Q&A with The South Austin Moonlighters - Americana ensemble has been about embracing a supergroup ethos

"Today's music lacks intention. The most important part of the journey of songwriting and recording is the means, and not so much the end. The artists of today are too focused on the end result. Too many are busy trying to be successful or a star rather than working towards the intention of having a career and longevity."

The South Austin Moonlighters:

Ghost Riders of True Americana

Success for this “True Americana” ensemble has been about embracing a supergroup ethos while shunning supergroup egos. At their best, the band represents not just what’s right about the Austin TX music community but about live music as a whole. And they’re only getting better. When Phil Bass, Chris Beall, Phil Hurley, and Lonnie Trevino Jr, four established Austin TX musicians, decide to join forces and play together just because it’s fun, you’re going to get something special. Such is the case for The South Austin Moonlighters, a band that blends blues, folk, soul, rock, and country, who can flip the switch from slow melodic country to gravelly rocking blues without a hitch. Think Little Feat meets Los Lobos with a splash of The Flying Burrito Bros, and you start to peel away the many musical layers of sound that makes up the S.A.M. Using a four part harmony at times accompanied with some brilliant guitar playing, S.A.M. plays with a full-bodied sound, and puts off an aura of down to earth Southern Blues and Country Rock, that can make even coldest days seem warm. The Band consist of Lonnie Trevino Jr – Bass & Vocals, Phil Hurley – Guitar & Vocals, Phil Bass – Drums & Vocals, and Chris Beall – Guitar & Vocals.                       (Photo by Darina Neyret)

The Band mainly does Originals songs in their set and for the love of music, they throw in choice Covers that fans and newbie fans absolutely love. The Bands origin manifested when Lonnie Trevino Jr had the idea of putting together a side group (where they could all “moonlight” on their steady gigs-thus the band’s name), just for the pure joy of playing music. Since then SAM have self-released three CD’s that have garnered “Highest Recommendations” from venue owners and national publications alike for SAM’s “Live At The Saxon Pub” released Nov. 2012, studio album debut “Burn & Shine” released Feb. 2014, and the newest release, July 2016′s Ghost Of A Small Town. The joy of music making, the band shares, is a tangible and contagious part of Moonlighters’ shows, which made it effortless for them to quickly build a solid fan base through their Austin residencies and regional travels. The inspiration of SAM stems from the band members’ mutual respect and admiration for each other’s skill and mastery of their instrument. Musicians are always seeking out others who inspire them and challenge them to improve. This group is an amazing example of what can happen when you put a bunch of talented guys in one room with an emphasis on joy and no egos involved. And now be prepared to witness The JOY that is The South Austin Moonlighters!

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Lonnie: I've learned that my feeding off of the audience during a performance is a two way street. My attitude on stage during a performance also feeds the audience. The joy that I project to the audience is as important as the joy the audience projects to me. We can't really have one without the other. It's nice that people want to hear/see the band live, but if we are not there in the present moment ready to extend the joy, the performance is sure to be a failure or at the least mediocre. Learning this has made our shows something to behold not only for the audience but for us on stage as well as fans of music and in particularly live music. Blues music to me is a feeling. A state of mind. Not just a genre or a sequence of chords progressions. The origins of Blues music come from many different areas of the USA. So that means you have Delta Blues, Dixieland Blues, Country Blues, Appalachian Blues, etc. etc. You can find the Blues, or at least I can, in many genres of music. The other day I was listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young's Déjà Vu album which is considered an Americana album, but there is Blues all over that album. It's beautiful, Carry On is a Blues song. Helpless is a Blues song. Almost Cut My Hair is a Blues song.  In particularly those song, but the rest are equally based in the Blues heritage.

Phil H: Rock and roll defined me. I’ve been in bands since I was eight years old. It gave me the courage to be different when I was young without fear because I saw my hero doing it and I knew that there was nothing that the local bullies could say to me that could dissuade me from chasing my dreams. The first thing I learned to play was the blues. I could sing in tune, but I didn’t play an instrument. I found harmonica first. I would stay up way past my bedtime jamming the blues with adults when I was only 10 or 11 years old. When I finally pick up and guitar, the first thing I learned was how to fund out a twelve bar blues so that my older buddies could solo over the top. The music of Freddie King, Albert King, BB King, The Allman Brothers, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter. These were my first heroes.

