Edie Brickell & New Bohemians' surprise resurgence is happening in Austin's backyard
The members of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians are on a Zoom-screen checkerboard in early February, separated physically by a span of nearly 5,000 miles from Florida to Hawaii. But in many ways, they’ve never been closer than they are right now.
Brickell is in Maui, where she and husband Paul Simon have a place near Austin icon Willie Nelson's house there. Drummer Brandon Aly is on the Atlantic coast in Florida, helping his brother-in-law recover from back surgery. The rest of the band is back at their respective Austin-area residences — which is a bit of news in itself, given that the Bohemians’ deep roots are in Dallas, not Central Texas.
Aly was preparing for the long drive back to Blanco, where’s he’s taught music to middle-school and high-school students for years. Brickell’s return date is less certain, but the key point is that she has a home base here now, too.
“I wanted to have a closer proximity to the band,” explains Brickell, who’s mainly lived in the Northeast since marrying Simon in 1992. “So we got a place down in Wimberley that has a big jam barn. It’s a dream that we’ve had since we were kids, and it’s finally come to pass. We’re having so much fun playing there.”
It’s a long way from the Dallas digs where the band began in the mid-1980s. They’d jam in the garage of bassist Brad Houser’s parents, or in a house that percussionist John Bush and guitarist Kenny Withrow shared. The barn is a nice upgrade, but mainly this is all about reaffirming their shared bonds.
“For the first time in a long time, we're all relatively in the same place,” Aly says. Bush and Houser have been integral players on the Austin scene for the better part of two decades. Withrow, for a long time the band’s last Dallas holdout, recently relocated to Wimberley, not far from where Brickell spent much of last summer and fall.
That proximity means new horizons ahead for the New Bohemians, whose new album is their second in three years after they’d released just one studio record in the previous 28 years. “Hunter and the Dog Star,” out Feb. 19 via Thirty Tigers, follows 2018’s acclaimed “Rocket,” which spurred the band’s first tour dates in eons.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for us to get together and jam and let those ideas flow without having people traveling,” Aly continued. “We have a place where we can play, and everybody's close by. That’s really something we haven't had in all these years — since we were in Brad’s dad’s garage when we were just kids.”
ALY AND HOUSER co-founded New Bohemians while attending different high schools in Dallas. Withrow and Bush went to the same arts-magnet school as Aly and joined the band in 1985, with Brickell coming aboard shortly thereafter.
A self-released cassette from 1986 helped draw the attention of Geffen Records, which issued the band’s debut album “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars” two years later. They sang their radio hit “What I Am” on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 1988, helping the album hit No. 4 on the Billboard charts with sales topping 2 million.
A second album, “Ghost of a Dog,” followed in 1990. But fates were pulling them apart. Aly essentially got pushed out of the band during the “Rubberbands” sessions by Geffen executives, who also insisted on adding “Edie Brickell and” to the group’s name, against their wishes. “It’s just unnatural; I’m not comfortable with it,” Brickell told me back then, in a Statesman interview before a December 1988 New Bohemians concert in Austin.
Brickell’s marriage to Simon — they met at that “Saturday Night Live” taping — took her life in a different direction. She spent the next couple of decades primarily raising their three children, reconvening in the studio with her fellow Bohemians only for 2006’s “Stranger Things.” She released a few solo albums and collaborated with a couple of other artists, most notably Steve Martin for a string of bluegrass albums and tours.
But her New Bohemians bandmates are lifelong friends, with deep connections both musically and personally. “Since they've been together for so long, they speak their own language,” offers local guitarist-producer Kyle Crusham, who was brought into the band’s fold for 2018’s “Rocket” along with Austin keyboardist Matt Hubbard.
“I don't think you ever will find another band that's been around this long who still really like each other, and they make amazing music,” Crusham continues. “Kenny's got 5 trillion ideas, and they're all ready to go at any time. For me, it's like hanging on for the ride just to keep up with them, because they're a runaway train of creativity.”
THE RECENT RESURGENCE of the New Bohemians happened almost “by accident,” Brickell told me in a 2018 interview with the band shortly after “Rocket” was released. Brickell was working on a planned solo record with Austin producer Charlie Sexton, and she brought Withrow into a session at Arlyn Studios with Crusham while Sexton was out of town.
Withrow and Crusham had an immediate rapport, and Brickell seized on it. “I asked Kyle if he would do an experiment and produce the Bohemians for a week, just so we could test it out,” she recalled. “That week was everything I’d hoped for and more. It was a dream come true. The band was on fire and happy. It was just like it has always been for us, where songs just flowed through in a beautiful chemistry.”
“Rocket” grew out of that, and the band made a couple of special local appearances. They joined a star-studded cast headed by Nelson and Simon for a Hurricane Harvey benefit at the Erwin Center in September 2017, then played Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 2018.
“Hunter and the Dog Star” also was recorded at Arlyn and partly flowed out of the “Rocket” sessions, though the two albums have distinctly different flavors. “Edie really took the reins a lot on this record, in a great way,” Withrow says. “There's a song called ‘I Found You’ that Brandon started, and Edie just kind of got in this trance and made a song out of it. It was really great to watch.”
He adds that on the previous album, “the band really was pronounced a lot. A lot of times she said it was my record, which was very kind of her, maybe even too generous. But this is Edie’s record, and I think she's amazing on it.”
Initially the plan was for “Hunter and the Dog Star” to come out last year, followed by a tour to promote it. The coronavirus pandemic nixed that, but they decided to put it out now rather than waiting even longer.
