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Honky-Tonk Revival

Is Houston ready for country? Again?

There's a new fad taking hold on the hipster-crowded streets of deepest, darkest Montrose. Except this "fad" should be familiar to anyone who grew up in Texas and spent any time at all listening to music, whether the radio or their parents' record collections.

For the past six weeks or so, 21-year-old Houston singer-songwriter Robert Ellis ["Enjoy the Silence," Noise, July 9] and a few of his musical friends — including guitarist Austin Sepulvado and Ellis's I Am Mesmer bandmates Hilary Sloan (fiddle), Geoffrey Muller (banjo, bass) and Wil van Horn (pedal steel) — have been turning Mango's into the Inner Loop's hottest honky-tonk, cranking out a steady stream of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Johnny Paycheck at their free Wednesday-night gigs as Robert Ellis & the Boys.

So far Ellis estimates the attendance has been increasing by about 20 people a week, both Montrosians and older folks who wouldn't dream of setting foot inside Domy Books or Poison Girl. Their most recent show, he says, was "as full as a weekend night." With a capacity of around 100-150 people, Mango's gets very full most weekend nights.

Ellis & the Boys' repertoire spans about 40 years, from Hank Williams to Dwight Yoakam (see Playbill). Although like most Texans, he was already familiar with Nelson, Haggard, etc., Ellis says his personal taste previously ran more towards the bluegrass side of country music. He credits van Horn with hipping him to lesser-known — at least to people his age — honky-tonk artists such as Price, Paycheck, John Rich and Don Williams.

Ellis says revisiting the music of artists like Yoakam struck a chord in him he didn't even realize was there.

"Coming back and listening to it, I was like, 'Man, I remember this song from when I was a kid,'" he says. "But when I was a kid, I never realized how cool it was, I guess. I think everyone here just has a place in their heart for country music."

Perhaps even more encouragingly, Ellis & the Boys recently ventured far outside the Montrose, hosting the open-mike night at Blanco's, the West Alabama roadhouse whose normal fare includes up-and-coming Texas Music/Red Dirt performers and established honky-tonkers like Dale Watson, James Hand and Johnny Falstaff.

The band even managed to slip an original song or two into a set heavy on Nelson, Haggard and Bob Wills, but the older crowd of Blanco's regulars didn't seem to mind, as several couples were up and dancing in no time. Ellis says their warm response was even more gratifying than compliments he gets from people his own age at Mango's.

"A lot of the people were excited that younger people were into the same kind of music they're into," he says. "That was a specific compliment we got from a couple people, like, 'Man, this is really cool. We don't get to see too many young people that are into all this music we're into.'"

Not even two years ago, it seemed like honky-tonk in Houston was on its way out (see "What Happened to Honky-Tonk in Houston," Racket, January 22, 2008), a victim of changing musical tastes, little radio play and artists such as Watson and Jesse Dayton moving to the friendlier climate of Austin. Some of the problems persist — the lack of radio exposure for emerging traditional country artists outside KPFT's Lone Star Jukebox, to name one big one — but live, anyway, it seems that tune is beginning to change.

Since moving to Houston this past summer, L.A. transplant Mike Stinson's monthly shows at Under the Volcano have been steadily growing a crowd (he returns December 2), as have Houston-area honky-tonk queen Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers' Sunday-evening shows at the Continental Club; Leslie says the Internet has been an invaluable tool — if not the only tool — in reaching out to potential new fans.

Many a weekend night, Sean Reefer & the Resin Valley Boys do their hemped-up Hank Williams thing to a packed house at the West Alabama Ice House, and honky-tonk is a fundamental component (if far from the only one) of Billy Joe Shaver bassist Nick Gaitan's pan-Gulf Coast band the Umbrella Man, which releases its first CD at the Continental Club this coming Tuesday.

Meanwhile, back at Mango's, Ellis & the Boys continue to impress an ever-growing crowd of young Houstonians whose tastes in twang, if they even had any, were probably more Wilco and Ryan Adams than Willie Nelson. (Though really — and this is crucial — who doesn't love Willie Nelson?)

Some of them may be doing it for the usual ironic reasons, he admits, and thus may well move on to the next hip trend that comes along. But he doubts it.

"Honestly, I don't feel it's like a kitsch-type thing with the people who are coming out here," he says."I really feel like they're just looking to have a good time, and everyone wants to dance."

Then strike up the band, Boys. Stay all night.

Robert Ellis & the Boys play Wednesdays around 9 p.m. at Mango's, 403 Westheimer, 713-522-8903 or www.mangoscafehouston.com.
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