Little Boy Lost

After years of being told how great he is, guitar prodigy Charlie Sexton is learning a basic lesson of the music business: Hype doesn’t sell records—or keep your label happy.

WHEN CHARLIE SEXTON was called to the stage at the Austin Music Hall by Bob Dylan last November 4, it should have been one of the shining moments of his career. For two nights, before sold-out crowds of more than two thousand, Dylan would jam with stars of the Austin music scene—including veteran Doug Sahm and up-and-comer Ian Moore—yet the apple of his eye was 27-year-old Sexton. “He’s one of the greatest guitar players,” the grizzled rock legend told the packed house, and up strolled Sexton nonchalantly, probably expecting hoots and hollers from his hometown fans. But rather than a warm welcome for the local kid who made it, Sexton was greeted with an apathetic silence.

It seemed like a bad omen—and indeed, less than a month later, things got worse: Sexton and his record label, MCA, parted company, this after a ten-year relationship, four albums, and more than $2 million spent to nurture him, record him, and promote him. The trouble, everyone knew, was that Sexton’s latest CD, Under the Wishing Tree,  sold fewer than 30,000 copies in the U.S. and fell far short of the worldwide minimum—375,000—stipulated in his contract. It was a clear case of an artist not satisfying his label’s expectations, though the Sexton camp did everything it could to spin the situation favorably. “Charlie is now a free agent,” his manager, Tim Neece, told me soon after the news hit. “We see this as an opportunity.” Sexton, for his part, faulted MCA. “They didn’t get me the sales they promised,” he said, neglecting to see how the deal he had cut—complete control over his own work, including what lyrics he writes, how he sings his songs, and when and where to tour—gave him a significant level of responsibility.

Whatever the case, why Charlie Sexton should find himself in his present predicament is one of the great mysteries of Texas music. Since he was old enough to hold a pick, he has been regarded as a guitar prodigy. By age seven he was a fixture in Austin clubs. At twelve his talent for playing vintage rock, blues, and rockabilly was so well established that Joe Ely recruited him to be his lead guitarist. At thirteen he could “play everything that Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan were doing—it was mind-blowing,” recalls his old friend and mentor Speedy Sparks, a former bass player for the Texas Tornados. At sixteen Sexton was signed by MCA and hyped all over the world, his face splashed across the covers of teen magazines; in Japan fans were even creating handmade Charlie Sexton dolls, complete with his trademark high cheekbones.

So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been the nonstop efforts to make Sexton into a star; he was positioned and repositioned so many times that his fans never knew which Charlie they were looking at. First, although he had made his name as a blues artist, MCA sent him off to Hollywood to become a pop icon. His work with British producer Keith Forsey produced a radio hit, “Beat’s So Lonely,” in 1985, but the album it appeared on, Pictures for Pleasure , disappointed his core audience in Texas, as did the follow-up, Charlie Sexton . Meanwhile, Sexton became so entranced by Forsey that he began speaking in a clipped English accent. Then, when he returned to Austin at age 23, MCA reinvented Sexton as the leader of the Arc Angels, a roots-rock supergroup that featured Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onetime rhythm section. But after one album the Arc Angels disbanded, so Sexton was reinvented yet again, this time as a mature singer-songwriter. “Charlie had this incredible image and he and MCA made all the wrong decisions,” says an executive at a rival label. “They took his hard-core blues fans and alienated them.”

Perhaps, but part of the problem has to do with Sexton alone—specifically, with the one thing about him that seems least likely to cause him trouble: his looks. Charlie Sexton has always been movie-star handsome, which is probably why MCA sent him to Hollywood in the first place. You might say he looks like an extremely thin, somewhat greasier Matt Dillon. The problem is that Sexton’s “amazing cheekbones,” as The New Yorker  put it, nearly overshadow his musical ability, so much that his appearance is a touchy subject. “Don’t talk about his cheekbones—that is our worst nightmare,” pleads Tim Neece. “I’m surprised Charlie hasn’t taken a razor blade to his face,” says a friend. “He has never been comfortable being as handsome as he is.”

One day last fall, Sexton showed just how uncomfortable he can be when the spotlight is turned on him. He was sitting in the most remote corner of Little City, a coffee bar in downtown Austin that is a hangout for pretty girls and prettier boys, and on that day he looked every bit the star—his hair was perfectly gelled and his loose chamois shirt was unbuttoned to show off his chest. Typically, everyone in the place approached him as if they were irresistibly drawn to him, yet Sexton would have none of it. “I’m the one people love to hate,” he insisted.

Sexton had just gotten back from the Texas leg of his cross-country tour to promote Under the Wishing Tree , and he was miffed at the lukewarm reaction to his stage show. On the one hand, his fans were thrilled to see him in the flesh. (“I never dreamed I’d be booking him in my own club,” says Chris Chaney, the 26-year-old manager of Fitzgeralds in Houston. “I’ve booked bigger bands, like L7 and Hootie and the Blowfish, but I was so blown away that we were in the same room for an hour that I couldn’t even talk to him.”) On the other hand, they didn’t much like the music they were hearing. They wanted him to play material from all of his records, not just the new one.

Consider what happened at Trees, a popular club in Dallas’

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