Circle the wagons, Warden's back

Brian Baker, March 1999

Monte Warden has packed a couple of lifetimes into his career and a couple of careers into his lifetime. If you're keeping score on your home abacus, that's about three more than most people ever get.

Warden, now releasing his first major label album, "A Stranger To Me Now," knows a lot about lifetimes, careers and luck. Especially luck. He knows how to make the most of it when it's plentiful, and he knows it can disappear in the time it takes to change a CD.

Luck first visited Monte Warden as a very young member of an Austin band called Whoa, Trigger that had garnered enough local buzz to earn the trio the Best New Band prize at the Austin Music Awards in 1988.

But soon enough, Whoa, Trigger was stuffed and mounted, and Warden found himself in the company of some friends from another recently dissolved Austin band.

Together they formed The Wagoneers, a group committed to keeping alive the old traditions of country music in a contemporary setting and equally driven to do it all with original music.

The Wagoneers arrived at a time the majors all scrambled to find the next Dwight Yoakam and attracted much label attention. They eventually signed with A&M, producing two albums, "Stout and High" and "Good Fortune," that made a lasting impression in the minds of country music artists as well as listeners.

In the middle of the reverie surrounding the second album, Warden and his wife were blessed with the birth of their first son, Van.

The blessing was tempered with the sad fact that Van was a Down's baby, a condition that requires a great deal of understanding and patience from often shocked and confused parents. The Wardens were certainly in that camp.

"If an angel had come down and said, 'Hey, relax, it's Van,' I'd have been fine," says Warden from his Austin home. "But you don't know that. You just know there's this helpless little baby that people don't know how to react to. Folks acted more like something bad had happened rather than a child had been born."

After "Good Fortune," Warden returned to Austin to help care for Van. Unfortunately, the reorganization of A&M in the late '80's doomed The Wagoneers, having left an unpleasant and indelible mark on the second album.

They were dropped and dissolved almost immediately afterward. In the face of the tremendous challenges that lay ahead with his infant son and the turmoil in the aftermath of The Wagoneers' breakup, Warden continued doing what he'd always done - write songs.

He signed to Watermelon Records as a solo artist and began work on his first album with songwriting partner Mas Palermo, who also co-produced and drummed on Warden's eponymous debut.

"I am as proud of that first record as I am of 'Stout and High,'" Warden says of his initial solo effort. "Mas and I worked so closely on that. It's just a good rockin' little record. And I had something to say. That record was about something. That record was the fact that I had come out of the fire."

With all of the adversity in Warden's young life, the songs all reflected an incredibly positive viewpoint. They were all songs written by a young man who loved his life and wanted to share the news of his blessings with music listeners.

By the time work began on Warden's sophomore solo album, he and his band, the Lonesharks, had been out touring the first album heavily for a year. That extended period of roadwork inspired Warden and Palermo to write material that rocked a little harder than their previous output. The resulting album, the sonically edgier "Here I Am," received good notices, but didn't push many units.

By the time the second album was released, Warden and his wife Bonnie had

welcomed another son, Sam, into the family. But trouble was brewing again in every facet of Warden's life.

Watermelon was undergoing major changes, and Warden was dropped in the ensuing upheaval.

But he was considered much more than a cult artist, having scored a number of songwriting hits with established singers, including "I'll Try Again" and "Don't Be Afraid of Love" for Kelly Willis (who was still married to Palermo at the time) and "If You Don't Want Me" for Patty Loveless.

Labels were interested based on his hitmaking potential, and Warden entertained a number of offers, finally settling on Asylum.

But well before work could begin on his debut for the label, Warden was dealt yet another psychic blow. His wife Bonnie asked him for a separation which ultimately ended in their divorce in 1997. He was devastated on several levels.

"In hindsight, my wife was clanging the 'there's trouble' bell, but I didn't know it," Warden says with candor. "I told her I loved her, and she loved me. It was just one of those things. By the grace of God, I had my songwriting to be able to deal with it. I've been very careful to not be disparaging to my ex-wife in these interviews, but in the songs, I pulled no punches. If the emotion gets watered down, what's the point of even doing the damn thing?"

When the time came to plan for his third album, Warden had a chat with old

friend Willis about the preparations. Willis gave him some sound advice about his possibilities.

"Kelly said, 'Hey Monte, you don't know how many records you're going to get to make. Use whomever you want,'" Warden remembers. "And she was right. So I used Eddie Bayers on drums, Glen Worf and Michael Rhodes on bass, I used Brent Rowan and Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Larry Franklin on fiddle. And I used my old songwriting buddy Mike Noble on acoustic guitar, but it wasn't like I was throwing some friend of mine a bone. He plays on everybody's records."

The material had already been written by the time the sessions were planned, but in looking over the songs, Warden recognized a disturbing pattern in the thread of the album. Although "Stranger" could literally be considered his break-up album, Warden had gone too far inside himself with the songs.

"I broke one of the rules," says Warden of the songs. "They were so personal that I, as a writer trying to be as objective as possible, realized that they were not acceptable to a listener, in that only if you walked in my shoes would you know what the hell I was talking about."

To bring the material back into the realm of the understandable, Warden enlisted the help of a handful of outside co-writers, including old pal Palermo, Nashville pop stalwart Bill Lloyd (who had written with Warden on his first album), Noble, and industry icon John Bettis.

As a result, "A Stranger to Me Now" stands as one of Warden's most integrated works to date, combining his early love of Buddy Holly's energy and Roy Orbison's passion with everything he has learned so far about the strengths and weaknesses of country music and about himself as well.

"The initial press on this thing has surprised even me and my somewhat sizable ego. I never thought I'd say this, having been a part of 'Stout and High,' and please, this is not me being an 'aw shucks' Nashville cat, but this is the best record I've ever made," Warden says with complete sincerity.

"It's the most fully realized album I've ever made. The perfectionist in me is not completely happy with the record, but if we ever speak and I say I'm completely happy with a record, may your headline be, "Sell-out.'"

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •