- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Scene One: It’s a late-summer evening in 2017 at the Erwin Center, and an all-star cast has gathered to raise money for Hurricane Harvey victims. There’s Willie Nelson and Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt and quite a few more, backed primarily by Austin musicians. Slipping in and out of the frame all night is the musical director who meshed all the gears onstage at this extraordinary event. Near the end of the night, a simple, heartfelt acknowledgment comes from Edie Brickell: “Did anybody introduce Charlie Sexton?”
In Austin, Charlie Sexton is the man who needs no introduction. Seemingly destined for stardom since his early teenage years, the 49-year-old musician cut his own path instead. Raised in blues clubs and launched into the pop-idol spotlight before he could vote, Sexton ultimately has built a life not as a marquee performer, but as a masterful force just beyond the focus of center stage.
Touring guitarist, record producer, session player, musical director, movie actor: Sexton does it all, applying one bedrock principle to everything he does. “The number one thing you have to do, out of anything you do in your career or in life,” he says, “is just be as pure of heart as you humanly can be, and be sincere.”
Such no-nonsense humility is a big reason Sexton is widely beloved and revered in the local community. For his part, he’s the first to spread the credit around for the projects he takes on. “All this stuff that happens, you can’t do it without everybody,” he says, stressing that last word. True as that may be, it’s natural to look at the career arc of Sexton’s achievements and conclude that he is Austin music’s most valuable player.
On Feb. 28, Sexton will be back in a familiar spot, serving as music director of the Austin Music Awards for the fourth straight year. He’s done this a lot in recent months, including memorial concerts in December for journalist Margaret Moser and bassist George Reiff. And then there was that Hurricane Harvey benefit in September, one of the biggest concerts that has ever happened at the city’s largest music venue.
Sexton, who first took on a music-directing role for Alejandro Escovedo’s career-retrospective concert at ACL Live in 2013, knows the drill pretty well at this point. Though some of the big names in the Erwin Center lineup made it “a little trickier to navigate,” he says, “there’s not much difference between that and the music awards show, honestly.”
KGSR’s Andy Langer, who along with Kristyn Ciani of C3 Presents brought Sexton aboard for the Harvey benefit, says via email that Sexton was the “right/only call” to be the show’s music director.
“He’s the Great Organizer, and it didn’t hurt that he’s got a working relationship with just about everybody on the bill,” Langer explained. “We wanted someone who could not only get it done but who the musicians would trust.”
Things did get a bit crazy last fall, when Sexton’s plate filled up with the Harvey show in September, six weeks on the road with Bob Dylan in October and November and the two memorials in December. Of those last events, he’s quick to credit his co-directors — Monte Warden, who helped significantly with the Moser memorial at Antone’s, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who helmed the early section of the Reiff memorial at Emo’s.
Things hardly slowed down with the New Year. Sexton recently finished producing a record for Arkansas musician Ben Dickey, with whom he co-stars in the new film “Blaze,” a biopic about legendary Austin troubadour Blaze Foley that premiered at Sundance last month and will be shown at the South by Southwest Film Festival. (Dickey portrays Foley, while Sexton turns in a remarkable supporting performance as Townes Van Zandt.)
Early February found Sexton holed up at Arlyn Studios for projects with a couple of Texas artists, before preparation for the Music Awards moved to the front burner. In mid-March, he’s off to Europe with Dylan again.
“At times, people go, ‘What is wrong with you, how can you do all this?’ I’m like, I don’t know, it’s killing me. But I don’t even know how it happened. I’m just supposed to be a guitar player — sleep late, play guitar,” he says with a laugh. “The worst thing you can ever do is actually be able to get stuff done. Because people see: ‘Oh, he can get it done.’”
Scene Two: It’s the opening day of the 2017 Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park. Dozens of children in the Barton Hills Choir, teacher Gavin Tabone’s students from a nearby elementary school, have gathered on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage to kick off the fest with a special guest. “On lead guitar and vocals, do I even have to say his name?” Tabone asks. “Nooooo!” responds the crowd, though Tabone kindly gives props anyway: “Let’s hear it for Charlie Sexton!” Together they play a short, sweet set sparked by marvelous versions of the late David Bowie’s “Starman” and “Golden Years.”
