My first recollection of music as a child were songs like, Downtown, Sweet Caroline, In The Ghetto, Sounds of Silence, etc… The memories of where I heard these songs were from the rear seat of our Rambler station wagon when Dad would take us on rides. Dad was intelligent, outgoing, loving, compassionate, energetic, friendly and opinionated. Of all the traits he passed on to me, the one that I have enjoyed the most was his love of music. I miss him dearly and I know in my heart he would be very proud of this project. He served in the Air Force and later chose academia as his destiny. He attended the University of Texas and got his Bachelors in Biology at Texas Tech, and then his PhD at the University of Colorado, and finally a post doctorate degree at the University of Utah.
Needless to say, I had a childhood that exposed me to a lot of different environments and cultures. In 1968, we moved to Boulder Colorado, during the peak of the hippie movement, I was 8 years old and we lived in student housing apartments within walking distance of the university. My brother Ruben and I had access during the summer months to the university’s music library. We would go there, find our own booths, put on the headphones and spin LP’s all day long. Of course the Beatles were very popular at the time, but some of my favorite songs were from the story tellers. Songs like Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue”, Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses”, Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”. I listened to these songs over and over. These were Dad’s songs, and his musical taste taught me to pay more attention to the lyrics than the quality of the vocals. We also had plenty of crooner music at home like Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, etc… Big band music from the likes of Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong, Herp Albert & the Tiajuana Brass, were also part of my parent’s collection… Comedian albums from people like Bill Cosby & Brother Dave Gardner were also an influence on me. Basically, I loved all music and listened to it whenever I could.
In 1971 we moved to Salt Lake City and I began following artists like Jim Croce, John Denver, Blood Sweat & Tears, America, and Bread. Throughout it all, I was always listening to the lyrics. If the lyrics were good, to me, the song was good. However, as I entered my teenage years, I got my first taste of a harder type of rock. My cousin Johnny Mistician visited us in Salt Lake for a week or two one summer. He introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. These sounds were completely new to me. For the first time, the music sounded so cool, I found myself not really caring if I understood the lyrics.
In 1974 we moved back to Texas. Although Houston was our destination, we stayed at My Uncle Robert’s house in San Antonio for several weeks. During that visit, my older cousin Bobby Cuellar introduced me to a new type of music, Southern rock. Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers and Little Feat. He also turned me on to Joe Walsh who had just come out with his new song “Rocky Mountain Way”. You simply did not hear any of this type of music in Utah. I was amazed and found myself loving these new southern sounds. Bobby and Johnny definitely helped to influence my musical taste in my early teenage years and I love them both.
After we moved to Houston, I met a lifelong friend. His name is Kirk Anderson. He was 15 when we met and he was already in the musician’s union and playing drums at some of the resort hotels in Houston for Sunday brunches. I am paying homage to him with this project. His musical ability was so inspiring, that I bought my first guitar and began taking lessons so I could be like Kirk one day. Kirk was a major influence on me musically over the years. He introduced to modern jazz. Folks like Jaco Pastorius, Jean Luc Ponty,
Al Dimeola, Stanley Clarke, and Billy Cobham. Bands like Weather Report, Steely Dan, Dave Mathews Band, etc… He also introduced me to the music of lesser known mainstream folks like the bluegrass sounds of Bela Fleck, and his jazzy counter parts, the Flecktones with their precise instrumentation and a phenomenal bass player by the name of Victor Wooten. Kirk took me to live performances of most of these musicians.
As the 1980’s began I really started getting into folks like Paul Simon, Men at Work, Dire Straits, Jimmy Buffet, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hall & Oates, James Taylor and John Prine. Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics… These bands were heavy influences on my musical taste. As time went by I got more interested in country music. Singers like George Strait and Willie Nelson, pickers like Chet Atkins. I began to listen to more country than rock. The one thing about country songs was they always seemed to tell a story. Again, for me it was all about the lyrics.
