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Band of the Week: Phosphorescent

Southern singer hooks Willie Nelson with weepy indie folk

July 14, 2010 2:43 PM ET

Who: Matthew Houck, a 30-year-old Brooklyn indie-folk singer from Toney, Alabama. In 2003, he began releasing music as Phosphorescent and recently earned a fan in Willie Nelson, who invited Houck onstage at Farm Aid.

Sounds Like: Seventies singer-songwriter rock backed by barroom piano, lap steel and distorted guitars — a foggy wall of Nashville twang. On new disc Here's to Taking It Easy, Houck warbles through nine tracks, mostly weepers, that are so personal, you'll feel like you're reading his beer-soaked tour diary. He covers road weariness on "Heaven, Sittin' Down" and his broken relationship on the depressing ballad "Mermaid Parade." Houck spun just three records while recording the disc in his own Brooklyn studio: Bob Dylan's Street Legal, Cajun-rock titan Bobby Charles' self-titled record and Ronnie Wood's boozy solo album I've Got My Own Album to Do. "I went for a straight down the middle classic rock record with a straightforward writing style," he says.

Southern Man: While Houck was growing up in rural Alabama, his dad listened to plenty of Seventies outlaw country, including Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits and Some That Will Be. He bought a guitar at 15 and got to work. "I wrote loads of really simple and probably bad songs," he says. Houck made frequent trips to the local library, delving into old-time, folk field music, especially the Smithsonian Folkways recordings. He ditched home at 18 and spent years traveling alone in a pickup truck, playing bars and coffee shops around the South. It's a period he doesn't like to discuss today. "It's hard for me to go back that far," he says. "It was a time of struggle on a lot of levels."

Willie's World: Last year, Houck paid tribute to Nelson on To Willie, a nod to Nelson's Lefty Frizzell tribute 35 years ago. Houck's homage struck a chord with the Texas titan, who called Houck up. "I didn't pick up — it was a private number," Houck admits. They eventually got in touch and Nelson invited his admirer to a show in Jersey where they hung out on Willie's aromatic Honeysuckle Rose bus. "He said some of the nicest things anybody's ever said about the record," says Houck. Later that year, Nelson asked Houck to replicate Merle Haggard's husky vocals on the 1983 duet "Reasons to Quit." "What an honor that was," he says.

Lost and Found: New track "Nothing Was Stolen" has taken on a new meaning since last weekend. After the band kicked off its six-week tour at Brooklyn's Pier 54, Houck awoke to some disturbing news from his bass player: their van, including Houck's1955 Gibson ES-125 hollow-body guitar, had been stolen. Luck prevailed, though, and police found the van and gear (in perfect condition) a mile and a half from the venue. "It's been a scramble these past few days," he says. "I slept in the van all day today."

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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