February 2008. That’s the target release date for the full-length debut album by the Austin, Texas-based sextet nelo. Doubtless, for the growing legion of restless fans who have been clamoring for a CD on an almost daily basis on the band’s MySpace page, the wait’s going to feel like an eternity. But considering the fact that the completion of the as yet untitled record represents nothing less than the realization of a dream at least 10 years in the making, a mere six months is nothing.
Mind, we’re not talking about a record 10 years in the making. But it has been about a decade since nelo (rhymes with “hello”) founder and principal songwriter Matt Ragland first picked up an acoustic guitar in high school and started writing songs and occasionally jamming with school friends and fellow Dallas natives Stephen Goodson (electric guitar), Chris Hill (drums) and David Long (saxophone). A couple of years later, while in college, Ragland was refining his songwriting and performing around Austin with singer Reid Umstattd while Goodson, Hill and Long were perfecting their own chops studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton. By 2002, they all reconvened — along with another UNT alum, bassist Mike St. Clair — and nelo was born.
Well, unofficially, at least. According to Ragland, nelo didn’t officially take off until August of ’05 — the month he and the rest of the band left Texas for Athens, Ga. “That was really the defining moment,” he says, “when I called everyone and said, ‘OK, I’m ready to really do this. If you want to do it, too, come and join me.’
“I’d been to Athens a number of times already, and I just felt like it was a great place to start a band,” he continues. “It’s a relatively small town, but there’s so much respect in that part of the country for the music that goes on there. I’d heard the music there and thought we would really fit in. And, I really wanted to get out of Austin at the time, because I’d been playing with these guys for so long that I wanted there to be that unifying moment where we all packed our bags and moved somewhere with one goal in mind. It was time to get serious.”
The fact that it was Ragland, who opted to major in philosophy and psychology while most of his band mates went to a music school, who issued that fateful “time to get serious” call to arms underscores just how much nelo owes its existence to his own clear vision. But Ragland is quick to credit everyone else in the band for helping him bring that vision to life, and one other musician of note for awakening his vision in the first place: Dave Matthews.
“Without going too long on it, it’s just one of those situations where I feel like I owe the guy something, because without Dave Matthews, I don’t think I would have this inspiration to write like I do now and put a band together” he explains. “I was just a kid in high school when I first heard his music, but there was something about it that really helped me understand me a little bit. I know that sounds kind of clichéd, but it’s true. That was the first time I was exposed to the idea that music and lyrics and songs can really help you figure out what you’re about … and what you want out of life.”
Along with Matthews, Ragland also cites Stevie Wonder and Sting as major songwriting heroes. Clearly, in order to do those influences — and his own melodic instincts — justice, Ragland knew his songs were going to require a degree of musicianship beyond both his own self-taught chops and your everyday garage band. Luckily, the first guys he started playing with (Goodson, Long and Hill) all came with similarly demanding influences, ranging from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Steve Jordan to Bill Frisell, Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. Bassist St. Clair, the last of the instrumentalists to join the fold, came with a Master’s degree in jazz studies and formidable real world experience: prior to joining nelo, he toured with the Glen Miller Orchestra and played trombone in Dallas’ acclaimed The Polyphonic Spree.
Even before St. Clair joined the band, Ragland knew he had the makings of the perfect ensemble in place. All he lacked was a proper singer. Enter Umstattd — the proverbial “X” factor. The funny thing is, Ragland had known him longer than anyone else in the band. He just didn’t know that Reid — soon to become his best friend — could sing. “Reid and I had been going to camp together for many, many years — from third grade all the way up to college,” he says. The summer before their senior year of high school, they were back at the same camp in Colorado, training to be counselors, when somebody pulled out a guitar and started to strum the opening chords to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”
“I open my mouth to sing the first verse to myself,” recalls Ragland, “and I am literally frozen by another voice coming from directly behind me.” He spun around and saw it was Umstattd. “There was something about Reid’s voice that completely blew me away. I knew this was the real thing immediately. There was some kind of organic or spiritual connection between Reid’s voice and my dream. Only it wasn’t just a dream anymore — I knew I had what I needed.”
Fast forward a few years, and nelo was well on its way toward firmly establishing itself on the Athens music scene. But an early, homemade demo was stirring up quite a buzz back home in Texas, too — so much so that nelo was soon playing shows to crowds of up to 400 fans in both states. Among those drawn to the buzz on the Texas side was producer and studio owner Freddy Fletcher, who took in a nelo show at Austin’s Momo’s last December and became an instant convert.
“That was the first time I ever saw them live,” says Fletcher. “I kept hearing, ‘You really need to hear this band!’ And when I got down to Momo’s, there were people lined up around the door to get in and see them. I thought, ‘Hmm, this is interesting.’ So I just started watching them, and I really liked what I heard.” Fletcher and nelo hit it off right off the bat, striking the deal that quickly led to Ragland and Co. moving back to Austin and heading straight into the studio to begin work on their Fletcher-produced debut. The album will be released on Pedernales Records, the label owned by Fletcher and his uncle — none other than the legendary Willie Nelson.
“It may be their first record,” says Fletcher, “but these guys in the studio — they’re so damn good. They’re all accomplished musicians, the songs are really well written and I love the arrangements. And Reid, the singer, is just phenomenal. Their style is definitely not something you hear every day — it’s new to me. But I like what they’re doing, and I like everyone in the band, too.”
Ragland makes it clear that the feeling of admiration is mutual. “Freddy, for whatever reason, seems to really understand the music as I was hoping that it would be received,” he says. “The thing I love about a good album is when you get a general vibe from the entire record — almost like the whole album is one tone, one feeling. And listening to the roughs we have so far, I think that’s starting to develop. I can’t describe it or give it an adjective yet, but I will say that we’re getting there.”
Come February, nelo will have fully arrived.