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Mr. Renfrow Risin'

A fresh coffeehouse and some familiar radio voices shine new light on the Houston scene

Thursday night in H-town...The evening begins while the sun still sizzles overhead. I walk from the Press office down to Leon's Lounge, where I am to meet Swingin' 650 DJs Ronnie Renfrow and Ken Double, who, well, doubles as the radio voice of the Houston Aeros. But first, Leon's intrudes as only it can.

I arrive before Renfrow and Double, and the twentysomething barmaid and a tipsy old woman with piled-high hair are the only two souls in the venerable old bar. The barmaid is seated on a stool when I walk in, but heads back around the bar when I enter. The old woman has other plans. She extends her leg from her perch and rests her foot on the shuffleboard set, blocking my passage.

"I see," I say. "None shall pass, right?"

"Nah till ye glyhsfid," she says, cackling.

Not sure what that's about and equally unsure if I want to know, I put in an order for a Bud and a shot and stuff a couple of bucks into the jukebox. Which happens to be fantastic -- absolutely perfect for its location, and they play it really, really loud. I've selected a mix of Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Derek & the Dominos and Hank Williams. And what's this? A two-volume British import of all of Townes Van Zandt's best songs? Dude, I'm gonna have to fish out another couple of bucks for that.

CNN is on the TV behind the bar. As images of Israeli tanks shelling Lebanese villages unfurl before our eyes, the sighing, resigned pedal steel intro to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" sends the old woman into ecstasy. She harmonizes with Hank, and does it very well. Meanwhile, Renfrow enters and orders up some kind of lethal-looking whiskey drink, and we talk about his return to the airwaves.

Renfrow's been gone too long, as has his format, which migrated from KBME to KRTS to KIKK-AM, which is where it is now -- 650 on your dial. Houston radio is really weird -- the formats you think should be "cool" -- alternative rock, to name but one glaring example, are anything but. Renfrow's Swingin' 650, on the other hand, should be square -- in most cities, these "Music of Your Life" stations are for old farts who still dig Mantovani and Don Ho. But not here -- Renfrow and broadcast partner Tom Richards spin everything from Chris Isaak to Sinatra to James Brown to Waylon Jennings to Norah Jones. It's the closest thing we have to free-form radio anywhere on the dial.

And now it's back on the air seven days a week -- in afternoon drive time on weekdays and beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Renfrow and Richards man the boards, while Double, who has joined us at the bar, handles many of the voice-overs.

People might call Dick Clark "America's oldest living teenager," but in a couple of decades, Renfrow will have him beat. In between his radio spots he leads his jazz big band and carries on like a sailor on shore leave. Double, a former TV sportscaster who is immaculately groomed and is also a nationally renowned pipe organist, is not the wildman Renfrow is, and Renfrow likes to remind of that fact.

"Hey you Ted Baxter-lookin' motherfucker, tell Lomax how you met me," Renfrow says.

"I take umbrage at you calling me Ted Baxter," Double says mildly. "Anyway, I heard Ronnie on the radio and called the station and asked him who he was, and why he was having so much fun."

"Bullshit!" Renfrow explodes. "You said it like this: 'Who the fuck are you, and why the hell are you having so much fuckin' fun?"

Renfrow sits and ponders his drink. "Look at us -- a radio DJ, a minor-league hockey announcer and a fuckin' print guy," he says. "The three of us together might make one fuckin' salary."

We clink glasses and order another round. Meanwhile, an enormous dog enters the bar from the doorway that leads to the apartments above Leon's. It looks like a husky, but twice as big as a normal one. Renfrow starts to pet it, but the barmaid warns him away.

"He bites," she points out. Oh, okay. The dog heads over to the singing lady and curls up on the floor, blocking all entrance and exit from the bar.

"He helps us keep out the riffraff," the barmaid adds. All right, then. Let's hope none of us qualifies. Double is looking exceedingly nervous. He has a dinner appointment, and he has to go.

"Is there an alternate exit I might avail myself of?" he asks the barmaid.

"No. Hell, I'll move that sumbitch for you." The dog is moved and Double beats a hasty retreat.

One thing about Leon's jukebox that is not so good: It has a mind of its own. What you think you've played is not always what comes out. And now is one of those times.

"Lomax, why the fuck did you put this on?" Renfrow demands, the very second Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Knock Three Times" starts caterwauling out of the box. I deny it. Honestly, I really, really hate Tony Orlando and Dawn. But Renfrow doesn't believe me, and neither does the barmaid, and neither do the two guys at the end of the bar. It's time to go.

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