- By Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Christine Albert wastes no time in staking the turf of her new album “Everything’s Beautiful Now.” Here’s how the opening song begins:
“I can’t grieve anymore/ I’ve seen so many sail away from my shore/ Never to come through the door again.”
A fixture in Austin’s singer-songwriter community since moving here from New Mexico in 1982, Albert confronts the reality and finality of death on many of the record’s tracks. “Over the last several years I have experienced the loss of many people close to me,” she explains in the liner notes. An “In Memory Of” dedication lists her father and mother-in-law, several good friends, and fellow Austin musicians including Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Caryl P. Weiss and Steven Fromholz.
In recent years, Albert has become known primarily for her work with the Recording Academy, the organization responsible for the Grammys. She’s chair of the Academy’s Board of Trustees, after serving a term as vice-chair and several more years as a trustee. She’s mostly made records with her husband Chris Gage for the past 20 years, sprinkling in a couple of English/French bilingual albums along the way.
“Everything’s Beautiful Now,” for which she plays a release party Thursday at Strange Brew, is her first solo singer-songwriter record since 1995’s “Underneath the Lone Star Sky.” The music industry has changed immeasurably since then, as have Albert’s ambitions and life direction. At that time, a career as a performing and recording musician was still a viable prospect. Today, her motivation is different.
“I’m past the point where I’m trying to make some huge mark,” she says. “I just need to express what’s going on in my life. And it’s more informed by where my life has gone: I did these other things and found an outlet.”
In addition to her role with the Recording Academy, Albert also founded a nonprofit called Swan Songs, which presents musical performances by request to terminally ill patients at no charge. Planning, and sometimes playing, those events put end-of-life experiences more into focus for Albert, and that influenced the new record along with her own recent losses.
“The songs were coming from my personal experience, but as I was making the record, I realized that this probably comes from being in so many situations with Swan Songs, too,” she says, noting that part of the proceeds from album sales will go to the organization. “Being in the room in those situations, I’m sure it called my creative attention to the issue. But it was really not conscious; it wasn’t like I thought, ‘I need to make a Swan Songs album.’”
The record’s title seems incongruous at first, but it comes from a very real and moving conversation Albert had with her mother-in-law, Darleen Gage, during her final days. “‘Everything’s beautiful now’ is what she said to me when we finally put her in bed, we knew she was dying,” she says. “The nursing home kept getting her up and putting her in a wheelchair, but she hadn’t eaten in three days; she was obviously in the dying process.
“I put her in her pajamas and put her in bed, and she just said, ‘I’m in bed and I’m on my side, and everything’s beautiful now.’ It was all she wanted; she was so ready to start to let go.”
A sort of parallel track on the record is a cover of Warren Zevon’s touching “Keep Me in Your Heart,” the last song on the singer-songwriter’s final album before his death in 2003. Albert had sung the song with her husband at her father’s funeral in 2011, “but I hadn’t thought about it for this album,” she said. When her son, Troupe Gammage of the local indie band Speak, mentioned recently that he had been learning how to play the song, she realized what a good fit it was.
Gammage sings harmony vocals on the track and also contributes a duet vocal to the Shake Russell and Dana Cooper tune “Lean My Way.” It’s one of a few songs that don’t deal with death or loss, but rather celebrate connections with loved ones who are still very much a part of Albert’s life.
A fan from Houston had suggested the song to her, “and I just kept hearing Troupe’s voice,” she says. “I love singing with him, and it was a perfect mother-son duet. It’s hard to find lyrics that work that way” she says, in reference to lines such as, “Turn your face up to the sun/Two can stand as one/Darling if you lean my way.”
“It’s really the way our relationship has evolved, as he gets older. He’s one of my best friends, and sometimes I’m leaning on him just as much as he’s leaning on me. So it was great to be able to say that to each other.”
