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Blind Nello: the biggest little Texas label that could

By Tom Geddie, June 2000

It might be an exaggeration to call Blind Nello the biggest little record label in Texas, but not much.

After all, Mark David Manders is 6-2 and 180 pounds, and he's the smallest of the three guys on Blind Nello. The label began as a made-up name so that Manders could more easily convince Americana radio stations that a "real" record label believed in his music.

Kevin Deal (6-4, 220) and Max Stalling (6-6, 205) are his label mates.

But, since size doesn't count, it's also important to point out that Manders' new album, "Chili Pepper Sunset," made it up to number 5 on Gavin's Americana chart; Deal's "Honky-Tonks -n- Churches" reached number 10 in the spring, and the buzz is that Stalling's brand-new "Wide Afternoon" could climb at least as high. (Stalling's previous album, "Comfort in the Curves," reached number 16 last summer.)

Texas legend Lloyd Maines - sometimes acknowledged as the world's best steel guitar player - produced Manders' and Deal's albums; former Robert Earl Keen bassist Dave Heath produced Stalling's.

Stalling is a country-folk storyteller whose songs often explore the clash between a simpler past and a more complicated present. The new album is filled with gentle, thoughtful songs about home and the road.

"The road has a lot of metaphors; life is a journey, and what better metaphor than a highway," Stalling says. "What I finally came to realize is that life is not about the destination, but about the trip. The story is in the journey."

Deal's brand of country is influenced by blues and rock. The harmonica virtuoso's "Honky-Tonks -n- Churches" explores the often tenuous and sometimes irreconcilable relationships between religion and the night life.

"I grew up listening to my dad's music - Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and other hard-core country music," Deal says. "When we were little kids, my mom would sings us hymns at night. Much of this album explores the contrasts and the collisions of these two worlds."

Manders is a more traditional-country-and-western storyteller with an eye for details. With his Nuevo Tejas (that's Spanish for "new Texas") band, Manders is also the hard-working showman of the group, capable of holding a rowdy bar crowd’s attention.

When a Nashville executive told Manders that his songs were too specific - "they have too many words in them" - Manders and a couple of bandmates responded by writing a six-minute, two-word song: "Beer."

That's the kind of independence that led to Blind Nello Records in particular and to a coming resurgence in Texas' storytelling singer-songwriters in general.

"When we did our third album," Manders says, "it looks bad if you don't have a label and you are trying to work the charts. We play a lot of 42, and my bass player Russ Sherefield says, 'Why don't we just call it Blind Nello, because if you go blind nello you’ve got to lose everything to win.'"

All three label mates have, so far, kept their day jobs, and all three understand the realities of the business world. Manders installs lawn-irrigation systems. Deal is a stonemason with 35-40 employees. Stalling does product development for Frito-Lay; earlier, he developed the Earth Grain line of grocery store bagels.

"I do a lot of project management at work, and thinking in those terms helps in putting out an independent release," Stalling says. "The business side of a music career can be overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts, and all those things have to come together. You've got to eat it like an elephant: one bite at a time."

The tiny Blind Nello now has a distribution deal with Sony.

"This thing started out almost as a joke, more like a co-op than a record label," Manders says. "It's turning into a reality, and we’ve had a couple of meetings recently to decide how we are going to do this.”

The rewards of making and selling music without big-label support more than make up for the challenges.

"I've never been on a big label, but I've heard horror stories," Deal says. "Like I told Mark, Blind Nello doesn't do much for you, but it doesn't do anything to you, either. You know where you stand, and if you don't do what needs to be done, then it probably won’t get done."

Manders says the top challenge is trying to balance family, music, and day job.

"It's a big roller coaster ride. But once it's in our blood, you're stuck with it. You're either going to make it or you are going to be miserable for the rest of your life."

The biggest reward for Manders is that "we have complete and total control over our sound. If you sign a contract with a record label, they get to pick the producer and everything else. And the only money some people really see from a label is when they go on tour. We're self-sufficient; we don't have a label siphoning beaucoup bucks off our sales."

Stalling says, "You get to call all the shots: make all the decisions, spend all the money (yours or whatever you can hustle up), do the booking, select the promotion schedule, handle distribution contracts, chase down endorsements, write the songs, manage a band; pick out which color T-shirts to have made up. At the end of the day, it's your name on your music done the way you want it done. I'm reminded of the two skinny buzzards sitting on a desert tree limb and one is saying to the other, ‘Wait for something to die!? Hell, I'm gonna go out and kill something!'"

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