Legendary Texas musician Monte Warden is primarily known for dance hall ready tunes salted with honky tonk twang and peppered with rockabilly bang. Recording under the banner of The Dangerous Few, Monte’s latest full-length effort isn’t a galactic stretch from that realm, but it is a pleasant and welcome creative shift towards atmosphere and groove. The Austin native made his first musical overtures as a teenager, racking up accolades early before forming The Wagnoneers, the influential alt-country outfit long considered to be pioneers of Americana and instigators of the modern Texas scene. In addition to his recording career, Monte has racked up an impressive resume crafting tunes alone and alongside a pantheon of stellar writers including fellow Texan Bruce Robison, Jim Lauderdale, and his favorite songwriting partner, his wife Brandi Warden. The Dangerous Few album features elements of jazz, big band, and swing with a live energy that goes far in transporting the listener at a speed of 33 rpms. It’s got the right bite to mix with an afternoon quarantine cocktail or to block the noise of the outside world for the duration of the rotation…
AI- I’d been home for a couple of weeks in quarantine, and I’d gotten a copy of the new Dangerous Few album in the mail. Honestly, I didn’t realize how bad I needed to hear something positive and smooth like that until I put it on… And I got lost in it!
MW- Oh, thank you, brother! Golly! Well, I’m goin’ to call you every day!
It’s the kind of album that you don’t expect to hear in the time of a pandemic, but then when you do, it’s like, “Man, this is the shot that I needed to get up and get motivated.”
I gotta tell you, it’s so funny you would say that. When we recorded the record, we certainly didn’t know this thing was comin’ and we just went, “You know what? What the heck do we do? I betcha there’s not gonna be another one of these type o’ records coming out then. So what the hell? We’ve just got to go on with life!” And it was one of the best decisions we ever made. We’ve heard from so many people that have just been so grateful that we put out something that was joyous and fun. As crazy as these times are, we’re blessed that everybody’s healthy– that we know– and everybody’s been diggin’ the record, man. So thank you.
As you say, at the time that you were makin’ this record… You did it over two days, I think, in January of last year?
What put you in the mood to make a record like this stylistically? I mean, in the right hands, there’s not a lot of difference in a hillbilly lick and a jazz flourish, but what got you started with this particular sound?
It’s like John Lee hooker said, “There ain’t but 12 notes!” (Laughs) Music is music, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve always been blessed to be able to write songs and write songs for a living. About maybe five years ago, I got a couple of out o’ nowhere commission jobs to write a couple of jazz tunes. I didn’t really know if I could or couldn’t, but I went over to talk with some friends of mine that were professional jazz guys that live here in town– Grammy winners and stuff– and once I started figurin’ out the chord structures and the relationships that the lyrics have with the chords… It’s so different from country, but once I got in that mindset, there was certainly certain rules that applied and didn’t apply, [but] I found I just loved writing such romantic stuff. The thing about these types of songs, man, is you can use a bunch of different words that are used in country songs and a bunch of different chord structures that are used in country tunes. I found, immediately, I loved writin’ this stuff. I’ve always been a guitar player. I found I was writin’ a bunch of this stuff on the piano because so many of these songs and melodies just lend themselves more to those deeper melodies you find on a piano. I dig it, man! Right away here in Austin, there wasn’t another band like it. So we had a little niche and had a good following right away, and the whole thing has been a blessing. I’m just gonna keep doin’ it long as people still want to hear it, I guess!
You’re in Austin, and you’re born and raised. You grew up there and started playing music as a teenager when, I think, most kids are just beginning to think about what an influence might be. You were already out playin’ and winnin’ awards. Why do you think that you’ve been able to stick with it so long? And apparently enjoy it as much as you have as well?
I get asked that quite a bit and really so much of it is just God-given talent. You can’t take any credit for the talent. God gives you. It’s like takin’ credit for being tall. You either are or you’re not, you know? I’ve always been able to put words together in a way that other people wanted to hear, but like I said, that is the most mysterious part of it, ’cause I can’t get a handle on why I’m able to do that and some other cat maybe wants to but can’t. How come somebody can throw the baseball 98 miles an hour? I think the day you’re born, you’re either born with that or you’re not. And then it’s just up to you what you do with that talent.
I’ve always been real blessed. I could almost see the music. But on the other hand, really what got me wantin’ to play– like any musician that’s going to be honest with you, if they’re being honest in the moment (laughs)– is I started playin’ to meet girls! I was short and I was skinny and my best shot was being third string on the football team! I did see that girls liked guitar players on television. So I thought, “Well, heck, I’ll try that!” So really it was just about being too shy to talk to girls and realizing that when you play the guitar, you don’t have to talk and they tend to like you. That’s really where it came from.
Beyond that, you really took to performing live as well. You have been a ferocious live performer your entire career. Leading up into what we’re dealing with now with the pandemic, you were still doing a ridiculous number of dates– upwards of 200 dates a year!
Right. But if you’re going to do this for a living, you gotta be not only willing to perform but wanting to. There’s just that connection you make with an audience. And particularly with a project like the Dangerous Few, it’s very live driven, which is what we were saying a couple of minutes ago. That’s why we recorded the record live. I’ll put it this way, I’ll see a band and I love what they do. I love going to their shows and then you go get their record and there’s just a drop off there. And the reason why is they go make a record different than what you fell in love with live. When we went to go make the Dangerous Few record, we were just certain that the main thing was to record the thing exactly how we perform it so our fans would hear on the record what they fell in love with at the shows.
It comes through. Just, for instance, that last track, “Wrong Side”, you can hear the call to wrap it up. It really does feel like I’m sittin’ right there in the club watching you guys gettin’ ready to finish up or go into another song. It’s got that live feel but with a studio finesse.
