On a balmy spring evening a few weeks ago, Kyle Redd stood for two hours at the corner of Crockett and Currie streets, singing and playing his acoustic guitar. Street musicians are a regular feature of that tony section of the West Seventh Street neighborhood and are often ignored. Redd was, too, for a few minutes.
Then couples at the sidewalk tables of Waters restaurant began to pause over their cocktails and appetizers, turning toward the music coming from across the street. Lyle Lovett covers, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Glen Campbell, Jim Croce, with a few Kyle Redd originals slipped in. With the accomplished level of his singing and playing and the quality of his own songs, it was hard to tell.
Pedestrians strolling amid the restaurants, boutiques, ice cream shops and movie theater began to pause, too, sitting to listen to the guy with the clear tenor, a virtuoso on the guitar. Before long, apartment dwellers came out onto their balconies, listening and applauding with the rest.
Between songs, members of his growing audience came up to Redd, complimenting him on his music, taking one of his business cards. Time after time that night, he heard a variation of the same question, one from an old Billy Joel song, “Man, what are you doing here?” A guy of his obvious talent playing for $150 on a street corner in Fort Worth, with a wife and a young daughter to support, no less?
Truth is, musicians like Kyle Redd are everywhere in the city, ubertalented singer-songwriters playing for the equivalent of beer money in restaurants and barbecue joints, in honky-tonks and on street corners, any place that will have them.
“It’s overrun,” said Brett Dillon, an observer of the Fort Worth music scene for more than 30 years and a legendary DJ at 95.3 “The Range” in Dallas. “I don’t know why everybody is here, but the music scene is so cool and hip and happening that people all over the country are aware of it. They get to sing their stuff and people are listening.”
There are a dozen or more like Redd, Dillon and others say, singer-songwriters such as Greg Schoeder, Luke Wade, Chris Watson and Jacob Furr, talented enough to be on radio or television, in the finals of American Idol, one break away from a big record deal, major airplay, stardom, a lucrative living at least.
But those breaks came along about as often as a singer-songwriter is struck by lightning, so they soldiered on, hauling around guitars in battered cases, playing to tiny audiences for pocket change, scraping together enough money to survive.
Each one has a story of passion, talent, sacrifice and, too often, disappointment.
Kyle Redd drove the same pickup for 15 years until it finally died a few years ago with an odometer reading of 307,488 miles. He played the same guitar for years until it splintered. He is 35 years old, with a wife and that new baby daughter.
Last winter, a few months after little Sophie was born, he called his dad in a Houston suburb and said he was thinking about chucking it all, becoming an electrician, something more responsible, more grown up, to support his family.
Yet there he was months later, on that balmy night in Fort Worth, his voice and guitar echoing off the walls of apartments and restaurants and boutiques as the sun went down. His story, as it turned out, was a country-Western song, a parable for anyone with talent, the support of family, a dream and the guts to pursue it. On that recent night, after two hours, he packed up his guitar, handed out a few more cards and disappeared into the dusk, home to his family until his next modest gig.
‘Who is this kid?’
Redd studied theater at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and worked as an actor for four years after graduating, performing in New York City and up and down the East Coast. Much of his work was in musical theater because singing had come easy to him since he was a kid. As a high school student, he won state competitions singing operatic arias.
The guitar and songwriting were just a serious hobby then, first taken up when he was a senior in high school and wanted to play and sound like Garth Brooks. But there were early hints of a deeper calling.
One came in college, on his first visit to a joint in San Marcos called Cheatham Street Warehouse. Fifteen years later, he could remember it down to the smell of stale beer.
“Tin roof. Tin-walled warehouse,” he said. “Tiny little thing right there next to the railroad tracks. Trains would come by and shake everything while someone was up there playing. They had this stained red carpet and sold Pearl beer in a can. And on the walls were pictures of hundreds of artists who had been through there, everybody I had ever heard of.”
George Strait. Willie Nelson. Lyle Lovett. Robert Earl Keen. Ray Wiley Hubbard. All of them had played there. Every Wednesday was open-mic night for the dreamers who wanted their pictures on the warehouse wall. Redd was among them, practically living in the joint at night, getting up on the stage every Wednesday to play covers and a few creations of his own.
“The whole place felt natural to me,” he said, “like someplace I wanted to be.”
After college, he continued to play guitar and write songs, making music with the stagehands of his theater troupes, taking the occasional coffeehouse gig. It began to dawn on him that he had things backward.
