Died and Gone to Houston

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

But the 75-year-old crooner finds his ­career resurging, and for that he credits satellite radio.

"The corporate stations squeezed the traditional sound out to where there's no George Jones, Merle Haggard or even Willie Nelson, not even their new stuff," Bush says. "XM was smart jumping into that vacuum with channels like Willie's Place and Outlaw Country."

"Because of the outlaw jocks like Dallas Wayne, I'm playing more gigs every year now, not fewer," Bush adds. "More young faces are coming into the audience each year, and most of them find out about me through satellite radio."

Besides playing bass for Robert Ellis & the Boys, Geoffrey Muller is a member of Montrose alt-country mainstays the Sideshow Tramps and I Am Mesmer.
Faith Silva
Besides playing bass for Robert Ellis & the Boys, Geoffrey Muller is a member of Montrose alt-country mainstays the Sideshow Tramps and I Am Mesmer.

The corporate-centered radio model seems to be in need of a makeover these days. Earlier this summer, when the multi-act "Country Throwdown" tour canceled its scheduled Houston and Dallas dates due to slow ticket sales, the Chicago Sun-Times noted, "When a country tour tanks in Texas, there's trouble."

Indeed. There may be trouble at the top of the commercial-country food chain, but at the grassroots level, there's still plenty of work in Houston for honky-tonk musicians, and at a wide range of venues.

When Mike Stinson moved to Houston a year ago, people thought he was crazy to come here instead of Austin or Nashville. It's a question that's been asked many times now, but why did he choose Houston, anyway?

"I just got a vibe from it, man," says Stinson, the author of Dwight Yoakam's "The Late Great Golden State," among others. "Life's supposed to be an adventure. I just rolled the dice and came down here."

He didn't crap out. Since moving here, Stinson has played well over a dozen ­Houston-area clubs and venues — from House of Blues downtown to the Cypress and Jailhouse Saloon on the outskirts — and now appears regularly at Under the Volcano, The Continental Club, Blanco's, McGonigel's Mucky Duck and, perhaps most surprisingly, Kirby Drive's Texas-­music/Red-Dirt room the Armadillo Palace. (Full disclosure: Stinson's guitarist, Lance Smith, is Press co-author Smith's son.)

Mentioning Ellis, Reefer and Blanco's regulars Mitch Jacobs, Johnny Falstaff and Jake Hooker, Stinson says one of the things he finds most refreshing about Houston musicians, venues and audiences alike is the lack of pretension. "It's a comfortable scene, and the good bands can get good gigs, and you don't have to book the friggin' places six months in advance," he says. "They've got a gig for you next month if you want one."

With its abundance of homegrown talent, recording studios and stages, once upon a time Houston could have easily become another Nashville. But, according to Dr. Roger Wood in his book House of Hits, Houston was the center of so much oil, cattle, timber and medical wealth that the city fathers never got behind the local music industry and nurtured it as a part of the economic mix the way other cities did.

That could be our loss, especially for those who rankle every time a certain city 150 miles northwest is mentioned. But while previous generations of Houston-bred musicians such as Jesse Dayton and Dale Watson eventually decided to pull up stakes for Austin, neither stopped playing somewhere in Houston once a month or even more.

Both Stinson and Ellis's success suggests that the current crop is much more inclined to stay put. Stinson says he's not going anywhere, and Ellis has a song called "Comin' Home" about how happy he is to make the drive back from the Live Music Capital of the World.

"I just think it's kind of a cop-out to want to move to Austin," Ellis says. "Why not just do it where you're happy? That's kind of how everyone in our band feels. We're all really happy at home in Houston, and we don't have any reason to leave. I think you could do as much with a musical career here as you could anywhere."

When he lived in Los Angeles, says Stinson, Houston simply "didn't register" in the country scene there. So when he got here, he was worried about being bored, but instead has gone to a "zillion" shows.

"There's never any shortage of stuff to do here, that's for sure," he says. "If you're into this stuff, it's going on all around us."

Word is getting around, too: Besides Stinson's brand-new song "Died and Gone to Houston," other recent entries in this burgeoning, but hardly brand-new, genre include "What Would Houston Do?" by Baltimore musician Arty Hill and "Neon River" by Jubal Lee, son of "Seven Bridges Road" songwriter Steve Young.

Stinson just recorded a demo of the song, and is thinking of giving it to Gene Watson, who has had six No. 1s and more than 20 country Top 10s since breaking out with 1975's "Love in the Hot Afternoon."

As for the specific circumstances that triggered "Died and Gone to Houston," Stinson says that the phrase popped into his head one day and put him in a good mood. "I was walking out of my apartment," he says. "I was going somewhere; I think I was looking forward to whatever it was I was about to do. I think I wrote it when I got home. But I honestly do feel that way."

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