"You've probably never heard of me," singer-songwriter Scott Hrabko warns in a note attached to a copy of his full-length debut, Gone Places. "My musical career has been a textbook example of bad timing, missed connections, stops and starts and detours."
Indeed, there have been plenty of detours on Hrabko's musical journey. He started playing when he was 25, picking up a guitar after college and getting involved in some punk and electronic bands. By the mid-1980s, one of Hrabko's first bands, a cowpunk outfit called the Splinters, was playing a few shows around town — some with a young Iris DeMent, who was, Hrabko says, "a lot more rock-and-roll back then."
"I started writing songs, and right away there were sort of low-pressure situations where we could get gigs," Hrabko says from an armchair inside a Brookside coffee shop. "The Grand Emporium — it was a club on Main Street where on Monday nights they would just let bands play. The Splinters played there, and that's kind of where we got started. We met Iris somehow — I don't know, I think she worked at a restaurant there somewhere. She was writing songs and just starting out, and we wound up singing together and did some songs at Parody Hall downtown. That's another club that doesn't exist."
In person, Hrabko's countenance matches his humbly written introduction. He's ordinary-looking in a Bill Clinton–takes-a-day-off kind of way, with deep-set sea-green eyes and a head of hair that's a little more salt than pepper. He's dressed in a monochromatic blue plaid shirt and jeans, paging through a newspaper at a tiny, window-side table at Aixois.
Hrabko is 53. He gives up that information with a reluctant laugh. He'd rather just say "middle-aged." I tell him that he's welcome to give me a stage age, but he waves off the comment. He's a little self-conscious, perhaps because it's slightly strange for him to start a music career at this point in his life. But that's what he's endeavoring to do with the December-released Gone Places.
Recorded and produced mostly at Hrabko's home, with the exception of a few tracks, Gone Places is the second album that Hrabko has ever appeared on. (He was included on a 2005 album by local cover band the Original Sinners.) And if one of its 13 tracks sauntered through the overhead speakers of a local bar, you might wonder, "Where have I heard this before?"
"I don't necessarily belong to my era, in many ways. Sometimes I wish I was part of another era," Hrabko says. "Sometimes I write songs where I actually pretend that rock and roll never happened. As much as I love rock and roll, it's kind of blotted out a lot of music that happened before."
Hrabko's debut sounds like a record belonging in rotation between Buck Owens and Willie Nelson. It feels familiar, the way a classic country album would. Hrabko has forsaken anything resembling punk and electronica: Part blues, part western swing, Gone Places is an album filled with slide guitar, pedal steel and jangly piano notes.
"It's really the last 10 years," Hrabko says, "that I've decided that's where my home is and that's what I am."
The songs seem to have been made for jukeboxes or car-stereo sing-alongs on long road trips. Most of Hrabko's tunes are about the road, recalling places he has been — and a few he has made up. Some of them are new; others stretch to the early 1990s.
"This is the thing that is absolutely torture for me about music: Nothing ever comes to me in one piece," Hrabko says. "It's always, like, there'll be a line. It was tougher than jerky in Albuquerque. Those lines will just sit in a notebook, literally for years, until I have a place to put them. Writing for me is like juggling these little moments, these little scraps that I come up with over the years, and putting them together in some way."
The little moments on Gone Places tend to refer to women lost and found and blues picked up along the way. Hrabko can count Lyle Lovett as a contemporary; he shares a number of vocal and stylistic qualities with the Texas singer. Lyrically, though, Hrabko seems to have taken lessons from John Prine: With folk-taught wisdom, Hrabko is too witty to sound completely heartbroken. On the standout track "Lonely Satellite," Hrabko calls out cheerfully: From a frozen phone booth in Nevada/I can hardly hold the dimes/I dial your number, honey/A little humbler every time.
Hrabko, a video editor for a market-research company, understands the peculiar situation he's in. He glances grimly out the window.
"It's really a terrible time to think about a career in music. There's such a flood of stuff. And a lot of it is good," Hrabko says. "I was looking at a lot of stuff around here that came out this year and I was like, 'Well, I should have just waited or something. It's just going to get lost in the shuffle.'"
He goes on: "I mean, I have no great credentials to throw at anybody. Every band I've ever started lasted, like, two years, so there's really not much to say. I even quit music a couple times because I was just so fed up, you know? But I just had these songs, and I had to get them out there."
Everything on Hrabko's Gone Places is, like the man himself, understated. It's an elegant, confident debut album from an artist who sounds like he has always belonged, as though he has always been around. It's such a subtle offering that, yes, it would be easy to miss.
"I'm not trying to be a big star or anything. I'd just like to stay busy making music," Hrabko says. "That was my goal before the album ever happened. I just wanted to write great songs. That was always my goal. And in the end, I can't decide whether they are or not. ... It's sort of like, 'I exist. I wrote these.' It's a marker. Hopefully there'll be more, too, now that I've started."