The live show is the most crucial element of the Texas/Red Dirt scene. It is a showcase for the songs that artists have created and a communal scene for fans to get together and enjoy themselves. In the mid to late 90’s when the Texas Music renaissance was ignited, Robert Earl Keen provided the blueprint live album (No. 2 Live Dinner) that was the perfect example of the best parts of live shows in Texas. Stories, sing-alongs, instrumental breaks, band introductions, and shoutouts were all included.
Fifteen years later, Texas bands are still following that structure for live albums. One of the first to come in the wake of Keen’s masterpiece and push the tide of Texas Music upward was from a Dallas-born, Austin-based (at the time) singer/songwriter named Phil Pritchett. Pritchett was a veteran of garage bands when he arrived on the campus of prestigious Southwestern University in Georgetown. He quickly immersed himself in the new wave of Texas Music and found himself playing live in several different bands.
But, it was when he became the frontman of his own project that he truly blossomed. While he was a huge fan of rock n’ roll, Pritchett found his ear bent to the raucous troubadour stylings of Keen and Jerry Jeff Walker. He noticed the crowd’s reaction to the rowdy songs of the Keen cannon. This admiration led Pritchett to craft and refine his own rowdy anthems. He was an intellectual rocker turned party songwriter.
The songs he came up with were partly tongue in cheek, yet were a true reflection of what Texas college life is to each incoming freshman class: roadtrips, hangovers, final exam stress, learning the ropes of barrooms, being away from home for the first time and having a good time at all costs.
Pritchett recorded Phil Comes Alive in April 1997 at the Side Street Bar in Austin. From the first notes banging off his crafty Takamine acoustic guitar with album opener “Rolling”, the listener is able to easily picture the beer soaked amps and intimate, rowdy crowd. At certain times throughout the recording, it seems they know the words better than Pritchett does.
Having set out to write and perform songs that exemplified being 21 in Austin in the late 90’s, he hits the mark right out of the gate with the aforementioned “Rolling” with simple lyrics about rolling through the Texas countryside in your pick-up with a six-pack riding shotgun as your girl is nuzzled next to you.
That roadtrip tales winds into a geographic farce of a song titled “Antarctica USA” which gives way to “Snuff Machine”. Picking up where the subtleties of Keen’s “Copenhagen” left off, Pritchett sings of sticking so much “worm dirt” in his lip that he’s become a spitting robot. Pritchett ratchets up the seriousness in the set list for the next two tunes, “Meet Me In Las Vegas” and “Maria”, both of which are still live staples and perhaps the most well-known songs in his repertoire. The main riff to “Maria” and the lyrics of pleading the Spanish beauty to not go will remain stuck in your head long after the last note has drifted into space.
The recording returns to his rabble-rousing good timing with the tale of everyone’s first college roommate, the aptly titled “My Roomate” before segueing into the caustic tale of playing in a touring Texas band, the equally apt titled “Playing In a Band”. With lines about treacherous load-ins, playing for tips and sleeping in a van, it was one of the first songs about life on the road in Texas band in the modern era.
“Drink When I Think” is a tune about final exams approaching and “searching for the answers at the bottom of the glass.” If Pritchett’s conviction wasn’t so palpable, these songs would seem silly. Yet, he makes each of them believable via his fiery delivery and rock n’ roll aesthetics.
The album closes with the most tender moment of the collection and a nod to where Pritchett’s music would head with the ballad, “The Encore”. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and with no other backing musicians on this track, Pritchett paints the same type of last call scene Gary Stewart delivered with “Empty Glass”. After a night of beer-soaked anthems, Pritchett sends the crowd home with a thoughtful rumination on what waits beyond the doors at closing time.
For younger fans or people new to this music that are fans of the current crop of Texas Music bands plying the marketing tool of simple, rowdy fun set to music…I encourage you to check out this classic and see how the mold was cast. Trust me, you’ll really dig these songs if you want some rollicking beer-drinking accompaniment. I think you’ll find yourself starting with this album and then growing with the rest of his catalog.
Thankfully, Pritchett matured and quickly outgrew this lowest common denominator songwriting that he’d had so much fun with. After a stint as a house songwriter in Nashville, his later albums would find him returning to his rock roots. The themes and stories would grow immensely to the point where he is now a critically acclaimed artist and highly in demand producer. Pritchett has also been at the forefront of utilizing the web to bolster his independent music status. With podcasts and his own mp3 store years before iTunes was en vogue, Pritchett remains a true Texas treasure.