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Christine Albert

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Presiding over the Grammys, while staying true to her working-class Austin musical roots.

By John T. Davis, Photos by Matt Lankes

The back room at El Mercado, the Tex-Mex emporium on South First Street, was packed. Every Monday evening, it’s the same: You can’t stir ’em with a stick. It’s a weekly gathering of the tribe, the folks who were keeping Austin weird long before that phrase became a civic cliché.

Onstage, the willowy, dark-haired woman with the big guitar is explaining that this—the weekly Mystery Monday showcase—is a tradition.

“It’s happening at 7:30 on Monday, if my mom ever wants to know where I am,” she jests.

Christine Albert helped found Mystery Monday, which features a surprise musician each week, several years ago with friend and fellow singer-songwriter, the late Sarah Elizabeth Campbell. The pair co-hosted the series for almost two years, until Campbell died of liver cancer in 2013.

“Sarah’s own weekly gig had fallen apart,” Albert recalls, “and I wanted to get her out of her apartment. I also wanted to create a weekly happy hour gig for myself. The manager at El Mercado loved the idea. What’s important to me about it is the sense of community.”

“The original connection was with Sarah,” says Butch Hancock, who would find himself onstage that night. “But there was such a powerful thing of love, music and friendship that preceded it. This thing is rooted so deep in the heart of what makes Austin work musically; everyone is up there singing their hearts out.”

Guitar slinger Bill Kirchen, bassist David Carroll and keyboard maestro Floyd Domino joined Albert onstage this January night, and the little band kicked off with a twangy take on Townes Van Zandt’s White Freightliner Blues.

Albert was front and center, singing lead or harmony with a compelling, slightly husky soprano that can leap thrillingly into the upper registers when called for. It’s an utterly distinctive voice.

The set mixed some Albert originals with some curated covers, a little rock ’n’ roll and a back-to-back punch of David Halley’s Rain Just Falls and Albert’s poignant Everything’s Beautiful Now. The quiet in the room was tangible as she sang.

Even for South Austin, the vibe was laid-back. To the uninitiated, it might seem to be a throwaway jam session on a dead night. To Albert, who has been singing for her supper in Austin since 1982, it is much more; it’s a lifeline, a way to reconnect with her truest self.

Because here’s the thing: The woman with the guitar singing for patrons downing platters of enchiladas and Mexican martinis would, a couple of weeks later, be walking a non-stop series of Los Angeles red carpets, draped in Austin-designed couture and rubbing shoulders with the most rarified of pop music royalty. Think Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Beyoncé, Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams—you name it.

That’s because, in an alternate universe, which she somehow also inhabits fully, Albert is the chair of the board of trustees of the Recording Academy, the folks who would hand out the Grammys at the 57th annual ceremony on Feb. 8, with all the glittery pomp and celebrity circumstance it can muster. Albert will be all over the place, giving speeches, presenting awards, hanging with the A-list. It’s a long way from a pass-the-hat gig at a South Austin Tex-Mex joint.

Albert first got involved with the Recording Academy when she worked helping to set up a Texas chapter of the academy in Austin in the early 1990s, and ascended through the ranks.

“I’m the first working-class independent artist [to serve as chair],” she says proudly. “Producers and corporate people have typically been chairs in the past. Membership qualifications changed as the industry changed. More independent artists started being elected to serve on the board. I reflect the way the music business has changed. And I’m only the second woman to ever serve as chair.”

Chris Gage, Albert’s songwriter, musician, producer husband is pragmatic about his wife’s ascendency in the Grammy hierarchy.

“The higher she gets in the organization, the better my seats get,” he says with a smile, adding, “She’s acquired all these skills. She leads a room with 100 high-powered music businesspeople, and they totally respect her.”

Albert got her position the old-fashioned way: she campaigned for it, first running for a position on the board of the Texas chapter in 2005, then as trustee for the chapter and then, in 2011, as vice chair of the national board of trustees. After two years in that office, she ran for national chair, and won.

The position comes with a nearly suffocating level of commitment. As chair, Albert flies throughout the country, attending regional chapter meetings. There are endless confabs, hours-long phone calls, minutiae relating to the Recording Academy’s outreach programs (Grammy in the Schools, MusiCares and others), and then Grammy Week rolls around every February, and things get really nuts. Albert is in the thick of it all.

“When I said I was going to run for chair, Chris said, ‘Why do you want to give so much time to this?’ For me, I love what the affiliates, like the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, do. Personally, I’ve grown so much with it and I’ve learned so much. I’m taking the Grammy experience and bringing it back and applying it to Swan Songs and my own career.”