Phil B: So many artist have shaped my playing from the Rock n' Roll culture. I feel the blues is part of so many genres of music. Especially Rock, Country, Soul, R & B, Jazz and so much more. The Blues has influence and is the root of so much in our music world.

Chris: Honestly, these days I think I learn as much or more about myself through lots of different types of "roots" culture, not just Rock and Roll. I LOVE things that have deep roots. Those things represent heritage---things that are good and worth holding on to. Those kinds of things never go out of style, really. They speak of the underlying story of humanity in us all. I think that's where the blues comes in too; but really, any "authentic" music usually speaks to us all.

How do you describe The South Austin Moonlighters sound and songbook? What characterize band’s philosophy?

Lonnie: When our debut studio album Burn & Shine was released in Europe a European reviewer described the band as "True Americana". I love that. It seems that the European listeners really get The SAM philosophy. In the USA the music industry wants to narrow down the artists to one genre, one singer, one "star" for some reason. However, when we were growing up all of our favorite bands had multiple singers, wrote multiple genres of songs, constantly growing and changing with the times. The South Austin Moonlighters call upon the musical influences of our youth.  60's, 70's, 80's. I mentioned Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Eagles, Big Star, Cream, Blind Faith, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Little Village, Los Lobos, just to name a few, that are huge influences on the band and to each member individually. Everyone in the band is 45 or older, so It's ingrained in us to not settle, not narrow down our sound, and not have a certain band member be the focal point. 

We've been referred to as a "Super Group" and we wear that like a badge of honor. We are also following in the tradition of the Texas Super Groups like The Flatlanders, The Texas Tornadoes, Arc Angels, The Resentments, Storyville, etc. So with that in mind, we purposely expound on the four lead singer asset of our group.  Not only do all four of us sing lead very well, but harmony is very important to us. Not only harmony with the lead vocalist, but background vocal harmony. So in many ways we are also a "Vocal Group". So it's up to the fans and listener to decide how to describe our sound and our philosophy.  We are going to do what pleases us, and we hope it will please the fans and listeners as well.

"That is what makes art and creativity so beautiful to me. It's an absolutely necessary part of society, whether it's carving wooden spoons, scratching hieroglyphics on a wall, poetry, or song. Art and music have the ability to tell the story of humanity in a uniquely-understood way."

What were the reasons that the band started the Rockin’ Blues researches? What is the story of band’s name?

Phil H: Well, we have all been fans of rock and blues for years. We are all huge music fans first and foremost. So we have spent countless hours listening to music, researching it and trying to learn how to make those sounds and feelings. This group came together out of mutual admiration for each other. We were all playing in separate groups but had the day dream of putting together a side group to “moonlight” with and from that SAM was born.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open act and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Lonnie: I love performing with the band live. It's a wonderful feeling. I really have to remember that I'm a part of an ensemble because I'm such a fan of each member of the band that I'll stop to watch and listen! But, in the studio is my favorite way to work with this band. Creating something from nothing is a thrill. We all trust each other's ability and what we each bring to the table. It's such a wonderful experience. Last year we were honored to be asked to record a version of The Beach Boys Good Vibrations for a compilation album called The ALL ATX CD benefiting the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (H.A.A.M). We have a great video on our Facebook page of our recording the song in 8 hours. It was a huge success. You can see the joy of creating I'm speaking of in that video. This year we were asked again and recorded a version of The Eagles Witchy Woman. We will also have a video for that song soon. That was a harder session in the fact that we wanted to make this song more of our own, and we were up for the challenge. 

Phil H: Many! Every gig at the Saxon Pub is memorable. Our record release party for “Burn & Shine” there was an incredible evening. I think there’s a bunch of it up on YouTube. This year’s record release for “Ghost of a Small Town” at the Backstage in Austin was incredible. We sold the place out and then burned it down with a blistering set of music. I’m really fond of the video that we made at the Church House Recording Studio for “Good Vibrations”. It’s up on YouTube as well. If you haven’t checked it out, go look it up now. It’s a great example of what this group can do in the studio.

