Monte Warden spent time as a honky-tonking teenager and a renowned purveyor of old-school country music. He has made his living as a songwriter and a singer. He has seen a lot of the music industry in 35 years, from when he started playing gigs with Austin’s beloved Wagoneers to when he wrote hits for guys like George Strait. He started around the time LPs yielded to CDs and stuck around long enough to see CDs give way to downloads.
So being a singer, songwriter and leader of multiple bands during a pandemic is just the next step for Warden. On June 12, he’ll play a duo show at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, which will likely be for a diminished audience because of social distancing guidelines. The show will also be streamed for fans, because Warden has learned over the years to adapt formats to the people who want to hear his music.
“I never in a million years imagined I’d be presenting my music the way I’ve been doing,” he says. “But I’ll say this: Doing livestreams has been a Godsend and a miracle for me and my family. And not only financially, but also spiritually. This is something I’d never have done if not for what is doing on. And when this is all over, I think we’ll still do something like it. It’s the next thing in a changing business.”
Over the past few years, Warden has split his time between the reunited Wagoneers and a new project, Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few. This month he was supposed to come to Houston with the Wags — the Austin band that made a lot of noise with two records in the late-‘80s.
When: 7 p.m. June 12
Where: McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk
Details: $120 for a table of four; 713-528-5999, mcgonigels.com
But instead he and Wags guitarist Brent Wilson will do a sort of hybrid show that also marks the release of “Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few,” a sparkling debut album by Warden’s more recent ensemble (in which Wilson plays bass) that finds a modern groove in old-school Tin Pan Alley songwriting and instrumentation that runs the seam between torch jazz and country. While Americana has flourished over the past few years, Warden has with the Dangerous Few cut a lane for himself, telling smart and resonant stories in under three minutes with instrumentation that is both fluidly jazzy and rootsy in its bare-bones presentation.
“We’ll do it from the venue like we’re in my livin’ room,” Warden says of the show. “So it’ll be like the livestreams I’ve been doing, except for the first time we’ll have a little bit of a live audience.”
What that audience looks like remains to be seen. If the venue is held to 25 per cent capacity, that would be about 30 or so people.
“But as I’ve found with these livestreams I’ve done,” Warden says, “there could be a few thousand people watching. So we’ll see how it goes. But I’m so grateful for this audience that has sustained me through a difficult time.”
And that difficult time has been unprecedented for working musicians. Warden points out the challenges of his industry over his 35-year career. When he started, the mechanics of it were easy: A songwriter wrote songs, recorded them, and played them with a band. The band made some money for gigs, and if a songwriter grew to be successful, he or she could get publishing for songs they’d recorded or had cut by others.
But the machinery of mailbox money has changed as music streaming and downloading upended an industry. The money for a working musician moved to the shows. And then in March of this year, thanks to the pandemic, the shows went away.
Musicians being musicians, many refused to stay silent, looking to make direct connections to the audiences they’d spent years building. They’d offer new material or play old favorites on platforms with a digital tip jar available.
“It’s been interesting to see artists sitting down with just a guitar and keyboard and performing songs they’ve written,” Warden says. “No bells and whistles. No dance track, no autotuning. In some ways it’s like a throwback. Back in the day you had to have the chops to play it yourself. Gigs went away so you go to figure something else out. If you’ve hustled, you know how to hustle.”
So Warden will test the waters with a hybrid show in which he knows the show won’t be as full of listeners as it would’ve been in another time . But after more than two months of performing at home, he’s confident people will tune in virtually.
What makes this performance different for him is that it lands during the release of “Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few.” Many major albums set for a spring release have been bumped to later in the year, when things perhaps return to normal. But Warden completed the album last year, and decided the songs — all but one co-written with his wife Brandi Warden — might offer some lift during troubled times.
And “Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few” does play to that vibe. The record fits comfortably with Americana playlists in that they have become big and broad and dedicated to classic American songwriting that floats fluidly on a lazy river that dates back a century. The lyrics are tightly wound, the music mobile and an invitation to shake a leg.
They nestle nicely with Warden’s work with the Wags as well as the solo recordings he made in the ‘90s and ‘00s. He cites Willie Nelson singing pop songs and Tony Bennett covering Hank Williams as evidence that music we have long slotted into genres creeps over artificial boundaries.
“No one style is better than the other,” he says. He found seamless chordal transitions from classic pop into country music. And in doing so, he found a vibe he felt was perfect for summer, even a summer that may require masks and distance: “Spring Into Summer,” “Martini” and “Joy” are among the offerings.
The music on “Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few” moves with both warmth and a breeziness. He recalls a recent visit to New York with Brandi. They hit 1619 Broadway and touched the brass above the door that read “Brill Building.”
“We studied hard when we wrote these songs,” he says. “We wanted to get it right. Not to do the same thing the writers did there years ago. But to do our version of that. To avoid the idea of genre. We wanted to tell stories people could relate to.
“So I’m 53, and for the first time in my life I feel like I’m doing something original. And I love it. I don’t know when I’ll get this opportunity again. And I wanted to share these songs now. Even if it’s a strange time to do it.”