The pleasures and perils of running what's basically a one-man record label are many, but Eddie Stout can sum up the essence of his job in three words:
"Get that sound."
His Dialtone Records inventory sits stacked in boxes in the garage of his South Austin home; a spare bedroom with a Mac is the label's office. The label has never paid him a dime.
Nor should he reasonably expect it to. Dialtone is predominantly a blues label, one that traffics largely but by no means exclusively in older African American musicians, a fair number of whom remember fondly playing the chitlin circuit, country roadhouses or East Austin clubs well before integration. It's a niche within a niche, but Dialtone's artists are contemporary connections to — and sometimes former bandmates of — other Texas blues icons such as Lightnin' Hopkins and Blind Willie Johnson. The tradition of preserving these works goes back at least to the recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the bottomlessly weird record collection of Harry Smith that was released as the "Anthology of American Folk Music."
"I like to call Eddie Stout the 'Ambassador of Texas Blues,'" says Roger Gatchet, who's contributed to Living Blues magazine and written liner notes for a number of Dialtone releases. "His efforts to record and promote Texas blues artists have given us invaluable recordings from musicians who otherwise might not have had their moment in the spotlight. Like most of the folks who run independent blues labels, Stout isn't out to get rich — he's doing this for the love of the music and out of respect to the incredible artists on the label. Any history of Texas blues would be incomplete without covering the fine musicians Stout has recorded over the years."
This is, in other words, the Lord's work Eddie Stout is doing, and has been doing for more than a decade. He finds the artists, gets them a modest advance, puts together bands and plays bass himself if need be. He works to get his records overseas — because the American market for this stuff is minuscule — and when it's time for a tour or festival, he'll help out on passports or on navigating a menu in French. You don't get money for that kind of labor; you get credit in heaven.
"Just getting food in Europe is an obstacle," says Stout, who turns 55 on Tuesday . "You have to stay with them the whole way."
Take Little Joe Washington, a frequently homeless Houston guitarist with a formidable talent, a proclivity for picking a guitar with his teeth — or at least gums — and a more-than-nodding familiarity with rehab facilities in the Bayou City. A couple of years back, Stout took Washington, dreadlocked and weather-beaten as ever, to a festival. At the end, Stout paid Washington $3,000, which Washington stashed in his hat. Stout intended to fly from Atlanta back to Austin and arranged for his friend Reg Burns — who introduced Stout to the guitarist — to pick up Washington at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Crucial detail: Washington had recently been bitten by a dog, so he was in a wheelchair. Stout's friend was a few minutes late arriving at the airport, so Washington — cash, chair and all — started wheeling himself down the road.
"You have to stay with them so they don't get detained or, in Little Joe's case, arrested, almost, because of the way he looks," Stout says.
Washington is a man who, in Stout's estimation, could be as big as Buddy Guy if he were less erratic. He's shared the bill with the likes of Courtney Love and the White Stripes at the Fuji Rock Fest, a festival in Japan that over three days draws hundreds of thousands of people. (Stout offered to get Washington cleaned up and in a suit; his Japanese hosts insisted he do no such thing.)
And yet when it came time to shoot photos for Washington's 2009 release "Texas Fire Line," Stout had to lend him a Silvertone — Washington didn't have a guitar. Still doesn't. "Every time he plays, he has to borrow a guitar," he says. "Little Joe, when he starts gumming your strings, you don't want that."
"He is really difficult to work with," says Stout, punctuating the sentence with a whoosh of his breath. "He wouldn't do any interviews unless he got paid. But if you shut your eyes, you can hear Albert Collins or Gatemouth Brown." (In fact, Stout says, Washington played drums for both of those guys.)
And that's the distillation of what Stout is chasing, the "get that sound" ethic that's simple and profound. It's either authentic or it's not.
It started when he was a kid growing up in Austin. He remembers in high school in the 1970s drawing what his label, his imprint, would look like. His pal David Murray taught him to play guitar; later he picked up bass. The two of them would sneak into clubs as teenagers.
"We would drive out and get in to go see the Cobras play and listen to them, and when we heard the song we wanted, we'd hop on the motorcycle, run home while we still had it in our head and learn how to play it," he says.
