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The Road To Rock Stardom

Christopher Gray
Christopher Gray

(A Funny Thing Happened On) The Road To Rock Stardom
by Tammy Moore

There were some mistakes made during the layout process of my last column, and I flew into our weekly writers staff meeting this past Thursday with a copy of that issue in hand. I was fully prepared to beg my Editor, Isaac Friese, to verbally flog whoever was responsible for what I thought was a colossal blunder. Irony reared its very ugly head though when, before I could get to Isaac, I myself was met by our Art and Photography Editor, Larry Stern, who wanted to know if I knew how to spell Jimi Hendrix, referring to my mention of him in the same column. “Of course,” I replied as a nagging horror began to wash over me. I was thinking, “Oh my God, what if I spelled the guitar god’s last name with a c-k-s as opposed to an x?” “Why?” I nervously asked. “Did I not spell it right?” “No,” Larry says with a sarcastic (or was it sadistic) smile. “You spelled it J-I-M-M-Y”! Of course, to my utter disgrace, this conversation took place in front of another writer, James E., who, to his credit, didn’t laugh out loud. My only weak defense was to inform Stern that I had at least gone to the trouble of finding out how to spell “Linkin Park” correctly for the article in question and continued to hold my head defiantly high. Mercifully, I still hold my position as a staff writer for Rank and Revue but I’m sure, even as I write now, that there are spirits creating a special place for me in rock and roll purgatory for my own monumental bungle. Needless to say, by the time I got to Isaac, I had developed a certain sense of empathy for the layout artist I had intended to blast and was sure there were logical reasons for his error. Who knew? He was probably living with a small child and utterly sleep-deprived! After all, mistakes like this will happen on occasion as I was told by Isaac, especially in a fledgling music publication like this where we are short staffed and eyes are blurry after they have relentlessly read, cut, pasted, posted, and designed pages in the two day whirlwind period that occurs just before the paper goes to press.

I bring this humiliating story to light simply to show a small example of the many levels of frustration that can occur in the world of music journalism. The pay offs, though, make it all worthwhile. Imagine a job where you occasionally have an opportunity to get inside the head of an artist whose work you adore. Imagine having a voice that might sway public opinion in the subjective world of musical tastes. Imagine having the power to elevate an artist to new levels of success. Is the pen mightier than the guitar? Of course, that answer is slanted, but the two go hand in hand. Artists need the media like castaways need running boats. .

I was fortunate enough this past week to spend some time chatting with a very astute writer for The Austin Chronicle (I’m sure nothing like the aforesaid story has ever happened to him). He is none other than Christopher Gray, author of The Chronicle’s weekly column TCB where readers can get the scoop on the hot happenings in the local music scene. In addition to TCB, he writes record reviews, an occasional feature story, and a small high school football box at the back of the paper. Yes, TCB stands for ‘takin’ care of business’ but no, it is not derived from the Bauchman-Turner Overdrive song of the same name. Instead it is inspired by, or dare I say pays possible tribute to, the slogan that was painted on the side of Elvis Presley’s private plane in the 70’s. Legend has it that the saying was the motto ‘The King’ lived by and he even had TCB engraved into the handle of his gun.

It was classical music that he heard on the radio that first stirred Gray’s soul. He began playing with the orchestra at his Friendswood, Texas, junior high school and stayed with it throughout high school. He first played the cello and later played bass and occasionally wrote for his high school paper for kicks. He came to The University of Texas here planning to major in music theory and play in their orchestra, but when scheduling conflicts arose around band practices, he began to look in another direction. His schoolteacher father knew a UT student who worked for the Daily Texan, the self-proclaimed “best known student medium in the century.” Gray’s father recommended that his son talk to his friend at the student publication about writing for them. Gray did and was brought on immediately. He began writing a lot for the Texan and was beginning to feel a strange pull towards this new endeavor. As luck would have it, someone at The Chronicle was feeling a strong attraction to his writing as well. Margaret Moser, the notorious former ringleader of the “Texas Blondes” (that is another story in and of itself) and current staff writer, was following Gray’s work in the UT paper for several months and called him one day asking if he might be interested in writing for The Chronicle. While freelancing there, he met Randall Stockton of Beerland fame and did a short stint as bass player for Stockton’s group, The Long Walking Band. Through playing in the band and writing reviews, his love of music was beginning to expand to the sounds of blues and rock, but after nine months with TLWB, his drive to write won out and he eventually landed a full time paying gig with The Chronicle.