Sexton first sat in with the Barton Hills Choir at Scottish Rite Theatre during SXSW 2016, part of a Bowie tribute show mixing children’s performers with veteran musicians. “The reason I did that was because my kid went to Barton Hills,” he says of his son, Marlon, who’s now a teenager playing guitar with local rocker Hunter Sharpe. He also underscores his appreciation of Tabone for “the amount of selfless involvement and what he has invested” in the Barton Hills music program.
It helped, too, that the event was in honor of Bowie, who’d died two months earlier. It was personal for Sexton, who lived in Los Angeles in the mid-late 1980s and got to know Bowie well.
“He was finishing a record out there, so he was around for months, and we would go eat and hang out,” Sexton recalls. “We actually were working on a song at my house one time,” he adds tantalizingly, noting he still has a work tape of that unfinished song somewhere in a duffel bag at his house.
Shortly thereafter, Bowie was on tour in Texas, and he invited Sexton to fly in for shows in Austin and Dallas. Out of that grew an invitation to Australia for a tour that included a filmed concert on national television. Charlie was 19. “Bless life, who can say that?” he chuckles.
A decade later, Bowie got back in touch, asking Sexton if he’d consider joining his band for a tour. Problem was, Sexton had just signed on for his first tour as Dylan’s guitarist. Bless life, indeed.
“I vividly remember being in West Palm Beach, Fla., learning Stanley Brothers, Louvin Brothers and all these hillbilly gospel songs (for the Dylan tour), which are great,” he says. “And then I get the call: ‘David wants you to come do a tour.’ It’s like driving a tractor in the fields of Kansas and a spaceship lands and they go, ‘Hey, you wanna come with us?’”
Sexton stuck with Dylan, whose songs were “my nursery rhymes” since his toddler days in San Antonio, he says. His mother moved the family to Austin when Charlie was 4, and “there’s a picture of me in a high chair in a diaper with a ‘Blonde on Blonde’ poster right behind me, in San Antonio,” he says with a smile.
He’s left and returned to the band twice since then, a rare occurrence in Dylan’s world. Is he there for good now? “I don’t know,” Sexton replies. “It’s not up to me, in a lot of ways.”
Scene Three: It’s Labor Day 2017 at the Continental Club, and Charlie Sexton is playing the place he first performed in public at age 10, when he sat in with local band the Bizarros in 1978. Accompanied on this night by drummer J.J. Johnson, bassist John Michael Schoepf and keyboardist Bukka Allen, Sexton is showcasing his own songs, an all-too-uncommon occurrence. Near the end, he switches to Wurlitzer alongside Allen, but one of the legs of its stand is falling off. A guy in the crowd comes to his rescue, jumping onstage and keeping the keyboard from collapsing. Turns out that guy is Grammy-nominated Austin country songwriter Jack Ingram. As Jack explains on Twitter the following morning, “I’ll hold Charlie Sexton’s leg any time!”
Sexton’s first break from Dylan’s band in the mid-2000s freed him up to make his first solo record in a decade, and it was spectacular. “Cruel and Gentle Things,” released on the Back Porch label in 2005, was like a culmination of everything he’d experienced up to that point. Touring with the 20th century’s greatest lyricist likely sharpened Sexton’s writing. And he’d become a respected and experienced producer, with credits including Lucinda Williams, Edie Brickell and Jon Dee Graham.
Musically, “Cruel and Gentle Things” built upon all of Sexton’s previous work. His 1985 debut “Pictures for Pleasure” may have been taken at the time by some locals as a betrayal of his blues origins, but traces of its rock atmospherics continued to inform his playing two decades later, as did the return-to-roots recordings he made with the Double Trouble rhythm section and Doyle Bramhall as the Arc Angels in the early ’90s. By 1995’s ambitious “Under the Wishing Tree,” Sexton was fully formed as a recording artist, even if his albums never sold enough to turn him into a full-on rock star.
The downside of Sexton being so good at so many things is that he hasn’t made much music of his own. It’s been 13 years since “Cruel and Gentle Things” came out. His performance last September at the Continental, a late-added show after he’d assembled the band for a gig at the Kessler Theater in Dallas, was a reminder that we need to see Sexton doing his own thing more. He still turns up from time to time around town with his lifelong friend Speedy Sparks and others in Mystic Knights of the Sea, playing mostly old-school classics. But Sexton is an insightful songwriter, and he makes great records.
