In today’s pop culture world, in which music “idols” are auditioned, judged, anointed and frequently forgotten within the span of a few months while even “underground” acts can stir up buzz overnight on the blogosphere, the notion of a band building an audience by actually working its tail off seems positively antiquated. So go ahead and call Austin’s nelo (rhymes with “hello”) just a little bit old-fashioned. Long before nelo and producer Freddy Fletcher put the finishing touches on the band’s self-titled debut album, songwriter/acoustic guitarist Matt Ragland and the rest of his crew were already seasoned road veterans accustomed to playing to packed crowds across Texas and throughout the South.
In fact, it’s a good thing the album is set for national release April 22 (on the Houston-based Justice Records and producer Freddy Fletcher and Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Records), because all those loyal but hungry nelo fans — collectively responsible for more than 200,000 song streams since the band launched its current MySpace page two years ago — were getting mighty restless. Tunes as indelibly catchy as “Jumping Bean” demand to be heard and enjoyed more frequently than even the most hard-gigging of bands can accommodate — and computer speakers just don’t do tunes this organically structured full justice.
Ragland can sympathize. For him, the release of nelo is a dream that’s been nearly 10 years in the making, going all the way back to when he first picked up an acoustic guitar in high school. He was soon writing songs and jamming with school friends and fellow Dallas natives Stephen Goodson (electric guitar), Chris Hill (drums) and David Long (saxophone). A couple of years later, while in college, Ragland was refining his songwriting and performing around Austin with singer Reid Umstattd while Goodson, Hill and Long were perfecting their own chops studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton. By 2002, they all reconvened — along with another UNT alum, multi-instrumentalist St. Clair (bass, trombone, trumpet), Mike St. Clair — and nelo was born.
Well, unofficially, at least. According to Ragland, nelo didn’t officially take off until August of ’05 — the month he and the rest of the band left Texas for Athens, Ga. "That was really the defining moment,” he says, “when I called everyone and said, ‘OK, I’m ready to really do this. If you want to do it, too, come and join me.’ I wanted there to be that unifying moment where we all packed our bags and moved somewhere with one goal in mind. It was time to get serious.”
Inspired by artists like Dave Matthews, Stevie Wonder and Sting, Ragland knew his songs were going to require a degree of musicianship beyond both his own self-taught chops and your everyday garage band. Luckily, Goodson, Long and Hill all came with similarly demanding influences, ranging from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Steve Jordan to Bill Frisell, Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. St. Clair, the last of the instrumentalists to join the fold, came with a Master’s degree in jazz studies and formidable real world experience: prior to joining nelo, he toured with the Glen Miller Orchestra and played trombone in Dallas’ acclaimed The Polyphonic Spree.
Even before St. Clair joined the band, Ragland knew he had the makings of the perfect ensemble in place. All he lacked was a proper singer. Enter Umstattd — the proverbial “X” factor. “Reid and I had been going to Camp Longhorn in Texas together for many, many years — from third grade all the way up to college,” he says. The summer before their senior year of high school, they were at a Camp Longhorn retreat in Colorado, training to be counselors, when somebody pulled out a guitar and started to strum the opening chords to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” When Umstattd started to sing along, Ragland was blown away. “I knew this was the real thing immediately,” he explains. “There was some kind of organic or spiritual connection between Reid’s voice and my dream. Only it wasn’t just a dream anymore — I knew I had what I needed.”
Fast forward a few years, and nelo was well on its way toward firmly establishing itself on the Athens music scene. But a homemade demo was stirring up quite a buzz back home in Texas, too — so much so that nelo was soon playing to packed crowds in both states. Among those drawn to the buzz on the Texas side was producer, studio owner and Willie Nelson nephew Freddy Fletcher, who took in a nelo show at Austin’s Momo’s last December and became an instant convert.
“I kept hearing, ‘You really need to hear this band!’” recalls Fletcher. “There were people lined up around the door to get in and see them. I thought, ‘Hmm, this is interesting …” He loved what he heard and hit it off with the band right off the bat, striking the deal that quickly led to Ragland and Co. moving back to Austin and heading straight into the studio to begin work on their debut. “It may be their first record,” says Fletcher, “but these guys in the studio — they’re so damn good. And their style is definitely not something you hear every day.”
Maybe not, but just listen to songs like “Jumping Bean,” “On Top of Love” and “You Don’t Know” (smartly picked by Justice as the lead single), and it’s easy to understand why Fletcher and so many nelo fans before him became instant converts. Instrumentally, nelo lays down an eclectic, sinuous groove that belies the players’ jazzy roots, but Ragland’s meticulously crafted songs and innate pop instincts are too sharp to ever be mistaken for mere excuses for jam band meandering; the solos and arrangements dazzle alright, but it’s the melodies that make you want to return to these songs again and again. Especially as delivered by a singer as naturally gifted and soulful as Umstattd, whom Fletcher describes simply as “phenomenal.”
But what’s most remarkable of all when it comes to this band is the fact that, for all the years that these guys have played together, for all the thousands of fans they’ve already won through literally hundreds of shows and word-of-mouth-fueled grassroots enthusiasm, nelo’s journey has only just begun.
“I have been dreaming, planning, and working toward the recording of this first record for so long,” Ragland marvels. “And though I don’t think you can ever be completely satisfied with something that you’ve put so much of an emotional investment into, I will say that I’m definitely excited. I’d like to leave the judgments to the fans, but I think people are really going to be impressed. We had some great people working with us on the record, and it came out with a certain vibe that I’m proud of. But the most exciting thing for me is the thought of making more records. Suffice it to say that I’ve written quite a few more songs, and we’ve got a lot more music to get out there. The new songs are all sittin’ in the bag … waiting.”
Patience, young man. Take it from your fans: Good things come to those who wait.