Sitting in the studio he built, Salim Nourallah explains how his current project with Marty Wilson-Piper was set in motion more than 30 years ago.
“It was the late ’80s, and Bucks Burnett, who runs 14 Records, sold me an album by The Church,” Nourallah recalls. “Bucks and I go way back to when my brother Faris and I moved to the Dallas area from El Paso to play music. Bucks looked at me and said, ‘You look like you’re in a band.’ I nodded. He asked if I had a demo tape — he said he had a friend who owned a record label. I raced home, ran into our glamorous apartment and told my brother we had to make a demo right away.”
Thus began a musical odyssey that’s resulted in Nourallah being one of the most recognized and revered artists and producers in North Texas. The recently released EP See You in Marfa is just the first collaboration with Wilson-Piper. An entire album by the two will be issued early next year, but the EP is a suitable stopgap, with Wilson-Piper’s guitar playing meshing perfectly with Nourallah’s Jeff Tweedy–like vocals and Beatles-influenced melodies.
But it’s Nourallah’s story that’s just as intriguing. Sandwiched between buying an album by The Church and collaborating with one of its members three decades later is a history of modern Dallas music.
“I was 21, and we worked on this demo of a song called ‘Desert City Sleeps,’” the soft-spoken Nourallah explains. “Bucks gave the demo to Dragon Street Records. That cool little label eventually yielded Tripping Daisy and the Nixons. They were confident George Gimarc on the Edge [the local Dallas alternative station] would play the song. All of that happened. That was the beginning of my professional career.”
Sadly, the start of Nourallah’s career also meant the end of his relationship with his brother. “That decade was marked by a lot of frustration,” Nourallah recalls. “By the end of the ’90s, my brother and I would no longer be playing music together.” The pair, in fact, haven’t spoken in years.
Wilson-Piper had met Burnett when The Church first played in Texas in 1981 at a long-gone Dallas night spot called the Hot Klub. “Bucks was one of the first fans of The Church, and he’s stuck with them all of these years,” Nourallah explains. “In 2018, Marty was coming to Texas and wanted to play some acoustic shows, so Bucks reached out to me because I’d been doing shows every now and then in this studio. In January 2018, Marty did a show with his wife, Olivia, who plays violin. We just hit it off. We have a lot of things in common. Marty is upbeat and positive. Anything that has to do with music makes him happy.”
The studio is Pleasantry Lane, a state-of-the-art recording and performance space that sits right behind the duplex that Nourallah once called home. Nowadays, Nourallah rents the duplex and a couple others he owns on the same street. Many of the best area bands have recorded in Pleasantry Lane with Nourallah running the board and producing albums, EPs and singles to be released on his own label.
“One of the reasons I started my label,” Nourallah says, “was I was tired of hearing people say there wasn’t any good music being made anymore.”
But Nourallah’s collaboration with Wilson-Piper has a special place for both artists. “It seemed like a good time to make a record with Marty,” Nourallah says. “We went to Nashville and tracked 16 songs with the band, five of which are on the new EP. Another 10 are going to be released as an album called A Nuclear Winter, which will come out in 2023.”
After the EP and album were recorded, Nourallah and Wilson-Piper did a Texas tour, playing Houston, Austin, Denton, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Sadly, the pandemic put more touring on hold.
“This stuff was supposed to come out in 2020 — Marty was going to come over, and we were going to tour, but we know what happened,” Nourallah says. “So I just kept putting it off. I waited it out. The Old 97’s, who recorded here, had their new album come out in the middle of the pandemic, and they couldn’t tour. I thought, ‘I’ll just wait.’ I’m fairly patient.’”
Nourallah admits that, at first, the idea of collaborating with Wilson-Piper was a bit intimidating. “It was hard doing these songs with a hero of mine from when I was a teenager,” Nourallah says. “It took me a while to come to the point that I knew I was good enough.”
The new EP and album should give Nourallah the audience he’s always deserved.
“I’ve been slowly chipping away all these years,” Nourallah says. “In 2005, I’d been playing in this city for 15 years, and I couldn’t even get arrested. I kept my head down and kept playing. A lot of other stuff was also happening. The relationship with my brother ran its course. He didn’t want to play live anymore. He was suffering from agoraphobia. I wanted to play. If you cut yourself off from performing, you’re going to vanish.”
Eventually, all of that playing resulted in a chance for Nourallah to join Rhett Miller’s band. “Rhett and I were acquaintances but by no means friends,” Nourallah admits. “He was always gone. When Rhett did his first solo album, The Instigator, he was looking for a band and wanted it to consist of Dallas people. Out of the blue, he called and asked me to play bass in his touring band. At the time, I was living in this tiny duplex. That was 2002, and playing with Rhett was the beginning of an important friendship and relationship.”
Around that time, Nourallah decided to produce other bands in addition to his own music. “The production stuff happened after I found out I was going to have a son,” Nourallah says. “I’d spent all of this time touring with Rhett. My son was born in August 2003. I was kind of freaking out.”
Luckily, a hailstorm produced a car insurance check, and the seed money turned into a piece of Dallas musical history. “I had the crazy idea I’d take that money and build this little control room in this studio,” Nourallah explains. “There was no window. There wasn’t a bathroom. My plan was to start recording friends to see if I could produce. I didn’t have money to buy any gear, so I asked a friend to move his computer and gear to my control room.”
Nourallah’s first solo album came out in 2005, the year his fortunes began to improve. “I won seven or eight Dallas Observer Music Awards, including best producer,” Nourallah says. “After that, I had tons of people who wanted to record with me. Eventually, in 2007, the Old 97’s called and said they wanted to come and make their comeback album, Blame it On Gravity. That album felt like the second chapter of the band’s career. When they came to record, I still didn’t have a bathroom. I guess it’s a testament to how much they believed in me. I mean, they were on a major label. They could have gone and recorded with anyone. That’s when I decided to build a control room. I took the money I made from producing to work on my studio.”
Nourallah guesses he’s probably produced more than 100 acts but can’t cite a specific number. But he does have a theory as to why his music hasn’t sold particularly well, especially in the local market. “It’s hard to achieve commercial success in Texas unless you’re doing music that sounds Texan,” Nourallah says. “Does that make sense? Many of the artists on my label sound like they could be from anywhere. They don’t have a Texas sound. I’ve been a Texan since I was 3 years old, and I love Texas — and I love Dallas music — but it’s hard making music that doesn’t sound like you’re from Texas.”
A lack of sales, however, isn’t slowing Nourallah down. “It feels kind of shocking when I’m sitting here in this studio,” Nourallah says. “I wonder how this got built. I know it was just chipping away over a long period of time. Now, it’s a state-of-the-art, posh, cool place. But I still see a garage with some crutches holding up the ceiling.”
Even though he doesn’t mind reminiscing about the past, it’s the immediate future that is of special concern. “When the Marty album comes out, I want to tour with him,” Nourallah says. “Maybe I’ll reach out to Rhett and the Old 97’s. I’m working on a side project of mine called the Disappearing Act. I’ve been lucky — I have the best job in the world. When someone walks through the studio door to record, I think ‘This will probably be a new friend.’ At this point, I hope I get to stay alive and do this another 20 or 30 years.”