by Celia Almeida
I’ve spent many more Wednesday nights than I can count with the Adult Boys Thunderband. The Michael Claytor and Devon Stuart duo (and later trio, with the addition of Morningbell’s Eric Atria on bass) played every Wednesday for about two years at Flaco’s, then the Bull, and – unfortunately after I’d left town – at Loosey’s.
That’s one of the main drawbacks of living in Gainesville – most people eventually leave town. Gainesville is seen by many as a transient college town that’s a stop on the road to bigger and better things. Gainesville’s music community differs somewhat in that respect. Musicians find the city that was famously named the “Best Place to Start a Band in the United States” by Blender magazine in 2008 to be a comfortable place to call home with plenty of bars and venues that are open to showcasing both new and veteran acts, and a community of artists that is unfamiliar with the vicious competition seen in other well-known music towns.
Still, while Gainesville musicians often delay their departure because of these favorable conditions, other opportunities sometimes call. Such is the case with Devon Stuart, who leaves Gainesville after fourteen years for New York City.
I remember sitting at the bar with Devon, late on one of those Wednesday nights at the Bull, after the bands had finished playing and the crowd had gone home, minutes before the chairs went up. He’d seen one of my first articles and wanted to know when I’d decided to start writing and what I was interested in writing about. He spoke to me about writing truthfully, the importance of constructive critique, and not sugar-coating my writing. He was also very honest, but delicately so, about how accurate he felt critics could be when they were not musicians themselves. He probably doesn’t remember this conversation, but as someone who struggles with the balance of critiquing honestly while aiming to find redeeming qualities in all music in the age of the vicious anonymous comment section, his words stayed with me, and I think about them often while writing.
Here’s the truth: Whether the rest of the world ever finds out or if he just stays “locally famous,” Devon Stuart is one of the best songwriters Gainesville has ever known. As Eric Atria puts it, many of his songs “could be recorded by Tom Petty today and be a #1 hit.”
The first Devon Stuart song I ever heard was “Curse of a Drunk,” a song that, if he were to put out a Best Of collection of the songs he wrote during his time in Gainesville, would be track one. I remember going to Flaco’s for the next few weeks and looking down or closing my eyes every time he played it because I didn’t want these new people I’d just met to see how I teared up every time the second verse came in.
My favorite Devon songs have always been the sad ones (“Curse,” “Savannah Rain,” “Drift” – though I’m still not exactly sure what that one’s about) and the sweet ones (“The North Side of Me),” but anyone who knows Devon knows that he’s often the most hilarious guy in the room, especially after one or six beers. The beauty of his songwriting is that he can make you cry during one song and have you laughing out loud during the next. Sometimes the emotional roller coaster spans only a couple of lines.
Beloved singer/songwriter Ricky Kendall, who has played countless gigs on the same bill as Devon and toured with him, cites this quality, which he calls Devon’s “comically tragic approach” to songwriting, as the main appeal to Devon’s music, and credits it as being influential to his own artistry and stage presence. “When I started coming to Flaco’s to watch him play,” says Kendall, “I was pretty inward about my stage presence. My songs were very serious and autobiographical in a way that maybe would make most performers uncomfortable. Devon manages to be autobiographical and really relatable in the same breath. The live stage for Devon is a place to let loose, start a new band, try out some new jokes (mid-song) and generally to open up an audience to a good time. I’ve learned that I can do the same things and that the best kind of ‘tortured artist’ is one who can laugh at himself.”
Michael Claytor, Devon’s Brother From Another Mother and bandmate in Adult Boys Thunderband and Brewster Baker, echoes those sentiments. “Devon taught me how to not take myself too seriously as a songwriter,” says Claytor. “He taught me that real life has that sense of humor, and that songs feel more honest when they have it too. Another thing he taught me was how to write songs about things other than myself. When we met, I suffered from only being able to write songs about my feelings, and when I wasn’t feeling anything particularly acutely, I wouldn’t write at all. Then I heard Devon sing and he had songs about everything. It seemed to me that he’d write about anything.” Devon’s influence shows when one listens to the world of difference between Michael Claytor’s first album We Have An Elephant and his recent sophomore release My Trespasses. Autobiographical songs like “The New River” and “Hairpins” have been followed up by fictional, more playful songs like “The Fool I Am,” “The World’s Poorest Millionaire,” and the alien murder ballad “Annabel.”