Phil B: Playing and touring with Gatemouth Brown and Bo Diddley stands out for me as a very special time, gig wise. Blues and rock n' roll legends they are! Opening gigs with BB King, Albert Collins, Jimmy Vaughn, Robert Cray and Keb Mo are stand outs also.

Chris: There always seems to be something special when the Moonlighters play together, and my favorite moments as a band-member are our live shows for sure. One of my favorite ones recently has to be the "Texas Red Dirt Roads" radio show with Justin Frazell at Billy Bobs's in Fort Worth Texas. There were about 1200 people at that show! I also really enjoy the "craft" of songwriting. I was asked to join several notable Texas songwriters (Walt Wilkins and Drew Womack) on a show recently, so that was a special time.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Lonnie: Today's music lacks intention. The most important part of the journey of songwriting and recording is the means, and not so much the end. The artists of today are too focused on the end result. Too many are busy trying to be successful or a star rather than working towards the intention of having a career and longevity. That is what I miss of the music of the past. Tonally music has changed with technology. I miss the warmth of tape, and vinyl. I love listening to vinyl.  I have a fairly large vinyl collection, but I don't really have a proper system to listen to them on. 

Phil H: I miss the art of the performance. So much of the music we hear today is pieced together in computer programs by gifted engineers. But, so little of it is actually made in real time by artists. The great advantage of the digital recording domain is that you get unlimited attempts to get something right or you can just “cut and paste” your favorite bits together until it sounds the way you want it to. My favorite records were made by real musicians playing real music in real time. Mistakes and warts included. I like the human element in music. Perfection can be stale.

Phil B: There is so much to say on this subject but to keep it short and sweet. One thing is the shelf life of music is so short now as opposed to the past. The standard of art and passion with which a lot of music is made now days, as compared to the past has diminished considerably. Radio, not all but mainstream don't seem to support that as much as in the 50's, 60's and 70's. I hope in the future, there will be a return to artist development. Also the quality of how music is listened to now is so much different that the listener misses out on so much of the experience that we take for granted and were fortunate to experience ourselves.

Chris: Well, we have to remember that the music of the past has been "filtered" by history and time. One thing's for sure, nowadays every music fan is being bombarded with all kinds of music! In the old days there wasn't as much new music available to the music listener, so it can be a little overwhelming trying to "sift" through all of the music available today---some really good, some really bad! I personally like the "style" and "authenticity" of the older music, but I like a lot of the newer artists and songs that are doing it. Bruce Springteen's recent stuff is great; Ryan Adams, Darrell Scott, Tim O'Brien.

"American Roots music is music by the people for the people. It’s something we all can relate to and a feeling that is undeniable. Longevity." (Photo by Darina Neyret)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Lonnie: I'd really like for everyone in the world to be more mindful of the value of the arts. Too many want music for free. Our last two CD's cost $25,000 to make and promote. It's not cheap. So giving away our music for free isn't an option for us. It's a reality that we are trying very hard to not embrace. That is the one thing I'd like to change in the world of music. Help us make that a reality Greece.

Phil H: I would be much more famous and making a lot more money! 

Phil B: Better music history education. The younger generation is in desperate need of knowing where all of this came from.

Chris: The music business is tough. I guess my magic wish would be that great art would constantly motivate people to do great things, sometimes in spite of the "business".

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Texas music from blues, folk, soul, to rock, country and southern rock?

Lonnie: I kind of already answered that question before. "True Americana" comes from all over the USA, but the South is roux of the American gumbo of music. Texas has a rich history of Blues, Country, Soul, and Rock. From Bob Wills, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buddy Holly, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, ZZ Top, Christopher Cross, Albert Collins, Freddie King just to name a few.  So much to pull from. There isn't a shortage of Blues water in our well to drink from.

Phil H: Have you got multiple days to talk? The influence of Texas music on the music of the world is so huge. From Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys to T Bone Walker, Waylon and Willie, Towns Van Zant,  Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny and Edgar Winter, all the way to ZZ Top. There’s been so much incredible music that has come out of this state. It’s hard to overstate.

