Bill Callahan once wrote a galloping tune named “America!,” in which he tips his hat to a certain lineage of Texas country musicians who had served in the armed forces. “Captain Kristofferson! Buck Sergeant Newbury! Leatherneck Jones!” Callahan bellows, a propulsive drum and electric guitar feedback pulsating behind his sonorous baritone’s invocation of Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and George Jones. “I never served my country,” he adds gravely, just before a three-string guitar threads through an escalating crescendo. It’s a love letter to his nation, albeit at times a critical one.
Nearly a decade after its release, I ask Callahan to explain the intentions behind “America!,” which is now a linchpin of his live performances. We’re sitting outside Wheatsville Food Co-op, a natural-foods market just north of the University of Texas in Austin, the city he’s called home since 2004. The 53-year-old singer-songwriter does much of his speaking with silence. He thumbs the label of his Cayennade-flavored kombucha as he mulls over his answer, eventually offering, “It turns out that every country musician that I love is from Texas.”
It may seem like something of a surprising admission coming from someone who first made his name almost thirty years ago recording lo-fi noise-music cassettes. But though Callahan doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, he’s spiritually entwined with his Lone Star musical heroes and the poetry they unspool. That connection reverberates throughout Callahan’s first new studio album in seven years, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, released in summer 2019 by his longtime label, Drag City, to rave reviews. It’s a gripping, country-inflected collection of songs revolving around home and family. In the plucky “What Comes After Certainty,” you can almost imagine Callahan perched on a porch with his guitar, a toothpick dangling from his lip, as he describes finding true love: “And I got the woman of my dreams / And an imitation Eames / And I signed Willie’s guitar / He sang, ‘Hey good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?’ / And I signed Willie’s guitar when he wasn’t lookin’.”
The bit about Willie and Trigger isn’t true. But Willie’s singular songwriting ability, capable of zeroing in on particular emotions with clarity and depth, has clearly influenced Callahan’s work. “He’s like a seer,” Callahan says. “He bridges this gap and unifies all these different types of people with different politics more than anyone. He’s all heart. Nobody can escape Willie; he just speaks to everybody.” On the rest of the album, Callahan’s sparsely arranged songs ruminate on death and drinking, missed connections, and the merits of waking up early—natural fodder for someone who, over the past few years, has gotten married, become a father, and lost his mother.
As the youngest of three children growing up mostly in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the seventies, Callahan was often left to his own devices: specifically, a bicentennial-themed transistor radio that his grandmother gave him—which he used to tune into a soft-rock AM radio station transmitting the Carpenters and Air Supply—and the local hardcore punk records he scrounged up money to buy. “I just was happy to listen to music and fantasize in my room,” he says. His parents lent him the car keys once a month, allowing a teenage Callahan to set out for unorthodox venue spaces, including VFW halls, peppered throughout the outskirts of Washington, D.C. “It made me realize that it can happen anywhere,” he says of those shows. “You can do it and set up things yourself.” He first picked up a guitar at fifteen but quit because it didn’t come easily. Six years later, he found his way back to it again with “a little more gumption” after working a string of odd jobs and dropping out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, three times. “Nothing was working out for me,” he says, chuckling.
During a one-year stint in Atlanta, in 1988, Callahan and a friend bought a four-track recorder with the intention of making music but couldn’t get anything off the ground. Callahan bought out his friend’s half of the four-track and, under the musical moniker Smog, created his first tape, the thirty-minute cacophony Cow. “I couldn’t do traditional songs, so I was starting out doing what I could do and, at the time, slowly learning to do otherwise,” Callahan says of those nascent days. A noise DJ at a local college played one of the tape’s songs on air, and “it was on after that,” he says.
Callahan’s son has a plastic drum kit with a built-in microphone. When Callahan recently heard the four-year-old screaming into it, complete with feedback, he thought, “Huh, that sounds like me when I was twenty-two.”
Callahan returned to Maryland and set about making what would become Smog’s first full-length album, 1990’s Sewn to the Sky, a labyrinthine collage of noise experimentation. He spent the next fourteen years establishing a cult following with a slew of low-budget albums that saw him move away from pure noise and develop as a songwriter. He moved around along the East and West coasts and to Chicago (home of Drag City) before finally landing in Austin sixteen years ago. He didn’t mean to settle here. He’d come to town for South by Southwest to play at the Ritz and do an in-store performance at the now-defunct record store 33 Degrees, just a few blocks north of where we’re sitting. (33 Degrees eventually morphed into the beloved South Austin record store End of an Ear.) The in-store itself went fine—Callahan played half a dozen songs to a small retinue of fans and curious onlookers. But then something happened that amazed him. “Someone invited me to a party afterward—no one had invited me to a party in Chicago, like, ever,” he laughs. “It felt like people here were happy.” He had found his home.
