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If you're wondering why Austin-based vocalist/multi-instrumentalist K. (for Kathy) McCarty has won the hearts of so many music journalists, bend an ear to her list of favorite artists.
"Richard Thompson," she says. "I've been listening to him pretty much nonstop since 1985. And Randy Newman is another hero of mine, and Sandy Denny, and this Cuban artist, Silvio Rodriguez--he's incredible. And then there's David Byrne and Elvis Costello. And I love Hank Williams." She laughs. "If you got a bunch of rock critics together and asked, `Who are the greatest songwriters of the century?' the people they'd name are mainly who I listen to."
Of course, not all of McCarty's proclivities mirror those of the average rock scribe; for instance, she admits that she spends far more time reading than checking out music ("I go through ten books a week," she boasts). Still, her latest album--the terrific Bar/None disc Dead Dog's Eyeball, subtitled Songs of Daniel Johnston--is exactly the type of offering you'd expect someone with a reviewer's mentality to release. Johnston, you see, is an Austin singer-songwriter with a quavery voice, an offbeat sense of melody, and a history of mental illness who's known primarily by those sonic connoisseurs with a taste for the unconventional. Eyeball, then, seemed fated from the beginning to garner good notices but stiff commercially, because the very people most likely to be interested in it are writers who get their copies for free. And, unfortunately, that's pretty much how things have worked out. "Only something like 13,000 of them have been bought so far," she notes. "With the press I've gotten, people think that it's 250,000 or something. They say, `How is it to be such a big success?' And I'm like, `I lost $10,000 this year. I haven't made a penny.'"
So why did McCarty, a bright, witty and intelligent woman with a keen sense about how the music industry works, spend a year of her life bringing Eyeball to fruition when it seemed bound to be a financial miss? To understand the answer, you've got to understand a few things about both McCarty, who's been a well-kept musical secret for more than a decade, and the city she calls home.
Although it didn't receive as many plaudits as Athens, Georgia, or Minneapolis, Austin circa the early Eighties was the home of a thriving postpunk scene that gave rise to such twisted types as Jesus Lizard and the Butthole Surfers. McCarty was in the middle of this mayhem thanks to her role as frontwoman for Glass Eye, a combo with a shifting membership and a way with songs that encompassed punk, new wave, roots rock, jazz, traditional music and pretty much every other genre term you can pull out of your Webster's. "And that was one of our problems," McCarty says. "We always felt being eclectic was good, like it was with the Beatles. But instead, it ended up being a real Achilles' heel. A lot of reviews we got said things like, `This is the best record I've heard this year. I can't describe it.' And if you can't describe it, that doesn't make people want to buy it."
And people didn't. Glass Eye put out five impressive platters during its decade of life, including 1988's wonderful Bent by Nature and 1989's equally memorable Hello Young Lovers (both on Bar/None), but outside of Austin, it sank like a stone. The group spent the early Nineties trying to make the leap to a major label, but the album on which the players were pinning their dreams--it was to be called Every Woman's Fantasy--remains on the shelf to this very day. (McCarty says Bar/None has made a verbal commitment to release the material in the fall.)
This was a frustrating period for McCarty, and while she insists that she had no inkling that her band was going to break up anytime soon, she found her thoughts drifting to an idea for a solo piece that she'd been nursing for years. The concept, which eventually turned into Eyeball, involved Johnston, whom she met in the mid-Eighties after he attended a Glass Eye gig. During this first encounter, Johnston passed McCarty a copy of a cassette he'd made (the soon-to-be-embraced Hi, How Are You) and asked if he could open a show for the act. Later, when Johnston quizzed her about her reaction to the tape, McCarty said she liked it and offered him a spot on a Glass Eye bill, even though she hadn't bothered to listen to it yet. When she finally did, she found the contents marvelous. More than that: She was certain she was in the company of greatness.
"When I first heard him, I expected that he'd be really famous in five years, like Bob Dylan," she says. "And when that didn't happen, I started realizing that even though a lot of my friends felt as I did about his music, a lot of other people who I respected and thought were smart absolutely could not stand to listen to him. And I started realizing that they weren't rejecting his music because they don't know a good song. It was that they couldn't get around this fidelity thing, this arrangement thing."