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Witnessing the Recording of a Dream

Earlier this week my friend, Ryan Beck, texted me and invited me to come document a recording session in a studio a couple hours south of me in San Antonio. With everything going on right now, my instinct was to say thanks, but no thanks. However, when I found out who was recording, I couldn’t pass it up. I had made a promise about eight years ago to be there for the moment if I could. And I could. So I did.

When I started taking photos back around 2012 of musicians, I was immediately taken with the local music scene. I have always been drawn to the stories of the local musicians, just trying to find their place on the stage and in the industry. Every performing musician wants success - but more for the “new” artist that play on any stage that will have them some time, it’s not always about finding success - it’s about sharing the music that speaks to them. I’ve always admired the singer/songwriters who put themselves up there in the spotlight for the applause and criticism. Most don’t do it with fame as the end goal. Most do it because the music is so much a part of their soul they need to share it. And there is no better example I have ever met than my friend Wes Perryman.

A little back-story though. I actually met Wes before I ever knew he was a musician. My kids went to a local YMCA-type daycare called Belton Christian Youth Center. They would pick them up from school and I’d pick them up from there after work. One day, a cute couple stopped me on the way out with my son Dalton to compliment me on how polite and friendly Dalton was. With some of the difficulties of being a new parent, I was initially shocked. But - my son was friendly to everyone and I was very proud that he was polite. I believe, they had their young daughter Sunny there. And Dalton loved playing with kids younger than he was. It was a couple of months later that I saw this same couple at the local pub when Wes had a gig.

When I first heard him on stage, I could feel the words. I could hear how I thought he wrote the songs. I knew who he was singing about. Wes is a farmer. A REAL one. And a damn good one, too. I often joke with him about going on “The Voice” just because of his story. Writing songs on the back of a tractor with his cute daughters sometimes tagging along, playing with their cotton dolls and dresses, singing around the campfire, his daughter Sunny making up songs - largely unaffected by the pitfalls of the city-life just down the road. More on Sunny later. It’s just too good. But when it came to summing up what “Texas Music” is - Wes’s journey is my go-to example. He’s an encyclopedia of musical knowledge. His influences run deep in folk, Americana, punk, rock, and I’m sure others I wouldn't even know about. Listening to him talk, I almost always learn of an artist that I should be listening to. His admiration of John Prine made me a John Prine fan. And he was the first person I thought of when John Prine passed away of the Covid virus earlier this year. And getting to know him and his family over the years, there isn’t a better guy that exist. I could show up to his house unannounced and ask for a place to stay and I’d live there. I’ve seen him do it. Over and over.

Wes is currently the lead guitarist in my favorite all time band - Lilly and the Implements. Through my time at Schoepfs BBQ in Belton, Texas, and O’Briens Irish Pub in Temple, Texas, I met and listened to some “kids” on stage that I’ve become huge fans of. One being the incomparable Lilly Milford, who I talk about often. Another being Wes. When they joined up to start a band, the potential of them being my favorite band ever was there. After the first time I saw them play, it was confirmed. One reason I’m so taken by the band is that each member is an amazing singer/songwriter and musician in their own right. I’ve gotten to know Jon Napier through it all, who I’ve grown to love and has become one of my best friends. And their drummer Evan Shepperd just as much. They sometimes split the spotlight and compliment each other’s style so well. More-so than any other band I’ve come across. Lilly and the Implements recorded an album down at Cibolo Studios in San Antonio a few months ago. It will be released soon and the unique and amazing music that we’ve all heard at the shows will be available to the world. Sounding as good as it should with the amazing musicianship and sound engineers at Cibolo Studios. I can’t wait. Through the process of making that record and getting it ready to be released, Wes learned a thing or two. And with the current situation, the timing of finding musicians and studio time to finally record his own music was too good to pass up. Back to Cibolo Studios.

So, when Rick told me they were recording Friday through Sunday - I knew I couldn’t do all three day. So, after some deep discussions with my wife, I got a day pass for Saturday. After speaking to them on Friday night, I could hear the excitement of what was happening. I probably would have walked the 150 miles if I didn’t have a car. I arrived at around noon and they were about an hour in two day two of the session. It was my first time in a recording studio. My #1 goal was to stay out of the way and not distract in any way. It has been a few months since I had seen the guys. I needed to shoot somebody with a microphone more than I knew I did. The next five hours were emotional. After listening to Wes sing his songs on stage for so long, often with just him and his guitar, I walked in to hear those same songs being played the way I imagined they would sound if a top recording artist were to get a hold of them.

Cibolo Studios doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s in a small strip center off the freeway going in to San Antonio. You wouldn’t find it or see in by chance. You have to know it’s there. But through the doors is what I have to guess is one of the most professional studios in the country. It’s beautiful and laid out expertly. It’s run by Chet Himes.

