Denton, Texas, is a city that lives and breathes music. Stay here a few days, and you’ll see that it’s a community-wide phenomenon. Every other person you meet is a musician, and those that aren’t, have a love and respect for music that borders on obsession.
With 25 venues within walking distance of the town square, and a couple hundred more close by, you’re never far from live music. It is so much a part of the culture that many nontraditional places—donut shops, art studios, and even fast food joints, regularly host concerts.
One thing that makes Denton’s music scene unique is the variety of music you hear streaming from venues, outdoor concerts, and house parties. On any given night you can find musicians of all ages performing all types of music.
“What we are most known for is this whole independent music movement,” says Kim Phillips, vice president of Denton’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “It’s not a genre, but it does have a personality. It encompasses folk, singer songwriter, R&B, rap, country, pop—it’s all over the board.”
“Many musical careers were birthed here, everybody from Pat Boone to Don Henley to Norah Jones,” she continues. “Those are some of the big names people know, but this is happening all the time.”
Each year the city hosts 17 to 20 large festivals, and more than 100 smaller ones. Among the biggest are 35 Denton, an indoor/outdoor indie festival held in early March, and the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival, a free festival held the end of April.
These gatherings could not be organized without strong community support for all things musical. More than 700 volunteers and various sponsors support the Arts & Jazz Festival. “We have to raise more than a half-million dollars every year to put this on,” says Carol Short, executive director of the festival held on seven stages, involving 2,700 performers.
“Arts & Jazz Festival represents the heart of Denton,” says Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs. “The heart of Denton is music, and this is a display of talent from the region and beyond. More than 200,000 people come annually to this event.”
The 35 Denton festival began in 2005 as an afternoon party at Austin’s annual South by Southwest, with the intention of bringing it back to Denton, explains musician, film producer, and festival founder Chris Flemmons. It was first held in Denton in 2009 and features about 50% local artists.
Flemmons says that Denton is the perfect city to hold festivals like this. “There’s a square and the night life kind of radiates around that,” he explains, adding that the music program at North Texas helped to initially feed the music culture in the town, which now exists independently.
“Musicians move here because they want to make music in a place that supports that kind of thing,” adds the 44-year-old singer songwriter with the group Baptist Generals, who first came to Denton to study film. “Everyone around me was playing music, so I did too.”
35 Denton Creative Director Kyle LaValley, 26, explains the culture of Denton like this: “I think there are so many musicians and creatives in Denton that it’s just the natural spirit of the city. There’s far less ego than in other communities I’ve experienced, which I think is symptomatic of how small the town is, and the fact that in some form or fashion people collaborate more frequently.”
DentonRadio.com Gives Voice to Musicians
One way people outside Denton can sample the city’s music scene is through DentonRadio.com, a new project that is itself a testament to community support for musicians. The exclusively Denton Internet station, established last year, is the brainchild of 20-something Jake Laughlin, who pitched the idea to his friend, musician and graphic designer, Bone Doggie, who’s in his 50s. Neither had the funds to launch the project, so they turned to the community.
“The response was insane,” says Laughlin, now CEO of DentonRadio.com. “Not only did the musicians rally, but the businesses and organizations as well. [Music venue] Banter Bistro put together DVDs of bands that performed in their place and sold them. Every dime of it went to us. They put buttons on their registers so you could donate.”
A recreational musician, Laughlin takes the stage every once in a while, sitting in on hand drums with various bands. Co-founder and vice president Bone Doggie’s band, the Hickory Street Hellraisers, has been a Denton tradition for about 10 years.
Venues like Banter are eager to help local music. Owners Stephen Johnson and Ellen Ryfle say the music is one of the best things about running the bistro, and one of the reasons they bought it two years ago. “I love all genres of music,” says Johnson, adding that Thursday night is open mic night at Banter and spots fill up quickly, attracting all ages and all types of music. “There’re 25 or more acts, from 8:00 p.m. till midnight.”