Those of you that know me well know my passion for music. I have attended over a hundred concerts since 1976. My first concert was Pink Floyd. My wife Pam and I have spent many years hitting the clubs in Houston watching live bands. Many of you are familiar with the fact that we have hosted many parties with local bands playing at our house in an event we call Twigstock. Pam and I would find the bands in nightclubs and when we found a good, one we would simply look at each other and say “Twigstock”. Music is simply part of our lives, and I love Pam for sharing her time with me. As the song I wrote for her states, “She’s My Lady”.
One of the first bands that we started seeing on a consistent basis was a man by the name of Otis Porchia. He was better known to friends and family as “Big Otis”. He was an ex NFL player who had become a national recording artist and performed with folks such as Al Green, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and BJ Thomas to name a few. Pam and I first saw The Big Otis Show Band at Westfields in 2001. They played R&B, Motown, Classic Rock and Top 40 hits. Otis passed away in 2011 and the world lost a truly magnificent man. He had a wonderful, big smile and he was always upbeat. When he gave you a hug, it was from the heart. When it came to live performances, his shows were tops in our book. Just a gem of a performer and when I hear some of the songs that Otis used to cover, I swear he did them better than the original artist. Pam and I will never forget him and he was definitely a major player in inspiring me musically. When we had our first Twigstock party after the house fire in 2003, The Big Otis Show Band was our choice for being the headliner. True to his nature, Otis offered to play at our party with a very generous discount. His band would get paid, but he would personally play for free. That was Otis, he had a heart of gold. Rock on Big O, we love you.
The band that opened up for Big Otis at that first Twigstock party was another favorite of Pam and I. We found them kind of by accident. I had a friend from work who followed live music and invited me to attend a show at the Continental Club in Houston. The name of the band was Brave Combo. They were from North Texas. I got there early to save seats and the opening act was a band named The El Orbits. These guys fascinated me as they were playing crooner music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc… When Brave Combo came out, I was still reeling from the sounds of The El Orbits, and actually left early. When I got home I told Pam there is this cool band you need to see. We saw them almost every Monday night for a couple of years. The lead singer was the drummer and he had his kit setup in the front of the stage with all the other musicians behind him. His name is David Beebe, and he became good friends of Pam and I over the years.
The song on the Lyric Road album called The Married Life is the first song I ever wrote. At one point I gave David a copy of it hoping that maybe The El Orbits could do something with it. Well we had a house fire and lost all of our belongings and a few years later when I began to pick up the guitar again I mentioned to Pam that it was a shame I had lost my The Married Life song in the fire. She reminded me that I had given David a copy. He lived in Marfa, Texas at the time and was running a club called Padre’s. I contacted him and he remembered the song but would have to look around for it. A few months later I got a package in the mail from him with the lyrics and a cassette tape that I had recorded for him of the song. I would like to thank David for actually saving the song for all of those years and then taking the time to locate it and mail it to me. Of all the songs on the first album, this one is the most special to me as it was the first song I ever wrote.
For me personally, Lyric Road and Faces are is just a couple more milestone in my musical history. Pam and I will continue to host parties, attend concerts and support our local bands and musicians as our love for music is as unending as a road that fades into the horizon.
Story of My First Album - Lyric Road
In May of 2012, Pam and I were hosting a party at the house for our good friend Don Vickers who was trying to generate revenue to record his first album called “Halfway There”. Shortly after that party, one of the songwriters (Kelley O) who had worked with him on that project, wanted to get Don some exposure. Kelley was hosting a songwriter function in Baytown Texas and had invited Don and a few others, including a songwriter friend of his (Byron Hill) from Nashville to join in. Kelley asked us if we would mind hosting a luncheon at our house on the afternoon of the songwriter function. The intention was to give Byron a chance to meet Don in person, and hopefully allow Don to play a little guitar for Byron before the songwriter function took place in Baytown that evening.
Pam and I were fine with hosting the luncheon. We really knew nothing of Byron’s background. We did not know that he wrote George Strait’s first number one hit “Fool Hearted Memory” as well as many other hit songs. We were just happy to be helping Don with his endeavors anyway we could. If I knew of Byron’s background, I would have been nervous as hell when he came out to the house. I had a shoe box in my closet with several old songs (rough lyrics with basic chords) that I had not done anything with in years. Songs I had written here and there since the early 1990’s. I had not really played the guitar in quite some time either. When I found out that Byron was coming out to the house, I went through my old songs and picked out a few that I thought might interest him.