“One thing that troubled me about acting was that I always had massive stage fright,” he remembered. “I discovered that playing music didn’t bother me. The guitar was like a barrier. I was very natural with it onstage. I had a way to communicate with people and still entertain, and I could do it with my own words, not someone else’s.”
Burned-out from the road, Redd quit acting and moved home to Houston. He sold fertilizer during the day and played at a place called Blanco’s at night. His singing and songwriting started turning heads in the local music scene, and one who noticed was a woman named Kim Carson, known as the Honky Tonk Queen of New Orleans. She called one day, saying she needed a lead guitarist for a gig in Gulf Shores, Ala.
“I’ve heard you play,” she said. “Would you mind driving out there with me?”
Redd quit his band and the fertilizer job on the spot, hopped into Carson’s van and learned her songs on the drive east. He backed her on guitar for years after that, touring the United States and Europe. One gig was a music festival near Glen Rose put on by musician Bodie Powell, who played bass for Johnny Cash and the stars of the Grand Ole Opry before settling in North Texas.
“I heard him play and I thought, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Powell remembered. “Then, at the end of the day, everybody sits around the campfire and sings songs that they had written and he sat down right beside me. He started singing his songs and he blew everybody away. Not only is he a great singer, but he’s a great songwriter. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I feel like I know a great song when I hear one.”
During that same festival, Redd spotted Powell’s daughter, Chrystal, working at a merchandise table. Chrystal had her eye on Redd, too, the dark, handsome guitarist with a beard and shoulder-length Willie Nelson braids. Redd finally worked up the nerve to introduce himself. The two of them carried on a long- distance romance for the next few years as he continued to tour with Carson.
They married in 2009 and Redd came off the road. Chrystal taught sixth grade, and he started playing local gigs, many of them with his new father-in-law.
Two aspects of his chosen life always stood out. “One is sacrifice. How much are you willing to give up for your dream? The other is luck,” he said. “One you can control. One you can’t.”
In Fort Worth, he continued to wait for his break.
‘We’ll figure this out’
He had come close. In 2007, he landed an interview with an executive at RCA Records in Nashville. It was a long talk and the executive peppered him with questions. To whom did Redd compare himself? Who did he think he sounded like? Who were his influences? Who had he played with? Who had he opened for?
Three weeks later, Redd got an encouraging email from the guy, saying he enjoyed the meeting. Redd quickly replied, then didn’t hear another word.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “When I met with him, I knew that one step wasn’t going to take care of everything. But I was really hoping to get my foot in the door. It just didn’t happen for me, like it doesn’t happen for a lot of people. I just kept going. You keep writing, keep playing.”
In 2011, Redd released a self-titled debut album of his own songs. Reviews in the trade publications were glowing, and a few cuts got played on North Texas radio stations such as The Range and 92.1 Hank FM. Then, as quickly as the buzz began, it stopped. He tinkered with his writing style, thinking that might be the problem. In 2012, his mother-in-law, Donna — a talented songwriter in her own right — died of cancer.
“I had to be with my wife more, not out in smoky honky-tonks until 3 in the morning, being funny and entertaining,” Redd remembered.
Chrystal got pregnant. Redd used what money they had to build a nursery in their small home in the Handley neighborhood of east Fort Worth. Sophie was born on Oct. 21, 2013.
“When Sophie came into the world, I held her for the first time and it was just me and her,” Redd said. “I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens. It doesn’t matter where we go or what we do. I’m going to love you until the stars burn out.’ We took her home and I’ve loved every second I’ve been with her since.”
A few days after his daughter was born, he cut off his long hair, telling his father that he needed a “dad” haircut. And the bills associated with parenthood starting piling up.
“We couldn’t get above them,” he said. “Something new was always coming down the pipe.”
One afternoon just after Thanksgiving, with Sophie asleep in her crib, Redd sat down with Chrystal on the living room sofa. He told her that it might be time to surrender the dream, to give up music, to get a real job.
“We need to think about this,” he said. “Am I still going to be playing for 50 bucks a night when she’s 18 and going off to college? I feel useless.”
Chrystal wouldn’t hear of it. She was furious, in fact.
