Billy Bourbon started out life as Bill Kline and has been making music since the age of 18; Bourbon moved down to Texas from Nebraska 10 years ago to pursue his dream of being a full-time professional musician and has been doing it ever since.
“Texas country is really what I moved down here to start playing, I played in rock bands when I was younger and then I got my ear turned to Texas country by a guy up in Nebraska,” Bourbon explains. “Then I decided to go pro and I looked around at some places I wanted to move to. I looked at the East Coast, I looked at California, I looked at the Florida Keys, I looked at Texas. I wanted to be by the water, I wanted to see the ocean being landlocked all my life, and Texas was the one that won. I moved to Galveston and lived there for three years and then I moved up into Deer Park and then up over to Houston where I live now.”
Bourbon has released three solo albums since arriving in Texas: 2005’s Billy Bourbon, 2007’s Trained Professionals, and 2009’s Neverchange. In addition, he has recorded two albums with Guy Schwartz of New Jack Hippies fame, 2014’s Weed at Walmart and Guy Schwartz and the Affordables Live, which is yet to be released. Schwartz is also the bass player in the Billy Bourbon Band, with Greg Babineaux on drums and Bourbon on guitar and vocals.
One of the hardest questions for musicians to answer is how to describe their music, especially when they don’t fit neatly into any one category and they incorporate many styles into their sound like Bourbon does. “I always think I’m a—oh what’s the thing I wrote that I liked a lot or stole, stole and polished a little bit?” muses Bourbon. “Something like rock on the outside, country on the inside and creamy blues in the middle. I think I’m a blues guitar player, some people would differ; because of my tonal range in my voice pretty much everything I sing has something of a country flavor to it.”
Bourbon’s new album, the aptly named Billy Bourbon Rocks, comes out today. Bourbon says it is more of a rock album than his previous releases and features no pedal steel guitars and no horn sections, though he adds with a laugh that he actually finds pedal steel guitars and horn sections just fine for rock and roll.
“The thing I love about Texas is that at the same gig you can play a lot of different styles of music and people are going to be okay with that,” continues Bourbon. “The difference between audiences in the North and audiences in the South is up north, you play a blues song and the best looking girl in the house stands up and says ‘Why don’t you play something good?’; down south you play a blues song with a 7 minute guitar solo and the best looking girl in the house stands up and yells ‘Yeah baby do that again!’”
On the new album Bourbon used an outside producer for the first time, his aforementioned bass player and musical collaborator Guy Schwartz. “I watched Guy work in the studio when we did the Weed at Walmart album and musically he is more educated than I am; he knows things that I don’t know,” Bourbon says. “If you’ve ever been around people who are producers, he has producer ears. He hears things that you don’t hear and he hears them the first time rather than you having to listen to it 30 times. It was nice to let go of the control — I let him direct the sessions, and I let him decide when a take was good enough."
"The only thing I didn’t like about the whole process was I’ve come to learn and find out that I like that whole listening to something 30 times and dissecting it and cutting it; I like the mixing process. This time because of the way Guy works I didn’t really get a chance to be a part of that; I’m happy with the result, the album came out well I just didn’t enjoy making it because I didn’t get to do that part of it. It’s not sour grapes by any means it’s just I’ll know next time if I hire a producer that I’ll tell him that I intend to be part of the mixing process.”
“One thing about Guy, he is everyman’s stoner but boy he gets a lot of work done,” adds Bourbon. “When we did Weed at Walmart I was surprised because we talked about it, he said let's go in the studio, we did it, and next thing I know we had an album; very quick, quick deal. Some people get things done, some people don’t.”
I asked Bourbon for his thoughts on the songs on his new album and I’ll share some of them:
I used to tell people it’s my gospel song. I don’t really believe in organized religions very much because I think that they end up twisting whatever might be the truth if they even have a glimmer of it in the first place. The line in the song is 'Take all religions, throw em’ into the sea/ Let that holy water wash all over me.’ I could do without em’. I’m comfortable with my relationship with God.
