Texas will always feel like home to Bo Depeña but Montana has become a tender source of reassurance to the Lone Star State balladeer.
“Four years ago,” says Depeña, “I played my first ever show in Montana at the Staggering Ox, in Helena. The show was dead, maybe six people total. But the owners liked what I did and we became close friends. In Montana, I’ve found the friendliest fans and groups of people that I’ve ever developed outside of my home state of Texas.”
Such mutual warmth inspired Depeña to write “Montana Sky,” an affectionate ode which in due course became the title track of the 2018 album.
“It’s a special song, inspired by how well the people of that state had treated me,” said Depeña. “At that time too, my friends in Montana had been struggling with the forest fires, and something about it has the undertones of remembering for us to take care of our wild and special places.”
South Texas Roots
Depeña, 32, was born and raised near the southernmost border of Texas, and the cross-cultural musical influences of the Laredo-area music scene imbued him with the spirit of what he considers “the best of both worlds down there.”
“There is of course hip-hop, but there is always interesting country music and classic rock n’ roll, and American Tejano,” he explains. “You get a group like the Texas Tornados, this amalgamation, and it all came together: country, blues, conjunto, ranchero music.
Eventually, I went to college in San Antonio and then moved to Austin and between San Antonio and Austin there is that hill country Texas vibe, like Bruce and Charlie Robison. It seeped into the repertoire, and so did the country classics.”
One of the characteristics of Texas music is its emphasis on showmanship: the engagement, the repartee, and the mirth of a performer. Depeña’s personality is optimistic and his stage presence is animated without being effusive.
“One of the things I took away as someone who was influenced by a lot of the Texas country scene, is that while music is supposed to be thoughtful, thought-provoking and good lyrically, there has to be an entertainment element to it too,” he admits. “Hill country acts in Texas put in a lot of effort into making well-crafted songs, and with a bit of a party element and by incorporating all the elements to make a show.”
Depeña says he is a stickler for a good quality yarn, a homey anecdote and a moving tale. The entertainer has learned that music is a fluid, supple action, and his set list itself is equally lithe and efficient when twisted to the quirks of the evening.
“The set list has to flow well in any situation,” says Depeña. “I’ll give it a little bit of a bang to start, upbeat, and a Western swing and fun tune.”
After the first few songs, Depeña says he engages with his audience and modifies the set list to whatever the vibe is in the room. Adaptability is an underrated feature of the performance experience and an artist must be in the moment and able to detach their sense of self in order to let the audience have the authority to dictate the pace.
“I try to be flexible and to be hitting the songs that are appropriate for the moment,” he says. “If you have an audience that might be a little bit chatty, I try to do songs that have a positive vibe to them that might feel uplifting, but not necessarily in your face. But sometimes it’s okay to be in the background. You want to be part of the vibe and set it properly and sometimes that means sacrificing a little bit of your expectations for the show. Sometimes, people are going to enjoy the vibe and the scene however they wish to. You just need to find the best way to enhance the scene and be what the audience wants you to be in that particular moment.”
Modification is the antidote to lethargy, and Depeña (who frequently performs as part of a full-ensemble quartet) has pushed himself hard to incorporate diverse sounds and tempos, most recently Western swing and honky-tonk deviations. This range is designed to, as he says, “keep the audience on its toes.”
“I have heard some records where it is the same vibe throughout the whole album, whether in tempo and or in keys and while each song individually may be excellent, put them together in a collection and it could be monotonous. I try to make the next song substantially different than the one before it.”
Stylistically, Depeña’s melody and mood are reminders that time is fleeting, goodbyes are numerous and we all need emotional resilience. Minimalism, or the art of running with less, is another tactic he says he employs in his songwriting method, having learned the fewer the words, the more cutting the tone and prevailing the point.
“One of my biggest influences over the years has been Merle Haggard,” says Depeña. “He really just had a chorus, a verse, and then it was back to the chorus. He limited himself, and he could still convey a big message. I’ve tried to limit myself to writing only so many words, and those songs seem the most powerful and have the most effect on the audience. Putting proper constraints on your art can actually open the doors and force you to be creative within a certain construct.”
Depeña has no qualms about flagging and vetting his own songwriting, especially if a word or a phrase jumps out at him as too stiff or formal or offends his sensibilities as unnatural.
“I don’t feel well about a lyric if it’s not something I’d use in a standard conversation. If I wouldn’t say it in a conversation, I will rethink it and simplify it.”
Depeña is cautious not to advance or give oxygen to whatever assumptions arise as to who he is. While he is commonly classified under the spacious name of country, he is clear that he is not a cowboy, but a person who grew up close enough to the vaqueros and ranchos to value its wild elements.
“Like everyone else I have my own life experiences. I would rather have the definition of who I am remain nebulous and ambiguous, and allow for the sound and the music to speak for itself. I’d like for fans of all stripes and sizes and political leanings to enjoy it and to connect to it.”
Bo Depeña Montana Dates
Judith Mountain Lodge, Lewiston
Three Forks Rodeo
Red Ants Pants Music Festival
The Murray Bar, Livingston
For more info, visit: www.bodepenamusic.com/