Featured Music: Wednesday, March 20, 2003
Collin Herring
Fri 5pm-7pm at The Torch, 3210
W 7th St, FW. 817-877-0006; 7pm-9pm at The Wreck Room, 3208
W 7th St, FW. 817-348-8303; and later at the Aardvark, 2905
W Berry St, FW. 817-926-7814.
Atop the Big Top

Collin Herring’s Avoiding the Circus makes for an auspicious local debut.


Listen: Collin Herring can stop the rain. Not long ago, Herring and his band, Pine Tree Logic, were playing a show at Trees in Dallas on a weekend that was marked by torrential showers. The rain stopped twice, just long enough to allow Herring and his compadres to get in and out of the club without soaking their equipment.

Proof positive that in some ways, at least, Herring’s a pretty lucky guy. For someone who’s been performing on the local scene for only eight months, this unassuming 25-year-old with a heart full of hurt, a sheaf full of songs, and a band full of A-list players has generated a lot of buzz among Fort Worth scenesters. He’s a member of the “Acoustic Mafia” of local songwriters that also includes John Price (with whom he shares a manager, Jed Peters), Brasco’s Kevin Aldridge, Alan’s Chris Hardee, and former Grand Street Cryers/Blue Sky Black leading lights Tim Locke and Steve Duncan. And the advance notice on his debut c.d., Avoiding the Circus, released this week but circulating underground for the last couple of months, has been laudatory.

He’s also the most — how you say? — normal-looking musician imaginable. Unlike his more flamboyant buddy Price, decked out in trademark cowboy hat and shades, Herring can typically be caught in attire that’s relatively subdued, almost professorial — a brown sport coat and button-down shirt, mod haircut, work boots. No visible body piercings, tattoos, jewelry, flames, band logos, cowboy/punk affectations, or other outward manifestations of musicianhood.

And he’s, well, nice. Sitting in a corner booth at Fred’s Café recently, he sipped his beer quietly and took the time to talk with the 6-year-old being looked after by café employee/sometime punk singer Blackwell.

There’s an ache and rasp to Herring’s voice and an aura of wood smoke and high-country loneliness to his songs. He puts his emotions on the line in a simple, direct way that would be discomfiting if it weren’t so heartfelt, the utterance of a bruised and battered soul that’s given up hope of redemption beyond what can be found in the bottom of a beer glass or in the rearview mirror of a pickup truck.

His songs are full of characters running away from the pain of loss or making do with what they can get because they can’t get what they want. In “Heaven Never Works Out,” he suggests, “If heaven doesn’t work out maybe I could be your back-up plan,” while in “Angels,” he resolves to “settle for a bad girl if it means she might stay, ’cause angels always seem to fly away.” Call him Mr. Suboptimal.

“I appreciate the dark-edged things in life,” he said. “I think experiencing heartbreak helps my songwriting. When it comes to inspiration, loss is much better than gain.”

Unlike other songwriters who cloak their messages in layers of musical complexity or mask them with trendy production tricks, Herring keeps his sound deliberately spare and sparse. “I’ve always been a fan of country music,” he said, “because it lets the lyrics be heard. When my grandfather died, I went through his record collection and discovered Hank Williams. I wept the first time I heard ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’”

Herring’s been writing songs since he was in eighth grade and made a fortuitous trade with a kid from his neighborhood. “I had a terrible electric guitar,” he recalled, “and he had this beautiful 1961 Gibson acoustic, but he wanted an electric, so we traded. That’s why it says ‘thanks to Clint (for the Gibson)’ in the liner notes. I grew up listening to great songwriters like Jackson Browne and John Prine, but their songs were too hard to learn, so I started writing my own.”

The Fort Worth native left home to attend college in Durango, Colo., where he was inspired by hearing bluegrass music five nights a week in local clubs. He once worked in a record store frequented by ’70s soft-rock hitmaker Dan Fogelberg, and cites Fogelberg’s High Country Snows as a favorite c.d. After five years in Durango, Herring returned home after a particularly traumatic breakup (recounted in “Leaving Durango”) with 25 songs under his belt.

His father, Ben Roi Herring, had been a musician himself in his twenties and encouraged the budding songwriter in his musical endeavors. “The first song I ever wrote is his favorite,” the younger Herring said. “We still play it together sometimes. When I got home from Durango and he heard what I was doing, he said, ‘I want to be in your band.’” Today, the elder Herring plays pedal steel, keyboards, and accordion in Pine Tree Logic (how many young musicians can say that?). He took up pedal steel when he thought that some of the songs needed one.

Avoiding the Circus was recorded when the band had been performing for only three months. They cut 14 songs in four and a half days with producer Matt Pence at Echolab Studios in Denton. Besides Herring’s father, the c.d. also features the contributions of Herring’s close collaborator Austin Barker on guitar, banjo, and mandolin; Camino’s Jeremy Hull on bass; and drummer Billy Walters.

Since Walters decamped for L.A., the ubiquitous Dave Karnes (John Price, Zac Maloy, the Black Dog and Moon jazz sessions) has taken his place in the lineup, bringing a new professionalism and focus to the band. “At Trees, we didn’t have our crowd,” said Herring, “and we were a lot more subdued than we usually are. In the car on the way back, Dave was talking about how we need to act like rock stars even if there are only eight people in the house.”

Typically, Herring projects a nervous energy while performing, like a kid who’s bursting out of himself with something to say — hardly what you’d expect from such a melancholic writer. But in spilling his anguish on the page and revealing himself every time he hits the stage, you get the feeling that he’s found release from his afflictions, at least for a moment.

With Avoiding the Circus finally released, Herring’s already talking about recording a second c.d., one that may confound people’s expectations. “Right now,” he said, “my goal is to write a happy-sounding song that’s not ironic.”

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