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Ben Atkins: lack of money leads to "Mabelle"

By Brian Steinberg, October 2003

Sometimes big breaks happen in the most unlikely ways.

Comparing Ben Atkins to Mariah Carey is probably an exercise in futility, but let's try anyway. Ms. Carey's story is famous. She somehow managed to get a tape of her singing into the hands of a prominent executive at Columbia Records. Atkins' own story is not nearly as Hollywood-ready, but it still packs some punch.

"I had just finished up with school this last May," he recounts. "I went down to Austin to record this record. By the time I finished mastering and mixing and all this stuff, I didn't have enough money to issue it by myself."

He and some pals thought of HighTone Records, the West Coast record label well known to aficionados of roots music.

"We were all big Buddy and Julie fans," he says, making a reference to Buddy and Julie Miller who are on HighTone. "We sent it out there, and one thing led to another, and that's how we got to here."

Atkins, 24, is a young man apparently living one of this nation's big dreams - getting out a record and touring behind it.

"I always wanted to do it, and part of me believed it could happen," he says. "I could be happy doing this if I had to on the side. I didn't really believe it would happen this quick and easy. It just seems like everything just fell into place a lot quicker and easier than I thought it would."

His debut, "Mabelle," which came out in late August, contains a number of story-songs that Atkins says come from the people and places that surround him.

"I get 'em just from anything, basically, that makes you feel something," he explains. "Most of the time, it's like 'Mabelle.' It's a song of sympathy, toward not any particular woman, but certainly particular women that I've witnessed that have had misfortunes, wherever they may be."

Family members inspired other songs on the album. One is based on the story of his grandparents getting married. They both grew up within farming families, with his grandmother on one side of Texas' Red River and his grandfather on the other side. The two eloped.

If small-town Texas plays a prominent part on the disc, well, there's good reason. Atkins grew up in Henrietta. His father is a lawyer, and his mother a teacher. While Atkins remembers listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam in high school, he also recalls earlier experiences with Hank Williams, Sr. and others.

"It was around my house, country and stuff, from the time I was little. The only thing that was every place around the house. My dad was into Hank, Sr. and all that stuff. Growing up, that was just a normal thing to me, having that kind of music."

Atkins played all kinds of instruments as a young man, trying out the fiddle, and, as he got older, his father's guitar. Soon, he got his own.

"When I was 16, they got me a little cheap electric guitar for Christmas. That was around the time when Pearl Jam and Nirvana was cool." While there weren't many people to play with in Henrietta, Atkins found a few, and his early combo took part in at least one high school talent shows.

"We were really horrible, just two guitars and drums," he recalls.

Practice makes perfect. By the time Atkins hit Lubbock's Texas Tech, he was trying to get in front of audiences more often, sometimes to interesting results.

He recalls a time when he waited for an open-mike slot, only to discover he was mistakenly at a jazz night. "I didn't know it was a jazz jam. I showed up with guitar and harmonica with a couple of songs I had written. A bunch of saxophone players showed up, and I had already signed up on the list. I'm sure it wasn't very good, but I did it anyway."

He also took some classes on instruments including guitar and Dobro guitar, Dobro at South Plains College in Levelland, which led him to Texas-music producer Lloyd Maines. Atkins eventually had an album he could sell during musical outings.

The current disc features a cover of Kasey Chambers' "Last Hard Bible," with good reason. Kym Warner, an Australian and former Chambers sideman, was the producer.

Despite the country trappings - reviewers have compared "Mabelle" to songs from Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen, Atkins may surprise those who choose to listen to him for a longer period of time. "I think I'm really still experimenting," he says, "I'm never going to have a record where all the songs sound really similar. I like to be different. That's just what I enjoy listening to, and it makes it so much more fun playing. I'm sure I'll find a sound. This being my first record, I don't have any idea quite what it might be yet."