When Nate Lowery was growing up in Dallas, Texas, his home state's vast and varied history of country and folk music spoke to him. But if he was to seek out that music, he was going to have a hard time doing it in Dallas.
"The country music scene in Dallas was limited to about one bar," Lowery says, noting that hip-hop and heavy metal had a bigger market share at the time. Still, that didn't stop him from playing in honky-tonk bands and studying the legacy of Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt as well as boundary-crossing songwriters like Doug Sahm.
After a while, though, Lowery needed a break from his life in Texas. "Stuff had kind of fallen apart. I was going through a rough time in Dallas and sinking into the pits," he recalls. "I thought, 'Man, I needed to make a fucking move.'"
A move to St. Louis — a town he had visited only a few times prior — seemed to be the cure.
"I gave away all my stuff, grabbed my guitar and sleeping bag, and moved up here," he says. "It worked out great — I love this town."
For Lowery, St. Louis' broad and inclusive music scene helped smooth over his transition to a new city. "I've spent time in a lot of the big music cities — Austin, Nashville, New Orleans — all the scenes in all those towns are kind of unfriendly; it's not very welcoming. Everyone is competing hardcore against each other," Lowery says. "It's the opposite here; it was really easy to crack into. Everybody hangs out all the time and plays with each other."
Lowery came to St. Louis three years ago. In that time he has held down a regular weekly gig at 1860 Saloon in Soulard and started the Native Sons, an Americana quintet that draws on his Texas roots while dipping into psychedelic tones and existential lyrics. If his youth was spent in fast-playing honky-tonk bands, a more mature Lowery finds wisdom in a slower, more thoughtful pace for his ruminations. The band will release its debut album Fringe this Sunday at Off Broadway.
Lowery's gig at 1860 led him to start performing with pianist and harmony vocalist Daniel Turner; from there, other local players joined in: Tom Blood (LS Xprss, Jesus Christ Supercar) plays drums, Britton Wood (Fighting Side) plays bass, and guitarist Jakob Baxter, whom Lowery calls "the hottest guitar player in St. Louis, at least in this portion of the scene," rounds out the band.
Lowery returns several times to the idea of community and the all-for-one/one-for-all support that he finds in the local scene. "We used to throw this thing called Church over at my house every Sunday," he says. "We'd get together and barbecue and play tunes, so we got to know a lot of people through that."
It was fitting, then, that the Native Sons chose to record Fringe at Lowery's house, the site of so much revelry and bonhomie. The group enlisted Kevin Buckley, leader of Grace Basement and, through his connections in the Irish music community, a friend of Lowery's older brother, to spearhead the recordings.
Lowery says that the band was looking for a "loose, analog sound" and wanted to record live in one take. Buckley's approach was appropriately lo-fi: "He brought over $15,000 worth of equipment and plugged it into a cassette deck," Lowery says with a laugh.
"The cassette recorder just seemed like the right thing to do for a live band on location," Buckley says. "Lugging a computer and converters over seemed like a drag; not very exciting. The tape machine is quite portable and simple to use."
The resulting album has a rangy, live-in-the-room feel, but it's a far cry better than the idea of four-track demos that cassette recording usually connotes. In fact, Buckley fears he may have done a little too good of a job.
"Anyway, it was intended to be a really lo-fi experience; I was almost disappointed that the fidelity was so good," says Buckley.
Of the songs on Fringe, Lowery says that the album is something of a narrative that tells "a story of despair and redemption." His struggles back home in Dallas and the brightening of his circumstances in St. Louis helped give shape to the songs' fall and rise.
"Instead of focusing on my own existential despair, I'm part of this big crazy thing," Lowery says. "Why don't I focus on that instead?"
Lowery says that the last two songs on the album, "When I'm Gone" and "Circles Around the Sun," are his best efforts to sum up his thoughts on the afterlife. He chooses to face the prospect of oblivion on a hopeful and cheery note.
"This universe is all that there is; you're not going anywhere," Lowery says. "You're going to decay and turn into something else.
"I hope people view it as a positive thing," he continues. "The fact that we exist at all is insane and wonderful. It blows my mind to think about that stuff; it makes me happy."