A Piece of Their Souls
By Andy Langer
JULY 27, 1998: In the front of Storyville's new album, Dog Years, there's a big blue sticker declaring, "Storyville is Malford Milligan, David Grissom, David Holt, Chris Layton, Tommy Shannon." True enough. Obviously, the sticker is designed to remind music consumers outside of Austin that Storyville is a band of veterans, folks who probably play on at least one album in every commercial rock fan's collection. Locally, the sticker is, of course, redundant. In fact, the band has such a strong local presence that even the regulars at Emo's can probably rattle off Storyville's lineup man-for-man. After all, they seem to play Antone's or Stubb's every weekend, and by the amount of airplay they receive on KLBJ and KGSR, one would think they were partners with Lady Bird.
Because Storyville has, in many ways, become synonymous with Austin's music scene, it's not surprising that nearly anyone associated with the Capital City has an opinion about the group. According to the band's two guitarists, however, David Grissom and David Holt, the truth about Storyville may be quite different than anyone would guess.
First, they say, despite their Antone's home base and the fact that Storyville is about to embark on one of B.B. King's blues tours, they are not a blues band. Not only do they play few shuffles, Grissom believes there's material on the new Dog Years that's actually suited for the commercial soft rock stations like the MIX 94.7. And while Storyville may pack 'em in at home, the Austin band is not a national success story by any stretch of the imagination; Grissom and Holt admit that in their four years together, Storyville has played as many roadshows to crowds of 30-40 people as they have packed houses.
But there's more: Storyville isn't merely a showcase for frontman Malford Milligan, although the first album using that moniker, 1993's Bluest Eyes, clearly stated in its packaging that "Storyville is Malford Milligan." Nor is Storyville simply another guitar hero's band; despite their long histories playing with big names, and years spent soloing within Storyville, neither Grissom nor Holt demands the attention of younger guns like Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Johnny Lang. In fact, says Holt, "You'd be surprised how many times people ask, 'Which one of you two was the guitar player for Stevie Ray Vaughan?'"
And no, they say, Storyville isn't just a post-Arc Angels pick-up gig for the pair that did play with Vaughan, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. People just don't buy albums for their rhythm sections - even if the rhythm section is Double Trouble.
So, then, what is Storyville? The easiest way to aggravate Grissom is to conclude that it's a super-group.
"Being labeled a super-group pisses me off," says Grissom, 38. "It's been used as a strike against us. People don't look at us and say, 'These guys have done this and that and can probably go out and make 10 times as much money somewhere else, but they've chosen to try something new on their own, stick to their guns a little, and play on their own terms.' Instead, it was always more like, 'These guys aren't going to stay together. They're in it for the bucks.'
"And I'm thinking, 'What bucks?'"
"It got pretty fucking frustrating," he says. "It became a test of character. People at home may have thought we were going out, doing well, but people's perception of the music business is one thing and reality is sometimes crueler."
Holt says leaving town has been more disheartening than not.
"For a while, we didn't make any money on the road," he says. "We were in a van and staying in crummy motels. It's not like we're all used to the Taj Mahal, but it was a pretty sudden shift of the spectrum for some of us."
Worse yet, Grissom says the band was paying more money for their rooms at the Days Inn than they were pulling in at the gigs themselves, which meant spending their Texas money on the road where it disappeared into a touring sinkhole.
It's Grissom's assertion that one of the reasons they did so poorly on the road was their inability to carry with them a genuine hometown buzz. While they had become one of the steadiest draws in Austin, arguably the city's best overall draw, Storyville was never cutting edge or can't miss. The band's chilly reception in the local press didn't help matters, either; the Austin American-Statesman mercilessly ripped them in a review of their Atlantic debut, A Piece of Your Soul, while the Chronicle, whose readers voted Storyville "Best Band" two years running in the Austin Music Poll, basically refused to admit they existed. Could it have been, as local critics were whispering, that great players don't necessarily make a great band?
"I think some of that was fair criticism," says Grissom. "Great players are no guarantee of a great band. And Malford was so excited and so intense that I think, in turn, our initial tendency was to overplay and play too loud. As a result, I think we wore people out and didn't really allow any other dynamic to come through. The process of being out on the road has actually taught us to develop and appreciate the band dynamic. We've all matured, but I think it took longer than any of us thought to gel. We've all been around the block and all have our own personality quirks that we have to learn to expect, appreciate, and ultimately deal with. And we made it over that hump. We survived several tests and are still standing."
