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New Band, Old Country

The Hollisters rise from the Rounders' ashes, and head for the honky-tonk

Times are tough for honky-tonkers in this once proud land of the twangy guitar. It used to be that a good old boy could slip into his Wranglers, grab his sweetie and two-step his heart out at any number of establishments that catered to a live country audience. But Gilley's burned down long ago, Local Charm finally cried uncle last year and the rest of those ersatz country clubs seem quite content to serve up canned music along with their free buffets.

So here are the Hollisters, a real pearl-snaps-and-denim American roots band, playing in, of all places, Seabrook. It's a basic meat market called The Classic Cafe. The Hollisters, the group that recently rose from the ashes of the disbanded Rounders, are set up in a parking lot, on a makeshift stage with one small rack of portable stage lights casting primary colors on the band members' faces.

Behind this stage looms a pyramid-shaped building that houses an insurance company and a yacht broker. Several cars are parked within inches of the right side of the stage, while to the left several sailboat masts stand at attention in their slips on Clear Lake. Truth to tell, the sailboats are probably paying more attention to the band than these non-paying customers, who straggle around the fringe of the nearby bar tent and talk loudly.

It's only 10:30 p.m. and the Hollisters are already calling it a night. The quartet -- led by vocalist Mike Barfield and guitarist Eric Danheim, the pair who founded the Rounders in 1986 -- has, more or less, manufactured an encore despite a less-than-encouraging audience response. One drunk yells out for "Freebird," which prompts someone else, with much more sense, to reply, "No, we don't wanna hear 'Freebird.' We wanna hear something we can dance to." The Hollisters fill that latter request with a crack version of the old Webb Pierce staple "Honky Tonk." Several couples take to the concrete dance floor and do the best two-stepping that cement, humidity and alcohol allow.

This is the state of honky-tonk in Houston.
The Hollisters, however, don't take such a myopic view of the situation. The band looks at the broader picture and sees hopeful signs. They see the glowing reviews for Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, two longtime purveyors of Texas music. They notice that Oakland, California-based Hightone Records has cottoned to Texas music, releasing discs by the likes of Rosie Flores and Dale Watson. They note the early hoopla over Jesse Dayton's debut CD on Justice, Raisin' Cain, and they point to two upcoming independent compilation discs featuring mostly Austin-based roots artists. The Hollisters, in fact, will be the only Houston band on one of those compilations, True Sounds of the New West, due out this month on Austin's Freedom Records.

"I think the tide in country is rolling over again," Danheim says, "like it was in the early '80s with Dwight Yoakam."

Barfield and Danheim aren't exactly new to this honky-tonk business. Both are East Texas boys, through and through. They kind of delight in their hick-chic ways. Barfield, with his mutton-chop sideburns and ubiquitous cowboy hat, is a walking anachronism. Danheim looks slightly more hip with his Western shirt, horn-rim glasses and modest pompadour. Neither is as simple as he lets on. Both have extensive resumes, and both understand how to play the music business game.

These men know tough decisions are part of that business, and the first such decision these Hollisters had to make was to break up a Houston institution -- the Rounders. Barfield and Danheim dance around the subject of the Rounders' dissolution, neither seeming comfortable with the idea of discussing it. When a waitress at Dave and Lydia's Cafe strolls over and pegs the musicians, she asks, "What happened to the Rounders?" Danheim, appropriately enough, falls back on a food metaphor.

"The same old enchilada gets old after awhile," he says.
Barfield injects, "It was time to move on."
That seems to be the company line -- musical stagnation and boredom. Last summer, when Danheim returned to Houston after a six-year stint in the Austin music scene, he and Barfield tried to make one last go with the Rounders. But Danheim dropped out after eight months, happy with neither the twin-guitar approach of the band nor the rock slant the Rounders were taking. But Danheim maintained his close ties with Barfield; early this year, they quietly woodshedded in Danheim's cramped garage apartment on a concept that would eventually become the Hollisters. After all, Danheim insists, he basically returned to Houston for one reason: to work with Mike Barfield.

The fact that Barfield and Danheim are together again at all is a testament to their friendship and strong musical bond. When Danheim first left the Rounders in 1988, just two years after launching the band, Barfield felt angry and betrayed. He understood that Danheim was chasing a dream -- the guitarist had been asked to join Monte Warden's Wagoneers, which at the time was signed to RCA -- but that didn't ease his hurt feelings.

"I was pissed off," Barfield recalls. "I knew it was going to be hard for me [to replace him]."

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