Died and Gone to Houston

City is ready for another honky-tonk close-up.

Every Wednesday in Montrose for almost a solid year, Robert ­Ellis & the Boys have demonstrated how outdated the image of John Travolta waltzing Debra Winger around that vast Gilley's dance floor really is.

The same way people who have never set foot in Texas still think of J.R. Ewing whenever they hear the word "Dallas," ­Urban Cowboy created an image of Houston — "hard-hat days and honky-tonk nights," to use the film's tagline — that persists 30 years after the movie's release, and 20 years after Gilley's burned to the ground.

One recent out-of-towner shined up his belt buckle and put on his ten-gallon Stetson, just like in the movie, and was shocked to discover he was the only one at Inner Loop lounge Under the Volcano dressed that way. He should have gone to Mango's, where pearl-snap shirts abounded at Ellis & the Boys' wildly popular Whiskey Wednesdays.

The two-steppers at Mango's "Whiskey Wednesdays" often looked more like a crowd that might show up for popular local indie-rockers the Wild Moccasins or Young Mammals.
Faith Silva
The two-steppers at Mango's "Whiskey Wednesdays" often looked more like a crowd that might show up for popular local indie-rockers the Wild Moccasins or Young Mammals.
Robert Ellis (left, with drummer Ryan Chavez) says he shares vintage honky-tonk YouTube clips with many of the people he met at his Mango's residency.
Faith Silva
Robert Ellis (left, with drummer Ryan Chavez) says he shares vintage honky-tonk YouTube clips with many of the people he met at his Mango's residency.

Ellis & the Boys have parleyed their recently concluded tour of duty at Mango's to become one of the biggest local groups in Houston's indie and alternative-­music scene — decidedly not the traditional honky-tonk community centered around longtime venues such as Blanco's.

Both in size and appearance, the Wednesday crowds at Mango's — mostly of the ­under-30 variety — often rivaled those drawn by some of Houston's most popular indie bands, such as the Wild Moccasins, Young Mammals (whose drummer Ryan Chavez is also one of the Boys) and Buxton.

After doubling in size for the first few weeks — the residency began as little more than a glorified rehearsal on one of the club's off nights, notes Ellis, with him and his group of Montrose alt-country and indie-rock regulars playing for free beer — Mango's was eventually packed week after week after week.

"I think as long as contemporary music is trite, people will hearken back to the quality of the past," says former Mango's co-owner and Free Press Houston publisher Omar Afra, who just bought Fitzgerald's with his Summer Fest partner Jagi Katial.

Ellis, a Lake Jackson native who came by his love of vintage country through his bluegrass-musician grandfather and long-gone Houston stations like KIKK, says people at Mango's often thanked him for introducing (or reintroducing) them to these songs.

"This dude last week said something along those lines to me, how he grew up on it but never realized he liked it this much, and now he's going back."

At the same time high-profile summer tours are canceling right and left this summer — even country tours, even in Texas — smaller, more intimate places are drawing in patrons. And these younger customers are looking for vintage country.

Ellis & the Boys play a repertoire composed of the same Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens honky-tonk standards that have been on area jukeboxes for years.

"I walked in the other night and they did six fuckin' Ray Price songs in a row," says singer-songwriter Mike Stinson, who, after many years as a linchpin of the Los Angeles country scene, moved to Houston last year.

"Man, there's nobody doing that in California," Stinson adds.

Honky-tonk music has long appealed to both the well-heeled and the working class of Houston. It's just as popular with the Rice postgrads and Medical Center professionals at Under the Volcano, where Willie Nelson and Stinson's new CD The Jukebox in Your Heart dominate the jukebox, as with the moneyed, more conservative crowds who turn out in droves to dance at Blanco's on Friday nights.

Over at the West Alabama Ice House, Friday or Saturday bookings for Hank Williams Sr. soundalikes Sean Reefer & the Resin Valley Boys always make for a guaranteed packed house.

Next door to Mango's at Helios (now AvantGarden), kitchen-sink vagabonds the Sideshow Tramps held legendary Monday-night hoedowns in the mid-2000s. And Grant Street venue Anderson Fair has nurtured local folksingers for more than 30 years.

On a recent night at Poison Girl — by most accounts the ultimate Westheimer hipster bar — honky-tonk royalty Gary Stewart, Faron Young and Jerry Lee Lewis sounded forth back-to-back-to-back on the sound system. No one batted an eyelash.

None of these venues are traditional like Aubrey's in Aldine (where entering feels like a step back in time to the jumping local honky-tonks of the '40s and '50s) or the barn-like mini-Gilley's dance hall Mo's Place in Katy, which draws a mixed-race crowd of fun-seeking suburbanites.

On Wednesdays at Mango's, one of the bluest neighborhoods in one of the South's bluest ZIP codes has fully embraced red music, with none of the tension from when Houston's honky-tonk and hipster sectors have collided in the past.

Houston began to develop a small but dynamic recording industry with the spread of technology after World War II, led by Bill Quinn at Gold Star Studios (today known as SugarHill) and Washington Avenue studio ACA. In 1955, George Jones recorded "Why, Baby, Why" and, along with his handler "Pappy" Daily, turned Nashville's envious attention on Houston's bustling country-music scene.

Within two years, Daily and Jones had made Nashville their center of operations. In the early '60s, Willie Nelson lived in Houston, working part time as a disc jockey and full time as a musician and songwriter. He wrote three hits during his stay in the Bayou City: "Family Bible," "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life," maybe the greatest song ever written about honky-tonks and honky-tonkers.

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