During the day that Byron was at the house, I pulled Kelley off to the side and said, “Hey man, I have some songs that I was thinking about giving to Byron as maybe he could do something with them, and since I am not doing anything with them, perhaps he could”. Kelley was quick to tell me that was a bad idea. He told me that down the road if something happened with the songs there could be legal issues like “Hey, those were my songs”. I told Kelley I understood and put them back in the closet.
Although, I wanted to say: “Hey man, I would never pursue legal action. If I gave those songs to Byron, then they are his.” I mean, these were just very basic songs. My intention was that Byron would maybe like a phrase or lyric or something he thought was cool. I was not expecting him to really care for any of the songs in their entirety. But I understood and respected Kelley’s position.
A couple weeks after Byron’s visit, Kelley sent us a link to Byron’s website and he had posted a picture from our office in the house where I have my guitars on the wall. The photo was of Don, Kelley, Byron and myself. The caption under the photo read something like this: Singer/Songwriter Don Vickers, Songwriter Kelley Osburn and “Musician” Javi Cuellar.
When Pam read that, she busted out laughing, saying, “I think he means musical instrument collector, Javi Cuellar” I said, “Hey, I can play guitar (at least basic chords) and sing a little”. She responded with a laugh and the typical “Whatever”.
I thought to myself, hell, she’s right, I sing best in the shower, can’t really play any song from memory, and usually buzz strings on chords that require more than three fingers. But the accolade on the picture Byron posted was a nice gesture.
Well, a couple months pass by after Byron’s visit and Don calls me up one day and asks if I want to go with him to a studio in Huntsville. He is going to begin to lay down the first acoustic guitar tracks for his new album. I said heck yeah, that sounds cool. So we went and spent a full day in the studio. I watched Don play several songs. I watched the studio engineer (Billy Hillman) twist knobs, plug/unplug cables, slide levers, and interact with various screens of a software product called Pro Tools.
I went with Don two weeks later for another full session. At the end of the day, I was so intrigued by the process, that I asked Don, “Hey man, you know the song I wrote about the Hawg Stop in 2007? Do you think you could learn that and we could record it here?”
Don told me that his time would be consumed with his new album, so it would be a long time before he would be able to work on my song. Then he told me that Billy actually plays guitar and that he could do the song with me. He recommended that I ask Billy and see if he had some time available. So, I discussed it with him and he was very receptive to the idea. We scheduled a date, and for the next couple of weeks I practiced playing a couple songs I wanted to do. Revising lyrics along the way and getting blisters on my fingers from playing guitar for the first time in a long time. Talk about nervous, my first day there, when I had to play and sing the first song for him, I was thinking, man this guy deals with “real” musicians all the time, what is he going to think after hearing me? Plus, with blistered fingers, my guitar play was going to be hampered as well.
I was waiting for the “Hey, unless this is something you just have to do, you may want to save your money”, or something like that. But actually, I think he was kind of amused by me. I think he kind of liked my story telling lyrics to some degree. I felt that I was definitely something different than what he was used to dealing with. Kind of like the pet owner that only owns pedigree dogs, but also has that one scruffy mutt they find kind of cute. Although I am not cute, for Billy, I think I was just different. We kind of hit it off once we got to know each other a little better, and we developed our own unique chemistry.
I was simply amazed at Billy’s guitar skills. He never really played when Don was doing his recording so I did not have any idea of his skill level. When I first heard him play my acoustic track to the first song we worked on, I was very impressed. The funny thing is, I thought that was all that we were going to do. He would play my acoustic track and I would do the vocals. I really had no idea of what I was getting into. Before he recorded that first acoustic track, he discussed the timing (bpm) with me and then used digital drum software to pick out the initial beat. I could not believe there was this instant drum accompaniment. He then had me sing the song to the drum/acoustic mix. That was the first time I ever wore headphones to record, and I will never forget that moment. It brought to mind a picture I once saw of John Lennon in a studio. This was very special to me.