Since frontman Milligan has become skilled at keeping people at arm's length, making the real story of his upbringing, spirituality, and work with folks like Craig Ross and Stephen Bruton too hard to uncover and ultimately too deep for the average Storyville story, and because Layton and Shannon are perhaps better served with the occasional forum in Bass Player and Modern Drummer, Storyville's two Davids are the natural choice to shed some light on their band.
Despite the two guitarists' repeated denials that Storyville is not a guitar hero's band, it's easy to listen to the albums or see a show and conclude that the group's most compelling principals are in fact David and David. Not only can both play circles around the other local guitar heroes (Eric Johnson excluded), both play with obvious soul. They are also Storyville's obvious wildcards, having known each other for more than two decades, having replaced each other in various bands over the years, and having fronted one of Austin's most beloved bar bands, the Booze Weasels.
"We're good friends and we've known each other a long time," says Holt of their chemistry. "Only now we spend more time hanging out in daylight, when it used to only be at nighttime crash-on-the-couch parties."
"David and I have a lot of the same influences. ... We just processed them a bit differently," says Grissom. While Holt was listening to ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, and the Allman Brothers growing up in Lubbock, Grissom was listening the same albums in Louisville, Kentucky.
At 16, after Holt's parents moved to Tulsa, he left home and returned to Lubbock to finish high school. Rather than doing his homework, however, he began traveling a five-state area in a bar band with musicians 10 or 15 years older than him. "There were actually only a handful of guys that played in Lubbock," says Holt. "There was Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale and all the guys their age that left, and not much more after that for a long time."
In Louisville, Grissom had an easier time finding musicians to play with in high school, including a pair of drummers who were as interested as the guitarist was in replicating the Allman Brothers' dual-drummer approach.
"When I was 15, that group played a lot and was all I cared about," says Grissom. "I'd broken my leg twice in high school, so that took sports out of the picture for me. I lived and breathed music and the guitar, and found friends who only cared about those things, too. We were very much Dazed and Confused. That movie was our class."
After high school, Grissom went to Indiana University in Bloomington hoping to earn a music degree. "Unfortunately, they weren't real big on guitar players there," he says of his original one-year stint.
Instead, Grissom found a local band looking for a guitar player, the Streamwinners. Throughout 1978 and 1979, Grissom and the band tackled the Midwestern bar circuit. When they broke up, the band's drummer, Kenny Aronoff, left to join the band of a young local named John Cougar. Grissom went back to school and began working in a record store. "The first time I met John Mellencamp was at the record store," remembers Grissom. "We rented videos, too, and he'd come in for dirty movies."
By 1983, both Holt and Grissom began considering moving to Austin. At the time, Holt had been playing in blues bands in Lubbock with Jesse Taylor, who'd recently left Joe Ely's band. Later, after several passes through Austin, Taylor's band split and Holt decided to settle in Austin. Within a week, Wayne Nagel found him a gig with Bill Carter.
Grissom had a similar, if not a bit more unlikely, initial bit of luck. At the record store in Bloomington, he'd been listening to Ely, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Lou Ann Barton. Based on that record collection, he decided to pack the car, head to Austin, and crash on his only friend in town's floor. On his second day, he got a job working at MusicLand at Highland Mall. A week later, during a phone call back to Bloomington, a friend suggested he call Statesman music critic Ed Ward.
"I was so naive," laughs Grissom. "I just called him out of the blue and said, 'Hey man, I just moved here. Do you know anybody looking for a guitar player?' I'll never forget Ed being very gracious to me. He didn't know me from beans and I'm sure anybody that lived here knew better than to call him looking for a gig. But he said, 'I don't know if you're any good, but there's somebody I know looking for a guitar player. Her name is Lucinda Williams.'"
Not only did Grissom get the gig, he found an entirely new facet of music: lyrics.
"Playing with her changed the way I listened," he says. "I'd always come from not caring what the lyrics were. Did it have a good beat you could dance to? With her, I felt my focus begin to shift."
