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A Trip to Bountiful

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

As Billy Joe Shaver played his 1940s-style "The Good Ol' USA," only the eightysomething guy in the old Stetson and the UT golf shirt knew the moves. Dancing with a pretty blond some 50 years his junior, the natty old fellow was truly cutting a rug, as they used to say, even if his steps were a little arthritic. Since the swing revival of the late '90s never truly reached Wharton, Texas -- where this little tableau was being enacted -- his youthful dance partner could only watch as the old guy stiffly but enthusiastically ran through his quicksteps and lindy hops. Young guys in ball caps and older fellows in cowboy duds looked on and smiled. Then Billy Joe shifted gears. The band revved up "Georgia on a Fast Train," and the old guy shuffled back to his Coke at the bar. The ball caps and cowboy hats and their dates clustered close to the stage and sang along… I got all my country learnin' / Milkin' and a churnin' / Pickin' cotton, raisin' hell, and bailin' hay.

Since this was Wharton, some of those fans may even have been telling the truth while they sang along. Usually only Billy Joe can make that claim.

Tooling around Pollstar.com a couple of weeks ago, Racket happened to notice that Billy Joe Shaver was playing in Wharton at a place called the Innkeeper. Billy Joe? In Wharton? What is this place called the Innkeeper?

A few more clicks and it became apparent that a road trip was in order. Wharton is only 50 miles from Chez Racket, and from the look of its Web site, this joint was something different from your run-of-the-mill Texas dance hall. First off, it's not a roadhouse -- it's smack-dab in downtown Wharton, directly across the street from the county courthouse. What's more, it bills itself quite urbanely as an "ale house and martini bar." Then there's the fact that it has a 6,500-square-foot hardwood dance floor, an adjacent antique mall and an under-construction hotel next door and upstairs.

And then there's the fact that Billy Joe Shaver is Texas's greatest living songwriter, a character straight out of William Faulkner. Or maybe not -- if Faulkner ever created a character like Billy Joe -- a craggily handsome, hard-drinking, two-fisted former field hand/sawmill worker who is also a man of a forgiving religious faith and one of the great poets of our time -- he probably would have been scoffed at. Such a character would seem like an unbelievable Southern gothic superman. Then to put that guy through the kind of Job-like travails Shaver has endured: the loss of his wife, mother and son in three short years that must have passed like decades… The author of a story like that would be sadistic as well as implausible.

But then Billy Joe's kinda like God -- if he didn't exist, someone would have to invent him.

Yep, no question. It was time to load up the Racketmobile and get the hell out of town.

Wharton is a somewhat schizophrenic place. It sits in a black-soiled sea of cotton, albeit one dotted by islands of rangeland, peach orchards and pecan groves. Wisps of raw cotton lie tangled in the grass along the roadsides leading in and out of town. Downtown Wharton is dense and shady -- red-brick Victorian buildings crowd in concentric squares around the 1888 courthouse, which stands a block from the green and swift-flowing Colorado River. If it weren't for the cowboy hats and Mexican restaurants, you'd think you were in Mississippi or Alabama, especially when you contrast Wharton with El Campo, Wharton County's second city, which is as sun-baked and open as Wharton is leafy and green.

Two world-famous men have put Wharton on the map. One -- Dan Rather -- left town long ago and has never come back for any great length of time. The tiny house he grew up in -- little more than a shotgun shack, really -- has been moved to the grounds of the Wharton Historical Society. Who knows? Perhaps within those walls dwells the secret of where the frequency lies, Kenneth.

The other -- playwright/screenwriter/author Horton Foote -- returned home after stays in New York and Los Angeles. Like Faulkner, Foote has spent the better part of his professional career fictionalizing and chronicling the slow death of the Old South in his hometown.

One such manifestation, and one that Foote is on the record as particularly loathing, is along Richmond Road, once the town's grand, mansion-lined boulevard. It's where most of the gas stations, tire barns and, most important for Racket and family, cheap motels stand today. Ours was a classic 1960s effort. It was cleaner than most of its ilk, and it did have a pool, albeit one with the paint flaking off the bottom. And yes, the water's surface was sprinkled with dead dragonflies, and somehow the chlorine level was gentle enough to allow a colony of waterbugs to thrive in its depths, but hell, at least the water was wet. There were even a couple of palm trees. What do you expect for 40-odd bucks?

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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