Featured Music: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Lowlight Reel

Tim Locke may be a couple of people at once, but he’s always a moving singer-songwriter.


Tim Locke is a paradox on several levels.

He’s a slouchy, cynical, introverted guy who’s also an athlete. According to his longtime accompanist, bassist Byron Gordon, he’s a fierce competitor at racquetball and basketball.

He’s an archetypally angst-ridden singer-songwriter — arguably the best and deepest of the local crop — who likes nothing more than to rock out. Those who’ve only seen him perform his acoustic material are in for a shock the first time they wander into a room where the Zac Maloy band is playing. The spectacle of Locke, Gibson Firebird slung low, leaping around the stage playing badass rock ’n’ roll lead guitar will make you think you’re watching somebody completely different. Of course, Tim’s rocker tendencies would be no surprise to fans of his old band, the Grand Street Cryers, one of the Metroplex’s most beloved outfits in the late ’90s.

He’s a reluctant live performer — he claims that if it weren’t for his wife, Misty, he’d have long since abandoned the evening stage altogether. It’s been a puzzle over the years, watching such a prodigious talent displaying such visible ambivalence about his gifts. Over the last few months, however, he has been playing some of the best shows of his career and having fun doing it. Like the night when Benroi Herring and Austin Barker joined him and Gordon onstage at the Moon, filling out the sound with their lilting pedal steel and always-appropriate guitar inventions.

Then there was the show at the Saffire Lounge, when Locke dipped deep into his songbag to pull out covers of the Pixies and the Smiths and even sang a Collin Herring tune while its author sat 10 feet away. He is as saturated with ’70s and ’80s rock influences as he is with classic country ones (post-Grand Street, he fronted a straight country cover band called Uncle Bucket). But Locke’s also enough of a unique talent to leave his mark on anyone else’s song he cares to sing.

On another particularly relaxed occasion, again at the Moon, Locke alternated sets with his good buddy and former Grand Street Cryers/Blue Sky Black bandmate Steve Duncan. Surrounded by a crowd of friends, both singers would pause in mid-song to greet anybody who arrived or departed. That night, it was easy to see how Duncan was inspired by his former frontman’s physical/spiritual presence. After a shaky start, Duncan followed Locke’s set with another of his own that did full justice to the magic and beauty of his songs.

Locke’s voice is a unique instrument, ranging from lower-register throb and midrange ache to an ethereal falsetto. You get the feeling that this guy could make you cry by singing the phone book. As a writer, he tends to artfully lay all of his emotional cards on the table — casually tossing off lines like “You know I want it all / So I can fill up my bankrupt soul” (“Many Happy Regrets,” which fans who don’t own his c.d. habitually refer to as “Coffee and Cigarettes”) or “You had your favorite dream / You know the one where you slit your wrists” (“The Sky Hangs Low”).

For such a happily married guy, Locke sounds like he’s drawing on an exceptionally deep well of pain. That he’s able to empty this reservoir of hurt through the media of gorgeous melodies and irresistible hooks has made him, as I’ve repeatedly suggested to anyone who’d listen, the Fort’s very own answer to Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, or Elliot Smith. Now, with a c.d. entitled Lowlights, he’s raised the stakes.

Locke says he prefers the developmental part of the creative process — shaping and rehearsing the material — to the act of documenting it. “Recording is like taking a picture,” he said. “Once a song’s recorded, it’s never going to change.” At press time, he was still obsessively remixing the 10-song disc and would only reluctantly give up a cassette of five early mixes, some of which, he assured us, had already been re-recorded. “I’m trying my best, but I’m insane,” he said. “I can’t let go.”

He needn’t have worried. Recorded over a period of several months, whenever studio time was available, the disc is a departure from the near-claustrophobic intimacy of its home-recorded predecessor, 2001’s incandescent Love Songs for the Very Low. Songs that have been longtime staples of Locke’s live set, with minimal backing, are transformed into something Entirely Other by big, full-bodied (but not excessive) arrangements. Lyrically, the voice is that of a jaded romantic, spilling his guts in a way that never seems trite, fake, or forced.

On “The Year That Never Was,” for example, he starts out accusing his lover “You know you sold me out” before admitting “I come back to you, I always do.” When he hits the refrain “Blue / Because of your brown eyes” as Benroi’s keening steel makes its entrance, it’s a breathtaking moment. The track has a dense, orchestral sound, anchored by the deep song of Gordon’s bowed bass (which serves as a melodic voice on a few of the tracks here in the same way that jazz master Richard Davis’ bass did on Van Morrison’s masterpiece Astral Weeks) and decorated with harmonium-like keyboard sounds.

The title of the Richard Thompson-esque dirge “Boom-Cha” refers to the beat that ex-Grand Street drummer Max Lintner essays with effortless simplicity, and not to the song’s lyrical content — a portrait of someone “beautiful / and full of rage.” “You always seem to find a new horizon / But I would just give up if I was you,” Locke chides his subject during the chorus. But by the tag, he’s begging, “Don’t you give up,” over a Saddle Creek-ish (and perhaps synthesized) trumpet, leading one to believe that perhaps he isn’t as cynical as he’d have us believe.

The remainder of the album, he promises, is “more upbeat.” You’ll be able to judge for yourself next month, when he’s firmly committed to cutting bait and releasing the c.d.

Besides recording Lowlights, Locke’s been writing songs with ex-Sugarbomb guitarist Daniel Harville, “just for fun.” He recently joined Collin Herring, John Price, and his buddy Duncan’s group, The Chemistry Set, under the wings of Jed Peters’ Firelight Artists. “I’ve been part of some sorry stables,” said Locke. “It’s nice to be in a management group where I know everybody.”

Perhaps the ultimate paradox of Tim Locke is this: How can a guy who sings so affectingly and writes such great songs continue to dodge the spotlight while others of lesser gifts win fame and acclaim? His new album proves that he hasn’t lost a step since Grand Street’s heyday; in fact, he’s grown and matured as an artist. Now can the case be made to the world outside Fort Worth?

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