3/29/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Baseball in the 'jeans' for Petralli's musician son
White Denim singer shares similarities with former big league catcher father
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
The catcher sees all. More than 20 years after his final Major League game and at the age of 54, his eyes are still fixed, staring to stage left but ready to peel off in either direction to take care of more important action. He's not wearing a mask or chest protector tonight, just a button-down shirt, dungarees and shoes that make sense. His quick tally has about 500 people crammed in here at The Live Oak in Fort Worth on this December night in 2013. They're all standing. He knows they'll still be standing for the last note.
The guitarist on the right side of the stage, Austin Jenkins, is finger-picking a fast, noodling lead riff. His guitar pick is in his mouth, to be used later in the song when the rest of the band kicks into a jazzy, syncopated, samba-inspired jam. Bassist Steve Terebecki, all spectacles on a cherubic face, is in the middle in a rifleman's stance, pumping every mite of his energy into the rhythm. Behind him, drummer Josh Block covers the kit like a bearded Buddy Rich. His sticks fly in perfect time to every tom and every cymbal while his upper body stays still.
Geno Petralli, veteran of 809 big league games, many of them behind the plate, sees it all. But right now, not far from the home he made for his family as a member of the Texas Rangers in the 1980s and '90s, his focus stays stage left. That's where his son James, White Denim's lead singer and guitarist, stands.
James Petralli, 31, is unassuming in an untucked white oxford shirt, jeans, glasses and three-day beard. The singer matches Jenkins' lead and fires into the first solo with his Gibson 135. He sings the words he wrote: "You see the great collecting sunsets/Driving tunnels in their cars/You see the other actors waiting/To take their cake in the dark." He eyes his bandmates through the well-practiced but still-bedeviling time-signature shifts that lead up to the slowed-down final flourish, a chord that rings out hope and makes his father smile.
His back hurts. Has for a few days, but James doesn't have time to think about it because his band's white Econoline van has just pulled in front of Neumo's, the Seattle club they're headlining. It's the night before the Super Bowl and the Emerald City is lit up in Seahawks blue and green. White Denim has just driven from Missoula, Mont., where they played last night. They were all over Australia not long before that. They'll be in Europe pretty soon.
James scoots across the street for coffee. He's wearing a gray winter hat and he's thinking about his wife, Elaine, and their daughter, June, who isn't even a year old. When his mind turns to family, thoughts of "Pops" aren't far behind. He remembers wearing his dad's No. 12 and catcher's gear in Little League and wandering around the home clubhouse at Arlington Stadium like it was no big deal, because it was just one of his childhood hangouts. He remembers the faces of the teammates who made an impression: Nolan Ryan, Jim Sundberg, Pete Incaviglia. Years later, he'd write a funky instrumental song for White Denim and give it the title, "Incaviglia," just because the name was as exotic as the tune.
James played baseball until he was 16, but by then he had discovered curveballs. He couldn't hit them and couldn't stop thinking about why he couldn't hit them. It was a whole lot easier to throw oneself into the wondrous freedom of not only the automobile but the radio inside said automobile. Cruising around town, James fell in love with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles , and that led to his first guitar, an Epiphone Casino Natural just like John Lennon's, at 17.
Geno knew his son was disappearing to rooms with closed doors and the homes and carports of friends to play guitar. He knew James didn't have the everlasting passion for baseball of his other son, Ben, who would wind up getting drafted five times and playing a season of independent Minor League ball before hurting his arm and getting a civilian job. So it wasn't exactly expected when he and his wife, Sue, were watching the homecoming parade for Nolan Catholic in Fort Worth roll by and there was high-school senior James and some buddies, playing rock music atop a float. And sounding good.
White Denim came together in 2006 and put out its first EP, Let's Talk About It, in '07. Back then they were a three-piece, just James, Terebecki and Block, making crazy, lo-fi, garage-jam noise. They kept at it and added Jenkins in 2010. Critical acclaim and audiences grew with each release. Jeff Tweedy, the frontman for the big-time band Wilco, took a liking and added White Denim as support during a 2012 tour. Gigs at major festivals followed, and so did the late night TV circuit: Letterman, Kimmel and more. In 2012, Tweedy invited the band to their Loft studio in Chicago to work on tracks. The result was several songs on White Denim's latest album, Corsicana Lemonade.
