For a musician who's been on his own since before he was old enough to drive the tour van, stepping to the side of the stage could be a major blow to the ego. Not for Charlie Sexton, though, who has two high-profile support gigs anybody would be proud to claim.
The Austin veteran co-produced and played on today's Lucinda Williams release, "Essence." Even more prominently, he has been Bob Dylan's touring guitarist for more than two years. Numerous critics have saved space in their Dylan concert reviews to praise Sexton.
Reached by phone at a Dylan stopover in New York City recently, Sexton, 32, said he loves both the sideman and production work.
"It's a different kind of satisfaction," he said.
The jobs are especially remarkable because a) Williams is among today's most revered singer-songwriters, and Dylan is Dylan; and b) because Williams has a reputation for being difficult to work for; and Dylan is Dylan. One of the Freewheelin' singer's previous sideman, for instance, tells a story about working for six months and never even getting a "hello."
Sexton does not deny his two employers have their eccentricities, but said, "I find it difficult to question anyone who's that good of an artist. All the best artists are a little out there."
Of Dylan, who requires all his employees to sign contracts so they won't talk about him to the press, he said, "I can say the guy has been completely wonderful to me."
Sexton's Dylan connection goes back to age 16, when he did his first bit of sideman work with Rolling Stone Ron Wood in New York. Recalled Sexton, "Woody says, `Oh, Bob's coming by,' and I just thought it was some guy named Bob, not the Bob." Sexton joined Dylan's band on stage at two Austin Music Hall shows in the '90s, and by the end of the decade, he got the call.
Despite growing up on the stuff ("For me it wasn't Mother Goose, it was `Blonde on Blonde' "), Sexton said he listened to nothing but Dylan albums for the first year on the job. "I didn't want to be caught off guard," he said. Now, "It's a thrill night after night."
Sexton figures he first met Williams at age 12 or so, after he started playing clubs. Since she hung in Alamo Lounge folk circles back then, and he was more of an Antone's blues guy, the two didn't collaborate until 1997, when she needed a guitar player for a short tour. Later, she asked him to play on the final sessions for "Car Wheels."
"I was thrilled to get called back for `Essence,' " he said. "And it was much more fulfilling because I felt like I got to do a lot more on it, without it ever being anything self-indulgent or detracting. The heart and blood on the record was there from the start."
Even if he were not playing with these giants of song, Sexton said he would still enjoy support-player work -- especially on the production end. In addition to Williams, he has produced albums by Austinites Double Trouble and Michael Fracasso.
"I've always been more inclined to wish I could be on somebody's record, rather than being in somebody's band," he said. "Even going back to when I was 9 and listening to something like `Magical Mystery Tour,' I always thought, 'Man, that would be so cool to be on this record, even if it was just playing a single note.' "
The more Sexton plays on other people's records, though, the less time he has to make his own. The Dylan tour schedule keeps him out seven to 10 months a year, and when he gets home, his first priority is spending time with wife Karen and 2-year-old son Marlon. He said, "It's sort of a Catch-22: Baby needs a new pair of shoes, but papa misses the feet."
Sexton was supposed to put out a CD with brother Will on Interscope Records in the late '90s, but after three years of botched recording sessions and vast corporate shifts, the conglomerate finally let the pair go, along with about 50 other acts.
Still, look for frontman Charlie to re-emerge soon enough.
"After the (Interscope fiasco), I didn't write a single line for a year," he said. "It was all just so disheartening, I felt like I'd be setting myself up for the letdown. But the levee sort of broke a year ago in Stockholm, actually. Now, I'm buying pens and tablets, so that's a good sign."
Speaking of what sort of inspiration he's had toward writing new material, Sexton said plainly: "I've been in good company."