Gray loves his job and is an avid fan of the Austin music scene. Ask this man what some of the highlights from his writing career have been, and rather than rattling off big names and intriguing stories (even though he has written about and interviewed the likes of Radiohead, White Stripes, Audioslave, George Jones, and Psychadelic Furs, to name a few), he will begin to tell you how cool it is to do what he does right here in Austin. Sure, he gets off to hanging backstage at the ACL Fest or Willie’s Picnic, but as far as he’s concerned, the real honor has come from getting to know the people in the local scene from the musicians to the bartenders and door people. He has made many good friends here, including the members of Grand Champeen, whom he will be accompanying to New York in a couple of weeks when they road trip it there for a CMJ Showcase. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the band thinks twice before letting Gray drive. One of his favorite pastimes is driving really fast in his treasured Ford Mustang.

If you are an aspiring artist, it never hurts to have a music journalist in your corner. For that matter, it can come in handy for established artists as well. On a gloriously overcast day, as we sat at a picnic table on the grounds sandwiched between The Chronicle and SXSW offices, here is what Gray had to say about artists and the media. .
R&R: What is the importance of an artist generating press for themselves while playing at the club level?

CG: Well, it’s very important because usually that’s the first time that their music will be in contact with the general public and also with the media. It’s the first step that every band has to take, to get their music out there to that level so they can start to work their way up.

R&R: What does an artist do to entice you to write about them?

CG: There’s all different things. I mean, it could be just word of mouth, or I might just happen to be in a club when someone starts playing but it all comes back to the music. If I don’t like what they’re doing, I probably won’t make the time to go and see them. I have really widespread musical tastes, so it’s not that much of a stretch for me to like someone (as it turns out, Gray is also a fan of country music as well). I think a lot of writers only like one really narrow area of music, and I’ve always tried to stay away from that. I always try to be as open-minded as possible. Even if I don’t care for something, I always try to look for what might make other people care about it. The main thing is to just have the songs and make sure people hear about them because we’re out there all the time looking for things to track down that we might be into.

R&R: Does it help to send in press kits to you?

CG: Oh yeah…anything they can do to make us aware of them, they should do it. The more we know that they’re out there, the more likely we are to say, “Okay, I think I’ll go check that out.”

R&R: Do you choose the artists that you review, or does The Chronicle assign them to you?

CG: It’s usually about half and half. I have a pretty good idea about what I want to write about and my editor knows me pretty well, too, so he knows the kinds of things that I do well and he sends those things my way. Then I come in a lot and say, “Hey, I want to write about this…” and that’s fine too.

R&R: How do you obtain the information that appears in TCB?

CG: Some of it is just stuff I happened to hear when I’m out (this job keeps Gray out watching bands at least five nights a week on average) talking to people at the clubs. Sometimes, it’s tips I get through email, sometimes phone calls.

R&R: You choose to work in Austin. What appeals to you about the music scene here?

CG: It’s just that there is so much music, that there is something going on every night of the year which makes it really easy to cover. The local talent is head and shoulders, I think, above what is out there on the national level. Really, I can’t think of a better place to be writing about music than here because you get all the great things about Austin and you get this totally dynamic, multi-layered music scene at the same time.

R&R: Knowing all that you know now…what is the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring artists in this crazy pursuit of success in music?

CG: Just don’t get discouraged. It’s going to take a while for what you do to catch on and take hold with people. You just have to keep after it as long as you believe in it. Don’t let clubs not wanting to book your band right off…or if they do, don’t let small crowds keep you from keepin’ on. It takes a long time to build up a career in music. I mean, it took me I don’t know how many years to get to a level where I could just do this and not worry about some other job so I could pay the bills. So just keep after it. The longer you keep at it, the more people you’ll start to know, the more places you’ll find where you can fit in and the easier it gets.

There goes that perseverance theme again. Someone once said that there are no statues built for critics. But I will take this opportunity to say that I, for one, find it incredibly uplifting to know that there is a Christopher Gray among us in Austin, someone that genuinely respects the talent here and enjoys being able to help in elevating artists to new heights of achievement. Hats off to you, Chris! The rest of you, keep reaching for the dream. As a great man once said, “Keep on keepin’ on”! Peace.


[Editor’s note: Ok, to settle the matter once and for all. Yes, I did make the mistake of misspelling Jimi Hendrix’s first name in one of the previous issues (Issue #7/Amplified Heat review/Red Eyed Fly). But, like I will continue to explain till the very day I die, I did and do know how to spell his name properly. Yet, as I had been under deadline pressue, needed another review for the Fly, had been up all night, had to listen to several people griping all day and hadn’t eaten in an eternity… – you get the point. Shit happens. But really guys, I am not a total dipshit as assumed. Thank-you very much for your time and attention to this matter. P.S. Larry Stern, kiss my hairy white ass. – Isaac Friese]

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