A year later, William's other guitar player, Derek O'Brien, found Grissom a slot in Lou Ann Barton's band. "All of a sudden I went from being this young pesky guitar player nosing around Antone's to being a real player in Lou Ann's band," says Grissom. "I was in."
The "in" crowd of hot shit young guitar players was relatively exclusive at the time. Aside from Will and Charlie Sexton, there were only David Murray, Grissom, and Holt. "We were the young guns," says Holt, "but not young enough to be much of a novelty. It was never, 'Look! How cute.' It was more like, 'Damn, those little fuckers can play.'"
After his stint in Carter's band, Holt began playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his own rockabilly band, the Tycoons. Around the same time, Grissom left Barton's band to play with Ely. The Lubbock firebrand's Hi-Res album was finished and Mitch Watkins had left the band. Bassist Roscoe Beck recommended Grissom, who had two rehearsals and an Antone's show to prepare for two weeks in Australia opening for Jimmy Barnes. It was the start of a six-year commitment that included Grissom's first taste of extended touring and real studio work.
"What can I say?" shrugs Grissom. "Joe gave me the chance to learn and really play. "It's a really hard thing to put into words, but there's very few people on this earth like Joe. He has so much heart and just being around him and watching him every night ... In six years, I never saw him not just totally kick ass. It didn't matter if there were five people out there, the PA was turned off, or he broke every string on his guitar. It was just this passionate embrace he'd give every single night.
"And because it was a small band, sonically, it was a wide open canvas. There were no strict rules and I didn't have to stay out of anybody's way. He liked the way I played and encouraged it. And night after night of stepping out to the edge of the stage and playing these long solos is where I felt like I learned to play. There's a thing that happens when it's live and in the moment that you don't get practicing at home."
In 1986, Holt began playing with Ely's backing band: Grissom, bassist Jimmy Pettit, and drummer Davis McClarty. The Booze Weasels were born. "Whenever Joe wasn't working, we'd get together and play the Black Cat," says Holt. "At the time, basically 1985 through 1989, I was playing every night with someone different, anyway. It felt like school. I didn't have much money and it was my nightly ritual to stay up until the sun came up, sleep until 7pm, and do it all over again."
By the end of that period, 1989, Holt had settled in as Rosie Flores' guitarist, a job that included his first real dose of West Coast touring. A year later, he was introduced to Nick Lowe by Bobby Erwin, who Holt had played with in Bill Carter's band.
"Nick said to me, 'You should play with my ex-Mrs.,'" says Holt. "And right after that, there's Carlene Carter calling and she says, 'Nick says you ought to be in my band, so I'm going to send you a plane ticket and the accountant to call you about the money. Looking forward to meeting you.'"
When Holt got to Nashville he had six days to learn Carter's career catalogue, including parts played by session legends like Albert Lee and James Burton.
"For a guy that grew up on Hendrix and Zeppelin, it was an amazing challenge to learn that stuff. The thing I discovered about country music and began to appreciate was the discipline it involved," explains Holt. "To play a slow ballad is really difficult. I was used to running as fast as I could making a lot of noise. To play a slow ballad on television separates the men from the boys. One little mistake sticks out like a sore thumb. I learned a lot about professionalism from country music."
That same year, Grissom got his call up to the big leagues, too. After playing on four songs for Big Daddy, John Mellencamp's 1989 release, Grissom was formally invited to join the singer's band. To take it, he'd have to quit Ely. "It was an easy decision to make, but a hard decision to carry out," says Grissom. "I called Joe, went out to his house and it was all I could do not to break down crying when I was telling him. He totally understood and his first words were 'You gotta go do that.'
"I knew it, but I still miss playing with him."
Almost immediately, Grissom began recording Whenever We Wanted, Mellencamp's 1991 release. "I went up there and he told me right off the bat, 'We're going to make a guitar record.' The drums had always been huge on all his records and he wanted to put the drums in a small room and turn up the guitars. So, I was sort of like the new toy and you'll see that if you listen to the record now."