Oh, yeah, right. Swan Songs would be the other encompassing passion of Albert’s 48-hour days. Founded a decade ago by Albert and friend, psychotherapist Gaea Logan, the Austin-based nonprofit arranges private musical performances for terminally ill individuals. The organization arranged for 65 private concerts in 2014, says Albert, who performed her own first such show in 1992.

Albert’s latest release, 2014’s Everything’s Beautiful Now, is an album-length meditation on loss and acceptance. It’s the latest in a series of Christine Albert and Albert & Gage albums dating back to 1990.

And how, God help her, does she keep it all straight?

“It’s very challenging,” she confesses, to no surprise. “Both of those things [have]a million details, with very serious agendas and very intense conversations. I come home from being on the road for the Recording Academy, and everyone at Swan Songs is waiting with a jillion letters to sign and meetings to attend. I always feel like someone is waiting on me, and I’m getting a little bit further and further behind.”

“I’ve slowly watched her become more of this businesswoman, which I adore,” Gage says. He and Albert married in 2003. “She’s really good at that. But her music gets pushed aside by these two nonprofits. She’s less of an artist, although she’s still got the artist’s heart. When she has a day off, all she wants to do is make music.”

Albert concurs.

“What I’m finding out is that the Grammys and Swan Songs are coming first,” she says, noting that the record-label business she and Gage own, MoonHouse Records, and their South Austin recording studio is “where I drop the ball. I don’t get contracts out. I don’t update the website as fast as I should. … I definitely have to work at managing my anxiety!”

That’s why Mystery Monday and shows at Donn’s Depot—where Gage holds down a Monday residency of his own, and Albert & Gage perform at least once a month—and other gigs matter so much in the big picture.

They ground her and renew her. They permit her to be the Original Christine Albert, the girl with the guitar. They remind her who she is and why she does what she does.

“Put down the phone and pick up the guitar,” as Gage puts it.

She was literally the girl with the guitar when she traveled from her home in upstate New York to visit her brother, Rick, in Santa Fe, N.M., in the summer between her sophomore and junior years in high school. Rick was playing with a locally celebrated songwriter named Eliza Gilkyson, and Christine, who had already begun to play guitar and sing, felt an immediate kinship.

“Eliza was the first woman I saw get up and sing her own songs,” Albert says. “And I went, ‘Oh!’ ”

It was one of those little epiphanies.

Like a lot of visitors before and since, Albert fell in love with Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico—the mountains; the magical-reality light; the crisp, piñon-scented air—and when she returned home, she immediately began lobbying her parents to let her (at age 15!) move to Santa Fe, live with Rick and finish high school. Somewhat to her surprise, the Alberts signed off on the deal and, having finished school, Albert fell in with Santa Fe’s eclectic community of artists, bohemians and musicians.

“She was in a band called Heartswing when I first met her,” says Busy McCarroll, another Santa Fe musician.

McCarroll and Albert soon teamed up in McCaroll’s band, Crow’s Feet. McCarroll remembers that one of the group’s highlights was Albert’s rocking cover of Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot.

“She’s really a kindred spirit. It was like family and our friendship really locked in,” McCarroll recalls. “We went through boyfriends and bands and traumatic losses, but we went through them together.”

The friendship endured even after Albert left Santa Fe. McCarroll contributes a guest vocal on Albert’s latest album, Everything’s Beautiful Now.

Another lifelong musical and personal relationship Albert forged in New Mexico was with Gilkyson. Albert was a teenager when she moved to Santa Fe, and Gilkyson was in her early 20s, and the two young women immediately clicked. Albert first went on the road as a sort of semi-nanny to Gilkyson’s young children. It was a chance to see if show business agreed with her. It did, even at the funky level of Southwestern honky-tonks.

Albert began getting onstage more and more.

“She was starting to create a career of her own,” Gilkyson recalls, adding that she recruited Albert to join her own group, the Turquoise Trail Band. “She sang backup, but I always gave her a slot in my set because she was so good. She was already starting to branch out in her own way of singing. She was leaning much more towards the blues, and she could belt. She already had the moves and you could tell she wasn’t going to be singing with me very long; she was going to be doing her own thing.”

Country rocker Gary P. Nunn saw the Turquoise Trail Band and invited them to showcase a few gigs in Austin and at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1981. It was their first foray to Texas.

