It’s a new-age laundromat now, the spot at 2915 Guadalupe that for most of the ’80s and ’90s was home to Antone’s, the world-famous “home of the blues” in Austin that moved downtown a couple years ago. Just a few blocks north of the University of Texas campus, the area is predictably rife with Longhorn students, post-collegiate hangers-on, street drunks, and other various forms of easygoing deadbeats.
The sweet, strong stench of smoked meat permanently permeates the air, thanks to the pits at Ruby’s BBQ that stay stoked long into the night. A block to the north, an old stone building houses El Patio, a modest Mexican restaurant run by the same family for decades. A block south is Dirty’s, which has served up the O.T. Special, the greasiest and greatest burger in town, since the days my dad attended UT in the ’40s.
It’s no wonder the neighborhood is saturated with musicians. Back in mid-late ’80s, a four-block radius became known as “The Triangle” for a well-worn path between three houses whose residents blended together into a network of young singers, players, writers, managers and other ne’er-do-wells who have made no small mark on Austin music in the past decade.
At the time, though, it was all just a matter of hangin’ out. This was a place “where burned-out mesquite winds blow/And senseless conversations grow”; a dead-end district “where they sit taking shots of rotgut/Long after the bar is closed, until dawn.”
Those lines are from “Commercial Zone Blues”, a song on Half Mad Moon, the Sire Records debut of the Damnations TX (due out Feb. 16). The band’s origins can be traced back to that very same location, even though sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly didn’t form the band until several years later.
“Deborah and I lived together behind Antone’s for about seven years,” affirms Boone, who teamed with Kelly to start the Damnations TX (back then known simply as the Damnations, but we’ll get to that later) in 1994. Though they’ve since moved to the south side of town, their song about that old alleyway apartment captures the slackerly spirit that somehow seemed to sprout bands in every direction.
Despite the proximity to Antone’s, few of these bands were blues-based (though “Commercial Zone Blues” kicks off with a genuinely bluesy riff from guitarist Rob Bernard, clearly a tribute to the old home turf). In the mid-late ’80s, they were mostly alternative-rock acts, bands such as the Wild Seeds, Doctors’ Mob and the Wannabes.
By the time Kelly and Boone began playing, however, that scene’s glory days had faded away. The sisters — who moved to Austin from the small upstate New York burg of Schoharie (pop. 1,045) about 10 years ago — started out playing as an acoustic duo at open mikes, frequenting such places as the nurturing but now-defunct haven Chicago House. (They are, by the way, full sisters, not half-sisters; Deborah took on her mother’s maiden name several years ago.)
In 1994, they hooked up with two women friends (one of whom went on to play in the Trance Records indie-rock band Starfish) and began playing under the name the Damnations. When Starfish started taking off and the other member moved away, they were back to a duo again, but “we decided we wanted to keep doing it because it was really fun,” Kelly says.
At the time, Kelly was bartending at the Electric Lounge, the city’s premier alternative-rock venue, “and I was meeting a lot of musicians that way,” she recalls. One of them was drummer Keith Langford, who was in a band called Prescott Curlywolf. Langford started playing with the sisters on the side, and they also hooked up with Gary Newcomb, who played guitar, lap steel and pedal steel.
In 1996, they made an appearance on a weekly radio show on KUT-FM called “Live Set”, which features hour-long in-studio performances by local acts broadcast live. Joining them on that session was Bernard, who played guitar with Langford in Prescott Curlywolf and had just recently begun playing banjo.
“It was over at Amy’s house, and she had just gotten it outta hock,” Bernard recalls of his introduction to the banjo. “She suggested that we work up something on that, and I was like, ‘Sure, let’s see what this thing is about; it can’t be really that hard.” He laughs, adding, “I didn’t have any clue as to how to really play it.”
A couple years of experience have sharpened Bernard’s banjo skills considerably, though he still describes his playing as “limited.” On the other hand, “One of the things I love about this band is that I wouldn’t have been exposed to that normally,” he points out. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to go buy a banjo and learn banjo.”
Indeed, Prescott Curlywolf’s three albums have little in common with the countrified touch that defines much of the Damnations’ repertoire. The hallmark of the Damnations TX sound is a traditional foundation in country music: sibling harmonies. Bassist Boone’s full-bodied twang blends beautifully with acoustic guitarist Kelly’s higher-pitched lilt to create a melodic union that’s reminiscent of classic familial duos.
Still, they’re not exactly comfortable with the idea of being likened to the Louvins and the Stanleys. “We didn’t grow up in the Appalachian Mountains or anything like that; we’re just middle-class people,” says Kelly, though Boone observantly adds, “Well, kinda did grow up in the mountains, in the Adirondacks.”
In this case, however, generation is more important than geography. As kids growing up in a small town in the ’70s and ’80s, what radio stations they could pick up were a lot less likely to be playing old-time country and bluegrass than they would have been in the ’30s and ’40s.