Written by Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher in the early 1970s, “You Are So Beautiful” is an extraordinarily simple song that relies heavily on the power and emotion of a great singer. The legendary Joe Cocker was perfect for it: His top-5 version in 1975 became one of his signature songs. So if you’re going to record “You Are So Beautiful,” you better have game.
Kevin Galloway has it. A decade of playing shows and making records with roots-music outfit Uncle Lucius established Galloway as one of Austin’s finest singers. His voice is rich, full of character and versatile; he can swing from an easygoing croon to a full-on soulful shout.
But the reason he chose to include “You Are So Beautiful” on “The Change,” his solo debut out this week via Nine Mile Records, is far more personal.
“I have a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old, and it was the first song I sang to both of them,” says Galloway, our Austin360 Artist of the Month for August. “Like when I’m holding them in my arms and I’m in the hospital with my wife still. With my son, it was the first song that just popped in my head, so I did it with my daughter as well.”
Cocker’s rendition, minimally arranged by Jimmy Webb, featured just piano and bass and clocked in at less than three minutes. Galloway’s take incorporates the second verse that appeared on Preston’s original 1974 recording and includes electric guitar, light percussion and pedal steel.
He’s not trying to make people forget the definitive Cocker version. “I thought about it really hard, because you’re going to be compared,” he says. “But it’s not about worrying what anybody thinks. It’s about doing what you love and what you’re happy with, and from a genuine place.”
That’s a good summation of Galloway’s approach to music right now. Those two young children are a big part of why he put Uncle Lucius to bed after their final album, 2015’s acclaimed “The Light.” Getting married and starting a family motivated him to spend less time on the road, where Uncle Lucius primarily made their living.
After Friday’s 5 p.m. in-store at Waterloo Records and an album-release show at the Continental Club later that night, Galloway will spend much of August playing shows around the state, but not beyond. Occasionally he’ll travel with the kids and his wife, Kayla Galloway, who used to be Ray Wylie Hubbard’s tour manager.
Accompanying Galloway at Waterloo and the Continental will be several of the musicians who played on “The Change,” which was made at East Austin Recording studio with Hal Jon Vorpahl and James Stevens co-producing. Vorpahl, a co-founder of Uncle Lucius, also wrote the album’s instantly infectious opening track, “Don’t It Feel Good to Smile.”
“I’ve always trusted him, and it felt like second nature to ask him to produce,” says Galloway, who also brought in former Uncle Lucius bandmate Jonathan Grossman to play keyboards on the album. Grossman contributed a song as well, and he’s part of the band playing the release shows, along with guitarist Doug Strahan and pedal steel ace Kim Deschamps.
Others on the album included Willie Nelson bassist Kevin Smith and drummer George Duron, who’s played with Jon Dee Graham. Their instrumental contributions perfectly complement the sound and style of Galloway’s voice and writing, which draw deeply from the musical influences of his youth in the coastal town of Freeport just south of Houston.
“Hal calls it Gulf Coast country soul,” Galloway says. “You close your eyes and it feels like you’re down in a little bar in Houston, or in Lake Charles or something,” he says. “But they’ve got that country thing too — real country, not an urban (style).”
Not that Galloway is necessarily averse to the “Urban Cowboy” notion. That 1980 movie, he says, partly reflected the lives of his parents, who frequented Gilley’s, the nightclub where much of “Urban Cowboy” was filmed. And the soundtrack included “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” by Austin troubadour Rusty Wier, who became a mentor when Galloway moved to Austin in 2002 after attending junior college in East Texas.
Not long after the move, Galloway started frequenting an open mic Wier hosted at Gino’s, a South Austin Italian restaurant. One night after Galloway played, Wier offered encouraging words.
“He said, ‘How long you been doing this?’ I said, ‘Not really long.’ ‘And he said, ‘Man, stick with it,’” Galloway recalls. “It’s one of those cool experiences you look back on. I didn’t realize the power of it in the moment, but it gave me inspiration to keep going.”
It seems almost fated that Wier, a fixture of Austin’s 1970s outlaw-country scene who died in 2009, ended up having a place in Galloway’s life story. More central to that story is the ultimate album of that era, Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger.” There’s a reason Galloway’s new album includes “Hands on the Wheel,” the next-to-last song on “Red Headed Stranger.”
“It’s kind of the reason I’m alive,” Galloway says of the classic 1975 album, which played repeatedly on his father’s eight-track player during an extended trip west when his dad was 18 (before Kevin was born). Galloway’s mother and father had met for the first time just before his dad’s journey west. When he returned, they saw each other at the Brazoria County Fair. The band started playing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” the best-known tune on “Red Headed Stranger.” The rest soon was history.
Except that there’s more to it, going back even further in time and farther in distance. When Galloway called “Hands on the Wheel” songwriter William Callery to ask for permission to record the tune, he learned that Callery was originally from Owensboro, Kentucky — the same town where Galloway’s father was born. “He knows Galloways that I’ve never met,” Kevin marvels.
Though the cover tunes on “The Change” help to fill out Galloway’s artistic identity, his own songs are at the heart of it. None more so than “Face in My Mind,” which could serve as a love song to a sweetheart: “I”ve got your face in my mind/ My only hope is that you can remember mine.”
Except that he wrote it for his kids. With this in mind, the chorus rings even more true. “I cannot recall not knowing you,” Galloway sings. “My faith in something more has been renewed.”
“I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody anymore,” says Galloway, sounding both content with where life has led him, and inspired to follow where it may go next. “I just want to be happy and in the moment, and explore many things.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Kevin Galloway
Recordings: “The Change,” out Aug. 3. With Uncle Lucius: “The Light” (2015), “And You Are Me (2012), “Pick Your Head Up (2009), Something They Ain’t (2006).
Release shows: Aug. 3 at Waterloo Records (5 p.m., free) and Continental Club (9 p.m., Doug Strahan & the Good Neighbors open, $10).