Charlie Sexton's story could have been a classic musical tragedy. As a guitar prodigy who toured with Joe Ely in his early teens and played with Keith not much later, he might have gone the way of Nathan Cavalerie. Who? Exactly. Or, at best, he might be holding on like Johnny Lang, still touring and recording, but aware that his 15 minutes of People magazine-style fame have passed him by. Instead he chose to follow his own path.
When despite Sexton's good songs, great guitar playing, impossible good looks and great VHF (vertical hair factor), his teen-age pop record didn't take off, the young musician returned to Texas and the roots-music and clubs that had nurtured him. There he formed the semi-super group Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall Jr., and the Stevie Ray rhythm section. But Sexton has always been as much a singer/songwriter as axe-slinger and his unjustly overlooked next solo record, "Under The Wishing Tree," focused on that aspect. Its lack of success may have been due to the disappointment of fans expecting a bluesy guitar record, but it introduced him to producer Malcolm Burn, a Daniel Lanois collaborator, whose dark, mood-drenched style would influence Sexton. Elements of that style are evident in Charlie's own production work for Lucinda Williams and Shannon McNally, and especially on Cruel And Gentle Things.
Lux•u•ri•ate vi 1. to enjoy something in a self-indulgent way, taking great pleasure from the luxury and comfort that it offers.
Luxuriating is what I found myself doing in this record. Like Sara McLaughlin's oeuvre (the product of another branch of the Lanois tree), one can bathe in the melding of guitars, keyboards and loops that make up the background for Sexton's rich, weathered vocals. Whether it is the sparse 12-string on "Gospel," a song about the redemptive qualities of religion; the jangle of "Bring It Home Again"; or the crying electrics on "Burn," the guitars on Cruel And Gentle Things are more about emotive, interlocking parts than "look-at-me" riffing. Three years on the road with the deity of songwriting, Dylan, has improved Sexton's compositions without overly influencing them; a more obvious influence exists in some of the vocal inflections. Echoes of Steve Earle can be heard on the tune he co-wrote with Sexton, "Dillingham Lane," and there is even a hint of Elvis Costello in the bouncy beat mixed with heartbreak lyrics for "Once In A While," but throughout this Texas troubadour is his own man.
With Cruel And Gentle Things Charlie Sexton joins a small but necessary coterie of artists like C.C. Adcock and Chuck Prophet who are steeped in roots music but not stuck there, as conversant with the production styles of hip-hop and electronica as they are with the guitar styles of Hubert Sumlin and B. B. King. At this point it can be safely said that Sexton has avoided the flash-in-the-pan phenomenon and has carved out a long-term career in music. He has done this in part by fulfilling the second definition of luxuriate: 2. to grow vigorously and successfully. • Michael Ross