Texas’ latest rock band on the brink might make it big. And might not.

MEET THE NELSONS, as in Ozzie and Harriet. That’s Dennis Jones on bass guitar-the one with the blonde hair and the cocky smile. In the back is Kevin Mackey on drums, the newest Nelson, who joined the band in May. Kevin is particularly polite, suave-and quick to tell a dirty joke. Don Allison’s the lead singer, or did you guess? Was it the pompadour that gave him away, or the countenance of a stage actor? And to his right, slightly behind him and in a dimmer spotlight, is John Sprott-lean and intense like a Texas guitarist should be. Offstage he is reserved; on stage he plays with a vengeance.

These are the Nelsons and they are visibly excited. And they are trying not to show it. With all the savvy of seasoned rock-and-rollers, they know that excited is not a thing to be. At least not when you are fielding questions about your future as a rock sensation. Certainly not when you aren’t even sure when your next gig is coming along. Never when your average age is 23. Excited brings bad luck. Excited isn’t cool. And yet, here they are. Four clean-cut guys out of Lubbock making noise that sounds a little like the Sex Pistols, a little more like Buddy Holly, with a beat that says-that insists-Dance. Two years ago they didn’t exist. Eight months ago they worked out of a garage. Then they saw the stellar blue light of MTV, the hit-making music video cable channel.

The video of their campy dance tune called I Don’t Mind was entered in last December’s round of MTV’s Basement Tapes competition, in which unsigned bands battle it out by way of viewer phone-in vote for money, expensive music equipment and the chance to be discovered. The Nelsons garnered an unprecedented 48 percent of the call-in vote, winning their round and sending them to the April finals, where they came in third out of six. Two more videos are in the making. They’ve cut an album and another one is in the works. By the time this sees print, they even may have signed a major-label recording contract. Still, most of the showrooms they play are small, you won’t hear them on the Top 40 and Rolling Stone has yet to pronounce their arrival. So why are all those kids jumping up and down? And why are the Nelsons smiling?

Because deep in the heart of Texas, where success stories are given endless horizons and big, red setting suns for backdrops, Don and John and Kevin and Dennis are living the modern mythology of musicians on the brink of something big. It’s a precarious position and one that leaves the boys, by turns, giddy, pensive, anxious. But rarely bored. And despite their cautious words, very excited. Their Dallas-based manager Steve Moss says he’s not excited because he’s been in the business too long. But few bands come as close to the golden glow of Fame as have the Nelsons, and almost never in such a brief period of time.

Rock ’n’ roll is in the history books these days, its cultural influence as pervasive and unretractable as the automobile. Its success stories are myriad and magical, and they all tend to sound alike. But for every success story, there are 413 tales of failure, or rather failures never told. Lured by the wild, glorious posture of the rock star-be it in the image of Elvis or Mick or Boy George-how many youths, who in another place and time might have aspired to the position of cowboy, statesman or athlete, lock their bedroom doors and believe they are Jim Morrison? The few with some talent and the more than few with mere rock-fed fantasies take it further-to the garage, to the high school victory dance, to the local beer joint. The die-hards keep going: playing clubs, playing proms, playing, playing, playing. Some accept that they will never be famous. Many insist they never wanted to be. And others just keep playing, trying, hoping. Most of them do so in vain. The Nelsons aren’t crazy enough to think they have a chance, are they? Are they?

A band that came together at Texas Tech and played fraternity parties sounds too wholesome to be the makings of a rock dream. And the Nelsons look and act wholesome, too. No glassy-eyed stares. No melancholy droopiness. No chic facade of sarcasm or nihilism. Don has a tattoo on each arm, but they are cartoon characters-Hot Stuff and Mighty Mouse-and look like they would wash away with water. The music the Nelsons play is simple rock ’n’ roll with some New Wave influence but a heart with a late Fifties/early Sixties beat. The lyrics of the songs they play-both their own as well as cover songs by the Romantics. Stray Cats and Buddy Holly-concern, almost without exception, girls. And when they’re not singing about girls, the Nelsons are thinking about girls, talking about girls, scheming about girls.

