The South Austin Moonlighters
The joy of music is found not just in the words, notes, and grooves, but in the connections that we forge with each other through them. That's what beats at the heart of the South Austin Moonlighters and has since their very first gig. “The first time we performed an original composition, the instruments and voices fell right into place immediately,” bassist/vocalist Lonnie Trevino says. “It was obvious that something special was happening. We felt like kids again.” And so it was that Trevino joined forces with guitarists/vocalists Chris Beall and Phil Hurley, and then-drummer/vocalist Phil Bass who was later replaced by Daniel James.
Flash forward about five years to find the Moonlighters solidifying their vision and their voice on their new release, Travel Light. Pulling from all possible corners of roots music — Americana, folk, country, blues, Southern soul, and rock & roll — the band's sound coalesces around stellar playing and soaring harmonies, all contributed in a thoroughly egalitarian fashion. “Any one of us could be the 'frontman,'” Beall explains of their four-strong stance. “I think what makes it unique for me is that we are all as supportive of each other as we are for ourselves. That’s a big deal — it says something about the foundation of the band and why we do what we do to begin with.”
By sharing songwriting and singing duties, Beall, Hurley, and Trevino each get to have their voices heard which is a rare commodity in band-land. Hurley echoes the uniqueness of that point, “We’ve all acquired a large tool box of skills through years of musical endeavors. This group allowed us to use them all over the course of one night. Each guy can step up and command your attention, but we are all equally good at listening and supporting. It’s rare to find musicians who are that well-rounded, yet grounded, as well. Egos don’t really have to get in the way because we can all see that success for the group is success for each of us.”
Produced by Anders Osborne, Travel Light aims to achieve that success for the Moonlighters with a big-tent sound. The set opens with “Feels Like Home,” its rough-and-tumble groove cloaking its visceral vulnerability. Though Hurley says that he's never been afraid of hiding his own emotions, the bold rawness of the song's music and meaning might help some to de-couple the cultural connection between vulnerability and weakness in order to find their own inner strength. “That song came out of the ashes of my life getting really burned to the ground,” the songwriter says. “For me, that is a song of hope. I wasn’t completely healed, but I was starting to feel that I was getting my legs back under me.”
The mood shifts for the title track, while not entirely abandoning the grit and gravitas of its predecessor. A Beall contribution, “Travel Light” allows that it's easy enough to know what we should do to lighten our loads, and another thing altogether to actually do those things. As he concedes, “Sometimes I write about the way I wish things were in hopes that I would make it that way.” Beall's own journey toward traveling light comes in baby steps. “It begins in small ways — maybe five-minute increments — where I let go of something, like working at night, to spend time with my son in his playroom instead. Or maybe it’s a change in the way you think about things. There are internal 'realities' that we hold on to and carry with us throughout life that affect every interaction we have. We cope with disappointments, heartbreak, loss... maybe we should let go of a few of those, too.”
Being a band from Texas, there are a handful of recurring themes on this album. Topics like small towns, lost women, and blazing guns abound. From the urgent chug of “Nowhere Left to Run” to the conscious reflection of “Cartersville Rain” to the laid-back shuffle of “Born Lucky,” the Moonlighters leave no touchstone unturned. But, depending on which band member you ask, that lyrical cohesiveness was either accidental, intentional, or both. “We all can all relate to these themes,” Trevino offers, “and we believe that, if you are truthful in your art, more people will relate to it. Touching people with our music is a true gift.”
Adds Beall, “We write what we know, so the the small town theme behind 'Carry Me On' or 'Born Lucky' shines through because of that. 'Girl from Texas' speaks straight from Phil’s experience — I don’t think there could be a band that didn’t write a song about a woman! The guns part... well, let’s just say that a song gets real serious when people start dyin'.” That being said, Hurley is quick to point out that “all of the graves and guns in 'Nowhere Left to Run' are completely fictitious.”
Though superlative writers in their own right, the South Austin Moonlighters drop a couple of cover songs into the mix, as well, including the album's closer, which finds the guys shooting the moon with a Crosby, Stills, and Nash mash-up that combines “Daylight Again” and “Find the Cost of Freedom,” which was suggested by their label. Their rich, honey-like harmonies lift every song they touch, even the iconic ones.
“'Find the Cost of Freedom' is just a chorus, so it seemed ridiculous to do that,” Trevino explains of the initial idea. After a little research, though, he found a video of Stephen Stills playing a solo version of “Daylight Again,” then one of him doing it with Graham Nash. “I said, 'We need to do the harmonies like this!'” Trevino threw together an arrangement while Osborne focused on the message. But the song really came together when Beall and Hurley tuned their acoustic guitars down to A432 instead of the standard A440.
“The whole process of recording that song was really unlike any other recording experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve had many,” Beall says. “I still remember, vividly, us standing in a circle around one microphone and marching — the words 'all the brave soldiers' not only in our ears, but in our hearts, as well. There was a whole lot more going on for that one that I can’t really explain.”
In that moment, as in all the others on Travel Light, the South Austin Moonlighters connected to and through the joy of music. And that's a gift they not only give themselves, but also anyone who hears them.