Within a year or two, both women independently made the decision to relocate to the Texas capital. There was no shortage of female songwriters and musicians in Austin, even then, but Albert carved out her own enduring place, or, rather, no place at all.

“Anything she does is going to have that golden touch to it,” says Gilkyson, who also vocalizes on Albert’s latest album. “Because she has such a powerful voice and she has so many ways to apply it, she didn’t get stuck in a genre. She likes to rock, she likes to croon, she likes to sing country. She loves to sing in French. It’s hard to get stuck in a genre when you can sing in so many different ways.”

On yeah, she sings in French. Albert’s mother is from Switzerland, and she, Albert’s aunt and Parisian grandmother would all sit around the table, singing in that lovely language during Albert’s childhood. She grew up loving Edith Piaf as much as she did Patsy Cline.

Periodically during the course of her long career, Albert will channel her inner chanteuse and record a meltingly lovely collection of Franco-Lone Star fusion music she calls “Texafrance.” {Texas Monthly} winningly referred to the sound as “Half Gaul, half y’all.”

The first album by the Texafrance name came out in 1992, followed by Texafrance Encore in 2003 and Paris, Texafrance in 2008. Each year on Valentine’s Day, she and Gage put on what they call “The French Show,” featuring music from these records. Sometimes they’ll play at the French Legation on Bastille Day.

“The tradition keeps it special,” Albert says. “We have a lot of holiday tradition gigs. Every Easter, we play a sunrise service at a friend’s ranch in East Texas. Christmas Eve, we’re at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Mother’s Day, we play at the Great Outdoors nursery. Christ says, ‘Being with you, I don’t have holidays anymore!’ ”

Troupe Gammage, Albert’s 26-year-old son by a previous marriage, grew up learning that New Year’s Eve wasn’t a party; it was a chance to make some good gig money. Gammage, who fronts the indie art-rock band Speak, learned that and many another lessons from his musician parents.

“It takes a while to get your head around the lifestyle,” Gammage says, “about being an entrepreneur as well as an artist. But that was something I witnessed when I was a kid and it sunk in. At one point in high school, [my mother]was after me to get a fast-food job so I could get a taste of living in the real world. Music is an intense lifestyle with a lot of uncertainty, so I think she was trying to shield me to some extent. But both my parents have helped me tremendously in navigating the waters of the music business. Mom was always there to tell me, ‘You’re not crazy. This is how it works.’ ”

Gammage and other members of Speak also appear on Everything’s Beautiful Now, making the album very much an extended-family affair.

As these words are being typed, Albert is boarding a plane for L.A., and getting her game face on for the non-stop showbiz marathon that is Grammy Week. For the next week, until the awards ceremony on Feb. 8, she’ll be walking the red carpet in her Daniel Esquivel attire, adorned in jewelry by Beth McElhaney and Liz James. And yeah, you bet, she’ll be wearing cowboy boots along with those gowns. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

When she returns to Austin, she’ll plow into the next never-ending round of grant writing and fundraising for Swan Songs. There will be a Matterhorn of paperwork and emails and phone calls to whittle down. And as soon as she can manage it, she’ll be back onstage at El Mercado. Mystery Monday awaits, and she can be the girl with the guitar once more.

She’ll balance it all—the executive, the humanitarian, the artist with heart and commitment and a sense of joy—because she doesn’t know how to do it any other way.

McCarroll can see it, and it doesn’t surprise her, not after all the years of friendship.

“She follows through,” McCarroll says. “She’s one of those rare people who has a combination of focus, adventure, accountability and fun.”

“To everything she’s done, she has brought almost a sense of serving a greater good. And she has your back,” Gilkyson adds. “If she says she’s going to do something, then she’s going to do it, and do it with the goodness of her heart. When I think of her career, it’s bigger than the music. Music is one aspect of the amazing person that she is.”

“She will give until she collapses,” Gage says, a fact he both loves and hates. “But the good thing for me is that I’ve met some amazing people. Her [Grammy and Swan Songs] friends are my friends. She’s bringing all sorts of rich experiences into the house. I’m always pushing her, ‘Go find another one. We’ll make money next week!’ ”

As for Albert herself, she will be 60 in September, and she still marvels at what the universe continues to hand her.

“I started singing in 1975,” she muses. “And I’m continually amazed by the things that come into my life that are so satisfying creatively and so enriching that I would never have been able to plan, like French music and Swan Songs and Chris.”

As for the future?

“It will unfold as it unfolds,” she says.

At least until the next Mystery Monday.

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