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Ironically, the corporate purge of honky-tonk from country radio may have indirectly led to Robert Ellis & the Boys' unlikely success.
In the early '90s, the major record labels began consolidating their rosters, more or less purging them of anyone less poppy than Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire. Until then, artists like Earle, Crowell and Lyle Lovett, traditional-leaning in sound but a sight more liberal in their lyrics, had been able to make a living in Nashville through both their own record sales and selling songs to other artists.
Coupled with constantly touring groups like the Blasters and Rank & File, who played honky-tonk with a hard punk-rock edge, these men's virtual exile from Music Row created a genre that soon came to be known as "alternative country."
During those years, Houston never produced a breakthrough act on the order of St. Louis's Uncle Tupelo or Nashville's Jason & the Scorchers. Whenever alt-country journal No Depression turned its eyes toward Texas, Austin-based artists like Alejandro Escovedo, the Gourds and Junior Brown, or North Texans such as Slobberbone and the Old 97's, drew most of the ink.
Nevertheless, the city has always had a healthy alt-country scene, from the days of Horseshoe, Jesse Dayton's Road Kings and the Hollisters in the '90s through the many bands that regularly play Walter's on Washington and Mango's today: Sideshow Tramps, Literary Greats, Buxton, Grandfather Child, Come See My Dead Person, I Am Mesmer and Small Sounds, to name a few. At the same time, artists like Sean Reefer, Miss Leslie and Her Juke-Jointers and Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man have watered the city's roots-music tree from the more traditional side of the tracks.
These artists have all laid the kind of groundwork that has enabled Robert Ellis & the Boys to thrive in a climate seemingly so far away from the music's origins and traditional audience.
Greg Wood, the mercurial, enigmatic, reclusive leader of Horseshoe, arguably Houston's first true alt-country band, recalls a moment in late 1993 when "it seemed almost like we were a one-of-a-kind band." Virtually his entire generation had abandoned country music, Wood says, and the cool kids were all into rock.
"So when we formed Horseshoe, we were basically a rock band, but within just a little while we began laying country stuff into our sets, doing the long-haired redneck thing because we truly liked the old-school country stuff," he says. "And of course we were happy that our audience, meager as it was, liked it. I'm sure sometimes people took it as a goof, but we meant it."
"I remember thinking, 'Whoa, we're not alone here anymore,'" he says. "It made me kinda sad. We honestly enjoyed the fact that there weren't many 'civilians' just walking in to check us out, that the audience was from way underground and looking for something new and somewhat unique. Of course, over time, that was holding us back, too."
Jumping forward 15 years to the Wednesday-night scene at Mango's, Wood notes that Ellis and his band's country classics come loudly and with lots of rock muscle.
"If Merle Haggard was just getting started today, he'd be more rocking and hard-edged like that," he says. "We're all a product of our times."
At most of Ellis's Whiskey Wednesdays, Mango's might as well have been Poison Girl. Tattoos and piercings were plentiful, of course, along with stiletto heels, flip-flops, Vans and cowboy boots.
Both gay and straight couples — or men happily dancing with men and women with women, anyway — two-stepped to Dwight Yoakam, Johnny Paycheck and George Jones. Others hung in small knots and dug the scene. The bar sometimes ran out of Lone Star longnecks well before last call.
"I don't see it as a fad, I see it as some things just take longer to be acceptable and be cool again. This kind of music took 60, 70 years," laughs Omar Afra, the new part owner of Fitzgerald's.
After the Boys' July 21 show, Robert Ellis announced on Facebook that the band was taking a break and would restart the Whiskey Wednesdays series at Fitzgerald's in late September. But in their Mango's wake is proof that a lot of under-30 folks, at least in Houston, are turning out to two-step their way through the old standards.
The buzz that Ellis & the Boys started at Mango's has gone online. "A lot of these people are my Facebook friends now, so we're exchanging YouTube videos and looking at new stuff," he says. "I feel like there's a lot more people responding to that than before I had this whole thing."
Ellis thinks most of the Whiskey Wednesday crowds will follow him to Fitzgerald's next month, and Afra agrees. "In a simple way to put it, it's just fun," he says. "Look at how many people are dancing."
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