Chris: It seems like the lines between all those musical genres is a bit blurry in Texas, and probably elsewhere too. I think that is because the true forms of those kinds of music can't hide behind "gimmicks" or "studio-tricks"---the music has a certain authenticity to it and that's what they all have in common. It's that way among the artists who make the music as well. We feel the common bond.

Why did you think that the American Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following? 

Phil B: It’s music by the people for the people. It’s something we all can relate to and a feeling that is undeniable. Longevity. 

Chris: I hope that "roots" music resonates with something inside of listeners. There is something about music that can be a very pure form of expression, and I think that's what never becomes obsolete.

"My favorite records were made by real musicians playing real music in real time. Mistakes and warts included. I like the human element in music. Perfection can be stale."

What is the impact of Rock n’ Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Lonnie: Blues music in Texas is probably the oldest form of music from the Lone Star State. In the resurgence of the late 60's/early 70's in Austin Texas, where we are from, this beautiful city coaxed all of the young gifted musicians from the Dallas Fort Worth area to move to central Texas. It wasn't very hard. Affordable living and beautiful scenery, and great venues in which to perform in. And so the Blues really flourished from there in Austin. As far as the racial, political, social-cultural implications, and where it ties in with the blues... Blues music has always been about overcoming adversity. We'd all like to think that all of the "struggle" is a thing of the past, but there are still traces of the "struggle", However we've come so far.  But there is still work to be done here in the USA. A dear friend and legendary blues musician here in Austin, Sarah Brown is a direct descendant of our first president George Washington. She has made a living playing the blues with legends from all over the US. Black musicians who were overcoming their own struggles. She wanted so badly to apologize to all of them for her family owning slaves. The Black musicians knew her true heart and told her, "Unless you own slaves right now you don't need to apologize to me." That is an amazing story. So for us musicians, our job isn't only to carry on the tradition, to also be examples of what, not only blues music, but all music representatives, and live accordingly with respect, and love for all human beings.

I read in the BB King Autobiography that the two times that BB realized Blues music transcended race, color, and creed was the first time he met the Winter Brothers in Beaumont TX., and when in the mid 60’s when he pulled to the venue and saw a line around the building of young white kids. He said of the Winter Brothers, “I saw two of the whites’ people I had ever seen and they could play the blues!” It’s amazing how crudely the early blues records were recorded and yet they still convey the message, the feeling, the power that is Blues Music. Like I said before, you’ll find it in all music because of its strong staying power.

Phil H: I think that rock and blues have always been a huge in expressing the honest and sometimes dirtier side of American life. Sex, death, lies, cheating, lust, hate, greed, heartbreak: these have all been common themes. Unlike more socially acceptable forms of music, the blues gave a forum for the late night crowd. Blues clubs were where you could let it all hang out. The best rock has always kept an element of that danger in it be the Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistol or Guns & Roses. It was music to piss of your parents and make out to.

Chris: I think some of the other guys might be better at answering this than I am, but I WILL say that art (in general) has a way of communicating past language barriers, geological locations, cultural viewpoints, ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc...That is what makes art and creativity so beautiful to me. It's an absolutely necessary part of society, whether it's carving wooden spoons, scratching hieroglyphics on a wall, poetry, or song. Art and music have the ability to tell the story of humanity in a uniquely-understood way.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?

Lonnie: I think I'd like to go back to the 1950's/early 60's New Orleans to be a part of the development of Blues, Rock, and Pop music that went on to influence so many of the bands I grew up listening to. What a ride that would be.

Phil H: That’s a really hard one for me. I’d love to have seen New York and 42nd Street when the real Bebop thing was going on. Monk in this room with Coltrane, Miles down the street, Dexter Gordon or Bud Powell in the next. But, I’d give just about anything to have been able to see Jimi Hendrix on a great night. He’s my main man, now and forever.

Chris: That's a good one! If I could go far into the future or the past, ironically I think I'd want to go into the future and see what life is like based on the decisions we make today. If the time-machine is mainly for traveling-time constraints, I'd want to see the rocky coastline of the Mediterranean Sea in Greece of course! But I might just take an airplane for that....

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Photo by Darina Neyret

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