Over the course of the past four decades, how many times has George Strait played with someone other than his Ace in the Hole Band? An authoritative answer is hard to come by, so we’ll just have to go with a rough estimate: almost never. And yet in July, there the King of Country was, performing with a backing group you’ve probably never heard of: the Texas Gentlemen, a Dallas-based collective of young studio musicians and sidemen. The occasion was a private birthday party in Austin for the mega-promoter Louis Messina, who oversees Strait’s touring business and also represents Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, and Eric Church. Earlier in the evening, the Gentlemen had had the honor of accompanying two of Messina’s biggest clients, Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes, chart-toppers with billions of Spotify plays between them.
“Until we were prepping, we didn’t have any idea how huge those guys and those songs are,” says multi-instrumentalist and producer Beau Bedford, the band’s de facto leader. “But give us a singer, and we’ll dive into their vibe. That’s the whole gig when you’re backing someone else.”
The Sheeran and Mendes mini-sets went fine. But when Strait stepped up to the stage, the Gentlemen felt like little boys. “We tried not to show we were flipping out,” Bedford says. “These aren’t tunes you want to mess up.” As lifelong fans, they were ready for “Troubadour” and “Amarillo by Morning,” which went off without a hitch. They weren’t prepared at all, though, for another song Strait called off on the fly, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” “We flashed each other surprised looks and then dug in, trying to find our footing,” Bedford recalls. They faked it well enough that when the four-song set was over, Strait asked if he could have one of the Texas Gentlemen T-shirts that have become the band’s sartorial trademark, a no-frills model inspired by Willie Nelson’s iconic “Shotgun Willie” tee. The band said yes—you don’t say no to George Strait—but not without a moment’s hesitation. Strait probably didn’t realize it when he made the ask, but whenever the Gentlemen give one of their T-shirts to a fellow musician, it’s regarded as an informal initiation into the band.
“It’s an almost unimaginable thing to invite the original, ultimate Texas gentleman to be a Gent,” says Bedford, still reeling the next morning over coffee on Austin’s South Congress Avenue. “How heavy is that? Bucket list doesn’t begin to describe it.”
It was, for now, a career high point for a loosely defined crew of musicians who started as a mutual admiration society of studio rats who would call one another to work on whatever they had going on. There are now about 25 members of the Gents’ loose fraternity, but it typically revolves around the core quintet of Bedford, Nik Lee, Daniel Creamer, Matt McDonald, and Ryan Ake. (Though these things get murky: sometimes they’re referred to as a sextet or septet, who makes the cut seems to be a matter of dispute, and everyone plays multiple instruments.) Most of them are from North Texas and had played together on and off for a decade or so before they officially branded themselves in 2014 and embarked on a series of Dallas residencies that found them jamming with the likes of Leon Bridges and Paul Cauthen. It’s not surprising that so many stars want to work with them; they have the chops and sense of history to play just about anything, giving the Texas music scene something it’s never had before: a ready-to-rock group of session musicians on a par with such storied outfits as Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, and the Memphis Horns.
The Gentlemen’s big break came last summer at the Newport Folk Festival, where the group was joined onstage by Texas legends Terry Allen, Joe Ely, and Kris Kristofferson. The gig marked Kristofferson’s first Newport appearance in more than 45 years, and soon after he invited the Gentlemen to back him again on a short Texas run.
“Newport was our first show out of state,” Bedford says. “When you’re backing someone like Kris, it’s a privilege but also a huge responsibility. I think it works because there’s a selflessness that comes with the idea of being a backing band. The whole idea is serving the singer and the song. We’re not trying to be in the spotlight.”
And yet the Texas Gentlemen are now set to grab at least a little bit of the spotlight with their debut album, TX Jelly, which is due out September 15 from the Americana label New West. How does a band supposedly content to stay in the background find itself releasing an album under its own name? Almost accidentally, Bedford says. Last summer, he booked the Gentlemen for four days at the legendary FAME studios, in Muscle Shoals, where musicians like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin had recorded some of their most famous sides. What was supposed to be a loose rock and roll summer camp for the band and various friends yielded 28 songs in a 96-hour span. The 11 songs that Bedford chose for what became TX Jelly bounce back and forth between country, blues, soul, and psychedelia; he says they were simply working too quickly to consider crafting a more cohesive-sounding record, especially when they weren’t even sure they were making a record in the first place. “Stylistically, it’s a little all over the place,” he admits.
The odds of the album making a dent in the marketplace are pretty slim; the track record of backing bands striking out on their own isn’t encouraging—everyone’s heard the Memphis Horns supporting Otis Redding and Al Green, but few people are familiar with any of the ten albums they recorded under their own name. Even so, Bedford doesn’t seem all that worried. If nothing else, TX Jelly will function as a highlight reel to lure in prospective clients who share the Gentlemen’s belief in the organic magic of recording the old-fashioned way: getting everybody in one room, running tape, and seeing what happens.
“This band is always setting itself up for a miracle or a disaster,” Bedford says, laughing. “A particular set of guys, this soundboard, these mics, that stage. What will it sound like? We won’t know till you get here and try.”