It's quarter-past nine, on an Austin Wednesday night, and the regulars are filtering in to Donn's Depot.
The room reeks of history as much as tobacco. What better place to play country music than a converted train station? The red carpet could be original. Over on the sunken dance floor, a lone couple two-steps to the jukebox. And over by the front wall, Christine Albert and Chris Gage are tuning up.
The players are in no hurry. They shake a few hands, order red wines from the barmaid and take stock of the crowd.
Neither says a word, but suddenly Christine is staring straight at Chris. He looks up. For the briefest of moments, their eyes lock. And then they rock.
Chris is pounding out the bluegrass standard, "Cash on the Barrelhead," his bangs flopping around his forehead. Christine's harmony kicks the chorus into gear. They swap verses. Chris' fingers dance up and down the fretboard. Another chorus or two, and the train slows back into the station.
Finally, Christine speaks to the crowd. "Welcome to our little corner of the world. It's another Wednesday night at Donn's."
The Albert and Gage train is pulling out again. It's chugging through jazz, country, bluegrass, oldies, a bit of the bayou and miles and miles of Texas. Chris jumps from guitar to accordion to keyboard and back. Over their heads looms a sign that reads, "Track 1 & Track 2."
photos by Barton Wilder
If you stand between two steel rails and look off into the distance, they eventually seem to come together at a single point.
So it's been for the royal couple of the Austin folk scene. When Albert pulled out of Rome, New York, at the tender age of fifteen, a sixteen-year-old Gage was halfway across the country, slinging guitar in Pierre, South Dakota. His parents had made Gage's bandleader his guardian, so he could play legally in whiskey bars.
"We were living in parallel universes," says Albert. "I was in New Mexico and Chris was in South Dakota, but we all lived in farmhouses with wood heat. Our bands were opening for the same people." She ticks off Jerry Jeff Walker, Delbert McClinton and Asleep at the Wheel-all lines that pointed toward Austin.
The two had musical likenesses, as well. Both played too many musical genres to pigeonhole. Both flirted with Nashville and realized their tastes made the most sense in Austin. Not to mention, says Gage, "Neither one of us has ever had a day job."
"It's a fabulous partnership," says folk diva Eliza Gilkyson, who's known Albert three decades. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Chris brings an element of roots to Christine's music that suits it, and she brings a level of commerciality to his. It works in Texas."
The story of their parallel lives, and how they finally came together, is also a story of Austin and its outsider place in the universe of music. It's about chasing a brass ring that's dangled, ever so tantalizingly, just outside of reach. It's about the pride and the price of declaring your independence.
Guitars have a way of changing lives. Albert had piano in her blood-her grandmother played Chopin by ear-and stuck with it through grade school. But she really wanted to be her big brother Rick. He was seven years older, and he was a touring musician. When he shipped her a six-string one Christmas, she taught herself to strum.
In the summer of 1971, she flew out to visit him in Santa Fe. Eight weeks later, she talked her parents into letting her move.
She had a year left in high school, but that didn't stop her from tagging along with Rick's blues band. Honky Deluxe included Gilkyson and her brother Tony.
"She was a very mature little girl," recalls Gilkyson, seven years older. "We became very good friends off the bat. For us hippies, it was just extended family, but in a lot of ways, I think I was her mentor. She aspired to what I was doing."
Rick didn't fully grasp his kid sister's aspirations until she was hired to open at a local movie house.
"She asked, 'Would I play guitar?,'" he remembers. "We got there, and there was a little stage in front of the screen. She looks at me, and she says, 'Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.' I did a walking bass line on guitar, and she just belted it. I was in shock. I had never heard her sing like that."
At nineteen, Albert was twanging her way through honky-tonks and biker bars, six nights a week. But her favorite gigs were behind Gilkyson. Bar bands were fun, but her mentor got her hooked on songwriting.
For a girl not far past drinking age, it was like living a country song. She was among the bright lights of the big city. But the bright lights went dark on October 28, 1981.
That night, she was raped by an intruder who had climbed in her window. After rude treatment from both the police and the hospital, she woke up in a friend's bed the next morning, reliving the nightmare and shaking with sobs.
Her salvation was a counselor from the local rape crisis center. "I felt I was never going to be safe again," Albert recalls. "I felt like one night had changed my whole life. But the counselor told me that one day this event would be a blip on my screen. She said it would find its place among all the other events of my life, and it would no longer define me."
Santa Fe had turned scary. The rapist was never caught, but Albert still had to sing in public, never knowing whether her attacker might be in the crowd.
"I was amazed how she did it," recalls Rick. "She held up amazingly well, though she broke down a few times. Over the long haul, she converted it to a positive thing for other people."
Even after she moved to Austin, eight months later, healing took years. Distraught and run down, she contracted a virus that gave her chronic fatigue. She sought chiropractors and acupuncture, but what helped most was volunteering with Austin's Rape Crisis Center, now called SafePlace. "I had a place to put my anger and powerlessness," Albert says.
