Politics

Summer Dean Finds Power in Disappointments – Texas Monthly

Summer Dean wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. “I’m all alone / Just a woman on her own / Writing songs with no baby and no vow,” she sings on “Picket Fence,” the opening track of her debut album, Bad Romantic, out August 27. The jaunty delivery—vocal twang, funky electric guitar, and bass—contrasts the stinging sentiment. The tension between societal and personal expectations, and the undeniable pull of an artistic life undergirds Dean’s deft skill at disarming listeners with her vulnerability.

Dean broke free of small-town life and its strictures in almost classical fashion. She fell in love gradually, and then suddenly—not with any one person, but rather with music. Making music “certainly takes up a lot of my heart and my brain and my time, and that’s what relationships do, you know?” Dean says.

That passion has been a clear through line in her life, and it ultimately pushed her to take risks. A little nudge from some musician pals here, and a quick, in-studio capture of a few songs there, led to this moment: a one-time schoolteacher turned troubadour standing on the precipice of her full-length debut, facing the prospect of building a life on the strength of her words and melodies.

The Fort Worth–based Dean has proved an exceptionally quick study, thanks in part to the strength of performances like the one she gave on a sweltering evening in late July at Mama Tried, a honky-tonk tucked away on the southern edge of Dallas’s Deep Ellum entertainment district. She was opening for Mike and the Moonpies and had just finished playing a few songs. Resplendent in a Texas flag halter top, a crisp white cowboy hat, and blue jeans, Dean adjusted her acoustic guitar and gazed out at the comfortably full venue.

“I’m really proud of this song,” Dean said of the next tune on her set list. “It’s a sad-bastard song. Thank you for being the kind of people who come out to hear sad-bastard country music.” As the quartet at her back—four men stationed behind a drum kit, pedal steel, guitar, and bass—eased into “You’re Lucky She’s Lonely,” enthusiastic cheers went up from those inside. The song, released as a duet with Canada’s Colter Wall in May, is Dean’s most popular to date. A smattering of singing along gave way to gentle two-steps in the crowd, as couples swayed along to the pedal steel threaded behind Dean’s piquant delivery: “I’d place your bet / On the heart-broke brunette / With the Waylon tattoo.” It hit just right under the venue’s neon liquor signs.

It’s not all shadows and “sad-bastard country music” at a Dean show. In person, as on record, the 41-year-old is all too happy to instigate some fun. “It’s time for a holler and a swaller,” she crowed a few times from the stage, hoisting a freshly cracked can of Lone Star beer overhead before enthusiastically gulping some.

Over the last five years, Dean has steadily built up a statewide following and amassed a fair number of industry fans—including Marty Stuart, Nikki Lane and Asleep at the Wheel—thanks to her 2016 EP Unladylike, her dynamic stage presence, and her formidable songwriting chops. But before any of the bright lights and big names, the Jacksboro native grew up taking piano lessons and studying music theory, continuing the tradition of her mother, grandmother, and aunt, all of whom were piano teachers. She first sang in church, but it would be several years before Dean graduated from altar calls to dance halls.

“I always did a little bit of music, and did a little bit of songwriting, but I never thought it could be a career,” she says. “There were some life things that happened—breakups, getting older and such—and I was writing out of pure authenticity, because I wanted to. I liked writing songs. . . . So I started to really try to write songs, and put a lot of effort and heart into it, and study it a little bit.”

That impulse to process her life through art meant—coming of age as she did in rural Texas—bucking the cultural expectation to, as she puts it in her press materials, “get married and have babies and a few dogs and die happy, buried next to our husbands.” Instead, Dean struck out on her own, initially dabbling in music as a hobby while she taught elementary school, and eventually diving in headfirst. She recorded Unladylike at the urging of South Austin Jug Band’s Will Dupuy and released it to regional acclaim in 2016.

“I started thinking, ‘Man, I really love this, and this is coming natural to me,’” Dean recalls. Four years later, she walked away from the classroom for good. With school out forever, she made a beeline for Fort Worth’s storied Niles City Sound, the predominantly analog recording studio on the city’s Near Southside. With producer Josh Block’s guidance, and backed by a murderers’ row of Texan talent—Aden Bubeck, Bonnie Montgomery, Whitney Rose, and Robert Ellis contributed throughout—Dean set about sculpting Bad Romantic. To record it, she used the money her mother had saved for her wedding as a down payment on studio time.

Dean blends bravado, vulnerability, and a novelist’s eye for detail to striking effect on songs like the mid-tempo kiss-off “A Thousand Miles Away” (“Another morning rolls around / And I’ll be singin’ when the sun goes down / I won’t sing about you anymore,” Dean croons); the wry, Latin-inflected title track; or the gorgeous, elegiac closer “Dear Caroline,” a bleak evocation of the Dust Bowl: “At church today, the preacher prayed for rain / And Mama hummed her hymns and sweeps the dust all day.”

She’s complemented, but not overshadowed, by guests like Colter Wall (“You’re Lucky She’s Lonely” reappears in Bad Romantic). Dean’s voice carries the rich resonance of her Texas roots, frays appealingly in all the right spots, and is tinged with smoke. The cumulative result is an accomplished debut, a collection marking her as a talent for whom it’s not a question of “if,” but “when.”

She completed Romantic in early 2020, just in time to watch carefully laid plans to promote and release the album be wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. For Dean, who also books her own shows and serves as her own manager, the jury’s out on whether having that much additional time with an as-yet-unreleased album was a good thing. “I had way too much time to listen to it,” she says now. “I feel like it’s the bonsai tree situation, where you can oversnip it and overdo it. I think there’s some things on there I overdid, but maybe people will never know.”

Dean need not worry about having pruned too closely. Bad Romantic is a smart, sharp collection of songs deftly navigating traditional country music’s twin poles—joy and sorrow—while also placing Dean among the state’s first-rate sonic artisans. Yet, for all that awaits in the coming months, she finds herself at an ambivalent crossroads. “I still have those hesitations,” she says. “I’ve made a choice. There is a side of me that is just a country girl that wants to stay home and make biscuits and raise babies. [But] I haven’t really set my life up to do that. So it’s a real pull inside of me—what I like and what I want. I write about that a lot. I think about that a lot.”

That attraction to a life that clearly disappointed her and that she’s chosen to reject fuels her artistry. Someone less sure of her choices might crack, but whatever doubts may tug at Dean, she knows her chosen path is the one she’s meant to walk. Country music fans might want to come along.

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