Waco native Wade Bowen began recording Solid Ground intent on making the artistic statement of his career – a high bar considering the twenty years of success he’s enjoyed – but as his personal odometer rolled over into his fourth decade, his focus is more on legacy than next Saturday night.
“I started thinking, ‘how much longer can I do this and matter as a writer?’ My thinking is, I hope I can be like Guy Clark at 72 years old, still making great records that people still give a damn about. So I took my time with every aspect of this process.”
Solid Ground is personal but not necessarily autobiographical, peppered with distinct south-of-the-border imagery of “Acuna,” and the nostalgic reflection of “So Long Sixth Street.” Rolling Stone spoke well of “Day of the Dead,” noting “the mariachi influence, with accordion, Spanish guitar and a horn section augmenting Bowen’s more familiar Red Dirt shuffle.” The combination is Bowen’s signature – Texas flavor strongly spicing his mix of country, blues, rock and Americana.
The parched scenery, weathered outlook and gravelly vocals created a less-than-pristine album that was championed by producer Keith Gattis. Writing and vocal contributions from Andrew Combs, Jack Ingram, Waylon Payne, Angaleena Presley, Jon Randall, Lucie Silvas, and Charlie Worsham, among others.
“I wanted to be pushed more than I’ve ever been pushed… but I guess be careful what you ask for,” Bowen laughed. “I wrote every day in the studio with Gattis. He wanted me there early to write every morning and we were recording before I even knew what the song was going to be.”
As for Keith Gattis, the mission was clear to them both, “I started working with Wade knowing two things: One, this isn’t a guy who was going to rest on his laurels, he wanted to respect tradition but shake it up. Two, he earned his rep as a rocker and entertainer years ago…this album is about Wade as a musician and songwriter. The first time I saw Wade play years ago was in a Texas dancehall. Usually, the band plays standards and the crowd is there to two-step. But Wade was part of a “new scene.” It was the first time I saw a crowd rush to the stage like it was rock show.”
Gattis continued, “As we were writing, we reminisced a lot. A festival down in Lajitas we’d played or the beer halls in Texas – that vibe snuck into the writing. This definitely isn’t an “any town” album, it’s about where Wade’s from. But the storytelling is honest and that makes it relatable. We also had the benefit of a band of rock star players and songwriters. Audley Freed (Black Crowes) on guitar brought his roots rock approach, as did Jeff Trotts (Sheryl Crow) on guitar and lapsteel, Fred Eltringham (Wallflowers, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant) on drums, Billie Mercer (Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams) on bass, and great players on keys like Jenn Gunderman (Sheryl Crow), Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers, Foo Fighters), John Henry Trinko (Randy Houser).”
The most demanding writing and recording experience of his career has captured a singular creative period and created a cohesive album. The result is infinitely more satisfying than writing watered down tunes for the broadest audience possible. Enter Thirty Tigers, the Nashville-based champions of Bowen’s sound and vision.
“I’ve been a fan of Wade’s since Lost Hotel,” says Thirty Tigers’ Co-founder and President David Macias. “I’ve dutifully asked over the years about Wade coming into the family, and I could not be more excited about him finally saying yes! He’s a gifted storyteller and a great performer. And this album is fantastic.”
Along with crediting producer Keith Gattis for what Solid Ground has become, Bowen heaps praise on Texas brethren like George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top and Robert Earl Keen who have paved the way sonically for the not-quite-country, not-quite-rock sound aimed at those who view Springsteen, Tom Petty and Mellencamp as influential as Guy Clark.
Bowen said contemporaries like Jack Ingram, who appears on the record, are quick to lend a hand in the studio or to appear at fundraising live music jams for the Bowen Family Foundation that have raised more than $2.5 million for family and children’s charities throughout Texas.
Bowen’s mission to set himself apart as a songwriter is driven in part by wanting to measure up to an almost impossible standard (Clark). He wonders if he or any other current musician will ever be able to measure up in any meaningful way.
“Solid Ground hits the bar more than anything I’ve never done before. It has an edge and the balls we’ve always had live but hadn’t gotten down on a record until now,” he said. “I don’t know if Guy Clark would like the record, but I’d feel comfortable playing those songs on a stage with him and asking him what he thought.”
With Solid Ground, Bowen has made his clearest statement. It’s the one that took him 40 years to make, and the wait and hard work to get there has been worth it