Music may be the Nelsons’ life, but it is not as all-consuming as the more urgent concern of finding out the name of the pretty bank teller at the drive-through. But they are also pranksters, wits, pundits and poets-enthusiasts of every little diversion that comes along, like live rattlesnakes in the back room of a West Texas souvenir shop and french fries at McDonald’s. As a matter of fact, if McDonald’s made a credit card-shiny white plastic, perhaps, with embossed golden arches-the Nelsons would own one. And share it, just as they share toothpaste and deodorant when they’re on the road. They think of themselves as four all-American boys, and they are. That’s boys, not men, they explain, because, of course, rock musicians are always boys, even though Don and Dennis are 22, Kevin is 24 and John is 25. All-American boys, whom you easily might not recognize as musicians, which is fine with them. “I’m not a musician,” says Dennis. “I’m an entertainer.” His sentiment is echoed at different times by the other three Nelsons; it is impossible to know who started saying it first, but it is spoken like a creed. Says Don: “Musician is kind of a dirty word with us.”

THE ORIGINAL NELSONS got together in the fall of 1982 when Dennis (bass guitar) was a sophomore at Texas Tech. Dennis is an army brat, a colonel’s son, who was born in Tacoma, Washington. He lived in Alaska and Oklahoma and El Paso, but never Lubbock. He’d never even been there. He decided to try Tech because it sounded fun. When Greg Galbraith, a drummer and friend of Dennis’ from El Paso, joined Dennis at Tech in September of his second year, the two immediately began playing together as they had in high school. Then they found John Sprott, a guitarist from Lubbock who had gotten into Tech following a two-year stint living on a farm near Idalou, about 12 miles outside of Lubbock. Says Dennis: “It was just your regular boy-meets-boy-starts-band type thing.” The nameNelsons” came from Greg, who is no longer in the band. He and John were killing an afternoon watching an Ozzie and Harriet rerun when Dennis said, “I sure wish we were rich and famous like the Nelsons.” Greg responded: “So let’s be the Nelsons.” And so they were. The first gigs were fraternity parties because Dennis is a Tau Kappa Epsilon, or “teek” as he says proudly. (Dennis stills has the”let’s party’ attitude of a Greek and is still look-ing for the perfect pair of shades.)

Sometime that fall, Don Allison heard about the Nelsons and got a little worried Eight months before, Don had started his own band in Lubbock-Cardiac Mac and the EKG’s. Don was the lead singer played guitar. His concern about local com petition stemmed not from the overwhelm-ing quality of the Nelsons’ music, but from their avant-garde name. “I figured anyone daring to call themselves the Nelsons could be trouble,” says Don. Although people in Lubbock were fond of discussing a rivalry between Cardiac Mac and the Nelsons, Don says both bands got along very well .And Don found himself admiring the Nelson’s music more and more.

Don is only 22, but he has been performing professionally for seven years. Bom and reared in Wichita Falls, he always knew that was what he wanted to do. When he was in the first grade, his mother bought him a hand puppet at Sears, and he immediately worked up a ventriloquist act. He went through two more puppets and seven more years of ventriloquism until eighth grade, when a friend suggested buying guitars and starting a band. “I said ’We can’t,’” Don recalls. ” ’We don’t play’ So we bought them anyway.”

When he was 15, there was a popular heavy metal band in Lubbock, called Live Wire, that Don liked a lot. He found out that their singer was leaving the group, so he got up the nerve to ask the band if they would give him a listen-to. He was asked in immediately, and it seemed as if all his dreams were coming true. They were-for a while. But the band was constantly on the road, which wasn’t conducive to Don’s high school education. At the end of his first semester, junior year, Don dropped out of school. Things got worse from there. Life with Live Wire grew stale and Don left. Then a promising career move to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, turned out to be a bust, as did Don’s marriage at the age of 19. In the winter of 1981, he moved back to Lubbock. Don was walking through a shopping center a few days before Christmas when he saw Eddy Crouch-now the Nelson’s stage manager and driver-whom he knew from his days with Live Wire. Don asked Eddy if he wanted to start a band. Eddy said sure, and Cardiac Mac was born.