“That would be unbearable for us,” Brickell said, explaining that everyone's eager to push onward creatively. “Just recently when we were together, playing in that barn, the stream-of-consciousness improvisational character of the band just kept producing song after song. I had to say, ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop’ — I don't want to write all these songs, fall in love with them and not be able to record them and put them out.”
Their ongoing flow of inspiration found a different outlet last spring, when band members began a series of Instagram posts that featured minute-long snippets they created at the request of fans who sent them ideas for songs.
“One of us would start a song in GarageBand and just basically lay out a minute’s worth of a chord progression or whatever,” Houser explains. “We’d pass it around and people would put parts on it, and then one of us would mix it and it would go up on Instagram. That was really cool.”
“It seemed like a really fun way to interact with people who are interested in the band, and it turned out to be completely gratifying,” Brickell said. “It helped me as a person to read all the kindness that comes from people. It was such beautiful humanity, and to connect with that and try to honor their specific request was really fun.”
Might those Instagram snippets be woven into future songs? “We have talked about that,” Bush says. “We also talked about maybe releasing the ones we created, tidying them up a little bit and mastering them and putting out a bunch of them in some form or another.”
THE INSTAGRAM POSTS also underscored for Brickell the value of the band’s two new members. Crusham’s contributions “were like mini-operas,” she said. “He can pack so much drama into one minute.”
After our interview, Brickell followed up with a text to add that “Stubborn Love,” a song Crusham wrote on “Hunter and the Dog Star,” is one of her favorites on the album. “He has great ears on both sides of the studio glass, and he brings professionalism to our band without killing the vibe,” she said.
Brickell calls Hubbard, who’d played in many local bands with Bush and Houser before he was asked to join the Bohemians a few years ago, “a soulful, skillful multi-instrumentalist with a peaceful presence, and he can sing. He’s added a lot of personality to our sound.”
Hubbard saw the band’s 1988 “Saturday Night Live” appearance when he was a kid. “I remember John’s smiling face,” he says of Bush, who blushes in our Zoom interview at that revelation. “His smile is like a light shining through the darkness. And that’s the energy they all bring.”
“We have been together for a long time, and we do thrive, the five of us — but it's great having new outside influences,” Bush says. “They feel like trusted companions that have been there all along, really. They both just fit right in.”
The presence of Hubbard, whose wife, Martha Fowler, is a granddaughter of Willie Nelson, also further solidifies a connection between the New Bohemians and the Nelson family. Willie’s youngest son, Micah Nelson, and his wife Alex Dascalu transformed live footage into animated videos for the new album’s songs “My Power” and “Tripwire.”
Meanwhile, a budding relationship between Brickell and Nelson bloomed magnificently last year with “Sing to Me Willie,” a duet released on Willie’s 87th birthday. Her New Bohemians bandmates backed up the two singers on the track.
“We see them here on Maui,” Brickell said, noting that she and Simon have attended birthday parties for Willie’s son Lukas the past couple of years. At the 2019 party, “Willie and I were sitting there, and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you think of a duet that we could do?'” she recalls. “I thought that he meant some standard. I later came to find out he wondered if I had (written) a duet that we could sing.”
She didn’t have anything on hand, so she got busy. “I wrote him several different songs to choose from,” she says. He liked ‘Sing To Me Willie,’ which begins with Brickell’s bittersweet memory of Nelson’s music being played at her father’s funeral. In the chorus, the music turns jaunty and joyful: “Your voice reminds me of my home/ Take me to Texas with a song.”
Then Willie comes in, with couplets akin to Texas travelogue. “A longhorn steer is grazing by the river/ Down in Blanco at sunset,” he sings in the second verse, before this lovely slice of Lone Star poetry in the third verse: “Painted ponies, sopapillas/ Sometimes the land is flat as a tortilla.” There’s also a trademark Willie guitar solo.
Another song she’d written for Nelson to consider, “Horse’s Mouth” — because Willie had chuckled when Brickell had told her, “If you don't hear it from the horse's mouth, you're hearing it from a horse's ass” — ended up on “Hunter and the Dog Star.”
“I’m so thrilled by it,” she says of the album track. “I love what everybody plays. There's no fat on that song. It's a barnburner, and it's tons of fun. Everybody's personality shines through.”
ANOTHER COLLABORATION between Brickell, Simon, Nelson and Willie’s wife, Annie Nelson, last year helped provide relief for the Austin music community during the early months of the pandemic. “A Night for Austin,” a streamed concert event that aired in June with performances from Gary Clark Jr., Black Pumas, Ray Benson and many others, raised $600,000 for organizations dedicated to supporting Austin musicians.
She credits Austin guitarist-producer Charlie Sexton for carrying the bulk of the load as the event’s musical director. The motivation, she says, came from “musicians like our band and Charlie, and knowing how it was becoming very difficult for people. Nobody got to play anymore.
“Paul and I were talking, and it was actually Paul's great idea,” she says. “Paul is just such an astonishingly generous person. I’m really pleased to be connected to a heart like that.”
Musical collaborations between Simon and the New Bohemians have never happened (or if they have, they’ve never been released), perhaps out of respect for Edie’s deep connection to her bandmates that predates her marriage. It’s a special bond, one that everyone in the group echoes when they talk about this rebirth, nearly four decades after their early days in Dallas.
“We have a lot of fun, with everything we do,” Bush says. “And everyone is so good at what they do. It's funny, because we have been together so long, we keep reaching new levels of listening and psychic awareness.
“Everyone does love each other, and like each other, and have fun with each other. It really is one of the most amazing experiences, and we're lucky that it just keeps evolving, and happening.”