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An Indie Scene That Comes With a Texas Twang in Denton

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lionel Beehner
May 11, 2008

WITH its Piggly Wiggly markets and dusty pawnshops, the Texas college town of Denton does not look the part of a Woodstock in waiting. A Romanesque courthouse juts out of the central square, as in that fictional town in <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="3671">“Back to the Future.”</object.title> And whenever the local college football team plays at Fouts Field, the entire town seems to put on Mean Green T-shirts.

But wander into the Panhandle House, a barnlike recording studio on North Locust Street, and you’ll find Midlake, a five-person band whose music the British newspaper The Guardian has called “a dreamy concoction of Tom Petty and the Yardbirds.” Actually, the band is ensconced in the dingy storage room next door, which they have turned into a makeshift shrine to the 1970s — patchouli incense, wood paneling and vintage vinyl — that befits their retro three-guitar sound.

“We really wanted to create this warmth and ascetic vibe that matched our music, right down to the curtains,” said Eric Pulido, Midlake’s lanky guitarist.

The band was meticulously recording their much-anticipated third studio album, though it was hard to tell on this recent Friday afternoon. The room was littered with empty beer cans, and the recording equipment looked as cheap as a pawnshop special. “We’re definitely not gear heads,” added Tim Smith, the fuzzy-bearded front man.

Midlake may be the current poster boys for Denton’s indie music scene — with gushy write-ups in Rolling Stone and cameos among its members for trendy causes like Al Gore’s We Campaign — but they are not the only ones vying for that title. The town’s lo-fi sound, a mélange of Southern twang and experimental indie-rock that suggests Wilco and Radiohead, has garnered an eclectic following that stretches from alt-country die-hards and college radio listeners to MySpace fanatics and clubbers in Europe.

At last count, more than 100 bands were polishing their sound in the city’s dive bars, rooftop spaces and fraternity basements. Even the local record store, a converted opera house called Recycled, has a section devoted to Denton bands. The bin dividers read like a Lollapalooza T-shirt: Lift to Experience, Centro-matic, Jetscreamer, Vortexas, Robert Gomez, Stanton Meadowdale, Mom, Mandarin, and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, to name just a few.

Not bad for a college town of 110,000, prompting more than a few music industry insiders to call Denton the next Austin.

“There’s this combination of artistic fervor and small town naïveté,” said David Sims, a music columnist for The Dallas Observer. “Artists here don’t know they’re not supposed to be Bob Dylan so when they start a band, they shoot for the moon.”

A former agricultural trading post, Denton is a prairie town just north of Dallas’s exurban sprawl, in a part of North Texas known for its tornadoes and tough liquor laws. The highway that goes into town passes through peanut farms and horse ranches, although a few strip malls have also sprung up.

The town manages to combine the bohemian charm of Berkeley with the rural folksiness of the South. Downtown Denton is a grid of squat early-20th-century brick houses, with two notable exceptions: the 10,000-student campus of Texas Woman’s University, whose twin dormitories are the town’s lone skyscrapers, and the campus of the University of North Texas, which has about 35,000 students.

To get a flavor of the town’s quirky mix, stop into Jupiter House, a popular 24-hour hangout where office workers in Dockers and Birkenstocks sip espressos next to tousle-haired hipsters with torn jeans. But hang around town long enough and the music starts drifting in from every which way. Drive by Rubber Gloves, a former cement factory on the outskirts of town, and you might hear musical acts like the Shins or Modest Mouse performing in the still-grimy converted rehearsal space. Pick up a video rental at Strawberry Fields and you might stumble upon Ghosthustler, an electronica trio mixing beats in the back of the cramped store.

Or just stroll through the town square, a manicured green rimmed with mom-and-pop shops, and you might run into folks like Buck Ragsdale, an 80-year-old retired construction worker who holds a weekly bluegrass session on the lawn. On a warm Saturday morning, Mr. Ragsdale and his fiddle were joined by a dozen gray-bearded musicians in cowboy hats, jamming to an out-of-tune rendition of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”

“A lot of us older ones were raised on farms,” Mr. Ragsdale said. “We would play as often as we could and for as long as we could.”

Indeed, music seems to be ingrained in Denton’s roots. This unassuming town has given birth to musical acts ranging from the Grammy-winning polka band Brave Combo to the one-hit wonder Deep Blue Something (remember that <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="439639">“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”</object.title> ditty from the 1990s?). In between are musicians as notable and diverse as Sly Stone, Norah Jones and Roy Orbison.

Much of the musical genius can be traced back to the University of North Texas’s College of Music. Walk through the college’s leafy campus and you can eavesdrop on any number of lab bands polishing their chops, or pianists pounding away on a Steinway in the racquetball-court-like rehearsal studios.

“These kids are definitely more educated than your average garage band,” said Jay Saunders, a trumpet instructor at the university.

There’s another reason that Denton has emerged as a hotbed of alternative music. It has to do with another indie rock capital, 200 miles to the south.