James isn't banking on anything. There's still no tour bus, and when he's standing in front of the van on a chilly Seattle night, waiting for his mates to reappear in time for soundcheck, he likens the sacrifice and the never-enough-pay and the road meals and the occasionally malodorous traveling conditions so close to your brothers in arms to being, well, a Double-A ballplayer, "or maybe Rookie ball," he says with a smile.
But when it comes to music, these guys are no rookies. Terebecki and Block studied music from an early age. James is still playing catch-up on those mornings at home when he's out on the porch strumming an acoustic and blurting out lyrical patterns and imagining how the instrumental parts will ebb and flow around the narratives. Leadership, more or less, and he supposes it does stem from his dad behind that plate for all those years, calling pitches, communicating to teammates, being present in the biggest moments.
A few hours later, James is under the hot lights at Neumo's, turning to Terebecki during the searing middle section of the instrumental "At The Farm," lost in the groove, sweating to get every bend of every note right. White Denim is in the middle of another sold-out set, playing their blend of 1970s prog-rock chords, Western swing, Grateful Dead further-seeking, Caribbean kickback, and, as James says his bandmates call it, "crazy redneck jazz." He bends over and leans into another pedal-tinged solo, high up on the fret board. His back seems just fine.
There are so many parallels from father to son, Geno says. Today, he's driving from Fort Worth out to Amarillo, where he's overseeing a job in the construction business. It reminds him of his own road trips as an 18-year-old rookie for Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, in 1978, fresh off his third-round selection by the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays didn't have proper documentation for some of his teammates at the time, so there would be the occasional four-hour drive to the border, the two-hour detention, then six hours of sleep on the bus rolling through hundreds of miles of quiet farmland in the dark. Best-case scenario had you waking up in a hotel parking lot.
Geno thinks back on the big leagues of his youth, where it seemed like you had to play five or six years in the Minors just to learn what your responsibilities were as a catcher and how to handle a pitching staff and be a winning player. He had a few stints in the Majors starting in 1982, but he didn't get 100 at-bats in a season until his first year with the Rangers in '85. He ended up sticking until 1993 and can fill books with the memories.
Sure, there was the first hit, a double off Indians starter Len Barker in the top of the first inning at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on Sept. 5, 1982, but the team stuff sticks out more, like catching knuckleballer Charlie Hough and leading the league in passed balls almost every year as a result.
Or the night in 1987, when a hotshot young teammate tore out of the Arlington players parking lot in his new sports car after a game, coming a bit too close to kindergartner James for Pops' liking. The next day Geno grabbed the player by his collar, threw him up against a locker, and told him never to do it again. He didn't.
Or July 31, 1990, when Ryan, sitting on 299 career victories and having been unable to deliver No. 300 at home five days earlier, called a meeting before his start in Milwaukee and apologized to his teammates for not getting it done. He was sorry for all the hoopla and attention. It was taking away from the team, he said. Geno thinks about it now, remembering how they told Ryan, "We need to score you some runs," and then did just that, putting up 11. He remembers being behind the plate for all 146 of Ryan's pitches in 7 2/3 innings and seeing righty Brad Arnsberg through the final 1 1/3 for the win. Most of all, he remembers the satisfaction of a goal accomplished. He says he felt it every day he put on a big league uniform. He tells James about it as much as he can.
James is in a small recording studio in Austin, and he's playing piano. This is a new one for Geno, who thought it started and ended with guitar and singing and songwriting, but then again, this whole thing is new for Geno. He's never seen James behind the scenes, only on stage six or seven times. The former catcher is watching today, though, feet up on the arm of a sofa and eyes fixed straight ahead at his son, who is laying down a track for an upcoming solo project. What will amount to three minutes of album time is now in its seventh hour of 12. Geno has already heard parts of this same song over 200 times today, and they just ate lunch. He's seen James laugh and fall silent for minutes at a time in deep concentration. The song has been broken apart, separated, dissected, put back together, overdubbed, laid bare and done all over again.
This is how you perfect something, and Geno knows it. You work at it. You practice it. You repeat it. You work at it some more. You will get frustrated and contemplate giving up and drop a ball and break a string. You will hit a home run and play an encore to a standing ovation. The one thing you must remember is that it takes time. The other thing is that you have to keep trying.