Michael Claytor is the most prominent beneficiary of Devon’s undying support for other musicians in Gainesville. He calls Devon “a walking, talking songwriting clinic.” The admiration is mutual. I remember speaking to Devon on many occasions about the respect he had for Claytor’s songwriting and finger-picking style. One of my favorite memories of Devon is watching Michael Claytor play “My Trespasses” years ago outside the Kickstand. When Claytor sang “I’m not a kind or decent man/I wear my gloves on bloody hands/And the red shows through,” a drunk Devon jumped around like Yosemite Sam while yelling “That’s how you write a damn song!” The memory cracks me up to this day. Devon has always been in awe of his ABTB songwriting partner and considered himself to be the supporting act in the duo, which sounds a bit silly when one hears Claytor speak of everything he’s learned from his partner.
This humility (not often a word used for songwriters and front men in rock n’ roll bands) is what made Devon “the ambassador of the local music scene,” as Atria calls him. Continues Atria, “He was always playing or attending a show. He always brought his music around the state and country. He helped other bands come through town all the time.” My mental image of Devon is always in a Have Gun Will Travel t-shirt.
Sam Moss, formerly of Hundred Waters and current vocalist for Ricky Kendall and the Healers, Michael Claytor and His Friends, and many of your favorite Gainesville albums of the past few years has benefited from Devon’s enthusiasm and encouragement. “I think Devon’s influence on me has not necessarily come in the form recommendations for my stage presence but simply has been the instilling of confidence in my abilities as a singer,” she says. “I have been incredibly lucky to have such undying support among my friends in the music community here and Devon has always been in the foreground cheering me on.” When I began going to Flaco’s Wednesdays in late 2008, Moss was very shy and had to practically be begged to come onstage to sing with Claytor. Years later, with encouragement from friends like Devon Stuart, she’s toured through Europe and America singing with Hundred Waters and duets confidently with Claytor on “The Fool I Am” on My Trespasses.
Coming from South Florida, I missed the country and certainly the alt-country/Americana memo until right before I moved to Gainesville to attend the University. I was introduced through Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression and fell in love with many bands that fit under the wide umbrella of that loosely defined genre. When I first heard Devon, my mind was open to that area of music so I loved him immediately, especially because of his aforementioned mix of heartbreaking and gut-busting lyrics. I was a bit surprised at the enthusiasm for his music from others, though, because I did not yet know of Gainesville’s fondness for country-tinged music, and I thought my generation was overall too cynical to appreciate this kind of music which relies entirely on honesty and great storytelling.
I’ve spoken to friends who say they don’t listen to country music but they listen to Devon. I’ve always wondered what made him an exception for these kinds of fans. Sure, it’s fun to sing or scream along to “Friends in Bottles” and lines like “I throw up my hands and give into the crowd/Now I’m wasted and I’m callin’ it art” when you’re drunk, but it’s more than that. I asked his friend and ABTB upright bass player Eric Atria about this. He offers, “I think Devon uses country as a stepping stone and angle to get some sort of labeling for his music, but really he’s just a great songwriter. Maybe his voice or the repeated mentions of whiskey make it turn into the alt-country realm, but really he’s a folk, rock, and even pop singer in my opinion.” Songs like Brewster Baker’s “She Gets Her Way” and “Rearview” are some of the best examples of the pop quality in Devon’s songs.
Now that Devon leaves us for brighter lights and subway nights, we have the recordings to keep us company until he comes back to visit. I’m still holding out for that unreleased Brewster Baker album. There’s also his album with Snakehealers Cure All, the classic Taker Easy with The Takers, and the last gift he leaves Gainesville, Adult Boys Thunderband’s Abducted Again. The band pulled a Beyonce and released the album as a surprise on Bandcamp. It includes songs he’s written with Claytor over the years during their residencies at Flaco’s, the Bull, and Loosey’s.
They recorded the album in the span of two hours one night in February of 2013. Then, says Atria, “We then went out for Chinese takeout and gave up on the project forever. It wasn’t until Devon was leaving that I realized we’d never record again and I should probably re-evaluate the quality of the recordings. I pulled the old tracks out and was shocked at how good they sounded.” He mixed the tracks in thirty minutes and released the album a few days before Devon moved out of town. “It’s appropriate,” he continues, “as the last Thunderband recording” – a silly EP of a handful of songs and comedy sketches released on burned CD’s – “was ‘released’ at the last Flaco’s (Wednesday). Apparently, we only release music when we’re quitting.”
Devon got his own surprise on the Sunday before he left town, when the community of musicians he’s cheered on all these years organized a Devon Stuart covers night at the Bull. Friends like Travis Atria, Ricky Kendall, Fletcher Yancey, Sam Moss, Cassandra Polcaro, and of course, Michael Claytor played their favorite Devon songs and he ended the night with a set of his own. You can watch the whole thing here and reminisce on the endless list of memorable tunes Devon has given Gainesville. His songs, enthusiasm, drunk hilarity, and “not too shabby!” heckles will be sorely missed around town.Share on social media