One night in early March 1983, the Nelsons played at the Rox-Z in Lubbock, one of that town’s few live music clubs. The band asked Don to sit in with them, to do what he does best: sing. The first song was the high-energy What I Like About You by the Romantics. Don will remember that performance for the rest of his life. “I felt like I’d been plugged into a socket. The place went nuts. I was so excited. I was about to wet my Pants. It’s hard to sing when you’re smiling *at hard. I’m big on chemistry, but I’d never felt anything like that.” One week later, Don was a Nelson. His first public performance with the group was in late April of last year at Fat Dawg’s, Lubbock’s premier Tech hangout. The response was good. Now when the Nelsons play Fat Dawg’s, the place is packed, and nowhere are the Nelsons more loved. It has become their home base.

Last summer the band decided to record a single of a song Don had co-written with friends Jim Bell and Chuck Mize when he was with Cardiac Mac called I Don’t Mind, a funny lament by a guy who can’t win the girl. So can I see you tonight? No, that’s OK, I don’t mind. Craig and Bruce Alderson, who co-own Alderson Recording Studio in Lubbock, asked a producer friend of theirs from California to hear it, too. That was Clark Samson, and when he heard the song, he suggested that the Nelsons make a video of it, which he would produce. Samson got Dallas producer Steve Moss, a Lubbock native, to direct. In August, the video was filmed. In October, it was accepted by MTV as a candidate in the December round of the Basement Tapes, and then came the big win.

Last winter and spring were spent on the road touring mostly Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, occasionally making appear-ences at Fat Dawg’s, which had thrown an enormous video release party for I Don’t Mind, and had thrown a video-watching party on the evening of the first Basement Tapes. While 1 Don’t Mind was bolstering the Nelsons’ image through other music video venues such as television’s Night Tracks and Rockamerica, the company that sells videos to nightclubs, the Nelsons were opening for such popular acts as Michael Bolton, Joe King Carrasco and, on New Year’s Eve in Dallas, Tommy Tutone at Nick’s Uptown.

In February, Greg came down with mono. The band needed to keep touring, so they asked Kevin to fill in until Greg recovered. Kevin had been a member of Cardiac Mac with Don. At the end of May, following an appearance in Dallas at the Twilite Room, the band called Lubbock to talk to Greg who was still not better. Kevin had given up his job to tour and needed to know what was going on. An awkward decision was made: Greg was out, Kevin was in. Now Kevin is a Nelson, accepted as easily as Don was.

In April, the album Bag Your Face, produced jointly by Samson and the Nelsons, debuted. Only 2,000 copies of the album were initially printed, but they were sold out in record stores throughout the Southwest. Recently, there’s been interest from national recording companies. Signing with a major label is the Nelsons’ next step and certainly the most critical of all. With the MTV bit not too long behind them, they have momenturn. But nothing in this business lasts very long, and what may be hot today is Ice Age tomorrow. And even if the band has real talent, there’s no guarantee that will be enough. Sometimes, you gotta have a gimmick.

In the press, the Nelsons have been identified as a “New Wave group,” a “rockabilly group” and a “modern rock band” to name just three descriptions. They have also been called old-fashioned. Their sound is simple, but cleaner than primitive rock. Many of their high-energy songs are performed loudly, but not blasting. Their own opinions of their music sometimes contradict one another. They do seem to agree with Dennis’ definition of “fun rock and roll.” They say they have fought and will continue to fight synthesizer sound and clap tracks, the dominant elements of popular radio music. Their look is funky, as much influenced by country/western apparel as by British New Wave. On stage, they all wear Cowboy boots. In fact, their style may simply be a non-style, and it may be their biggest asset.

IN THE CRAMPED backstage dressing room of Club West, the popular live music club/fern bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Nelsons are nervous. Their last gig in Santa Fe, a month and a half before, had been disappointing. The enthusiasm hadn’t been as high as they are accustomed to. And there weren’t enough pretty girls. So driving to Santa Fe for a two-night engagement, the Nelsons were a little anxious, a little unsure. Now, primped and pumped-up, the Nelsons are having high anxiety. They look at one another; they look at the floor. Dennis is brave enough to sneak another look at the meager crowd. There are 37 people in the audience, if you count the club’s manager. But in a space large enough to hold four hundred, 37 looks like zero. No one’s going to say it, but everyone is disappointed, and since they actually have to go out there, it’s only going to get worse.