Callahan’s songwriting at this time often veered toward the twisted and sardonic. But he couldn’t stop thinking about something the legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry once said in an interview. “He was talking about how he was a superhero and his music is good for lifting up people and vanquishing evil,” Callahan says. “And I was like, ‘Hmm, that’s a choice. That’s a good choice he made. Maybe I’ll make that too.’ ”
Following that conscious decision to imbue his music—and, by extension, himself—with more positivity, the ideas flowed. He refers to the first album he made in Austin (and his last under the name Smog), 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, as a breakthrough. “It was a huge change to come here and have a house for the first time,” he says. Since then, he’s worked toward being “a ray of sunshine.” You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given some of Callahan’s lyrics. Take “Spring,” a song from his last studio album, 2013’s Dream River. “And everything is awing and tired of praise / And mountains don’t need my accolades,” he purrs. “And spring looks bad lately anyway / Like death warmed over.” While he’s slowly pulled back the curtain each year and let light seep in, old shadows clearly linger.
Though his approach has transformed over the course of his career, a consistent through line in all of Callahan’s music is its immersive quality. You don’t listen so much as submerge yourself in a song of his: the low resonance of Callahan’s voice, coupled with his evocative lyrics and inventive arrangements, demands rapt attention. He’ll often kick off his songs with a quiet strum or hum, as a mesmeric sound—like a quivering harmonica or a sharp inhale—draws you in even closer. And as a performer, he thrives on the intimacy of his live shows. “He will spontaneously do an apparently unscripted intro to a song while he vamps the chords and tells some understated and hilarious story from his life about the place or city that we’re playing in,” says Brian Beattie, a music producer and bassist who has worked with Callahan for a decade. “He’ll go on for ten minutes with the audience in the palm of his hand, like some alternate-reality Las Vegas entertainer. We just listen and try not to ruin it.”
In 2014, Callahan married the documentarian Hanly Banks, whom he met when they made Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film; they have a four-year-old son. “I was just splattered against the wall,” he says of becoming a father. “The me that I had come to use as a tool to get through life and make music was just not functional. That me was no good in this [new] world . . . so I had to find other parts of me that hadn’t grown yet or been grown yet.” Those gnarled lessons and meditations on internal growth are all over Shepherd, particularly songs such as “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds,” which sounds like a tough (but gentle) conversation between Callahan and his 23-year-old self. And in “Son of the Sea,” he addresses his life’s recent sea changes directly: “I got married to my wife, she’s lovely / And I had a son / Giving birth nearly killed me / Some say I died / And all that survived was my lullabies.”
He started writing what would become Shepherd before moving to Santa Barbara in 2016 for a ten-month spell while Banks attended graduate school. In California, he found himself incapable of making progress on the album; the region’s “no-worries vibe” just wasn’t conducive to his songwriting. But as soon as he returned to Texas, the record immediately began to take shape. “Some grit and anger are good for me, but not too much or not too little,” he says. Though Callahan loves living in Austin, he feels that “the anger level is rising here a little bit, with more people coming in. It’s like the clown car—it wasn’t designed [for this growth].”
Callahan recorded Shepherd (which, at twenty songs, is a double album), at the Wonder Chamber, Beattie’s home studio, in South Austin. Beattie describes Callahan’s songwriting evolution this way: “Someone like Hank Williams is really thinking about a whole bunch of other people when he’s writing a song. But Bill is in that lifelong mission of becoming more and more like himself.”
Though many musicians wax poetic about the road, Callahan’s come into his sound by ruminating on his evolving home life. Yet as is the case for most independent musicians, he has to tour pretty extensively to make money from his art (he capped his national summer tour behind the new record with a European stint in October). When he’s in Austin, he’s not usually out on the scene; he prefers a quiet life of cooking for his family and going on hikes along the Greenbelt. “I’ve become very accustomed to the landscape here now,” he says. “I think where you live, that’s your idea of beauty that you compare other things to. So now when I’m on tour, it’s like, ‘Oh, this looks a bit like Texas.’ I think that’s what makes it home—when it’s your reference point.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Home Is Where the Art Is.” Subscribe today.