After she'd played a few benefits, a board member approached her. Would she go public as a survivor and record a public service announcement?
"I was torn," she says. "My heart pounded. When they first asked me to do it, I was concerned about my career. Then I realized that's exactly why I should do it. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I could show this happens to all kinds of people. It seemed wrong to be carrying that secret any longer."
Once the ad appeared, she adds, "All the feedback I got from my friends was real positive. They said I should be proud."
Up in South Dakota, Chris Gage was playing like he'd been born with a Les Paul in his hands.
The truth was close enough. At age nine, a music store had owed money to his dad. Christmas morning, the boy woke up to find a piano, an electric guitar, a bass and two amplifiers under the tree.
By age twenty, he'd joined other long-haired country rockers in the Red Willow Band. They shared a farmhouse outside Sioux Falls, but they toured from Jackson Hole to Greenwich Village.
The Big Apple was an initiation for a South Dakota boy. "One of the first times we played in New York City, we had a van full of equipment," says Gage. "We were staying at the Hotel Seville on Twenty-Seventh Street. All six of us went inside to stand in the lobby. When we came out, we saw hoodlums running in three directions with our guitars."
Back home, his virtuosity outstripped his age. "I think of Chris as a natural player," says former Red Willow fiddler Kenny Putnam. "He still plays as well as when I first heard him. He's just gotten more sophisticated."
Former Red Willow bassist Marley Forman recalls a night, in Bettendorf, Iowa, when Gage launched into a furious solo:
"Chris was horsing around. He jumped off the stage onto one of the bar tables. He was rock-'n'-rolling off there. When he jumped back up on stage, he didn't jump far enough. He caught his boot on the front of the stage and went headfirst into the bass drum. There he was, with his ass toward the crowd and his head in the bass drum. He pulled himself out, and the whole time, he didn't lose a lick."
Everyone knew he was bound for bigger things. The call came in 1983, and it was from Putnam, who was playing with Roy Clark. The band's piano player was about to quit. Could Gage hoof it to Colorado in three days and play with no rehearsal?
Gage stayed with Clark for eight years, living out of a tour bus and appearing weekly on the television show Hee Haw. Each season's musical bits were taped in two days, with union scale paying $3,000 a day.
By 1991, though, Clark was retiring to a theater in Branson, Missouri. Forman, who had moved to Austin, offered Gage a job with a classic rock band.
Once here, Gage wasn't sure he'd stay. He even tried an unsuccessful Nashville audition for Brooks & Dunn. "My first impression was that I'll never be able to make a living here," he recalls. "All the gigs paid $40."
He finally landed a job as music director at Fiesta Texas. For a year and a half, he commuted to the San Antonio amusement park by day while picking up Hill Country gigs at night. His patience paid off when he was discovered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
"I was still finishing the job at Fiesta Texas when Jimmie Dale hired me," says Gage. "I played a Friday night in Central Park, opening for Joan Baez. Then I was on the Tonight Show. Then I had to go back and do two weeks at Fiesta, wearing tractor-green pants on the stage sponsored by John Deere."
He didn't know it at the time, but the night he played Bass Concert Hall with Gilmore, another musician had become a fan. Her name was Christine Albert.
Albert had rolled into Austin in 1982, with a truckful of possessions and a pocketful of borrowed money. It was a bigger pond, but it didn't take long for her to make ripples. With the help of veteran musician Ernie Gammage, whom she married a year later, she was gigging across Texas.
Austin only stirred her ambitions for the biggest pond of all-Nashville-and she started knocking on doors.
One of those doors belonged to Larry Hamby, head of Artists & Repertoire for CBS Nashville. He had followed Albert ever since his brother had called from Texas, raving about seeing her on TV. One day, she dropped into his office with a new demo tape.
"While he was listening to it, he called my lawyer on the phone," says Albert. "He said, 'Jim, why don't you just start working on a contract for Christine Albert?' I was just out for a walk, and when I left his office I had a record deal."
Her fairy tale had come true. It was 1988, and she was making an album for a major label, with the same producers who had made stars of The Judds.
Her star turned out to be a falling one. Before the record could be released, the label was sold. Hamby left, and with him went all his artists. In place of a major-label disc, Albert limped home to record a self-released cassette.
It was back to the grind of regional touring, with the added responsibility of raising her new son, Troupe.
Mandolin player Paul Glasse, who backed her for nine years, remembers her resolve to juggle both jobs. "We were doing a duo gig at the Tyler Museum of Art. It was the first time she'd been away from her son for much of a period of time. After the gig, we got in the van, and she said, 'Paul, get in the driver's seat and look forward, and don't turn around.' She turned on the electric breast pump and we drove back toward Austin."