Asked if he’s built up a backlog of songs over the last decade, he says yes, cautiously and without giving too much away. “Basically I’ve landed with one concept that’s what I need to do next,” he says. How to make it happen in an era when putting out records has changed drastically since his last album came out is another matter. He’s not one for crowdfunding.
“I refuse to stand on the corner with a tin cup and beg people to give me money to make a record,” he says flatly. “People do it, and I understand it, but for me it’s just so demeaning.”
Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding the right label at the right time, one that recognizes the intrinsic value of championing Sexton’s music. Even amid the recorded music industry’s ever-shrinking landscape, artist-friendly labels do exist: ATO, Merge, Legacy, Yep Roc and New West, to name a few. Might someone step up? Because as broad and deep as Austin’s musical talent pool may be, there isn’t an artist in this city whose new record I would want to hear more than Charlie Sexton’s next one.
Scene Four: It’s September 2015 at the intimate South Austin listening room Strange Brew, and singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso is onstage. Though he’s been one of Austin’s best acoustic acts since moving here in 1990, Fracasso sometimes seems forgotten in a city full of musicians where up-and-comers often get the attention. Charlie Sexton remembers, though. On this night, he’s at stage right, joining bassist George Reiff and drummer Ramy Antoun to help Fracasso’s music reach the full range of its beauty. In less than two weeks, Sexton will be back on the road with Dylan, playing to sold-out crowds in Scandinavia. But for now, he’s Austin’s own.
Fracasso, who will perform at the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday as part of a tribute to the late Jimmy LaFave, remembers well his first encounter with Sexton. It was the mid-1990s and Fracasso’s drummer had bailed on a gig at Hole in the Wall. Fracasso’s bassist, George Reiff, suggested giving Sexton a call.
“I’m like, ‘Charlie? I don’t even know him, and he doesn’t play drums, does he?’ And George is like, ‘Man, Michael, he knows all your stuff.’ So George ended up calling him for me, and Charlie was like, ‘Sure.’ I knew of Charlie’s reputation, and I couldn’t imagine that a guy like him would know my material.”
Sexton continued to join him on drums, and then guitar, at live shows over the next couple of years. When Fracasso next went into the studio to make his 1998 album “World in a Drop of Water,” he enlisted Sexton as his producer. It was Sexton’s first proper producer credit on an album for another artist.
Here’s how much value Fracasso got out of that: The credits to “World in a Drop of Water” list Sexton as playing guitar, piano, organ, mandolin, bouzouki, violin, cello, djembe and lap steel. Fracasso offered some thoughts about the arrangements when he put down his basic tracks, but he credits Sexton for turning the music into magic.
“I would go in, he’d hand me an acoustic guitar, I’d play the song — and then I’d leave,” he recalls. “But when I’d come back, it just blew my mind. It was so incredible, the work he was doing.”
The two have worked together again recently on a film score and some songs that Fracasso says might turn up on a record later this year. Asked what’s special about working with Sexton in the studio, he says, “I think the main thing is that his focus is so great when he’s working with you. I feel so much confidence, like he has my back all the time.”
That work ethic and pure-of-heart sincerity pervade every aspect of Sexton’s musicianship. “I was watching him at George’s memorial, and how he was constantly a conductor,” Fracasso says. “The one thing you always get from Charlie is that he always does his work. He’s gets into it and really is dedicated, and committed.”
Scene Five: It’s December 2017 at Emo’s, and dozens of Austin musicians have gathered to honor the life of George Reiff, who died of cancer earlier in the year. There’s Charlie playing and singing passionately with Fracasso, with the Dixie Chicks’ Emily Strayer, with the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, with Austin expat Ian Moore, and with Sally Allen on his own uplifting rocker “Everyone Will Crawl.” “I dreamed I was flying, I dreamed I was free,” they sing out, and the spirit of George soars across the room. True to form, the night’s music director gives credit where it’s due. “The guy that made all that happen,” Charlie says simply, “was George.” With a little help from his friends.