Amy Boone was folding a batch of laundry when the phone rang. It was just after noon at her Austin, Texas, home, and Boone was preparing to leave town the next morning. That's when her band, the Damnations TX, would depart for its first West Coast tour in the majors—that is, after releasing its major-label debut, Half Mad Moon (Sire).
A weekend of record-release parties, record-store performances, and a Dallas club gig was over, leaving Boone's voice a raspy whisper, far from the immaculate tones that propel the new record. Staring her in the face on this day was taking the van for an oil change followed by a six-hour band practice with new drummer Rey Washam (formerly with Ministry and Scratch Acid).
The Damnations TX
Crocodile, Saturday, March 13
"Hey, at least we don't have to hang posters and flyers anymore," said Boone, after asking older sister and bandmate Deborah Kelly to turn down the music. "The promotion [with Sire] happens on a bigger scale. We've got a whole group helping us out. Hopefully it will help bring people to the shows outside of Texas. Hopefully the word is out."
Judging from the hordes of favorable press since Half Mad Moon's release, including "Album of the Week" kudos in a recent issue of People, the word is definitely out on the Damnations TX (pronounced tee-ex). The band creates an eclectic and tuneful smorgasbord that's impossible to pigeonhole. Highlighted by Boone and Kelly's irresistible sibling harmonies, the record is packed with pop hooks and foggy mountain breakdowns courtesy of the guitar-mandolin-banjo arsenal of Rob Bernard.
"We go a little bit past those boundaries of country, because we touch on a lot of different veins of music," Boone noted. "So it might be slightly limiting to us getting labeled there."
Indeed, the sisters' ageless songwriting goes far beyond the styles of Bill Monroe or the Carter Family, spilling influences of LA punk rock and Memphis soul into a mix of blues and front-porch bluegrass. Classic rock dominated the radio stations in the tiny upstate New York town where Kelly and Boone grew up. It wasn't until a late-'80s move to Austin (after Boone spent 18 months in the Pacific Northwest as a Lake City nanny) that the sisters discovered what they were missing.
"We heard a lot of folk and bluegrass (growing up), but not the kind of country music you hear in Texas," said Boone. "Austin's a whole different flavor. There are rabid music fans and walking musical historians here. Meeting people and exchanging CDs and tapes helped me gain other influences. I didn't even know who Gram Parsons was until I came here.
"We didn't take the songwriting thing seriously until we got to Austin," she continued. "We watched how other people would write songs and get up and play at open-mike nights. That's what's cool about Austin. There are so many different levels of musician. Everyone can try out what they're doing at different stages along the way."
A limited-edition 1997 album called Live Set, recorded in the studio of a University of Texas radio station, quickly went out of print, helping the Damnations TX win the Best New Act award in the Austin American Statesman. With a slew of live favorites and several brand-new songs, the band entered an Austin studio last year with former Reivers front man John Croslin at the controls.
"John would come to our shows, but he went the extra mile coming to our practices to get to know our styles," said Boone. "We'd drink beer with him and have music chats. It was cool that he took the time to get to know us. It was always what we wanted, not some hotshot producer saying, 'I'm gonna make you sound slick and great.'"
Croslin's hands-off approach is evident from the first seconds of the perilous opening track, "Unholy Train," right through Bernard's lone contribution, "Finger the Pie," itself spurred by a Reivers-like riff. The album's title cut is banjo-powered reggae, while the dust-bowl folk of a true tale, "Black Widow," could have been the police report for Boone's stolen amplifier. Kelly and Boone lay down their immaculate harmonies everywhere, but best so on the fiery "Down the Line" (which would fit perfectly on any of X's first three records) and its honky-tonk counterpart, "Kansas."
"We finished the record and were intending to put it out ourselves," said Boone. "But the people from Sire came to South by Southwest [last March]. We liked them and what they had to offer. We decided to do it through them. Everything changed right there."
Including the band's name. After going by the Damnations since its outset, the group added the TX surname at the behest of Sire attorneys. "It was strictly for protection and to define us from other bands with similar names," Boone explained.
She claimed to be unconcerned with the possible downside of recording for a major label, even though she and Kelly have to look no further than their producer and their guitarist for major-label horror stories: Croslin's Reivers released a pair of promising late-'80s albums before getting dumped in a Capitol Records reshuffling, while Bernard's former band, Prescott Curleywolf, was in the majors just long enough for a cup of coffee.
"Sire knew what they were buying, and I find it comforting that they trusted us and liked what we were doing," Boone said. "I never really saw us ending up on a major label. But I also never thought a major label would be as cool as they are."