Anyway, when I was done, he said that was good enough for “scratch” vocals. I asked him what that meant, and he told me that later, after all the other instruments are done, I would do “final” vocals. Other instruments? He said, well, yeah, aren’t you going to have real drums and bass? I told him that the thought had never crossed my mind. He smiled, and reached for his electric guitar and said, so what do you think about a melody like this? He played some cool sounding lick that complemented my vocal melody and I told him that sounded bad ass. Well, he then proceeded to begin laying down one electric guitar track after another on my first song and I could not believe how different the song began to sound. My original version of basic chords was simply a blueprint for Billy to work with.
I was so inspired by what he had done with that first song, that I began working on other songs and actually wrote a few during the process, just to help fill the album. Memory Lane, Wildlife, and May as Well Sing were all written during this project.
That first recording session was on July 17, 2012 and we recorded initial takes on three songs (Gator Ray, Hawg Stop Land and Family Ties). Song after song, session after session, with each trip I would make to the studio, he and I kind of got used to each other’s tendencies and the recording process seemed to become more comfortable, at least it did for me, Billy was probably comfortable the whole time. We finished all ten songs that were going to be on the album around mid-September. It was also during September that my son-in-law Mitchell Moore spent a weekend at the house and designed the artwork for the album. That same weekend, my daughter Christina helped me with a photo shoot for the remaining album artwork.
In October I recorded what Billy had referred to as “final vocals” for all of the songs. In early November I began looking for musicians to play drums and bass. My jazz/country drummer friend (Kirk Anderson) who was ill, told me he would have loved to help me with the drums, but it would be best to find someone else. He had tried a couple songs on his studio kit at home, but his energy level just would not hold up. So it was with much sadness that I had to look elsewhere.
My brother Ruben had not played drums in quite a while and did not feel he would do the songs justice. My next door neighbor Jon Price said he would play the Bass if required, but in the end I felt that the best solution would be to find a drummer and bass player that currently play together. This would eliminate any learning curve time, and so after giving that some thought, I approached Don May. Don is the drummer for a local rock band called Satisfied Drive. The bass player is Mark Vaughn. Pam and I have had their band play at our Twigstock parties a couple of times, so I knew they were good players and felt honored to have them on the CD. It took two full days to lay down the tracks, but we had a great time in the studio and both Billy and I enjoyed having other players there.
At the same time as the bass and drums were being done, I had a good friend in the Baltimore, Maryland area working on doing a saxophone track for the song “The Married Life”. He recorded that in a studio there in late November and that took care of the horns. He had an interesting session. The studio dude had arranged a one hour time with him during the week. The studio had a Rap Band in that week doing an album and the dude told Andy the only way to get him in was during the week when these guys broke for dinner. So when Andy showed up to lay down the sax tracks, all the rappers decided to see what the white guy could do. Andy was already a little nervous as he had not been in a studio in quite some time, so he did not need the extra attention. All the rappers stayed there and watched Andy play his session through the studio window. It was quite intimidating to say the least, almost like being at the zoo. But in the end, Andy persevered with a fine performance.
In the middle of December another good friend of mine (Greg Benavides) whom I had contacted in earlier in the summer about possibly playing drums, was finally available. I asked him if he would still be interested in doing some of the songs. He said sure, so I sent him several songs to listen to. We then made a trip to the studio together and by the end of the day he did five of the ten songs. So I felt very good that two friends had split the drum roll (no pun intended). As with Don and Mark’s sessions, Billy and I enjoyed spending the day with Greg.
During December, I had been trying to find a keyboard player. My friend Ray Pate, who is an awesome player, was simply too busy with the holidays and other commitments. I researched a site called GigSalad.com and found a guy that was interested, but we seemed to play more phone tag than anything else. Billy told me that he had a player and I thought, “Damn, I should have asked him first”. He asked me if I had heard of Luther and the Healers and I told him yeah, they are a blues band and Pam and I had actually seen them years ago at some club, perhaps Billy Blues on Richmond. He told me that the player’s name was Barry Seelen, and that he would was going to be at the studio doing a little work on another project, and perhaps he could do my songs that same day. So two days after Christmas, we had a holiday keyboard session. Barry plays a mean B3 Organ. We had a good time that day.
Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, Don Vickers and his wife Tiffany had come out to the house with Don’s first cut of his mastered songs for his album “Halfway There”. During that evening, after we had listened to his songs, I played a couple of my recorded songs for him and Tiffany.
We were listening to the song Life Goes By, and she said, “Don, I can hear a fiddle right there after the chorus”. Don said he agreed, and Tiffany told me that Billy knew a guy that would do fiddle. He would email him the songs and the guy would do the fiddle tracks at his home studio, and then send the finished copies back to Billy.
I discussed this with Billy the next day and sure enough, we sent two songs, and the next day, he sent back the fiddle tracks. The fiddle player’s name is Tim Crouch and he lives in Strawberry, Arkansas. I was amazed at the difference the fiddle made and had Billy send two more songs. After he was finished with all the songs, I happened to do a Google search on him and found out he was not just an average fiddle player. He had played with many famous musicians, played at the Grand Old Opry and had been on late night talk shows.
I immediately got in touch with Billy, and said...
“You never told me the fiddle guy was a bad ass”, and Billy’s response was, “Yeah, he’s the Shit”. That’s quite a complement coming from Billy who is a master in his own right. When we would get the fiddle tracks back from Tim, we would kind of decide what parts we wanted to keep as guitar and what parts should be fiddle. During one of the editing sessions, Billy commented “Did you hear that? Tim is trying to one-up my lead guitar”. It was an interesting comment from one master musician discussing another master’s playing technique.
After all songs had finally been completed as far as vocals, and instruments, it was now time to begin mixing them. This is where Billy would take each track and attempt to equalize the sound across all instruments and vocals in order to give the song a nice balanced “mix” of sounds. If you are not familiar with how many tracks can be on a song, in most cases there could be 15-20. Drums alone have several tracks as each component has its own separate track (High Hat, Snare, Kick Drum, Floor Tom, etc…). There may be several different guitar tracks, including Bass guitar. In Tim’s case, he not only played Fiddle, but on some songs, he included separate tracks of Mandolin and Banjo with the Fiddle, as is evident on the song Wildlife.
After mixing is done, the songs need to be Mastered. This is where the volume of the song is increased to a commercial quality level. The studio engineer may add additional features like Compression and other components that make sure that the song will sound about the same regardless what type of audio medium it is played on (Radio, CD Player, USB Stick, iTunes, etc…) It is during the mastering stage that each song is stamped with a “fingerprint” called an ISRC code. This allows for the songs to be later sold or tracked for play time individually on sites like iTunes, Pandora, CD Baby, XM Radio, Rhapsody, etc…
Last, the production of the album is done which includes the artwork packaging and manufacturing of the CD. This typically is done in large batch quantities like 1,000 at a time. They are then shrink wrapped and shipped, and the journey comes to an end.
The distance from our house in Houston to Billy’s place in Huntsville is about 150 miles round trip. So after roughly 2,000 miles of travel, over a period of seven months, Lyric Road was completed and a personal dream was fulfilled. I finally felt like I lived up to the title that Byron Hill posted as a photo caption on his website nine months earlier. “Musician” Javi Cuellar. Although my only contribution was vocals, and they are no doubt the weak link in the musical chain, the title seems a little more comfortable to wear.
Thanks to Byron Hill, your visit to our house was definitely an inspiration and I hope at least one of my songs makes you smile. Thanks to Don Vickers for inspiring me to record my own songs. Thanks to my wife Pam whom I love dearly for putting up with all of my excitement during the whole process.
Thanks to Billy Hillman for taking me on as a project and for all the great times we shared together at his place. Thanks to Don May, Mark Vaughn, Andy Dagilis, Greg Benavides, Barry Seelen and Tim Crouch for their musical contributions. Last, thanks to all of the people in my life who inspired me musically. My Dad, Kirk Anderson, Bobby Cuellar, Johnny Mistician, David Beebe, Big Otis Porcia, Rick Lee, Kay Walker, and so many others… Finally, I would like to thank my Mom for taking me to my first rock concert, Pink Floyd – Animals Tour 1977 at Jeppesen Stadium in Houston, Texas. It was truly the beginning of my thirst for music. I love you Mom.