The Rome Inn at 29th and Rio Grande streets was a reliable hangout for blues fans in those days. One night in December 1979, Stevie Ray Vaughan came in with the aim of marrying Lenny Bailey, for whom he'd written "Love Struck Baby" the night they'd met a few years earlier.
The couple needed witnesses, so a 23-year-old Stout as well as C-Boy Parks, who ran the Inn and served as best man, were summoned upstairs for the ceremony.
Steve Wertheimer, who later would go on to run the Continental Club, frequently worked the door and let Stout and his young friends in when they were still underage.
More or less an Austin lifer, Stout made his living playing in road bands — five years or so in Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets — as well as doing carpentry, washing dishes, working at Conan's Pizza. His most recent gig was selling women's shoes in a department store. He says he got sacked last summer for leaving work to care for his mother, who has terminal cancer.
Before there was Dialtone — which came into existence around 1999 — there was Pee Wee Records, for which Stout recorded the Reverend Horton Heat, Ted Roddy, the Paladins and others in the 1980s. And early on he hooked up with Bob Sullivan, whose career goes back to the days Elvis Presley was on the famous Louisiana Hayride radio broadcasts. (Sullivan even let Presley test-drive his car, the first VW Beetle in Shreveport. Sullivan says the car came back smelling "like the Avon lady slept in it. I said, 'Man, my wife goes to church in this thing on Sunday mornings.'")
"Eddie's one of the best friends I've got," says Sullivan, a friend from the late '80s who now lives in Oklahoma. "A good friend will bail you out of jail, but a true friend will be in there with you saying, 'Damn, that was fun!' And Eddie's a true friend."
With early help from Sullivan — who is perhaps the only engineer ever who claims to have opted to go stock car racing on a Friday night rather than record the Rolling Stones — a rough Pee Wee/Dialtone modus operandi came about. Stout would find the talent, put together a band if need be and cut a record quickly.
"It takes longer to set up the mikes than it does to do the session," he says.
He'll pay a modest advance — maybe $1,000 — and make similarly modest promises. Maybe a few more gigs, or better gigs, maybe a festival. Licensing deals in Europe, Japan and Canada help pay for the next record. Stout has, according to Texas Music Office Director Casey Monahan, "tapped into a small market (that) has a voracious appetite for real American music. I mean people who are part of a long lineage of people who've played blues or country or roots music."
He'll press 1,000 copies, and "If I sell more than 200, I'm real happy," he says.
His website, dialtonerecords.com, sells about one release a week, shipping almost exclusively outside the U.S.
"It's niche music or special music," Stout says. "There's only about 50 stores in America that would carry my stuff. But people who do get it really get it. It's the beat, the groove."
In that respect, Dialtone is not unlike Fat Possum Records, the Oxford, Miss., label that made its name in the '90s finding and recording blues artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside in country juke joints and roadhouses. It didn't matter if you had a murder conviction; if you could work a groove, Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson would sign you.
Dialtone might not have characters quite so rough, although one artist on the label will have to be instructed not to pack the knife he usually carries before leaving for a festival in France, and some are familiar with members of the Texas law enforcement and corrections communities. What Stout's label does have in common with Fat Possum is less a house sound than a guiding ethic — that the old, unschooled stuff is better, and that everybody has at least one more good record in them.
"I know he has ideas about retiring early, but I don't see him stopping," says Stout's wife, Sylvia Jonon, who met her future husband when both of them worked at the Antone's Records label. "It's such a part of him. It's just something he loves. He really has a passion for music and has such a great ear. He can really capture moments in time in music that no on else is doing. He's just passionate about it."
A particularly fond memory for Jonon, who with some regularity shares road duty with her husband, is a tour of Japan that was bassist James Kuykendall's first trip outside Texas. She and Stout enjoyed watching Kuykendall see the wider world for the first time.
"I've known Eddie about 20 years," Kuykendall, 62, says. "He's all right. He put me on the first CD I was on, took me out of state for the first time, went to Japan. They had a McDonald's, a Colonel Sanders and an Outback Steakhouse."
Others who've recorded for Dialtone might not necessarily have traveled so far, but they still praise Stout's intentions and energy.
"He's taken us all over the place," says Glenda Hargis, one of four "Texas Soul Sisters" on a 2003 release so named. "Ever since he was little, he's always been that way. He's always helped bands and given them a push. When I met him, he was full of energy and willing to please and get something going, and it always turned out good."