And Texas musicians (and music fans in general) should at least sit up and take notice at that name. His vision and touch is on hundreds (thousands?) of albums over the last 50 years. He’s been a sound engineer in Los Angeles, Austin, and now San Antonio. He’s got Grammy’s. He was the sound engineer for Christopher Cross’ 1979 hit album. He’s done several Carole King albums, guitarist Eric Johnson, Joe Ely, Ted Nugent, and - the album that connected West to find and record with Chet - Jerry Jeff Walker’s album, Contrary to Ordinary. He was quietly standing in the back of the studio, listening intently, talking to Jon Napier, who was acting as producer. Even Sheppard was there for support. There were some musicians and sound engineers milling around. It was exactly what a top-tier recording studio should look like. But, I was just getting my feet wet.

My friend Rick went out of his way to make sure everyone knew who I was and why I was there. And he had scouted out where I could stand. My need not to disturb the vibe was strong. Just stick me in a corner and you’ll never know I’m here. Everyone was super welcoming and accommodating.

I didn’t want the click of my camera interfere with the sound. I didn’t want me putting a lens in front of a musicians face to ruin a take. I would have been just as happy to sit in a corner and watch without my cameras. But I was happy that I had them. They had tracked several songs the day before and were on to the last two songs when I arrived.

John Napier and Wes Perryman are brothers. Not by blood. Just by friendship. They know each others emotions and intentions better than spouses sometimes. John had helped to organize and get the session musicians together and was doing an amazing job asking them do modify parts to fit what he felt like Wes wanted. Small suggestions turned into magic. And quickly. Wes was explaining how his song was written and what vibe he thought the song needed. My favorite description of one of my favorite songs was “Hee Haw on mushrooms with a reggae twist”. Yup. I knew he had written it on the back of a tractor one day and he sang it like a reggae song. Then when he played it on guitar, it lost the reggae sound.

But - the session players knew what he meant, and included it in the song. Instantly. Imagine that you write a song in your head, describe it to someone, and they start playing it like you imagine it. That’s the feeling I got hearing them play through the song the first time.

I could see Wes standing in a booth by himself with his guitar, often grinning proudly at what was happening. I couldn’t hear him. I was in the room with the band, with a talented bass player in a separate room, playing a 120 year old stand up bass. There was a drummer, lead guitarist, steel guitarist, and keyboard player that were about as impressive as any musicians I’ve witnessed. The music-geeks in the room were well satisfied with the organic feel to the whole thing. These songs were written organically, often on a tractor, in a farmhouse, or around a campfire - so to see them getting the same treatment in the studio was pretty cool. It only took two to three takes to get the meat of the song down on tape. A talented fiddle player later added some fiddle and mandolin. The keyboard player went in and added some piano with the baby grand in the studio. Each layer of the song brought more grins so everyone. The bass player enjoyed it as he laid on the floor (“I just love laying on studio floors.”)

As they were mixing the last song to review, Wes got word that his family were about thirty minutes away and asked the musicians if they would humor him and play along with his daughter Sunny while she played and sang a song she wrote. I knew what was about to happen. But I’m not sure the musicians did. They politely and professionally said sure. It sounded fun. Humor the kid. But I told them to just wait. They’d be able to say they helped record the first song of someone I expect to become something special in the music world.

A few minutes later Misty walked in with the kids and after some introductions and a wide-eyed tour of the studio, Wes walked her to the piano room and the sound engineers quickly went to work setting up for a quick recording. Sunny practiced a bit on the piano, a little nervous with what was happening around her. And who wouldn’t be? But, all things considering, the confidence was undeniable. Sunny makes up songs. And with the deep musical knowledge of Wes, she has a pretty incredible mix of influences. And - the secret is that she sounds like a 70 year old soul singer when she sings. It’s one of those sounds that makes you sit up and take notice no matter who is singing. To hear a young girl sing it is almost not possible. While she was practicing, I could see the band learning the chord progression quickly. Pretty simple for them. Evan Sheppard filled in on drums. Wes gave her all of the advice that any father would be proud of. Just have fun. Sing your butt off. These guys just want to have fun playing with her. Pretend you are back in the living room playing around.

Once they got started, Sunny was still a tad nervous but it quickly dissolved into some improv. I’m not sure what she could and couldn’t hear in the headphones, but by the end of it, I think the session players were overwhelmed. I knew the pride in Missy and Wes filled the room. Everyone rushed to the studio to listen to the mix. Watching the faces of everyone while “You Wash The Clothes, I’ll Wash the Dreams” filled the room for the first time is something I’ll never forget. Just as a dad. But I think in the end, everybody in the room knew that was special. Not just playing around with some kid to humor her.

Everybody decided to head back to the house after that. Sunday would be filled with a couple of vocal overdubs and some harmonies. Probably a lot of dial turning and mixing. But, what I heard wasn’t too far away from what I think the finished product would be.

It was emotional. Remember when Metallica played with an orchestra and you heard those songs that you were so familiar with in a different way? That’s a little what I felt. The speed that it happened was a little overwhelming. Musicians learning and playing in seconds. Setting up mics and instruments just as fast. Going from start to end in no time. And watching the faces of my friends Wes, Jon, Evan, and Rick, who were actually DOING the thing they’d been talking about for so long was satisfying. Having the family there, working with someone they idolized and become familiar with. All of it was exactly how it was probably imagined on the back of that tractor if everything was perfect.

Because what I watched and heard was perfect enough for me. Take my money Wes. What an incredible honor to be there. I can’t wait to hear it in my headphones.

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