Stephen Doster has been described as one of Austin’s most ubiquitous musicians.
Working Class Hero
He has appeared on recordings, stage, and television with such talents as Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Mark O’Connor, Bill Carter, and Will Sexton. As a songwriter, his songs have been recorded by Dr. John, Willie Nelson, Double Trouble, Storyville, Tommy Elskes, and Brint Anderson with George Porter, Jr. Stephen played lead guitar on the Sampler.
For Doster, the ducks started lining up in Corpus Christi where he was born. Because his father worked for the government, Doster spent much of his childhood overseas, attending elementary school in London and France, and high school in Germany. Stateside, in both Abilene and West San Antonio (where Steve Earle was the other neighborhood rock star) young Doster put together a series of garage bands — a new band for each town the family moved to. After spending his first year out of high-school in a musically depressed, pre-punk, London, Doster’s diet of influences shifted away from Cream and Traffic to more eclectic, folk-influenced artists like John Martin and Nick Drake. That’s when he enrolled in music theory courses at North Texas State in Denton.
A year later, he transferred to the University of Texas in Austin where he majored in music at the Hole in the Wall. Musically, Doster’s original folky, solo acoustic approach eventually gave way to a cello and upright bass configuration that was more popular with the clubgoers than the club. “We gradually started getting louder and louder,” says Doster, “and eventually the club posted a sign that said something like, `Please turn the fuck down.’ I knew it was directed at us.”
Because Doster has been concentrating on survival and not self-promotion, he’s still best known in Austin as the guy who produces and stars in the annual John Lennon birthday hoot night. That may be changing with the release of Rosebud, a debut that’s not only worth the wait, but one that exists only perhaps because of that wait and what it taught Doster about himself and the music industry.
“The business has always frustrated me, but never the playing,” explains Doster. “I guess I just never had the ambition to put out a bunch of independent records just to see something with my name on it. It’s not that I ever had a fear of success or failure, I just knew I couldn’t do it by myself with only my own meager finances. And I always figured if I got out there and played every night with my best foot forward, maybe someone will take notice.”
In 1995, just after Doster ended a set of long and frustrating negotiations with Interscope, another record label did indeed take notice. Ironically, given Doster’s long and exhaustive search for help outside Austin, it was Villa Muse, a local label owned and operated by guitarist and studio owner Jay Aaron Podolnick, that sat up and took notice. Doster and Podolnick had been mutual friends of Eric Johnson’s for almost as long as Doster has lived in Austin, yet it was Doster’s experiments with drummer Chris Searles and celloist Frank Kammerdiener that got Podolnick interested in launching his label’s efforts with a Doster release.
By the time Doster and Podolnick actually recorded Rosebud, bassist Brain Walsh had been added to the band and the injured Kammerdiener replaced by Brian Standefer. Also, getting the album out in time for a South by Southwest ’97 showcase meant recording it relatively quickly, sacrificing some of Doster’s long-held ideas for a lush pop production. “I’ve always felt the process of making records is an on-going learning experience,” Doster says. “So, it’s ironic I wound up throwing everything I’d learned towards the wind to make a mostly live record.”
Instead of pulling songs from a 20-year-old backlog of material, Doster wrote new songs for Rosebud, giving the album a solid internal structure and an overall tone more sophisticated and powerful than its parts. Thematically, with narratives on fatherhood (“Kid Django”) and his own career (“Nobody Loves a Quitter”), Rosebud plays out like the kind of debut only a veteran could make. Best of all, on the poppy and gloomy tunes alike, Rosebud rarely fails to convey the songs’ delicate melodicism and Doster’s conversational delivery.
“In many ways, it feels like Rosebud just came out yesterday,” enthuses Doster. Then again, the one thing you know once you do put out a record is that although it can be a nice vanity project, unless you’re prepared to really go out and get your ducks in line there’s no point.”
At present Stephen is the co-owner of EAR (East Austin Recording) Studio in Austin, Texas and has produced 60+ records. He credits his work with the late James Honeyman-Scott (Pretenders) as his inspiration to become a producer. Also, his early work at Capricorn Studios with Tommy Talton (Gregg Allman Band and Cowboy) was formative in his love for recording.
He believes his interaction as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and producer with this great variety of musicians is perhaps the greatest reward of his music career.