Although Stout has recorded everybody from Austin's Bells of Joy to the Rev. K.M. Williams — whose axes include a single-string cigar box guitar — to R&B and blues diva Lavelle White, who's been performing since the 1950s, "everything touches tape," Stout says. "I don't mind scratches and room noises. I'm trying to capture a warm sound."
"One of the things that makes Dialtone albums so special is that Stout makes every effort to let each individual artist's personality and style shine through," Gatchet says. "Most of what he records is cut live in the studio and isn't bogged down with overproduction. As a result, the music just sounds so damn honest that you can't help but fall in love with it."
Anyway, using fancy digital tools like Auto-Tune — the infamously overused pitch-correcting software — on somebody like Hosea Hargrove would be just plain wrong. Hargrove is 81 and grew up east of Austin, learning to play guitar by listening to Lightnin' Hopkins on a nickel jukebox.
"I didn't take no kind of music lessons or nothing," Hargrove says. "Nobody could get used to my style. They couldn't stop me from doin' nothin'."
Hargrove says he always had a guitar with him, even when he was pulling cotton in West Texas. And like a lot of Dialtone artists, he was more on the periphery of fame — B.B. King's rhythm player, say, or a longtime Aretha Franklin sideman — or an early and nearly forgotten influence on later generations of players.
"Jimmie Vaughan used to come to Elgin and sit in with me when he was young, before his brother even played," Hargrove says.
Memories like that are what Hargrove has from his life, more than fame and certainly fortune. He lives on Social Security; his apartment on West North Loop Boulevard is small, and there's a shopping cart with clothes in the living room near a guitar case and an old Peavey amp. But he also has copies of stories about him from Living Blues and another blues magazine published overseas. Because somewhere, someone will always care deeply about this music, even as boxes of product amounting to several thousand CDs await orders in Stout's garage. He'll never make money at this, but he wouldn't trade that early 1990s Russian tour with 20 or so artists — when Stout says they wound up trading their clothes for vodka with the Russian mafia — for anything.
And there's always the next record, the next tour, planning for a summer festival in Cannes. Stout recently signed Cornell Dupree, a veteran of the Atlantic Records house band as well as Franklin's and fellow Fort Worth native King Curtis'. In January, Stout drove to Dupree's home in Fort Worth, did the paperwork and then drove Dupree and his wife to Austin to sit in at Mike Flanigin's gig at the Continental Gallery. The Duprees got out of Stout's minivan about 11:30 p.m. as if they were dressed for church — a suit and tie for him, fur (or at least faux) for her. Dupree had his signature Yamaha electric guitar and his oxygen canister, and a couple of employees put him in a bar chair and carried him up the stairs.
He rested with his hands on his knees before the band kicked in. He played chords and pulled up on the higher strings with his ring and pinkie fingers. Miss Lavelle White, another Dialtone alum, stepped in for "Stormy Monday" and "Every Day I Have the Blues," and it felt as if something that was lost was coming back around.
Stout will take Dupree into the studio in early March with the Flanigin band and others, and he's also set to work with Milton Hopkins, King's aforementioned rhythm player. Stout and some of his charges will play the Cognac Blues Passions festival in France in July. Hargrove needs a passport for that, and it got a little more complicated because he traced over his faded birth certificate, thereby voiding it.
For helping with this, too, Eddie Stout gets credit in heaven. Not that that pays the bills, which his wife has been doing more of during the months he hasn't had a steady job. He's been dipping into his savings. "You can put in there that I'm looking for a job desperately," he says. "Right now, Sylvia's carrying the brunt."
He knows, as do most of his artists, that blues is no way to make a living .
"I'm just getting by doing a few things here," he says. "I got to get a job pretty quick. Probably go back to washing dishes."
Maybe because there's little money in it, the value of the music as a reward unto itself increases. The other morning Kuykendall, flugelhorn player Donald "Duck" Jennings and guitarist Clarence Pierce got together for a little carport jam session in front of Pierce's duplex in East Austin. The equipment for the get-together included a bass with James Brown's autograph scratched in the back, a Harmony amp dating to the 1940s and a vocal mike just like the ones Bob Sullivan used with Presley and other artists. Stout was there, too, plugging things in and tuning them up, joshing with the musicians and listening, after a nameless blues in B flat, to "Sweet Home Chicago," as they got that sound.