“This whole world is not about us
We’ve got everything we need
We can catch up to where
It’s gone on without us
With a little burst of speed”
— David Halley, “Speed”
David Halley is catching up, at long last. More than 20 years after his last album, the once-omnipresent, then-invisible Austinite is back with “A Month of Somedays,” a 10-track disc as good as any record a local singer-songwriter has made in this decade.
That won’t come as a surprise to those who knew Halley in his younger days, when he appeared on “Austin City Limits,” wrote songs that hit the country charts, and regularly played the city’s top clubs with one of its best bands. But the world went on without him. And so, for an entire generation, his return is more like a new arrival.
Which is why he’s our Austin360 Artist of the Month for December. At 66, Halley is easily the oldest musician we’ve selected for our ongoing series. Did the narrow straits of time finally compel him to resurface while he still has the chance?
“That makes it sound like I have more control over this than I think of myself as having,” Halley says with a sincerely humble smile. “But I am aware that people don’t live forever. My family is pretty long-lived; both my parents died in their 90s. But yeah, that’s got to be a part of it.”
In a sense, this is the second late-bloom of Halley’s life as a recording artist. When he appeared on “Austin City Limits” in 1983, part of a songwriters-circle episode with Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, he was a rising star. He’d recently followed Gilmore and Hancock to Austin from Lubbock, where he grew up. Two years earlier, another Lubbock-to-Austin migrant, Joe Ely, had included Halley’s “Hard Livin’” on his 1981 record “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta.”
In 1985, country star Keith Whitley took that song to the country top 10, and Gilmore included two Halley tunes on his 1988 record “Fair & Square.” But it wasn’t until 1990, just after he turned 40, that Halley made his debut as a recording artist when a British label released “Stray Dog Talk.”
He’d begun generating major buzz around town the previous year, assembling an ace backing crew of bassist J.D. Foster, guitarist Rich Brotherton and drummer Don Harvey. Foster produced “Stray Dog Talk,” kicking off an esteemed production career working with artists such as Cassandra Wilson, Calexico, Marc Ribot and Richard Buckner.
Dos Records, an Americana offshoot of local blues label Antone’s Records, issued Halley’s second album, 1993’s “Broken Spell,” as well as reissuing “Stray Dog Talk” in the United States. But that’s as far as Halley got.
An accomplished guitarist who once toured as a member of Nanci Griffith’s band, he picked up side gigs for a while with fellow Austinites such as Michael Fracasso and Walter Tragert. As the ’90s wore on, he began to withdraw from performing altogether. In 1999 he moved to Nashville, partly because of a publishing deal that didn’t last.
Within a couple of years, Halley was back in Austin. A bright spot was the birth of his daughter Sophie in 2002, but he was working primarily as a carpenter and rarely played music.
So what happened?
“I felt like I was making a lot of bad choices,” Halley says. “Looking back, you could say that I had my own personal insecurities about what I was doing, and whether it was really good and deserved me being in competition with everybody else in town. And then another level was ethical: Did what I was doing matter? Was it anything other than me trying to get attention all the time?”
That’s a heavy question for an artist to ask himself, but for Halley, it was deeply important. He started to doubt his personal measures of success: Drawing decent crowds to his shows, getting attention in the local press, being a constant presence in Austin clubs.
“I didn’t have a list or anything, but that was the good life for me,” he says. “So there was a little bit of self-consciousness about the exclusivity of my existence.”
Relationships began to suffer as well. Halley divorced, got married and divorced again in the ’90s. The causes, he says, “may have included my unforgivable arrogance that I wasn’t really aware of.” But he says his club-hopping habits, pursued in part to make connections for guitar-playing gigs, caused friction as well. The night life ain’t no good life, as Willie Nelson’s song goes. But it was his life, back then.
Everything added up. “It felt like little bitty parts of my reality started not working or disappearing, until there was finally enough of them to reach a kind of critical mass,” he says. “So then it seemed like I didn’t need to be playing music for a while. Although I always thought that I would probably come back to it, and I kept writing.”
There was one near-miss during that stretch. Many of the songs on “A Month of Somedays” were recorded for what was initially intended to be Halley’s third album. They included the title track, a country-folk tune written for his friend and fellow songwriter Walter Hyatt, who died in the 1996 ValuJet plane crash in Florida. Halley included a couple of Hyatt’s own tunes in those sessions as well.
But a record deal never materialized, and Halley wasn’t entirely happy with the results anyway. “I was unwilling to put out a record that I didn’t firmly believe in,” he says.
A few years ago, he started to feel like the stars were finally aligning again. “It’s like I was unable to do anything until I was able to do something,” he says, speaking almost as if fate had to run its course. “The flavor of this new period has allowed me to have ambitions and make progress toward everything, and finally here is the first of what I hope will actually be a continuing productive period.”
There were concrete developments, such as the rise of Kickstarter, which Halley used to help pay for the recording sessions. He also hooked up with Will Sexton, whom he’d known since Sexton was a young teenager performing in rock bands around town. Sexton produced “A Month of Somedays,” with Halley’s old bandmates Foster and Brotherton adding crucial musical and technical support down the home stretch.
Part of the resurgence was that Halley had written a few new songs he felt strongly about, including “A Love Severe,” a brutally honest and deeply affecting self-meditation that kicks off the new album. (A verse: “Women sometimes come to me, so confident and sure/ They see just what is wrong with me, and offer me the cure/ How I drive them all away, is the only part that’s pure.”)
And then there’s “Stickhorse Kid,” a brighter number that references vivid childhood memories of his Oklahoma grandparents visiting Lubbock bearing simple presents such as stickhorses. “We were of an age to grab our stickhorses and stampede around the yard and all over everywhere else,” he says. “We passionately pretended our lives were made into something different by the fact that we had them.
“To call myself the Stickhorse Kid is to recognize where I came from, in terms of innocence and a kind of optimism about life. Everything else in the song is just about the miracle of being alive, and how it’s a real treasure to have that.”
“Some days stretch out smooth as felt
You look at your hand and you see what’s dealt
The sun keeps rising and then sinking down
I’ve got the kind of cards that make the world go round
Tell the man to pay the winner
The Stickhorse Kid will ride.”
— David Halley, “Stickhorse Kid”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: David Halley
Backing band: Will Sexton (guitar), Amy LaVere (bass), Tom Van Schaik (drums), Betty Soo (backing vocals).
Recordings: “A Month of Somedays,” out Dec. 6; “Broken Spell,” 1993; “Stray Dog Talk,” 1990.
Record release show: Saturday at the Townsend (9:30 p.m., $10-15, thetownsendaustin.com).
Statesman video: See Halley and his band perform “A Month of Sundays” at video.statesman.com and with this story online.