San Angelo, Texas, native Will T. Massey burst onto the contemporary music scene in 1991, at age 21, with a namesake major-label release that included help from Roy Bittan (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band), Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, John Fogerty).
National and European tours followed, with a music video on Country Music Television and an appearance on Austin City Limits.
"Like some West Texas Springsteen, Massey writes songs that give the commonplace events of life to high drama and delivers them with the grand gestures of a master performer,” gushed the Austin Chronicle.
Rolling Stone magazine called Will T. “an original voice from Texas,” and Time magazine opined that in his music, “the restless soul of Hank Williams matches up effortlessly with a rock ‘n’ roll heart.”
It was an auspicious industry beginning for a precocious songwriter who made his first album (Will T. distributed 150 cassette tapes of Pickin’, Poker and Pickup Trucks) while still in high school and followed it up with Kickin’ up Dust and Slow Study, with Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone and Tish Hinojosa. Seemingly, overnight, he was catapulted from living in a barn and working as a janitor between gigs at Austin’s late, lamented Chicago House (Peg Miller, Glynda Cox) and similar venues in Dallas and Houston.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.
The 1991 major-label release would be the only Will T. recording MCA would put out. Not because the company didn’t want to, but because Massey had stopped taking meetings with producer Peter Philbin (Bangles, Furs, Lone Justice).
“I remember Peter called me up and said we’re ready to release the second record, and I wouldn’t see him,” Massey says. “Then I turned around and asked them to release me from my contract because they were sitting on me.”
Whatever happened to Will T?
It’s a question Massey gets a lot from longtime fans and friends alike, and one he’s decided to answer fully for the first time.
Though he didn’t know it, Will T. had been gripped by a devastating illness. By then living in Seattle, Massey began to distrust everyone around him. Suffering from paranoia and delusions of grandeur (he was pretty good, he now acknowledges with a smile, but not that good), he was hospitalized against his will.
After returning to Texas, he was hospitalized again. Those two involuntary admissions turned the young singer-songwriter away from the medical profession, he says, and it would be 13 years before he had a diagnosis: schizophrenia.
“You know, it’s interesting; the video that was playing on CMT was called ‘I Ain’t Here,’” Massey recalls. “The chorus goes like this: ‘Reality is nowhere near/If you’re looking for me/I don’t know where I’ll be/I ain’t here …’ That was my big song while I actually was going crazy.”
In 1995, MCA released the singer-songwriter from his contract. Will T. was free and clear. Massey continued to make music for a while, but couldn’t get it together enough to put out another album. He drifted around the country, writing furiously, following bus routes and living in cheap hotels or on the street as his illness continued to further estrange him from friends and family. He even pawned his guitars.
By 2000, back in Seattle, Massey made a bargain with God: if an expected check arrived general delivery at the post office, he’d use part of it to buy a guitar and get on a bus back to Texas. The check was there, and Massey headed home, six-string in hand.
A friend – probably the last person in the world, Massey says, he hadn’t driven away – paid his rent and gave him enough money to scrape by. Her only requirement: he had to send songs to her every now and then.
In 2005, the songwriter who had toured with Townes van Zandt, Chris Isaak, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen and others, teetered on the verge of being evicted from his Austin apartment. That last friend, his “patron saint,” convinced him to seek medical help. This time, with some hand-holding from a cousin, Will T. found a doctor he felt he could trust. Massey walked out with a name for his illness and the medicine to treat it.
“My friend loved my music from the get-go and always helped me out because of the music. I don’t think I would have stayed alive without her help,” Massey says. “In a strange way, it’s because of the music and the fact that one person appreciated it that I’m alive. That’s the truth.”
Within a year of naming and treating his illness, Massey released two solo, acoustic albums, Acoustic Session in April 2005, and Alone, in November 2005.
Since then, Massey says, his reintegration into the larger world and his music career has been challenging but steady. In 2006 he released Letters in the Wind produced by Stephen Doster. Will Sexton, Charlie Sexton, Tish Hinojosa, Bukka Allen, Kacy Crowley and Lloyd Maines contributed. Additionally, he digitally re-mastered and re-released Slow Study, his effort with Maines from 1989.
In the 13 years his illness went untreated, Will T. missed a lot; not just relationships and business opportunities, but things the rest of us take for granted. Things like e-mail, the Internet and world news.
“People had to tell me: ‘You know, you can get the newspaper online now,’” Massey says with a laugh. “Online? What’s that?”
He quickly became a voracious reader and discovered that a lot of what had happened in the world during his absence wasn’t very wonderful. That realization was the seed of a a studio album, Wayward Lady, released September 9, 2008
The activist album
“It’s like I woke up from a long, bad dream, only to find out that the country I grew up believing in was gone,” Massey said on the eve of Wayward Lady’s release. “So, this album is really a reflection of that – my sadness, and my astonishment, about what’s happened during the last decade or so. It’s also a way for me to reconnect to a shared reality, to participate in this big conversation we should all be having about who we are as a nation and where we’re going.”
To make his 2008 release, Massey called on some notable Austin talent, including Mike Meadows (porterdavis) on percussion and cajon. Will Sexton plays bass and provides backing vocals, while longtime Tish Hinojosa sideman Marvin Dykhuis contributes slide and electric guitar, mandolin and backing vocals. Lubbock, Texas, legend Richard Bowden (Terry Allen, Bill Joe Shaver, Jimmy Dale Gilmore) plays fiddle, and Texas Music Hall-of-Famer Rosie Flores adds her voice to several tracks.
Reviewing the album for the Austin American-Statesman, critic Michael Corcoran wrote: “Massey’s gift as a tuneful, evocative storyteller has undoubtedly returned.”
Change of pace
The New York Daily News once called Massey “one of the greatest storytellers since Dylan and Van Morrison." It is that storytelling that today is the singer-songwriter’s focus, and while his last album said some things he needed to say, Massey’s next album is likely to be just a bit more upbeat.
“When people come together and imagine what I am imagining and I take them somewhere, I want it eventually to be a positive place,” Massey says. “It needs to reflect life and there’s a lot of sadness in life so some of those songs will be there. But to tell you the truth, I’ve written enough sad songs and I feel like the collection of songs I have now is the most positive I have ever had; I feel like it’s my best group of songs since MCA, actually.”
He records at least two new songs a month, and then auditions the new material with his band before a live Austin audience. Half a dozen local residencies over the past two years have helped with that process.
While Massey has always been able to call upon a wide range of talented performers for his studio and live sessions, over the past two years his shows have come to feature a group he calls The Truett Band: Dave Ducharme-Jones on guitar, Melanie Martinez on bass and Ram Zimmerman on drums.
“We’re not just a pick-up band,” Massey says. “I was really interested in finding people who would stick with me. My bandmates are really fine musicians, and they’re my friends, and we enjoy what we do together.”
Performing his new material live with the band, Massey says, is good preparation for the next album.
“We’ll put together the next collection on the heels of performing those songs live, and that’s exciting and gives me a lot of confidence in the upcoming release,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been building a house and, finally, I’m ready to move in.
Massey lives in South Austin with his girlfriend and housemate of seven years, photographer Valerie Fremin, and their dogs Inka and Pace (the Italian word for Peace).