Being a honky-tonker in Baltimore seems as unlikely as finding a communist cell in River Oaks, but Arty Hill is living proof that honky-tonk exists on the Eastern seaboard.
With five albums in his briefcase, the most recent 2011's Another Lost Highway, Hill has been making some inroads in Austin and Dallas the past couple of years, but Houston has been a hard nut for the moonlighting criminal attorney to crack.
And while many Texans may not have heard of Hill, Jason and the Scorchers have cut some of Hill's songs and he's managed to place his songs on other artists' albums and in films.
A stone cold two-step honky-tonk band, Hill and his Pearl Dusters drop into recently spruced-up Blanco's -- there's an all-new wooden dance floor waiting to be boot-scuffed -- this evening for the second time this year. We caught up with him via cell phone between court dates.
Rocks Off: Describe the honky-tonk scene in Baltimore.
Arty Hill: It's pretty small, nothing like Texas. The past ten years or so, we've really just sort of built a little scene there one gig at a time.
RO: What sorts of venues do you work?
AH: Bars, of course. But we also play barbecue joints, restaurants, really about any place that will have us. We're not very picky.
RO: So you just jumped into it one day?
AH: Actually, I'd been doing more solo, singer-songwriter type stuff for some years before I decided to try to put a honky-tonk band together. That was about ten years ago.
RO: So when you started, there wasn't any other honky-tonk music going on in the area?
AH: Not really.
RO: So how did you expect to make that work?
AH: Well, in the beginning I wasn't sure it was going to work. But I found a couple of little places that would let us play and we started to get a few friends and people who followed us. But it was a very slow build-up.
RO: What was a typical crowd like?
AH: In the first couple of years, if ten people showed up it was a decent night. Twenty was like a huge crowd.
RO: What is it like today?
AH: There are nights when we'll draw 100 or so. That's a really good night.
RO: Who are those 100 people who show up?
AH: Some are just friends who've always been there. But in the last few years, we've started to tap into East Baltimore and draw fans from over there to our regular gigs on our side of town.
RO: We're not familiar with Baltimore. What is different about East Baltimore?
AH: There are a lot of people from West Virginia who migrated to Baltimore for jobs, either in construction or at the port. And those are some hardcore hill-fuckin'-billies over there. But word about us has filtered over there and we draw quite a few people from East Baltimore at every gig now it seems like. And I'm grateful for them. They dance.
RO: You did a Hank Williams covers EP a couple years back. What was behind that?
AH: I grew up on Hank and he's No. 1 as far as I'm concerned. We go down to the big Hank festival in Montgomery every year. I had a song I'd written about Hank and so I cut that song and then did my version of a half dozen of his songs and we put out that EP.
RO: You've done well, had a couple of number ones on the Freeform Americana Chart that Third Coast Music is behind. What do you attribute that to?
AH: I think we just make honest, legitimate, accessible honky-tonk records and there are enough fans and enough independent stations and disc jockeys who are actually hungry for legitimate honky-tonk. Of course, Texas is a big part of that.
RO: You've made some pretty good inroads in Austin and Dallas, but Houston has been tougher. What's up with that?
AH: We've been lucky enough to get invited to play John Conquest's Not-South-By-Southwest shows the past three years, and each time that has translated into a little more exposure. And once we've actually played at a place like Giddy Ups or G&S Saloon, that makes it easier to get booked. Like putting a face with a name.
We also were able to meet some radio and booking people from Dallas when we've played John's festival, and that has translated into some radio play and gigs in the Dallas area. Houston doesn't seem to have as many venues that fit us, so I've concentrated on trying to break into the lineup at Blanco's.
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I'm friends with several musicians from Houston, Miss Leslie and people like that who've helped me get my name in the hat there. Now we just need to play some good shows and hopefully keep building it up. We certainly want to play Houston every time we come to Texas.
8 p.m. tonight at Blanco's, 3406 W. Alabama, www.blancosbarandgrill.com.