Despite a trio of solid singles, "Again Tonight," "Get a Leg Up," and "Now More Than Ever," the album's sluggish overall sales marked a low point in Mellencamp's career. Nonetheless, Grissom toured for nearly two years, playing to sold-out arena crowds. He made another album with Mellencamp, 1993's Human Wheels, plus two albums with that band for James McMurtry, and even though his national profile was rising and the folks at home were proud, there was still one problem: Mellencamp himself.
"I jumped into the fire," says Grissom. "Keep in mind this was still when he was 'The Little Bastard.' He hadn't changed into 'Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky' yet. It was intense. There were incredibly great times and incredibly terrible times. Playing with that band was great. Kenny Aronoff is the best rock drummer in the world. Period.
"The chemistry within the band was great, but it was my also my first experience being in a situation where somebody would actually mentally abuse me. [Mellencamp] was an intense character and it was hard-core. Ely spoiled me. With Joe it was his band, but never once did he do anything to say 'You'll do what I say.' We were all in it together - like brothers. With John, it was clear that he was paying and I'd do whatever he wanted me to do or I could get the hell out."
As Mellencamp got ready to record 1994's Dance Naked, Mellencamp's manager called Grissom with an offer for less money and a warning that things were going to be different. "It was definitely a sign," he says. "I called him back and said, 'I can't do that.' He said, 'Fine, we'll just get another guitar player.' I haven't talked to John since."
Holt's gig with Carter ended similarly in 1992. Although she'd traveled the states with Holt, shown him the Grand Ol' Opry, and later taken him around the world on a USO tour, Carter decided to take eight months off and refused to put her band on retainer. Tony Brown, the president of MCA, knew Holt would be losing his gig before he did and started making plans for Holt to join the Mavericks, a young retro-country band out of Miami.
"I figured I'd do it so there wasn't a lapse in employment. Then I found, once I was doing it, that I was over the retro-rockabillly thing they were really into. I felt I'd done it too long; the Rosie stuff and Carlene tour was fun, but I just wasn't into this. And because I was so frustrated, I'd be condescending at times. I'd say, 'You guys don't know what you're doing. I've done this longer than you have.'
"Of course, nobody likes to hear that. I kind of shot myself in the foot there and it got to where there was a rehearsal where tempers flared and I said, 'That's it.'"
So, Holt returned to Austin and hooked up with a singer looking to fill the guitar slot in his band: Joe Ely.
Just before he parted ways with Mellencamp, Grissom says he had an epiphany. The occasion was a two-week stint with the Allman Brothers. He'd just returned to Austin from a flood relief tour with Mellencamp when the Allmans called looking to temporarily replace Dickie Betts. "I fantasized a lot as a kid about stuff like that," says the guitarist. "Getting the call and playing with the Allmans was like being on the holodeck. They were all in great shape, Gregg was singing his ass off, and everybody was just so happy their tour was still happening. It was a thrill."
For Grissom, it was also a reminder of how fun performing could be. "The experience of dealing with John took me away from the reason I started playing," says Grissom. "Learning to play and wanting to constantly get better is something I learned more from Ely. There it was about the joy, the appreciation, of being in a position to play music in the first place, and to really connect with other people you're playing with and the audience. When I went out with the Allman Brothers, it was so much fun and so rewarding that a little light went off."
Back in Austin, post-Mellencamp, post-Allmans, Grissom began building a home studio, concentrating on writing songs and recording demos with producer RS Field (Buddy Guy, Webb Wilder). One song from the sessions, "What Passes for Love," eventually made its way onto an album from one of Grissom's heroes, John Mayall. Meanwhile, another offer forced Grissom's hand - an offer to play with Rod Stewart for double the Mellencamp money.
"I was reluctant to get back into that kind of situation, because I honestly felt I was at the point in my life where I needed to sit back and re-evaluate. I felt like if I was going to take another tour or join another band, it would take another three or four years of my life. That would mean giving up on anything that was really important to me."
During the period he could have been out with Stewart, Grissom wound up cutting three songs for Malford Milligan's debut for November Records, Bluest Eyes. After splitting with his Stick People cohort, guitarist Craig Ross, Milligan alone was using the name Storyville for the Stephen Bruton-produced album that would include backing from local studio heavyweights like bassist Chris Maresh, Derek O'Brien, keyboardist Tom Canning, and Layton. Coincidentally, Layton, now finished with the Arc Angels, had also been calling Grissom about putting a band together.