'Roses Anymore' is about my first wife. I came home, it wasn’t any special day, it wasn’t Valentine’s Day, it wasn’t her birthday, anniversary, nothing, it was Wednesday. [I] brought home a dozen roses thinking, 'Hey man, I’m just gonna be the perfect coming-home-from-work husband like on TV and I handed them to her. She looks up to me and she says — and this is the absolute true quote — 'Why’d you spend our money on those; they’re just going to die!’ Knowing what I know now, she was probably suffering from depression, but at the time it kind of pissed me off so I went downstairs to the man-cave and wrote that song and it’s been a staple of my sets ever since.
I was playing onstage, I had a weekly gig in Spring for about a year and a half and I routinely played a song called 'Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette.' I got done and took a break and this guy walked by and said, ‘Man, every time you play that song it makes me smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke; I’m trying to quit!’ So I said, well I better write a song called 'Quit Smokin’,' so I got back up onstage and I made up a song. I had the recorder on and I had enough snippets to finish it up, so now I’m hoping the Cancer Society will pick it up and make it one of their advertisements.
'Delete' is one my favorite songs on the album. It’s about the sensation you get when you go buy a new phone and you go through your contacts and you realize, 'Goddamn, that guy’s been dead for four years' or 'Shit, I remember her; what was her last name?' That kind of thing, people you thought you would never forget but you can’t remember who the fuck that is, you know. That’s what the song is about and it came out kind of reggae; it’s a reggae-rock song.
Harris County Jail"
I had a guitar player in my band who was one of these really highly functional drunks that can drink and drink and drink and never really seemed to be too particularly drunk and certainly could become sober when he needs to. On the way home from a gig he got pulled over for a plate, or a license, something, whatever. He talked to the cop, the cop didn’t even search him he didn’t make him do any stupid human tricks, but he had an outstanding warrant for something or another, a minor traffic ticket or something. Because it was a holiday weekend he wound up staying in jail from Saturday until Tuesday and he told me how good the food was and how hard the beds were. So I said, 'Yeah, you know you’re getting too old for Harris County Jail,' and that was kind of the line that stuck that we’ve used many times since then, and that’s the crux of the song.
"Love I Never Had"
That’s another sad song also about my first wife; she wasn’t much of a wife, but great songwriting material. The interesting thing about that song is I worked in a mental institution, and a lot of times as a songwriter when you get done you’re all excited about a song and you can’t just wait to play it for somebody, right? Well I took my guitar to work and played it for a couple of patients that were on the ward and the one girl I played it to was there because she was suicidal. I didn’t think about that when I played it for her and she cried and bawled but she really liked it; nothing happened, it’s not like it influenced her in any way. It was a learning experience about the power even some little song that I wrote can have to the right person.
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Well, that covers Bourbon’s thoughts on the songs on the first half of the new album. For the rest, we'll leave it up to the listeners to decide what they mean to them, or just stop by one of Bourbon’s gigs; I’m sure he’ll be happy to give you all of the details behind them if you ask him. There is one cover on the album, the song “All Likkered Up,” originally done by Roger Alan Wade. Bourbon says he has added and embellished stuff he has come up with onstage over the years, describing it as an elaborate story-song. The other songs on the album are titled “Suicide,” “Tap-Dancing On Your Grave,” “Live Wire,” “Pay Attention to Me,” and “Just About Got This Man Trained.”
Bourbon is a friendly guy and we talked about much more stuff than we have room for in this article. Before we parted ways, I asked him if he had any final thoughts for Houston Press readers. “Support your local musicians, go out and see things live,” Bourbon concludes.
Billy Bourbon Rocks is now available for purchase at most of the major online outlets and at billybourbonmusic.com, where you can also find all of Bourbon’s upcoming live dates. The entire Billy Bourbon Band will join host Roark Smith at noon today on KPFT's Wide Open Spaces, and Tuesday night at Last Concert Cafe for the official release party.