I first saw the Madisons by chance. It was a summer Saturday night in San Marcos, and my brother Brighton and I were thirsty. So we set out for the strongest pour with the least offensive tab. That landed us at the now-closed Triple Crown, where the nightly musical offerings were less consistent than the generous bartenders. One night you might hear Scott H. Biram masterfully shredding through his oeuvre of blues-metal—the next you would find yourself bolting straight for the back porch to escape a band that never should have left the garage. It was always a gamble to venture into Triple Crown when you didn’t recognize the name on the sign out front. But on that night, cheap booze outweighed the risk.
The seven-piece band was already playing at full-tilt when we stepped inside. They were a country outfit all right, but it wasn’t the kind of straight-ahead Texas twang that makes frat boys foam at the mouth. The rhythm was faster, closer to the driving beat that propels circle pits at punk shows than one that coaxes boots to scoot across dance floors. And I began to hear more traces of familiar but unexpected influences. The electric guitar had a tone recalling Modest Mouse, and the trumpet would have felt right at home on a single by the National. Still, a banjo and upright bass kept the sound solidly anchored in bluegrass-tinged Americana. We decided to stay inside and listen. After all, sometimes you get lucky at the Triple Crown.
For the next few months, the Madisons’ debut album, Desgraciados, served as the soundtrack to my long drives between the Permian Basin oil fields—where I was raised and working at the time—to my girlfriend’s house in San Marcos. My appreciation for the group’s distinctive amalgam of indie-rock and country deepened on subsequent listens, but I was chiefly drawn to Solis’s lyrics. On “So Long West Texas,” Solis sings, “My momma drank herself to death/but my daddy raised us right/and my brother drank himself to death/but my daddy raised us right/We had more kids than mattresses/and I grew up on the living room floor/Say ‘you can’t get high’ to folks like me/well what are we bleedin’ for?” I had never heard songwriting that so honestly depicted the struggle to fight alcoholism and financial ruin that was set in the dusty, conservative backdrop of West Texas. I was hooked.
That was four years and three albums ago. And on the group’s fourth record, No Man’s Land—which drops Friday—the raw elements that initially drew me to the Madisons have been fully realized. The rowdy drinking songs that have long been a staple of the group’s set are still well represented. On “Headache” Solis belts, “I’m just gonna drink till my headache goes away,” offering yet another anthem for the band’s following of professional boozehounds. But there’s also noticeable growth amid the familiarity. The opener, “Basketball Practice,” is a nine-minute mostly spoken word story (reminiscent of the Drive By Truckers’ “18 Wheels of Love”) set to a sparse guitar riff—proof that the Madisons remain willing to take creative risks. The band has also tightened up in the studio, but not at the cost of the rough authenticity I first encountered at Triple Crown. Some of the band’s evolution heard on No Man’s Land can be attributed to lineup shifts: most significantly, the loss of Oscar Gomez on trumpet and the addition of Cass Brostad on accordion. But the squeezebox isn’t the only contribution Brostad offers. She regularly trades vocal duties with Solis and writes her own songs, including “No Man’s Land,” which Texas Monthly is proud to debut.
The group played that single at Austin’s Saxon Pub this past Friday, their first gig following a several-month recording-induced touring hiatus. It was clear at the beginning of the show that, much like me years before, some of the patrons weren’t familiar with Madisons. They had showed up, I’m assuming, for the strong, reasonably-priced drinks—rolling the dice on the musical act. It was a diverse crowd of the old and new Austin—women in dangling Kendra Scott bling, young people in flat-brim ball caps, scruffy hipsters with well-tended beer bellies, and dudes in Hawaiian shirts with bald heads wreathed by wiry grey. They seemed skeptical, or perhaps uninterested, when the Madisons first took the stage. Slowly, the seated audience began to warm to Solis’s self-deprecating, goofy humor. They tapped their feet to the compulsive rhythms. At one point, I overheard a succinct, “Damn that fiddler can play!” over the gorgeous, piercing strings. By the time Brostad sang the last verse of “No Man’s Land,” the whole place was on its feet, whooping and hollering. Looking around at the grinning faces, I understood how they felt. Sometimes you take a chance. Sometimes you hit the jackpot.
The Madisons will celebrate their album release with a concert at the White Horse in Austin this Friday, then play Austin again next week at the Hard Luck Lounge before they embark on a national tour that will take them from Texas to New York.