Showtime. John strides onto the stage first and makes a few last tuning strokes on his guitar. Kevin plops behind the drums and actually looks enthusiastic. Dennis and Don follow. In the back of the house, Eddy is fooling with the lightboard, setting the dimmers where he thinks he wants them, although he’s not sure-he’s never had to run a lightboard before. Don won’t be playing a guitar tonight, which he normally does on a few songs because he broke his arm a few weeks before when he fell off of a moving car. He has taken the splint off against doctor’s orders. He steps into the brightest spotlight and grabs the microphone stand: “Hi, we’re the Nelsons and we’re from Lubbock, Texas.” No response from the house. “Wellllll, c’mon, let’s go, let’s go.. .’-the Ritchie Valens song-comes out as loud and as clear as when they did it this afternoon at the sound check, and, amazingly, with more energy. The audience remains seated, but by the third song one couple dances and by the fourth song four couples dance. By the end of the evening Club West is full and everyone is dancing. The next night the house has a healthy audience before the band comes on at 9:45, and several people are even chanting “Nelsons.” To the manager’s delight, the club breaks capacity, and no one wants to see the Nelsons leave the stage.

Backstage, the Nelsons really seem like rock stars. The show went well, and they are up. They look taller, bigger. Pretty blondes with scarves tied in their hair and too much blush make their way to the dressing room, a cement-floored box with fliers of previous one-night-stand bands plastered to the wall. Eventually there are nearly two dozen fans in the star-lit beer garden behind the club. They compliment the band on the music. They flirt. And then most of them follow the white van back to the motel to party until 5 in the morning.

When the band parties in motel rooms, John is often absent. The other guys understand and nothing is said about it, except that John is always invited to join in. When he does, he does so wholeheartedly-sometimes running the show. But John is fundamentally private. Many say he is terribly smart, and those who really know him say he’s brilliant. John was born in Fort Worth, but spent most of his life in Lubbock. Two years ago, he was working as a machinist in a foundry. Before that, he was a janitor. Texas Tech was one more thing to try. “I figured if I could make the hop from being a janitor to being a machinist,” says John, “I could go from being a machinist to being a college student. And I was moderately successful at it, until the Nelsons came along and blew that out the window.” Don writes most of the band’s lyrics and John writes most of the music; country western is his passion. He calls those two years spent on the farm his country music period. Asked if he had any closet favorites while growing up, musicians he admired but couldn’t admit that he admired, he says Chet Atkins. But John plays the music of the Nelsons now, and when he is onstage it’s obvious that the only thing that really matters is having that guitar in his hand.

Each Nelson is his own Nelson, it seems, with Don ringleading and Kevin doing impersonations and Dennis coming up with some perilous but fun way to spend the evening and John explaining what happened the last time they tried that. They are different from one another but claim to be like brothers, and whenever possible they prefer to be known not as Allison, Mackey, Jones and Sprott, but as the Nelsons. At times, they’re delirious in their enjoyment of some new scheme, or a private joke, but they are serious too-especially when talking about their music.

“What’s amazing,” says Don, “is people say we sound so full for a three-piece. That’s because we each do what we’re supposed to.”

“Well, you gotta be tasteful,” says Dennis. “I’ve never been a bass player to play a whole lot. I play right on top of the drums and that’s where I belong. I don’t belong out on the end.” “It’s not a solo instrument.” adds Don. “And neither is a rhythm guitar until the song gets to the lead.”

“My job as a drummer is to hold things down,” says Kevin, “I basically accompany the vocalist.”

“That’s the same way about vocals,” says Don. “When I’m singing the verse and the chorus, I’m the lead instrument. When anything else is going on between verses, I don’t sing.”

The Nelsons are learning to be a group, to be unified-often, they even finish each other’s sentences. They admire bravura solo performances-fancy drum numbers, bass solos-but not in their band.

“I think the bottom line is entertainment,” says Don. “I mean how entertaining is that solo stuff? Musicians love it. They go ’Wow, did you hear that?’ But, like with a drum solo, the public says ’Ya, he sounds fast, but I’m not sure. How fast is he?’ “

“These are people who have worked all week,” says Kevin, “and when they go out to a club they’re ready to have fun. They don’t care how damn good you are up there, you know?”