“Don’t ever bring this up again,” she said. “I love you as a musician. I love you as an artist. We’ll figure this out together. I don’t care what you feel like you have to do during the day, but you are going to keep doing this. You’re going to keep playing music. Your daughter is going to hear you play. Listening to my father play was one of the happiest memories of my life, and you’re not going to deprive our daughter of that. You need to get over this. You are not going to put down your guitar.”
“OK,” he said. “I won’t.”
But as touched as he was by his wife’s faith, Redd’s doubts remained.
“I trust my wife and I knew what she was saying, but I needed to hear it a different way,” he said. “I needed to talk to someone who understood about putting family first. I needed to hear from someone who had killed himself every day to give me everything I wanted.
“I just wanted to ask my dad, ‘When is it OK to stop chasing a dream, to stop doing what you’re doing just because it makes you happy.’ ”
‘Meant for something better’
No two people could have been more different than Ronny Redd and Kyle, the middle of his three sons. Kyle was the flighty artistic type. Ronny Redd didn’t have a musical or artistic bone in his body and his only hobby was hard work. Over 30 years, he built a successful Houston-area air-conditioning company by working 70-hour weeks, climbing in and out of sweltering attics.
But during one of Kyle’s college summers, when he got a summer-stock acting job in New Hampshire, father and son loaded up an old pickup and drove for three days straight, sleeping a few hours here and there, talking all the way.
“That’s when my dad and I got really close,” Kyle Redd remembered.
Last December, he called Ronny Redd.
“He just asked general questions about working as an electrician,” the elder Redd recalled. “He dropped enough hints that I knew something was on his mind. But I had no idea he was thinking about stopping playing. He just said, ‘I’ll talk to you about it when I come down.’ ”
At Christmas, Kyle, his wife and his daughter drove to his parents’ home on Lake Conroe in the Houston suburb of Montgomery. After the rest of his family was in bed, Ronny Redd liked to watch old movies into the wee hours. Kyle put off the talk until the last night of the visit. It was close to midnight when he found his dad in Ronny’s home theater.
“I feel like I’m letting my family down,” Kyle said when he sat down. “I’m going out and playing these $50 gigs, these $100 gigs. I’m trying. I’m putting everything I have into it, but I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. I’m not doing anything.”
The conversation lasted five hours. Ronny spoke of a different dream, the 14-hour days that had been necessary to build his business. He said he understood Kyle’s concerns about supporting his family. If he wanted to quit music to take a traditional day job, Ronny would support him.
“But you are meant for something better,” the father said. “These doubts you’re having are just that — doubts. They are not reality. I’ve never been as good at anything as you are at music. I’ve never been prouder of you than when I see you onstage. I see the way people look at you. I see the way you interact with people. You are the best version of yourself when you’re onstage and that’s because you are so happy doing what you’re doing.”
Kyle wept as he listened. It was close to dawn when he finally stood.
“I need to go check on my daughter,” he said.
He thought about what his father said every mile of the drive back to Fort Worth.
‘What are you doing here?’
As the new year began, Redd got back on the telephone, rededicating himself.
“Colonel Tom Parker is not walking into my life anytime soon that I’m aware of,” Redd said. “He’s not going to come in and say like he said to Elvis, ‘I’m going to take you somewhere and we’re going to do great things.’ If it happens, great, but I can’t control that. All I can do is pick up the phone and say, ‘Will you pay me to play at your place?’ If they say ‘yes,’ it’s been a good day.”
He took every solo gig he could find. A musician friend turned him on to the West Seventh Street job.
“It doesn’t pay much,” the friend said.
“I’ll do anything, anywhere,” Redd said, “if I get a chance to play music and someone is willing to pay me to do it.”
On another balmy spring night, Redd pulled up to the Back Forty Smokehouse in North Richland Hills, taking Sophie, now 7 months, from the back seat and carrying her inside. Chrystal was having her hair done but would be along in time for the show with Bodie Powell and the band.
The patio was packed when they took the stage. For three hours, Redd did all the familiar, crowd-pleasing covers, slipping in his own songs like Let It Ring and Carnival. Again, it was hard to tell covers from the originals.
Again there was that question: “Man, what are you doing here?”
But people got up to dance. The applause was enthusiastic. For one night, that was enough.
“I love doing this and now I know the people around me, they don’t see just some guy playing music but a guy who wouldn’t be the same person if he stopped,” Redd said that night before he took the stage, sitting at a booth in the restaurant and holding his daughter. “So how can I give this up, now? What else is there in life?”