“While Austin’s become more and more commercial, here it’s stayed more independent,” said Erik Herbst, owner of the Panhandle House recording studio. With its high-tech boom and music festivals like South by Southwest, Austin has seen its profile swell, leaving some artists disenchanted by the commercialism and higher rents. Even MTV’s “Real World,” mind you, has invaded the city. The cooler kids have decamped to Denton.

“It has a smaller-town feel than Austin,” said Isaac Hoskins, a 26-year-old former beer-truck driver who was moving to Austin four years ago when he made a pit stop in Denton and decided to stay. He now fronts for a local alt-country band called the Heelers.

Not that Denton is above riding Austin’s coattails. Since 2004, Dentonites have staged something called North by 35, or NX35 (the name refers to the highway linking Denton with Dallas), which showcases Denton-only music.

STILL, unlike Austin, downtown Denton has no liquor stores or a Starbucks, and it sometimes feels more like a suburb of Dallas than a subcultural oasis. It didn’t help things when a developer last year bulldozed much of historic Fry Street, the former epicenter of Denton’s live music scene, to make way for a CVS (a plan since stalled by a permit issue). All that remains today of the Haight-Ashburyesque strip is a mosquito-infested mud pit and a graveyard of frat bars and head shops.

But in a testament to the town’s musical resilience, the night life simply migrated over to the main square. Pick any side street and you’ll find partygoers noshing on tacos, outside a smattering of derelict warehouses that have been transformed into clubs and live music stages.

The hub of Denton’s unplugged music scene is now Dan’s Silver Leaf, a colorful dive bar in a former radiator repair shop decorated with Texas longhorn skulls. On a breezy Saturday night last March, the bar was packed with 20-somethings with straggly beards, ponytails and vintage T-shirts. They sat in stone silence as Sarah Jaffe, a 22-year-old transplant from Dallas, belted out a heartfelt ballad reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” Local music watchers were already calling her the town’s next Norah Jones.

“People get kind of jaded because we literally have some of the best musicians in the world play here,” said Dan Mojica, the club’s silver-haired owner, who was holding court at his usual spot at the backyard bar. “We’ve set the standard so high that locals are expecting that all the time.”

Later that night, as the courthouse clock struck midnight, the crowd moved to Hailey’s, a larger and fancier club that readers of The Dallas Observer once named best club in Texas. It was mostly a bingo-age crowd, dancing the hokey-pokey to Brave Combo.

The real party took place across town at Strawberry Fields, the off-campus video store, where a yet-to-be-discovered band called the Heartstring Stranglers strummed their upright basses and dazzled a small but rapt audience with their indie-jazz and French lyrics.

Outside in the dark parking lot, Chris Flemmons from the Baptist Generals and Michael Seman of Shiny Around the Edges — both elder statesmen of sorts of Denton’s music scene — were sipping tall boys and pondering where to go next. Perhaps the Fra House, a cottage nearby, was showcasing a new band? Or maybe something was happening on the rooftop at Cool Beans? Mr. Flemmons fired off a flurry of text messages as the band finished their set.

THE NEW COOL

HOW TO GET THERE

The nearest airport to Denton is Dallas-Fort Worth International, about 30 miles to the south just off Interstate 35E. Delta, American and Continental all fly nonstop between New York and Dallas.

WHERE TO STAY

Most hotels are a few miles from the center of Denton, off Interstate 35E.

The Holiday Inn (1434 Centre Place Drive; 940-383-4100; www.holidayinn.com) offers comfortable rooms and an open bar Wednesday evenings, though the Wi-Fi can be spotty. Rooms start at around $125.

A cozier option is the Wildwood Inn (2602 Lillian Miller Parkway; 940-243-4919; www.denton-wildwoodinn.com), a European-style bed-and-breakfast that offers French country décor and whirlpool showers. Rooms start at $125.

Within walking distance to the city’s square is the Heritage Inns (815 North Locust Street; 940-565-6414; www.theheritageinns.com), three turn-of-the-century houses with doubles starting at $90.

WHERE TO HEAR MUSIC

Bands hit the stage after 10 p.m. and covers rarely exceed $7. First-time visitors may have to fill out some paperwork to drink, depending on the bar’s liquor license.

Dan’s Silver Leaf (103 Industrial Street; 940-320-2000; www.danssilverleaf.com) is the hub of Denton’s unplugged music scene. For larger bands and more dancing room, head to Hailey’s (122 West Mulberry Street; 940-323-1160; www.haileysclub.com).

Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios (411 East Sycamore Street; 940-387-7781; www.rubberglovesdentontx.com) is a dive club with an 80s-era arcade games room.

Strawberry Fields (2310 West Oak Street; 940-382-2323; www.strawberryfields.biz) is a video store that showcases local house, hip-hop, folk and metal acts.

To hear live music outdoors, work your way past the frat guys and check out the rooftop at Cool Beans (1210 West Hickory Street; 940-382-7025).

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