of McHone, Ben Ballinger and Mrs Glass. All of them recorded at engineer Daniel McNeill’s home studio, with Mrs. Glass bassist Ivan Evangelista producing. “Goodluck Man” primarily features McHone’s backing band, which includes Matt Thomas on guitar, Mitchell Vandenburg on bass, Adam Nurris on drums and Simon Page on pedal steel.
McHone says O’Donnell’s goal with the Good Horse label was simply to record “bands that are his close friends who play at his venues, and capture the live show, basically. We cut all these tracks live, so it’s just kind of a raw, real recording.”
At the center is McHone’s grounded-in-twang vocals, which carry her confessional yet guarded lyrics on tunes ranging from steel-spiked rave-ups (“City Cry,” “Good Time Daddy Blues”) to contemplative ballads (“Bouquet,” “Dram Shop Gal”) to a classic waltz (“Gentle With My Mind”). On “Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends,” McHone tries to convince herself of something she knows isn’t true; on “Ain’t You Lucky (I Love Being Lonely),” shifting rhythms suggest emotional ups-and-downs. In quieter moments, McHone’s singing strikes the same kind of balance between strength and vulnerability that has always been a hallmark of fellow Austin singer Kelly Willis’ work.
Like Willis, McHone springs from a traditional framework toward broader horizons. “These songs are pretty country,” she admits, “but if you go talk to some really old-school country musicians in town, I think they’d be like, ‘That’s not country!’ But being on this tour with Shakey Graves, or playing with any lineup that’s not a lineup of country artists, people come up and they’re like, ‘Man, I don’t like country music, but that was awesome!’ So it’s cool to be able to fall on both sides of that line.”
Though the Shakey Graves dates provided an anchor for her June tour, McHone also played more than a dozen dates at smaller venues that she and her band, primarily drummer Nurris, booked themselves. The learning experience isn’t lost on McHone.
“It’s important to know what goes into all of it,” she said. “Eventually, when somebody else starts working for you, you know all the stuff they’re having to deal with, because you’ve done it.”
She recalls having a friend visit from out of state recently while McHone was working incessantly setting up plans for the record release and another upcoming tour. “She was like, ‘I always wondered what musicians did when they weren’t playing!’ And I was like, ‘This is what we do. We sit in front of a freaking computer screen, and wish that we could be playing.
“This is the side that’s not fun at all. But it’s necessary. And if you don’t put the time into it, it’s not going to happen.”