As part of a larger industry reshuffling, the Time-Warner media conglomerate bought out Sire, issuing pink slips to most of the staff and merging the label with London Records. Within weeks, the group, which had been one of Sire's crown jewels, found itself desperately seeking the attention of a label that seemed disinterested at best.
"They just didn't give a shit about us," Kelly recalls, phoning from a San Francisco health-food store. "We got to do some really cool things when we were on Sire -- we were on the Conan O'Brien show. At first, they were really great. They really promoted our band. It's just a typical thing that happens with major labels. It's just very tenuous in nature: Two weeks into it, everyone that was excited about our band was fired. We didn't have anybody to call anymore."
It's a story familiar to the Damnations. When Kelly and Boone originally relocated to Austin from their Schoharie, New York, birthplace, they spent most of their time trying to make inroads into the town's cliquish music scene. The sisters set up shop in a studio apartment, located -- as fate would have it -- directly behind the Electric Lounge, a legendary subterranean venue that showcased everything from punk bands to poetry slams.
"They had a pretty eclectic booking policy, to where you could hear all different kinds of music," Kelly recalls. "I worked as a bartender there for a while, and that's where I met a lot of musicians. That was a really great thing for me. I probably wouldn't have met the people that I play with now, other than Amy, if I hadn't been doing that."
One of Kelly's Electric Lounge finds was multi-instrumentalist and singer Rob Bernard, who brought a punk sensibility to the sisters' harmonic histrionics. Augmented by an ever-evolving cast of drummers, the Damnations became darlings of the Austin underground, sweethearts of an off-radar rodeo that thumbed its nose at the city's lauded guitar gods.
"In Austin, you still have your mainstream culture -- the people who get the awards," Kelly says, naming blues guitarist Eric Johnson as one peer who might have more shiny plaques than sheer talent. "But that doesn't mean anything anyway, because that just tells you who votes in those things. But there's always a lot of bands that don't get recognized in the press that are really great. You just have to work harder to find out who they are."
Sire's Seymour Stein found out. The former label head signed the Damnations. Once ensconced in a studio, the group began recording what would become its self-produced 1999 debut, Half Mad Moon. There was one minor glitch: Another band had already laid claim to the Damnations' name. A record-company quick-fix followed, and the Damnations became Damnations TX (pronounced "tee-ex"), joining the ranks of London Suede and Charlatans U.K., acts rechristened to avoid potential lawsuits.
Backed by Sire, the group quickly garnered attention for its nontraditional approach to traditional music. Indie magazines such as No Depression salivated with Pavlovian veracity, as did rags like People, which singled out Half Mad Moon as one of 1999's hot picks. And it was refreshingly different: The straightforward, almost bluegrass feel of the title track juxtaposed with the hard-charging R&B of "Commercial Zone Blues" and such oddities as "Black Widow," a sad lament to a stolen prized Peavy amplifier. The sisters' supple harmonies bridged these seemingly disparate elements to make a sound light years from the Shania-mania that was sweeping the country charts at the time but far less reverent than true-blue traditionalists like the Derailers.
Avoiding the roots-country circuit, the Damnations spent road time with Cake and the Tragically Hip, shedding its country image and a good deal of its twangy output along the way. In October 2000, the group entered the studio to lay down tracks for its sophomore effort, bringing a batch of teeth-shattering rock that threatened to take over the Damnations' sound. Unimpressed, London paired the group with producer J.D. Foster, best known for his work with Dwight Yoakam. But the Damnations just wanted to thrash, tossing in a cover of the Minutemen's "Corona" and raucous originals like Bernard's "Animal Children." Though early mixes were promising, the band found itself at odds with Foster, whose disdain for anything resembling alternative country is the stuff of legend.
"He added a lot to the record, but there were times when we pulled back to kind of rein him in a little bit," Kelly remembers. "He's a producer, and he wants to produce; we didn't want to get crazy with production."
The finished record, Where It Lands, was a mixture of raw and cooked. Wry blue-country workouts such as "All Night Special" collided with glue-sniffing trucker music that owed a far greater debt to Exene Cervenka than to Patsy Cline. London Records, not knowing what to make of these Dixie Chicks gone bad, tried in vain to steer the outfit back in a country direction. When the label honchos suggested relocation to Nashville and residence on Music Row stalwart Curb Records, the Damnations called it quits, shelving Where It Lands and putting the band on long-term hiatus.
After months of dreary day jobs, Kelly, Boone and Bernard reformed the Damnations, having finally gained possession of their unreleased second album. Last week, Where It Lands was issued on the group's own Joy Ride imprint, and the band is back on the road, sans the tedious TX tag and the corporate-music headaches. Having survived the rocky major-label road, the group is now prepared to do things its own way.
"You don't have the frustration of dealing with people who won't call you back," Kelly says. "Everything's in your own hands."
Indeed, there is hope for the Damnations.