First of all, thank you. And secondly, I can take absolutely no credit for that (laughs)! There’s four producers on the record and it was my wife, Brandi, and our drummer Mas Palermo, and our horn player, Erik Telford– but this other cat, Tim Palmer, is just a masterful recording engineer. He did Pearl Jam’s Ten, and he did Tin Machine and all the David Bowie records and U2… We brought Tim in [because] one, he’s a friend and he’s so talented, but two, he just loved the project. He’s a British cat and he said, “I would love to just go in the studio with you guys and capture what y’all do.” He came in and he set up the mics in a certain way and turned us loose where I was just in the room with the guys same as we do at a gig. Tim really was the genius in figuring out how the hell to do that. I just went, “Tim, that’s your problem! That’s not my problem, you figure it out!” (Laughs) And boy he did! I’m so humbled by the great sounds he got.
You bring up your wife, Brandi. You two were involved in writing all of the album, and she’s sharin’ production credit on there too. You two have been workin’ together for quite some time. That’s gotta be a dynamic that you enjoy.
Oh, Brandi is by far my favorite songwriting partner! She’s so talented, one! It doesn’t matter whether we’re married or not. She’s so talented, but two, she comes from, not only a musical family but a professional musical family. She’s a third-generation million-selling person in the record business. Her grandparents [Don & Gladys Scaife] wrote the family’s first hit [“Call of the Wild”] for Frankie Laine. Her great uncle [Cecil Scaife] was the recording engineer at Sun Records. He engineered “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” for Jerry Lee Lewis. And “I Walk the Line” for Johnny Cash. Her dad [Phil Thomas] wrote “Colorado Kool-Aid” for Johnny Paycheck…
He just passed away recently, I was sorry to hear.
Thank you. Just about a year and a half ago [January 5th, 2019]. In Brandy’s family, they’re just used to not only bein’ in the music business but sellin’ millions of records. She’s been a real successful music publisher and sold probably, I don’t know, 15, 20 million records as a publisher. When she and I started writin’ together, it was just a very natural progression. All that being said, we’re married, we love each other, she’s in the music business– it wouldn’t matter a tinker’s damn if she wasn’t a great writer. And by the grace of God, Aaron, she is! We just love writin’ this stuff together.
One word that I’d use to just describe the songs on this record is they’re just fearless. And you kinda have to be to start out a honky tonk singer and say, “Oh, now I’ll make a jazz record!” We just did not care! We really wrote these songs more to impress or please one another than anybody else. And you know, that old great Rick Nelson sayin’, “You can’t please everyone. So you gotta please yourself!” If you go into that, you’re headed towards something good. At least it’ll be something honest and something that you care to listen to.
Here we are, we’re stuck in the pandemic where everybody’s quarantinin’… Lots of streaming concerts going on, and you’ve got your own that you’ve been doing: The Monte Warden Feel Good Hour.
We do it every single Friday at 8 o’clock Eastern time, 7 o’clock Central. I just do it live from our living room. I get requests from people or I do stuff off the Wagoneers record, my old country group, or stuff off the Dangerous Few record or hits that I’ve been blessed to write for other people. We have just a wonderful relationship with our audience here, and it is just that– it is the Monte Warden Feel Good Hour. I am there for light and love and just to be positive. ‘Cause here’s the thing, nobody needs any reminders that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, nobody needs any reminders that we’re locked down. So I want to promise my fans and friends and everything that for at least one hour a week, we can all come and just feel good and love each other.
If you think about it, we’re already okay. And okay comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. I’m not being Pollyanna about it, but I will say that I was talkin’ to somebody just the other day, day before yesterday [about this]. Throughout this thing, no one has surprised me. My optimistic friends are optimistic. My pessimistic friends are pessimistic. My worriers worry and the people that don’t worry aren’t worried. You turn on the TV and it’s the zombie apocalypse, and you go out your front door– we hardly know anybody that has it! So I think if we just stay focused on each other and lovin’ one another, whatever this is, we can get through this.
I mean, really, this pales in comparison to anything my grandparents went through– and they sure were funlovin’ people! It’s just tryin’ to always stay focused on that moment. I’ll also say this, I think the people, the smart people in charge are– I know this– they’re doing the best they can. As long as we know that everybody is always doing the best they can, nobody wants anybody to be sick, everybody wants everybody to be well. It’s just hard to always remember, Aaron, that everybody’s doing the best they can with the tools they have now. Now, some people’s toolboxes suck, but everybody’s doing the best they can with the tools they have. I firmly believe that throughout my life.
You are a two time Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee as Monte Warden and with your group, The Wagoneers. There was some talk with the reunion for that honor of some reissues. Did I miss that?
We put out, as a compilation, the first two albums we put out on A&M Records. We rereleased those and we released four gospel tunes that we’d cut. If you never got that, I’ll be happy to drop one in the mail to you. And we’ve got a Wagoneers third album– which is our first record in 30 years– that has yet to be released. We’ve got this in the can and what are our plans were, pandemic or no pandemic, we’re gonna put out the Dangerous Few record and let that get a good, solid six months of by-the-grace-of-God success under its belt… And really, Aaron, the record has been more successful than we thought! It’s been a long time since I’ve been on top of a record that had more success than I thought it would! But we look probably in the spring of ’21 to put out The Wagoneers record. And that’ll be a fun thing! It’s a fun record. It’s very Wagoneers! It is just straight-up Texas honky tonk music. If you liked our stuff from before, this is just more of the same! Kinda rockabilly, kinda just that type of Texas music I write!