Nashville was still calling, and Albert was scouring Texas for "the song," some undiscovered blockbuster that would blow away record execs and knock open the gates of radio. At the Kerrville Folk Festival, she found it.
On a tape from songwriter Jon Ims, Christine heard a track titled, "She's in Love With the Boy." She sped up the tempo, got it onto a record and started to shop it around Nashville.
Her instincts were dead-on, but her luck was not. The song became a number-one country single-for a little-known artist named Trisha Yearwood.
To deepen the sting, Yearwood's arrangement followed Albert's almost note-for-note. Albert had handed her tape to the very producer who'd later recorded Yearwood.
She tried not to take it personally. Album cuts were often carbon-copies of demos. But she hadn't meant her record as a demo. The song haunted her for years.
"It was like we had a hit record but it wasn't ours," Albert says. For awhile, both versions were on the Texas airwaves. More than once, a befuddled fan asked how come her hair was different from the video.
It was her last grasp at the brass ring. She quit chasing major-label stardom and embraced the status of Austin outlaw. From then on, she would issue independent albums. She would still visit Nashville, but as a writer rather than a singer. She landed a publishing deal and co-wrote with heavyweights like Garth Brooks' tunesmith Pat Alger.
"I know Nashville was hard for her," says Glasse. "There was a period where she really wanted that Nashville sort of career. But I'm not sure her sensibilities as a musician are the same as what I hear a lot in Nashville. My guess is that she's got a lot more elbow room than she'd have if her career had gone the way it was trying to go."
Things were changing on the bandstand, too. In 1996, her guitarist left, and she cold-called a picker she'd once heard with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Chris Gage was too busy to help. But a few days later, he called back to say that Gilmore was taking a three-month break.
She found more than a guitar player. One week in Colorado, when she lost her voice, Gage took the microphone. Not only could he sing, but he had a repertoire as eclectic as hers.
"Something just musically clicked when we met," says Albert. "It was like, 'Oh, you're the one I'm headed towards.'"
"I was separating from my wife," says Gage. "It was a difficult time, and we just started hanging out constantly, singing together constantly."
Within months, Albert had left her marriage and her band, and made Gage an equal musical partner. It would be three-and-a-half years before they lived together, but she says, "I knew I wanted to be with him personally, musically and professionally."
Both of them were starting over in music, one more time. It took time to win back some old fans, and they played under the name "Boxcars" until they felt confident linking their real names.
The duo soon developed its own, distinctive sound. "They write things to make their voices go together," says Donn Adelman, owner of Donn's Depot. "They sometimes sound like three voices, because of the songs they write, they're able to blend so well."
As they've settled into a new identity, they've followed new directions. Albert is incorporating a charity that will sponsor private concerts for terminally ill patients by their favorite Austin musicians.
"I've done several shows where people called who had a relative dying who loved my music," she says. "It's very gratifying. It gives the family something to gather around and focus on besides the illness."
Gage works long hours in his home studio, where he's produced albums for several Austin artists, including Albert. Her next will be Texafrance Encore!, her second collection of songs in French, set for release on Valentine's Day.
"These people had a glimpse and a shot at major level stuff, and they've learned to adjust it to a more sustainable kind of career," says Seymour Guenther, who helps book them at the Nancy Fly Agency. "That doesn't always mean they're trying to break new markets. They want to make money when go out. They need to make enough money to justify closing their studio."
They've divided their chores in a way that fits their personalities. Albert's the organizer, who keeps the calendar, books motel rooms and visits The Container Store. Gage takes on the computer duties. "Christine decides when we're going out," he says. "Then I design the cards, put in a late-night movie (to watch) and put the stamps on. It's become clear what each of us does."
That's not to say they always agree. "Recently we were fighting on the way to a listening room," says Gage. "As I get out of the car, I'm saying, 'Why do we always have to fight right before we have to be the king and f***ing queen of country music?'"
Adds Albert, "Chris went off for a walk, to cool down. Our hosts asked where he was going. I assured them he was going in the right direction."
But anger always dissipates with the first notes. "Once we start singing together, we fall into line," says Albert. "When you're performing, you have to be truthful. My heart opens up, and it's easy to let go of being petty. I totally love Chris, my heart opens up, and that's what I find."
It's half-past eleven at Donn's Depot, and Albert and Gage are finally winding toward their first break. Albert catches her breath and slows down for one of her originals.
The music's all tenderness and yearning, and the crowd leans in to listen. She's closed her eyes, but she steals a glance or two at her partner. "You and I were meant to be," she sings, "if they only knew these things."
Gage glances back. For a second, their eyes connect. It's as if thirty years in music have converged upon this moment. And it's as clear as the whistle on a midnight train: She's in love with the boy.
Steve Brooks is a South Austin journalist, folksinger and world pun champion. You can sample all three at www.stevebrooks.net.
Copyright Albert and Gage L.L.C. 2009 All rights reserved