A Trip to Bountiful

The Innkeeper is the best country venue in town. Too bad it's 50 miles away.

Maybe a little security. You kinda wondered what the neighbors -- all solitary men -- were up to. How does somebody arrive at such a place? What are all those people doing in there? One such, a shirtless, muscular black guy, was seated outside his room after dark on a plastic chair sipping a 40-ounce. When we drove around the corner and caught him unawares, he got up and hastily tried to look busy. (Cars could be heard honking back there at intervals through the wee hours.) So unless you're on a shoestring budget, crazy as Racket and family, or are a crank dealer looking for a cheap place to cook up a batch, go the B&B route.

This is where the Innkeeper comes in. The goal of co-owner Dustin Dean (two silent partners are also in the ownership group) is to see to it that you'll need to go to Richmond Road only to fill up your gas tank. Right now, his empire consists of the venue, an antiques mall next door and the Pat-A-Cake restaurant catty-corner on the courthouse square, but he wants to see to it that visitors to Wharton don't have to leave the square at all.

So his next move is to build an unusual hotel. It's housed in what was a professional building, and the owners are leaving in as many of the original details as possible. Legends like "Attorney's Office," "Dentist's Office" and "Insurance Agents" are painted on the doors, and these will remain intact when the inn opens sometime in 2005. There will be five handicapped-accessible rooms on the ground floor, with a maze of eight more -- including a three-room family suite -- at the top of a steep wooden staircase. The rooms will be decorated with period furniture culled from the antiques business.

The venue -- which opened in December 2002 -- already has benefited from this synergy. The ceiling is of embossed, patterned dark green metal tiles. Old couches and coffee tables are placed around the back and sides of the tastefully opulent room, which once housed a church. There's a red velvet backdrop to the stage, and in this and other, vaguer ways the vibe calls to mind a larger, older Continental Club. The sound system was superb on the night Racket attended -- from a seat on one of the couches in back you could detect every nuance in the Italianate jangle of a mandolin, and there's also a lighting rig. Dozens of beers are available in bottles, and martinis from plain to apple to chocolate are also on the menu. If this place were in Houston, it would be the best room in town, bar none.

And if you live in Fort Bend County, it practically is. It's only 50 miles from downtown, and probably half an hour down 59 from the heart of Sugar Land. You can pick up KPFT all the way there.

And as it happened, that station was playing Shaver's "The Earth Rolls On" when we arrived in town. Dunno if they plugged the gig after the song, but they should have -- the crowds were way off. Charlie Robison was playing 14 miles down the road in El Campo, so some of the younger set was in that town's Greek Brothers Saloon.

Shaver's band is a lot quieter these days. Gone is the nonstop ferociousness they exhibited while Billy Joe's late son Eddy anchored the band on guitar. Stunningly good multi-instrumentalist Bob Brown is taking most of the leads these days -- on fiddle, guitar and mandolin. On the whole, the band now attacks with more a Muhammad Ali-Sugar Ray Leonard rope-a-dope sophistication than with a Mike Tyson-style barrage of haymakers. There's even an occasional hint of cowboy jazz in the brushed drums of Mark Patterson and the bass of Beaver Nelson sideman Cornbread.

And all of it was perfectly captured by the sound system, and Racket took it in from a very comfortable couch. It was a perfect marriage of act and venue -- who better to see in a place like Wharton than Billy Joe Shaver -- also a product of King Cotton Texas? Shaver is perhaps the only Anglo guy still on the Texas music circuit to have actually picked the stuff as a child. He famously lost two fingers in a sawmill accident. His seesawing between God and the bottle through his life is as hard-fought and classically Southern a battle as that of civil rights, and Wharton's about as Southern a town as you can find in Texas.

(With this column, Racket initiates a quarterly series called "Get the Hell out of Town," in which we will chronicle music-related escapes within 100 miles of Houston.) The Innkeeper is located at 118 West Milam, Wharton. Mike Graham (September 5), Jason Allen and Texas Renegade (September 12), Jane Bond (September 13), and Omar and the Howlers (September 19) have gigs lined up in the upcoming weeks. For more information, call 979-531-0105.

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