Having finished with Ely in late 1993, Holt was also looking to start a band. When Susan Antone asked him to come down and join the Monday night blues jams at her club, Holt agreed on the condition she get Layton and Shannon. After Milligan began sitting in with the trio of Holt, Layton, and Shannon, Storyville was one guitar player away from formation. Whether it was Bruton, Holt, Layton, or all three that encouraged Grissom to join depends on who's story you believe.
"One thing led to another," recounts Grissom, "and to me it felt like, 'Well, this kind of thing doesn't come along too often.' I might be able to find something wrong with it, but truthfully those situations don't come along but once or twice in your life.
"I think we all just felt there was a lot of potential to do something special. And I felt like Malford is such an incredible talent. He's got what Ely had for me in terms of intensity and heart. And the cool thing was that he had so little professional experience and we'd done so many things. It was really a breath of fresh of air to be around somebody that hungry, raw, and thrilled to be playing."
Storyville was also a second chance for Grissom and Holt to play together. While the Booze Weasels were just a glorified side project, Storyville looked to be a long-term commitment - there's a big difference between playing the occasional Black Cat gig and nine holes of golf, and putting together a full-time band. Since neither Holt nor Grissom had any trepidation about sharing the spotlight, they took the plunge. If anything, the opportunity to play off each other was one of Storyville's most attractive features.
"For me it's like the one-two punch," Holt says. "Suddenly you have a trampoline instead of just the ground to jump back and forth on. You can accomplish something really cool with two guitars you can't with one. There's no doubt we could both do our own thing, but the combination of the two is far more attractive. And it was just so appealing to play with your friends in the same town you live in. I was tired of doing it the Nashville way or whatever. Suddenly, I was in a band with friends who like the same music and have the same interests."
Nevertheless, Storyville almost collapsed on the band's first tour - opening for Soulhat across the South. The band knew that Soulhat's album for Epic wasn't selling and that the brand-new version of Storyville had an even lower profile, but they still weren't prepared for the tour's overall poor attendance or the chilly reception from those that did show.
"We played a gig in what I think was Alabama for a roomful of college kids and not one person in the entire building clapped once during the entire set," recalls Grissom. "At that point, it would have been real easy to give up and go back to what's safe and what we know."
In fact, Holt says he took the Soulhat tour as indication that he had grown out of touch. "I went from being the young hot shit to being a full generation removed," says the 37-year-old guitarist. "I didn't know anything about grunge or Seattle. I realized all that Nirvana and Soundgarden stuff the kids wanted had eclipsed the want and need for the stuff I liked to do. I thought, 'Oh no! What now?'"
The answer was to keep plugging away - in the form of a four-song demo at the Hit Shack. A moderately intense bidding war followed, after which the band signed with Atlantic's new imprint, Code Blue. For Grissom, signing with the new and unproved offshoot label meant putting his name on his first record contract - and the first album on which he wasn't just another sideman.
Hooking up with a friend of Layton's, producer David Z. (Jody Watley, Prince, the Go-Gos, Big Head Todd, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd), Storyville packed their things and went to Memphis to record 1996's A Piece of Your Soul. Just before they left, Grissom's faith in his new band got a true test: Bob Dylan's people called to ask if he'd play on the original Niles Rodgers sessions for the Time Out of Mind. Recording was scheduled for the same three weeks Storyville had blocked out for recording.
"It hurt [to say 'No']," acknowledges Grissom. "I guess it was the ultimate sacrifice."
Did it matter that the Rodgers sessions were latter scrapped for new recordings with Daniel Lanois?
"It hurt," he repeats.
The resulting Storyville sessions yielded a solid, if not pedestrian, album of rock & roll, blooze, and roadhouse R&B. It sounded a lot like the work-in-progress Storyville was, yet it included a pair of singles: "Blindside," the KLBJ favorite, and "Good Day for the Blues." The latter was more of a tribute to the blues than a blues song per se, and while it did well at radio, three months after the album's release, Code Blue folded, and the band was picked up by Atlantic proper, who seemed to know very little about the band.
