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Stephen Doster’s ‘Arizona’ is well worth the 18-year wait

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

“I don’t think I’ll wait 18 years to make another one,” Stephen Doster says with a mix of hope and determination as we discuss “Arizona,” his first solo album since his 1996 debut “Rosebud.” Issued late last year with little fanfare, “Arizona” gets a proper release show on Saturday at Strange Brew.

For music writers covering the local community, few things are more rewarding than hearing a hometown artist whose songs clearly stand out. Often that involves chasing the new faces on the scene, trying to catch rising stars in their blossoming stages.

Which doesn’t make it easy on someone such as Doster, who’s been playing music in Austin since the 1970s. You may know his name from his long-running Wednesday residency at West Sixth Street fixture Z’Tejas, or from countless shows he’s played at other local bars, clubs and restaurants. Perhaps you’ve attended his annual John Lennon birthday tribute night with the #9 Orchestra, which will mark its 25th year this October.

A guitarist whose resume includes tenures with Nanci Griffith and Hal Ketchum, Doster collaborated with fellow local songwriters Will Sexton and Bill Carter on duo and trio records that came out in 2005 and 2010. He’s also produced dozens of records at East Austin Recording, an impressive studio he and engineer James Stevens operate in a modest east-central residential neighborhood.

But recording and releasing his own music has generally taken a back seat. Promising sessions in 1982 ended when his producer, Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, died from a drug overdose. A different batch of songs finally came together 14 years later on “Rosebud.”

It’s taken Doster nearly two decades to follow it up, but “Arizona” is a revelation. Pop gems such as the title track, “River From a Dream” and “Second Story Balcony” brilliantly contrast darkness and light with sophisticated melodic structures and engaging stories. Doster digs deeper on “Throwing the Ball,” a rumination on memories of his father and son, and he takes an intriguing detour on “Pistol Pete,” a tribute to basketball legend Pete Maravich.

Carefully fleshed-out arrangements highlight Doster’s guitar and Kevin Lovejoy’s keyboards atop the gracefully fluid rhythms of bassist George Reiff and drummer Dony Wynn. Other top-shelf Austin musicians, including cellist Brian Standefer, pedal steel master Marty Muse and horn players Elias Haslanger and Ephraim Owens, help flesh out the sound.

Though Doster’s collaborations with Sexton and Carter got a few of his songs out between “Rosebud” and “Arizona,” mostly he prioritized his family and studio work during the long gap. That changed recently when the Dosters became empty-nesters.

“My son is grown up, and we moved out to the country. And it changed the overhead of my life,” he says. Doster and his wife sold their house near Zilker Park two years ago and moved about an hour west to the hill country town of Blanco, a change that he says played a part in “Arizona” coming together.

“I didn’t think about it at the time, but probably everything had an effect on it,” Doster says.” Not the least of which was the life change, after over 35 years of being in Austin, working pretty much nonstop.”

It helped that he also had a record label’s support. “Arizona” is the first release on Atticus Records, a company that plans to focus on Texas songwriters and may also reissue Doster’s past work. There’s been some talk about an archival collection of previously unreleased material, as Doster was still writing songs all those years he wasn’t putting out records.

He laughs as he recalls something his drummer friend Tommy Taylor has observed about him. “He says, ‘Stephen Doster has songs that he can’t remember.’ And it’s true, because he’ll bring up a song that we recorded in the ’80s or ’90s, and I don’t remember them. And some of them, I hear them, and I go, ‘That was pretty good. I should have been a little bit more forceful about getting that out.’”

One older song that did surface on Doster’s new record is “Baby There’s No One Like You,” which he co-wrote with Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band. Though Doster hadn’t previously recorded it himself, the track appeared on Layton and Shannon’s 2001 album “Double Trouble,” with New Orleans great Dr. John playing piano and singing the romantic refrain: “A million stars will fill the sky, but baby, there’s no one like you.”

“That song can just be seen as a straight-up love song,” Doster says, “but it had another meaning to me. There was a metaphysical side of it — that love and all those bonds transcend this world. That’s what I was thinking when I wrote it.”

He pauses as he starts to tell a story illustrating his point. “You write songs and you don’t know if anyone’s ever going to hear them,” Doster says, as a preface to the story. “But sometimes songs find their place.”

He continues: In August 2001, many Austin musicians had gathered around the deathbed of beloved Austin drummer and percussionist Mambo John Treanor, who’d been fighting cancer for a couple of years. Doster was out of town at the time, but the day after Treanor’s death, he had a studio session with pianist Nick Connolly.

“We were both pretty saddened,” Doster says. “And Nick said, ‘Well, Steve, I was there. I was in the room with him, as were his closest friends. It was a really beautiful moment: This song came on the radio. It was Dr. John. And every word of it fit what happened. His mother was holding his hand and singing with Dr. John, ‘There’s No One Like You.’”

Doster marvels at the memory, as if still in disbelief that a song he wrote could have found such a beautiful purpose.

“That it would be played to that group of people at that time — it was very special to me. It made me feel like, OK, maybe all this stuff is worthwhile.”

Stephen Doster CD release