“As long as it sounds good to them…” adds Don.

“And they can dance to it and have a good time…,” says Kevin. “That’s what it’s all about.”

“I finally decided to stop playing for other musicians,” says Dennis.

“I decided to stop trying to be a great drummer,” says Kevin, “and start being in a great band.”

EVER SINCE HE was a little boy, Kevin had wanted to play the drums. But he didn’t get a drum until junior high school, and that was because he told his parents that he’d been picked by the band director to play the snare. Actually, 25 guys wanted to play percussion and there were only two spots. They drew straws and Kevin got the short one- the right one. “The only reason I ever joined the high school band,” says Kevin, “was to learn how to play drums so I could be in a rock band.” He didn’t get his first set until he was 17. When he was 19, he joined Gypsy, a copy band out of Lubbock. They played bars and parties for a year and a half. Kevin didn’t play in a band again until he joined Cardiac Mac two years ago. But that stint lasted only a few months. Kevin needed money, so he took a job as a section overseer at a local department store warehouse. When he decided to tour with the Nelsons as a temporary replacement for Greg, he hoped that the band’s connections might get him a job with another band but he never imagined he’d become a Nelson. Says Kevin: “I’ve never been in a band where we could really shoot for the top.”

And if the top doesn’t happen for the Nelsons, can they settle for the middle? “All I want,” says Kevin, “is to play music and be able to make a reasonable living at it.” But even that’s not an easy thing for a musician to achieve. Often it’s all or nothing. If success hasn’t arrived in a year, in five years, could the Nelsons pack it up and tackle the real world? Don has considered teaching high school English (dropping out himself didn’t keep him out of Tech because he scored highly on his SAT tests). Dennis has been accepted to law school. But right now the boys can’t be bothered. All options seem beside the point.

THERE ARE MORE than several Buddy Holly songs in the Nelsons’ repertoire. Not Fade Away is on their album. Buddy Holly, of course, is from Lubbock. “I’m a freak,” says Don. “I’m a Holly freak. He does wonderful things to me, listening to him. Especially his ballads. That’s speaking for me. Considering he was singing in the late Fifties and he sang that way-doing things to his voice-gave me the guts to sing however the hell I want to. I mean, nobody can sit there and say ’Oh. you can’t do that, that’s not proper technique.’ “

“We” re not trying to be Buddy Holly,” says Kevin. “It’s just that he’s from Lubbock and we’re from Lubbock and he did what we’re trying to do. And that’s neat.”

Near the center of town, there’s a bronze statue of Holly, erected by the citizens of Lubbock shortly after the release of the movie about their hometown hero. The figure wears thick-frame glasses that look like Holly’s and loosely holds a guitar that looks like Holly’s, but something is wrong with the statue. Maybe rock stars should never be made to stand still. The boys hate it: “They just put that up after it was popular to like Buddy Holly,” says one of them. “They don’t even listen to his music.” It’s the music they consider the appropriate monument to Holly, but sometimes late at night they visit his grave, just to look.

IT’S A SUNNY, windy June afternoon as the van leaves Lubbock. There’s trepidation about the New Mexico crowd, and some worry about where they’ll spend the night, and whether they can find beer along the way, but the Nelsons are back on the road after several quiet weeks, and they seem happy just to be moving. Don has got the tape recorder resting on his knee and is about to start composing intentionally bad Western poetry, to which everyone will eventually contribute. There’s talk of stopping in Fort Sumner at the Billy the Kid Museum to see the two-headed calf.

Eddy’s driving, and he’s got the radio tuned to KRLB, a local AM station and the only one the Nelsons really like. Their favorite DJ, Speedy Perez, is spinning old hits and as the van rolls out of town past dusty fields it’s hard to know what decade it is. Don mentions that they need to hear some Holly before they lose the station’s signal. He says they always do, that it’s good luck. It seems impossible, but several minutes later there it is, clear as the bright Texas air:

That’ll be the day when you say goodbye-eye,

That’ll be the day when you make me cry,

You say you ’re gonna leave me, you knew it’s a lie,

’Cause that’ll be the day-ay-ay…


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