Gammage, born in 1988 during Albert’s first marriage to longtime Austin musician Ernie Gammage, very much has followed in his parents’ footsteps. Like Albert, he left college at 19, determined to pursue a life in music. That made Albert nervous at first, but “the minute I let go and said, ‘OK, I get it, you want to do it, I support you,’ he got really determined and focused. And he was making money writing video game music within weeks, and his band started to just take off.”
The album’s third track, “Old New Mexico,” involves close connections to friends, specifically fellow Austin musicians Jerry Jeff Walker and Eliza Gilkyson. Albert co-wrote the song with Walker, though she gives him full credit for creating the song initially.
“Chris plays with him, so I’m around Jerry Jeff quite a bit,” she says. “He played ‘Old New Mexico’ for me at a couple of gigs backstage. And I said, ‘Jerry Jeff, that’s my story: You’re writing a song about leaving New Mexico and finding your fate down the road. That’s what I did!’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah.’”
As the song’s verses evolved, Albert eventually revised and contributed some lines that steered the content more toward her specific Santa Fe-to-Austin move three decades ago. “When he finally heard my version, he said, ‘Well, you’re a writer on this now, because you’ve really turned it into your song.’ Which I really appreciated, but the feel of it and the whole story came from Jerry Jeff.”
Walker contributes a vocal cameo on one of the verses, as does Gilkyson, whose New Mexico-to-Austin transition nearly mirrored Albert’s. “We left Santa Fe at the same time,” Albert says. “She’s singing about her experiences, and reinforcing mine. So it was really special to have them both on there.”
From a songwriting standpoint, it’s one of the best things Walker has been involved with in decades. Its exquisitely poetic lyrics include lines such as, “Like a snake that sheds its skin on the road, I would be gone” and “There’s a wind we call blue norther, that will cut you to the bone/And blows away all memories of Old New Mexico.” One line even ties neatly back into the album’s overarching theme: “This earth is all that will remain, when everything we know is gone with the wind.”
One of the most profound losses for Albert, and for Austin, in the past year was the death of singer Sarah Elizabeth Campbell in December. For nearly two years, Albert and Campbell had co-hosted Mystery Monday, a dinnertime show at El Mercado with special guests sitting in each week.
The show was a successor to Campbell’s long-running Bummer Night series that began in the 1990s at La Zona Rosa and continued at Artz Rib House until its closure in 2012. Albert had been seeking a weekly outlet “just to use my voice every week regardless of how busy I was with other stuff,” and when Campbell suddenly found herself free on Mondays, the pairing was a natural.
They started up in November 2012, but just two months later, Campbell was diagnosed with liver cancer. She continued as co-host throughout 2013, though “the prognosis kept changing and getting worse,” Albert remembers. Campbell’s last Mystery Monday appearance was on Dec. 23; she died three days later.
“We were all trying to get ready for what was to come, but we weren’t ready,” Albert says. It was unclear whether Mystery Monday could continue without Campbell, but good friends quickly stepped up.
“Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock had been coming out real regularly, and they loved it,” she says, noting that the shows had become reminiscent of a Wednesday series Gilmore and Champ Hood hosted at the original Threadgill’s north location in the 1980s and ’90s.
“So I called Jimmie and said, ‘Would you do these first couple weeks with me? Because I don’t know if I can emotionally get onstage and do this. I just need the support of a good friend.’ So he did two weeks. And then he goes, ‘I can do the rest of the month.’ And then he said, ‘I can do next month.’ And he ended up doing four months.”
At the end of each Mystery Monday, Albert and her cohorts send the crowd home with the traditional gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.” It has been an all-too-fitting finale on many weeks, but Albert has learned to come to terms with the losses as part of the cycle of life.
“I finally realized, oh, this isn’t an anomaly — this is the next stage,” she says. “So many people around me are going through it. I also thought: Is this too personal or too self-indulgent for me to process all of this through my music? And then I realized, every time I turn around, a friend is going through the same thing. So it just speaks to a certain age. But it’s pretty universal.”