Still a bit unsure of themselves, their label, and their future, Storyville took to the road, using promotional visits to radio stations as a springboard for the band. "Let's face it," says Grissom. "Chris and Tommy's association with Stevie was a huge advantage at radio. That record was more mainstream rock than this one and it was certainly something for deejays and programmers to talk about."
The fact that Layton and Shannon's previous band, the Arc Angels, also met with radio success didn't hurt either. Although Grissom and Holt vehemently deny that Double Trouble's legacy could ever play itself out as baggage, Grissom will say there was a time he felt fans might come to the live shows expecting to see a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughan clones.
"From time to time, at least in my mind, I felt it was pretty obvious at certain gigs there were a certain number of people that were there because Chris and Tommy played with Stevie," says Grissom. "There would be a lot of guys with folded arms in the front checking the guitar players out. And there were nights where I thought, 'Should I play different?' It was kind of a mind trip that did me no good. I got over it pretty quick, but there was a period I found myself playing more bluesy or something - almost just to try and make that connection."
Back at home, thanks in no small part to all the KLBJ airplay, people seemed well aware of exactly what they were getting: five of Austin's best musicians under one roof. Since the middle of last year, Storyville has been playing to local, standing-room-only crowds - as many as four or five gigs a month, sometimes twice a weekend.
"For as much as we play in town, I keep expecting to show up one night to a half-full house," says Grissom. "But it's amazing. I still see a lot of the same 100 people in front of the stage every time we play. It blows my mind. And it's such a thrill for me to have this happen with a band that's our band and to have people singing songs you wrote back to you. Maybe that happens all the time, but I've never really felt that before. When I was playing with John, there were 25,000 people singing, but they weren't my songs."
In the end, A Piece of Your Soul moved a respectable 80,000 units with virtually no national press, television, or video. "We sold those records on the strength of getting in the van," says Grissom, who adds that many fans they met on the road reported not being able to find the record in stores.
Because the band had been conservative with its tour support and paid for several tours with Texas gig money rather than hit up Atlantic, the label gave them the green light for a follow-up. The band reacted by immediately hiring Bruton on as producer and recording Dog Years in just two weeks.
Whether it was Bruton's production or just a product of Storyville's time together, Dog Years is a marked improvement over A Piece of Your Soul. Whereas their debut was somewhat soft in the middle, this is a solid rock album where the soul, blues, and balladry doesn't seem forced or out of place. Not only is Dog Years a better album, according to Grissom, it's been set up for greater public consumption by all the work that went into Storyville's debut.
"By touring hard and stopping at the stations every day, we kind of clawed and scratched our way to getting a certain amount of support at radio for this one," explains Grissom.
That scratching starts again when Storyville heads out on the road with the B.B. King Blues Festival, featuring King, the Neville Brothers, and Dr. John. "We don't mind being perceived as the kids on the tour," laughs Holt.
Whether the tour winds up an exercise in preaching to the converted is yet to be seen, but it should raise the band's profile some, in time for club dates through the end of the year. Already, all indicators seem to say the album is on pace to outsell their last. And if it doesn't? While Grissom and Holt still maintain Storyville has been refined and redesigned so much it demands closer examination, Grissom hedges a little on the issue of whether Dog Years, this tour, and the band itself are now at a "make or break" crossroads.
"Going in to make this record, we did feel it was make or break," admits Grissom. "Not a career make or break, but an Atlantic or Storyville make or break. Let's face it. There's only so much Atlantic can do. And there's only so much we can do. To survive psychologically and mentally, you have to make up your mind if this is what you want to do and go after it. And playing is what I do and what I'm always going to do. I enjoy playing more now than I ever did and am playing better than ever. And I feel like our band plays as a band better than ever, and we wrote better songs for this record and we ought to be able to do even better next time.
"I think that we're as loose and as tight, at the same time, as we've ever been. It's corny, but in four years, we've been through a lot of shit together, on both a personal and business level. We've made two albums together, played a lot of gigs, and spent a lot of time in a van together. All that pays off. We've built musical equity in a way. It starts having value. You see this entity as something that's important.
"When we first got together, it could have been real easy to walk away from. I think we feel now that it's an important thing to all of us and is worth a great deal. Feeling that way about the band, when we go out and play, we're just grateful to be there. And I think that translates. And for all that, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Honestly, I really feel that way."
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