The past, present, and future of the Central Texas music scene.
COVID-19 put a serious damper on the live music scene throughout central Texas and elsewhere, but local musician Josh Merrell says is confident the region is gearing up for a big comeback.
“The music scene here was pretty good at one time,” said Merrell, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for The Josh Merrell Experience, a Killeen-based southern rock and Texas country band that played locally and across the state for about 10 years. “Now, a lot of places are just not doing anything.
“To me, it was kind of dying out (prior to the pandemic last year shutting down clubs). Every couple of years, it seems like the older musicians get burned out by the business end of it, and then there’s new ones coming in. There’s old players still here, and it’s starting to pick back up after all this hell we’ve been through.”
Speaking of going through hell, Merrell two years ago was not feeling up to par and a trip to the doctor’s office resulted in him having quadruple-bypass, open-heart surgery at age 43. He came through the procedure OK, but various complications developed and he is still working to get back to 100 percent.
Prior to getting sick, his band was recording an album but fell victim to a negative side of the music business.
“We ran into hard times when we got a manager who was a rip-off artist and con man who screwed us over. We went in to record the same album twice, and the sound man screwed us over on that,” Merrell said.
“Music is the hardest business you could ever be in. If you’re going to be in music, you have to do it for the music. The business end of it is hard.
“I used to go out and hustle five nights a week, just getting stuff going, meeting with people, hanging out, being known on the scene. I’d go out and, you know, word-of-mouth advertisement and building relationships.
“It’s kind of a dirty little … thing, if you let it be, because people get jealous and envious, or whatever they get. I’d get us a booking and then somebody around here would come in behind me and say, ‘You’ve got The Josh Merrell Experience playing. If you let me play, I’ll do it for fifty dollars, and I’m better than them.’
“All of a sudden, I’d get a booking cancelled – because I was too expensive – and then in about a month, they’d call and want me back. I’d be, like, no, no, no, you got so-and-so to come in and take my spot. There was no loyalty in it around here.
“I hate to be negative, because I’m not a negative dude. But that part of the business, I hated.
“The four hours I was up there playing was heaven. I love being on stage. I feel at home there.”
Some aficionados speculate that when the local scene is thriving, there are actually more live music venues in central Texas than in Austin, known as the Live Music Capital of the World. Some also say that there are basically two types of venues here – ones that don’t pay bands much, and others that don’t pay at all.
“Exactly,” Merrell agreed. “We got pretty big around here real quick, and so we started branching out. It says in the Bible that Jesus had to shake the dirt off his feet, so he could preach to his own people. Well … it was that way here pretty much. No one wants to pay for music.
“I could have always played here, but … they want to pay you fifty bucks. I can’t pay my drummer fifty bucks.
“There was a time when we were just playing to play and get our name out there. The big thing for the businesses to say is, ‘Well, you know you’ll get people to hear your music.’ I say, well, I can’t feed my wife with that.
“I’d get the crowd going and get them drinking, and the venue made money. The Experience was not about, hey, look at Josh Merrell. He’s awesome. It was nothing to do with that. It was about coming out and having a good time. But they wanted me to do it for free.
“So, we started branching out. Going to play at the Bat Bar on Sixth Street in Austin, places like that. I’m sure it’s a desert down there right now, but we used to play a few venues. There used to be a place down there called The Roost that was really awesome, but never really took off.
“Here, you’ve got Schoepf’s (BBQ) in Belton, where they had live music every Thursday night – before COVID – and they had big names coming in Fridays and Saturdays. If you’re a central Texas musician, the big break is opening for one of those big names. Cowboy Up (Saloon in Harker Heights) was a great venue. They closed up. All Bottoms Up, I used to play there. I opened for Kevin Fowler at Wild Country. Sean’s Pub, I used to play at. In Temple, at O’Briens (Irish Pub).
“A bunch of the places where I’ve opened for big names like Aaron Watson and people like that, all that has gone away.”
Gone but not forgotten.
As Merrell slowly but surely regains his health, he looks forward to the area music scene coming back to life and getting back on stage, entertaining the folks. One suggestion he has for venue owners in the future is to not try and shortchange the talent.
“One thing is – don’t try to rip us off. That’s pretty blunt.
“They tell you, hey, we want you to bring in a crowd, and I’ll pay you this much money. The thing is, people now days really don’t follow music like they did when I was younger. If you were a Metallica lover, that was your band. You wore the shirt; you went on tour with them; any time they came around close to you, you went to the show.
“Now days, let’s say somebody like Stoney LaRue or Aaron Watson or Ryan Bingham … if they were on stage at Schoepf’s, or Johnny’s Outback in Salado. There would be people up front around my age – in their 30s and 40s – listening to the music, and then you’d look behind them and there’s these 20-year-olds all on their phone.
“I understand you’re there to party, drink, hang out with your friends – I did the same thing – but when I went some place to see someone, I wanted to see them and listen to the music.
“It will come back. There’s gonna always be that person coming up that has to play; needs to play.
“Music to me has always been therapy. That’s why I played for those many years, and don’t get me wrong, our fans and the people who followed us were more like family to us. They supported me and supported me, and there’s gonna be a cat coming up underneath us who is going to be awesome.
“Especially growing up in the world we have right now, with all the turmoil and hate … there has to be some love breaking through and some truth coming out.
“There’s gonna be someone young coming up, who sat in their room for this last year, playing their guitar and writing music, who’s going to shock us – and I think it will come out of central Texas.
“I’m positive about that.”
John H Clark III is a longtime central Texas journalist and author.
Go to www.johnhenryiii.com for more on his books and writing services.