Somewhere in Texas, between San Antonio and Austin, there's a house painted in song. Out of respect for the inhabitants' privacy, it'd be rude to give out the exact address. But it could be on Lake McQueeney, a little north of Seguin, and possibly across the street from a tiny little Thai restaurant. Or maybe not. Just know that it's out there, somewhere?and that, should its present or future owners ever feel inclined to trade anonymity for their rightful share in the continuing legend of Beaver Nelson, fair is fair. "Yes," they could boast with pride, "this is the house that Beaver painted while writing his masterpiece!"
Here's hoping they can sell tickets or at least make all their neighbors a little jealous. Because one exciting opportunity deserves another, and Beaver Nelson's Exciting Opportunity deserves the kind of audience that can put both the artist and all his notable points of inspiration/creation on the map. And as Beaver landmarks go, the house where he wrote his sixth and best album to date is right up there with the summer camp where counselors showed a young Beaver the error of his Journey-loving ways and introduced him to the music of real songwriters like Dylan, Springsteen, Van Zandt and Waits. It's up there, too, with Austin's Black Cat Lounge (R.I.P.) and Chicago House (ditto), where he first came into his own as a kick-ass band-leader and songwriter's songwriter himself before he was old enough to drink.
Forgive the hyperbole. All of it's true (Beaver's humility be damned), but it's dished out here with a nudge and a wink in the same spirit that Beaver first pitched his new album to longtime friend and Freedom Records owner friend Matt Eskey.
"Matt's put out my records before, but it's always a labor of love more than anything else for both of us because we hardly think of ourselves as being in the business, per se," chuckles Nelson. "No one's making a mint on this stuff, but we do it because that's what we do. But I sat him down and said, 'Matt, are you ready? I've got a very exciting opportunity for you, and you can get in on the ground floor. I want to make another record.' And he was like, 'Ah! Yes, that sounds like a very exciting opportunity!'"
The conversation went down before Beaver had even penned Exciting Opportunity's title track. But the "super-positivity" of the phrase stuck in his head. He was tickled by its implied hucksterism, too?though only for the sake of irony. "That's completely and absolutely the opposite of what I do," laughs Beaver, who was courted by at least a couple of major labels back in those heady Black Cat days of the early '90s. He got as far as making a record for one of them that never saw the light of day.
For better or worse, Beaver never got to be the "Dylan of grunge," or whatever those A&R reps wanted him to be, and the world had to wait until 1998 to hear his Freedom-released debut, The Last Hurrah. That's the one where he first howled the battle cry, "I'm a stray dog!"?a sobriquet that still fits him to a T a decade's worth of critically lauded releases down the line. From 2000's Little Brother to 2001's Undisturbed to 2002's Legends of the Super Heroes to 2004's Motion, Beaver's marked his territory as one of the most consistently intriguing best-kept secrets in Americana music. Singer-songwriters?even good ones?are a dime a dozen in that genre, and nowhere more so than in Austin; but Beaver Nelson has long stood out from the crowd as an exceptionally distinctive voice. As writer and longtime Beaver champion Andrew Dansby put it succinctly in his review of Legends for Blender, "A younger generation of singer-songwriters seem content be smart or melodic; Nelson achieves both with superhuman ease."
But Nelson, like all superheroes and many an under-the-mainstream-radar super-songwriter, maintains a somewhat secret identity as a hard-working painter-for-hire. Which is how, shortly after the birth of his second child (daughter Katie) in the winter of 2005/2006, he found himself spending a good 10 weeks all by his lonesome painting that aforementioned house: exterior by day, interior long into the wee hours of the morning. Opportunity knocked.
"Before that job came up, I didn't have any new songs," he explains. "I knew in the back of my head that I needed to start writing soon, but I couldn't really get anything done at home with the kids. So when I got handed this thing, it was perfect. I hadn't been in a position like that where I had no other distractions for like, six of seven years. I went out to the house and I'd stay there alone for up to a week at a time, working 16 hours a day. And the whole time I had my guitar with me, so if a lyric or melody or chord progression came to me at any time during the day, I'd take a quick break and jot something down."
Just for the record, he wasn't charging by the hour.
"I mean, I was working around the clock, literally?I'd crawl into a sleeping bag at like 3 a.m. and then get up early in the morning and start again," he continues. "It was a big job. But I mean, painting isn't rocket surgery, so anything that came into my mind in terms of the songs I was writing, there was nothing stopping me. I took my time and was free to write as much as I wanted. Some of these songs got written three or four times, and I'd never done anything like that before."
Others, like the exquisitely balanced "If You Name a Thing It Dies"?surely one of the finest things Beaver's penned to date?came all at once in a burst of inspiration. The end result is a batch of songs that Beaver describes, with characteristic, Zen-like simplicity, as being all about instinct. Even the songs he fine-tuned to perfection were born out of an almost surrealist automatism.
"Both this record and the last one, Motion, are about doing things," he explains. "But Motion was more about the doing of things in some sort of planned way, and this one is about operating on instinct. Not in the sense of being completely unaware of what you're doing, but in the way that athletes practice doing something so much that when they actually go to do it, it's automatic. They just know intuitively what to do."
Beaver weaves this theme lyrically throughout the whole record, but don't strain your brain too hard trying to spot the thread in every song. Better to just follow his lead and go with the flow of the music, which is hard to resist given the immediate lure of the hooks. Even by Beaver's unerringly catchy standards, Exciting Opportunity is one mercilessly melodic and relentlessly fun album. Little wonder, then, that when Beaver first played the songs to friend, guitarist and co-producer "Scrappy" Jud Newcomb, the latter reacted on instinct, too. They had to get into the studio. Immediately.
"His reaction was, 'You should record these as soon as possible,'" says Beaver. "And I walked out to my car, and found I had a message waiting for me from the guys at Top Hat studio in Austin. They called me out of the blue and said, 'Hey, we've got some space, why don't you come in if you have anything ready to record.' I hadn't talked to them for months and months, and they called literally while I was first playing the songs for Jud. And then I called up all the guys that I wanted to play on it, and to a man, every one of them said, 'Well, the only days I can do it are from here to here,' which just happened to be the same days the studio had open."
He can't help but laugh. "I thought, 'OK, that seems to have lined up kind of easily,'" he says. "I mean, you don't not make that record."
Finished record now in hand, Beaver still marvels at how easily his most Exciting Opportunity came together. Almost, when you really think about it, like it kinda just made itself. But there's no hucksterism or even irony for irony's sake at work here?just a little self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, it was Beaver himself who put it so eloquently on his last album, " ... it really shouldn't be so hard."
And it's not. All it takes is lots of practice and a bit of perfect timing.
And, sometimes, a little paint.