Bleak and stark, with miles upon miles of flat desert, West Texas is a place where things seldom catch you by surprise. It was a Friday night, at a no-name bar a couple hours from his Hill Country home, when the realization hit Justin Murray. He wanted his band back.
ROOTS AND BEGINNINGS
"It was just a way to pass the time," recalls Murray. He had never played gigs before, and never saw it as anything other than a hobby, despite the praise he'd receive on the occasional night in which he'd sit in with a local cover band here or there. He started a band in 2007, a bar-room blues trio, basically an excuse to play more guitar. Garage rehearsals on Tuesdays. A gig on Saturday. Rock and repeat. No stress, no pressure. The Napa Valley native learned what he grew up on; The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Los Lobos, Black Crowes. Practices continued, and their roots grew deeper. Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, James Brown, Santana.
Rehearsals were now Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually two gigs a weekend. Someone needed to sing! Begrudgingly, Murray took the reins on singing and writing, as no one else would. The calendar continued to fill, and original tunes trickled into the setlist. Driving home one evening, Murray received a call back from a local bar-owner interested in the band. They exchanged terms and times, haggled over the bar tab for a bit, when a simple question slammed the brakes. "What's the name of the band?". Without putting much thought into it, Murray plucked the words 'Devil's Hollow' from a nearby road sign marking 'Devil's Hollow Creek'. "It'd have to do for now. Sounds cool enough. Whatever. Can always change it later," he recalls. The creek was obscure. Hell, it wasn't even a creek. It was a twisting, rocky dry riverbed, gnarled with oaken roots, lined with limestone and cedar trees. For Devil's Hollow Trio, however, the river was rising, far faster than Murray could have possibly expected.
THE ROLLING RIVER
"Playing at Sam's Burger Joint in San Antonio, Texas was a huge deal," recalls Tres Hefter, the band's manager since 2007. "For me and DW (the band's original bassist) it was one of those places we used to go to back in high school, and it was a legit club". Devil's Hollow Trio had managed to snag a spot opening for Jackson Taylor, a brazen outlaw country artist, and the band was admittedly nervous. "We were playing blues covers in front of a bunch of cowboys," laughs Murray, reflecting on the tension. "It wasn't really a good fit, but it was an open door, and we had to go for it". The band impressed many that night, most notably Keith Howerton, one of the talent buyers at Sam's, who quickly brought the band back in, and again impressed, took the bold move of offering the band a weekend night to themselves, July 4th no less. "Looking back, that first show at Sam's really got it all started. It was just non-stop afterwards," says Hefter. "Every month that followed was busier than the last".
As the deluge continued, Murray began experimenting with his line-up to help shoulder the workload. The band needed a new drummer, and WJ Robinson was brought in, a steady hand in the San Antonio hard-rock scene, playing with Perk and White Elephant, as well as his father's band, The Drugstore Cowboys. Murray toyed with expanding the band, dropped 'Trio' from the name, and brought in the Young brothers, Pat and Tom, on bass and second guitar. Both could sing, write, and play multiple instruments, and the band took a huge step forward. Matt Cain, keyboardist from San Marcos' fervently-popular prog-funk band Spank joined as a full time member, eventually bringing with him Nick Doe, who replaced Tom Young on second guitar.
The crowds continued to grow, and the doors that opened were much more grandiose; legendary Gruene Hall in their hometown of New Braunfels, Texas brought them in as support for big-name national acts like Bob Schneider, Reverend Horton Heat, and Del Castillo. The demand for an album became increasingly apparent, and so, in early 2010, Devil's Hollow arrived in Austin, Texas for the recording of their debut album.
HIGH AND DRY
Over the span of ten days, Devil's Hollow recorded their debut album at The Bubble in North Austin, achieving a goal that Murray had never really expected when he kicked off the trio years before. With a release in May, the self-titled debut sold well behind the strength of a full summer of shows. The band chugged along through dates at Antone's, Brewster Street, Texas Music Theater. The album was selling, the momentum was on their side, and the sky was the limit. Album sales spiked overseas, and in a few short months, the band had independently sold over a thousand copies of their album, with the assistance of no record label, no radio promoter, no distributor. In October 2011, Devil's Hollow seemingly hit another high water mark, opening a sold-out Los Lonely Boys show at Gruene Hall in their hometown. It would be the last show. There was no blow-up, no fight, no planned intentions. Everything simply stopped. Murray recalls, "We needed time, and a break. Everything had happened so fast and we almost didn't know what we had gotten ourselves into."
Justin began playing lead guitar for Zydeco Blanco, a roots-zydeco group that featured Edie Brickel & New Bohemians bandmates Brandon Aly and Brad Houser, two accomplished musicians who had seen it all. Months later, bassist Jimmy Hartman found himself stepping on stage at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin playing bass behind filmmaker Robert Rodriguez's Latin-rock behemoth Chingon, and then days later was in Europe completing a tour with Del Castillo. Hartman had essentially converted from guitarist to bassist with Devil's Hollow, and now was becoming a coveted bassist for a dearth of bands, picking up additional shows with Ruben V, Jeff Strahan, and The Kinfolk. Keyboardist Matt Cain's side-project Spank continued to punch out the walls of local clubs with their diverse prog-rock, and one of his other projects, The Nadis Warriors, found national success following a Wakarusa appearance, dominating in venues and festivals alike.
A BREWING STORM
"It was all I could think about, and how much I missed it. Not only the music, but the camaraderie, the energy, the potential," Murray mused from his West Texas ranch on that dry, dreary evening. Texas had fallen into a crippling drought soon after the band had went on hiatus; riverside campgrounds withered, business along the Guadalupe had dried. Devil's Hollow Creek was still dry and craggy.
On September 28th, 2013, at the Texas Craft Brewers' Festival in Austin, Texas, an unassuming blues trio took the stage. Joining Murray was WJ Robinson, DH's drummer, and Pat Young on bass, a one-time bassist for the band, as well as Adam Johnson, a frequent collaborator, on second guitar. The banner affixed to the front of stage proclaimed 'Devil's Hollow', and the band chugged along with casual blues standards to a curious, but sparse, crowd. Then, the skies opened up. The torrential downpour toppled tents, dropped over an inch of rain in mere minutes, and brought thousands into the company of Devil's Hollow.
Amidst the thunder and wind, the crowd erupted with the rain; the energy frenetic. Ankle-deep in water, craft brews in hand, they were reintroduced to a band that had tripped on its own feet only to regain their balance. Murray's initiative for the comeback became quite clear, and a month later, Devil's Hollow was scheduled to make their first full-band appearance near their hometown at Riley's Tavern in Hunter, Texas.
And of course, so did the rain. The night before, inches upon inches of rain fell across Central Texas. Just south of Austin, Onion Creek jumped roughly 40 feet, even putting out more cubic feet of water per second than Niagara Falls. It was the third time in a month the area had received historic amounts of rain. Devil's Hollow kicked off their set in a familiar fashion, opening with 'T-Bone Shuffle' by T-Bone Walker.
It may have not made the headlines, but one can safely assume, a half hour away, the limestone walls of Devil's Hollow Creek were echoing with the rush of floodwaters. The creek was dry no more.