The rest of the week is dedicated to shows by some of Denton’s most talented musicians, including three shows per night on Friday and Saturday. “It’s rewarding to be involved with Banter, especially from the music standpoint,” adds Johnson.
At the beginning of the year, DentonRadio.com began a partnership with Denton’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are the only city in Texas using an Internet radio station as a marketing tool,” says Kim Phillips. “It’s an awesome vehicle for us; it’s not just about promoting musicians and music, it’s about promoting Denton.”
Laughlin agrees, “Denton is full of some of the most creative, incredible talents and businesses. It really is the community’s radio station as much as it is ours.”
“DentonRadio.com is more than a platform for musicians,” says Bone Doggie, explaining how the station also sparks collaboration. “Musicians are exposed to each other. They network, form bands and production companies. It’s like a melting pot for local music.”
Having a Place to Play
As the indie music scene continues to grow and diversify in Denton, more musicians move in and more music venues open. Julie Glover, City of Denton downtown development manager, says that Denton’s venues have increased exponentially in the last four or five years. It’s something she and her husband, both musicians, pay close attention to.
“One of the things we did [20 years ago] was create a venue by turning the courthouse lawn into a music place,” she says. “The first few years, if we had 20 people show up, it was a big success; now we average 1,200 to 1,500 people.”
“It’s always been a big music town, but we didn’t have the venues to promote it,” says Pat York, marketing director for DentonRadio.com. “Since we’ve had more places to play, there’s been more opportunity for musicians.” A former Denton high school teacher, York, now in his 60s, plays guitar, harmonica, and keyboard in three different area bands.
According to the many Denton musicians, both recreational and full-time professionals, there’s no place like home. “It’s a lot of people who love music, in a concentrated place,” says Mike Seman, who is a part-time musician and volunteer for 35 Denton. “It’s not like many other places I can think of.”
He should know. Seman, in his 30s, has spent years studying the effects of music and art on cities as an urban planning and public policy doctoral candidate. He and his wife, Jennifer Seman, became Dentonites about eight years ago, after shopping around for just the right city.
“We were looking for a place that had a great music scene and was community based,” he explains. “We took some time and visited places like Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake.”
“You have the university here that attracts both talented musicians for the music program, but also talented musicians that attend programs in film, graphic design, photography, and visual arts,” he says. “So you have a lot of highly creative people in a very small city, who love music.”
Mike and Jennifer are both multi-instrumentalists and have played together for 11 years in the band Shiny Around the Edges.
Bassist Drew Phelps, who’s collaborated with the likes of Sara Hickman, The Quebe Sisters, and the Dixie Chicks, can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I’ve been living here pretty much my whole life,” he says. “I went to New York City for a little bit, but I said I’m moving back to Denton. People love to play music here. Musicians in this town are treated very well. I feel like people are really supportive.”
The same is true for Jeffrey Barnes, woodwind player for the Grammy-winning group Brave Combo. The group, whose music has been immortalized on The Simpsons, has played all over the globe and could relocate to just about anywhere, but prefers to remain in Denton.
“There’s all kinds of great music here,” says Barnes. “It’s big enough that you have culture, but it’s small enough you can walk down the street and people say, ‘Hey Jeffrey, how are you doing?’”
Singer songwriter Brian Lambert, 36, who also works in a health food store, relocated his family to Denton about three years ago for the music. He likes the camaraderie among Denton musicians: “Everybody kind of knows everybody, and they play in multiple projects around town and come out and support each other. All of the musicians here are in a similar boat, where you’re working full time, and then all night you play music.”
Perhaps Bone Doggie sums up the music scene in Denton most precisely. “You have rock stars, then you have musicians, and you have people who just like to play music. And we have all three. A musician will play until they die,” he says. “We have incredible talents and we’ve done everything we can to help them, and they’ve done everything they can to help us.”
The music scene in Denton is always happening, but the best time to visit is during a festival. The Denton CVB organizes custom live music scene pub tours for groups. Check the website www.discoverdenton.com for more information.