Last summer, as Bastards of Soul was finishing their second album, bassist Danny Balis sent a text to Chadwick Murray, the group’s singer, asking if they could talk privately. Balis has been playing in bands around Dallas for more than two decades, and he could see what was coming, for Bastards of Soul and for Murray, especially. There was a path they were on. Leon Bridges had recorded his breakthrough album, Coming Home, at the same studio (Fort Worth’s Niles City Sound) with the same producer (Joshua Block). Balis knew that Murray’s vocal takes lived up to that legacy, and he wanted to tell his singer how proud he was of the work he had already put in. Balis also wanted to talk to him about the very real possibility that a national spotlight was coming, and it was going to shine brightest on Murray.
“You’ve got to prepare yourself for that stage and that moment,” he says. “And I never got to have that conversation with him, because he died.”
In early August, Murray told his bandmates he was having trouble breathing and that he was going to the hospital. He never checked out. Balis won’t get into specifics, other than to say that the rare and sudden illness that took Murray’s life was not COVID related. The singer died September 1 in the same hospital where his son was born not long after Murray had slipped into a coma. “He never got to experience knowing his baby,” Balis says. “That, to me, was just the most heartbreaking thing.”
Instead of being able to hide from Murray’s memory, protecting themselves from grief, Balis and his bandmates are about to be surrounded by him. On March 11, Eastwood Music Group will release Bastards of Soul’s second (and final) album, Corners.
Corners finds a more assured version of Bastards of Soul, which makes sense because the group was still finding itself on 2020’s debut, Spinnin’, trying on soul sounds from Motown and Stax and Muscle Shoals and Philly, deciding what fit. The core of the band—Balis, guitarist Chris Holt, keys player Chad Stockslager, and drummer Matt Trimble—had played together in various configurations but never in a straight-up R&B outfit. And Murray, though blessed with Sam Cooke’s vocal cords and a natural stage presence, had never fronted a band of any kind, previously content to play bass and cede center stage to others.
You can hear where they were going, if Corners hadn’t quite taken them all the way there. It’s modern soul—just listen to Holt’s guitar playing on the opening and closing tracks and try to accuse them of being anything retro—but timeless, too. “Girl’s No Good,” for one, could have been released anytime in the past 50 years. Murray, like the greats before him, is able to pack an entire relationship’s worth of emotion into how he sings “It’s time to let it go.” It’s a gentle shout, honey and oak, the kind of vocal melody you can sing only with your eyes closed.
You can hear in those six words why Balis wanted to have that conversation. Murray was about to become a star.