Milligan looks back on this track as an amateur vocal, which is hard to believe…
As Stick People’s sound began to evolve into something distinctly soulful and Southern, it was Ross that suggested starting a new band called Storyville, named for New Orleans’ renowned red-light district, the birthplace of jazz. After a couple of years, Craig Ross left Storyville to pursue an ambitious solo project (1996’s mesmerizing Dead Spy Report).
Storyville had just played South by Southwest with Ross and gained notice. Despite Ross’ departure, Milligan signed as a solo act with November Records, an independent label out of New York. Armed with half an album’s worth of material written with Ross that they had only just begun to record, Malford Milligan scrambled to assemble the right band to record his debut.
By that point, Storyville had made a name for themselves, and Milligan was becoming a sought-after session singer. So when he started putting out feelers for new players to record with, he wasn’t exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel. David Grissom recalled in 1999, “…that band broke up just as he was beginning to make a record. So Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon played on a few songs, then I came in and played on a few songs. That’s the first I ever met Malford.” Grissom, of course, was already a star, having cut his teeth playing with Lucinda Williams shortly after arriving in Austin in 1983. By ’85, Grissom was a mainstay in Texas icon Joe Ely’s band, leaving after six years to play with John Mellencamp. His time with Ely had given him the room to stretch, but the feel of playing with Mellencamp was a bit too structured and confining for Grissom. Storyville came along at the perfect time for him.
“I liked the idea of being in a band and playing the way I wanted to,” he said. “I also liked to write songs and have them played. When I work for someone else, my first priority is to make them sound good and to compliment whatever they’re doing.”
David Holt felt similarly. Having replaced Ben Peeler in The Mavericks during their formative period, Holt almost fell into country music by accident. Holt was a good friend of UK artist Nick Lowe (of Cruel to be Kind fame), who was married to Carlene Carter at the time. Lowe offered Holt a spot in Carter’s band. Eighteen months of “all coliseums and Johnny Carson and all these monstrous places,” led directly to Tony Brown, then president of MCA, recruiting Holt to play with The Mavericks on their first major label release, 1992’s From Hell to Paradise.
While the legacy of that album certainly endures, it was a very brief experience for Holt. “I did the Mavericks record in two days without ever hearing it,” he said. The band had dropped Peeler and struggled to find the right sound. “They had wiped out all the guitar tracks and I had to go back and do all of that. I don’t think that’s something just anyone could do.” He then moved over to Joe Ely’s band (“I had to play David Grissom’s parts.”) where he remained until Storyville came calling.
The road to Storyville was much bumpier for Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton. The legendary duo known mostly as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s unerring rhythm section, Double Trouble, had just come off a tumultuous time with Arc Angels, formed in the wake of their time with Vaughan and featuring dueling guitar virtuosos Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. The band broke up amid internal turmoil and Bramhall’s struggles with addiction, but nevertheless released Arc Angels, widely regarded as one of the best blues rock albums of all time.
Layton, Holt, Grissom, Shannon — Four now-iconic sidemen who all suddenly found themselves in search of stability, creative freedom, and identities more of their own making, teamed up with Malford Milligan to create a renowned combo still revered as one of the greatest bands Austin ever produced.
Milligan says it was a gradual process. “Chris and Tommy and I talked about putting a band together,” he said. “Here I’ve got these incredible people — people who are legends — playing on my record, and the next thing you know, we’re talking about a band.” Storyville was reborn.
Storyville’s debut album, Bluest Eyes, still featuring the heavy influences of Craig Ross and brought to life in the studio by some of the best players in music and Milligan’s commanding yet nuanced vocals, broke wide as an indie release and ended up winning six awards at the Austin Music Awards in 1995, including Best Band and Best Single for its title track.
The album had real staying power, got Storyville a deal with a major label, and won them three more trophies at the Austin Music Awards the following year. The band toured heavily to promote it, but it was clear that the music was speaking for itself.
As achingly good as the band was, Malford Milligan, who was still a neophyte in the music business at 35, wasn’t just holding his own. He was making serious waves. His untrained, joyous voice emblazoned with unmistakable passion drew comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and it was evident from the beginning.
Storyville’s second album, A Piece of Your Soul, debuted in 1996 and rose to #5 on the American Blues charts. The rock definitely jumps forward on this album, written almost exclusively by their lineup (Craig Ross penned one track), revealing a more cohesive and mature sound. The first track, Bitter Rain, reaches out and grabs you, setting the tone for an album that never stops impressing.
1998’s Dog Years marked Storyville’s final studio album and certainly delivered the goods for established fans, but failed to generate the buzz of their earlier efforts. There’s still a simple joy in listening to such an accomplished and well-meshed band play, and the vocals are as spot-on as always. A solid effort overall with a couple of gems, but not quite enough to clear the very high bar Storyville set with its first two records. The band called it quits after their New Year’s Eve show in 1998.
Bands like this don’t die that easily, however. The thing that stands out about their lineup as a whole — Malford Milligan, David Grissom, David Holt, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton — is their shared reputations as good guys. Legendary players and singers without the overwhelming egos and behind-the-scenes competitiveness and drama that has soured the relationships of countless bands in every genre of music. As a result, Storyville has reunited with an occasional frequency you can almost set your watch to.
They’ve continued to grace venues throughout the South, but none more often than Antone’s, the renowned nightclub dubbed Austin’s Home of the Blues. In January of 2006, Storyville recorded a two-hour double album and DVD that is now heralded as their very best. Live at Antone’s is a raucous, brilliant live set that never lets up, and clearly demonstrates how well-oiled this particular machine is, churning like no time has passed since their breakup seven years earlier.
Bands come and go, but Storyville’s is a story for the ages. Five men at the top of their game, uniting at a pivotal point in each of their lives to form a band loved by legions, that still gets together to play. Look no further than Storyville if you ever need proof that every day is a Good Day for the Blues…