“My mountain, the wind begins to moan
I’m battered and broken, there’s still a ways to go
When the night is bearing down on my soul
I call on a friend to help me lift this heavy load”
The bluesy opening track of Jeremy Nail’s new album “My Mountain” references natural forces, a recurring theme on the record. Tides and waves gently propel the rhythm of “Down to the Ocean”; a river flows to the sea in tranquil tones of “The Great Mystery”; trails and pastures dot the dreamlike journey to the “New Frontier.”
But that mountain in the first song is more than just a metaphor.
“I was at inpatient rehab at St. David’s, and on the first floor, there’s a ramp to go up. The incline’s probably like this,” he says, indicating a very minimal rise with his forearm.
“During physical therapy I would go up and down that thing. They called it Mount St. David’s. It looked so small — but training with the leg, it just felt like you’re going up Everest.”
The story of how Nail, 35, came to climb that mountain stretches out over several years. A native of the small West Texas town of Albany, Nail earned a degree from the commercial music program at South Plains College in Levelland and moved to Austin in 2005, hoping to become part of the city’s music scene.
In 2007, he released “Letter,” a richly melodic rock record that documented his early efforts at songwriting with help from bassist/producer Mark Addison and Fastball drummer Joey Shuffield. Subsequent collaborations — he wrote some songs with Dustin Welch, and teamed up with Johnny Goudie and Kacy Crowley in the group Liars & Saints — eventually led to a chance to play guitar in Alejandro Escovedo’s band.
“Jeremy wasn’t the flashiest guitar player on the block, but he was very, very good,” Escovedo says, recalling when he auditioned Nail in 2012. “He understood songs and songwriting, and he was sensitive to that.”
The material was a quick study for Nail, who’d seen Escovedo perform at the Continental Club on countless Tuesday nights over the years. His first show with Escovedo’s band was a music festival in Norman, Oklahoma, in early 2012.
“We had a great gig, a great response, and he looked like part of our band,” Escovedo says. “He just had that vibe where I knew it was going to be something special.
“And then I remember Jeremy saying, ‘I have this lump on the back of my knee and I need to get it checked.’”
The lump turned out to be sarcoma, a very rare form of cancer. Nail soon underwent surgery and radiation treatments, which meant giving up the opportunity to tour with Escovedo.
Things got better for a while: Nail played again with Liars & Saints, and somewhere in the midst of it all, he started writing songs again. Then things got much worse: In 2014, the cancer recurred, and this time the doctors came to the conclusion that Nail’s leg could not be saved.
“The word amputation, just the thought of that, was so frightening at first,” Nail says as we talk at a South Austin coffee shop on a sunny April afternoon. “Just thinking that I’ll have one leg for the rest of my life — it was like a black cloud that comes over you.
“But the thing about the kind of sarcoma I had is that if you leave it in, it spreads to your lungs,” he continues. “I remember a friend of mine called me one night and was like, ‘Man, the amputation is a blessing. You won’t have cancer anymore.’ And it made me think about it in a different way.
“I knew that I wouldn’t feel that pain anymore. It would get so tight by the end of the day, like someone has this grip on you at all times. Living with that pain was hard to deal with. And I didn’t have to feel that anymore.”
“I guarantee you haven’t seen what I’ve seen
I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy
The face of death staring back at me
Tell me what else you got.”
That’s the first verse of “Tell Me What Else You Got,” the final song on “My Mountain.” What might be dramatic license for many songwriters is straight documentary for Nail in those lines.
The inspiration came from a horoscope that quoted a line from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”: “I stand on the edge of a mountain and chop it down with the back of my hand.” Nail figured that “there needs to be a song that has that sentiment: You put me through all of this … and I’m still here. What’s next?”
Most of the record isn’t so transparent or direct. The bouncy pop chorus of “Dreams,” the quiet determination in “Survive” and the fearlessness of “Brave” can connect easily with listeners regardless of the back story.
“They were songs that really healed me in a lot of ways; it’s where I went when I had something on my mind,” Nail says. “It was my therapy, but I wanted it to be universal — I wanted everyone to take what they could from it.”
Nail got considerable help in realizing his goal from the musicians who joined him on “My Mountain.” If that line from the title track can be taken at face value — “I call on a friend to help me lift this heavy load” — it was Escovedo especially who stepped up when it came time to make the music.
The two had reconnected when Nail attended an Escovedo show at ACL Live in January 2015. It was a few weeks after the amputation, and before Nail had begun using the prosthetic leg that now allows him to function more normally.
“I told him, ‘We need to play together again,’” Escovedo recalls. “Then March came along and it was South by Southwest, and I asked him to come and play ‘Always a Friend’ with me at Maria’s.”
Nail took him up on the offer — a good call, as among those who made it out to the show was actor Bill Murray, who often makes the rounds during SXSW.
“It was the first time he’d played standing up” since the amputation, Escovedo noted, recalling that their mutual friend Michael Lahrman “kneeled behind Jeremy and held him by his belt buckle. The place just went crazy. I remember Bill Murray coming up with tears in his eyes and saying, ‘I never have to see another show for quite awhile after seeing that.’”
Shortly thereafter, Escovedo arranged for Nail to record “My Mountain” at Austin studio the Church House with a band that included guitarist Chris Masterson and violinist Eleanor Whitmore (of Americana duo the Mastersons), bassist Bobby Daniel and drummer Chris Searles. Those musicians have become Nail’s backing crew at recent shows, including Friday’s record-release party at Strange Brew.
“I’ll be by your side
Take the time to heal yourself
You’ll always be a light”
“Survive” is perhaps the most moving song on “My Mountain.” Its magic is in its subtlety. Masterson’s electric guitar accents give the song just enough support without overreaching. Harmony vocals — from Dana Falconberry on record, with Whitmore taking the parts onstage and in our Statesman studio video of the song — add a touch of beauty behind Nail’s calm words of self-assurance.
“His songs were so full of spirit,” Escovedo says. “We worked on them until we got to the heart of the songs, but he had a lot of heart in them already. There’s honesty, and emotion, and truth — an unblinking look into where he was at that place, in that time. I have great respect for that.”
Writing these songs meant “just getting out of the way and letting the pen do the work,” Nail says. “I felt like I had a subject that I had to tackle, and I wanted to be straight up about it. That was the only way to get the message across.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Jeremy Nail
Backing band: Chris Masterson (guitar, harmony vocals); Eleanor Whitmore (violin, harmony vocals); Bobby Daniel (bass); Chris Searles (drums).
Recordings: “My Mountain,” out this week; “Letters,” 2007.
Record release show: Friday at Strange Brew (10 p.m., $10-15, strangebrewloungeside.com).
Statesman video: See the band perform “Survive” in our studio at video.statesman.com and with this story online.