Died and Gone to Houston
Every Wednesday in Montrose for almost a solid year, Robert Ellis & the Boys have demonstrated how outdated the image of John Travolta waltzing Debra Winger around that vast Gilley's dance floor really is.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.
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.
Years later, Nelson's appearance at a Pasadena honky-tonk had a profound impact on another young songwriter who had recently moved to Houston from San Antonio: Steve Earle.
Earle was only 14 when he ran away from home to pursue his musical dreams in Houston, and instantly fell in with Anderson Fair regulars like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Eric Taylor.
"We considered ourselves folkies and we smoked pot, so we didn't intersect much with the country music crowd," Earle recalls. "We wore pearl-snap shirts and cowboy boots, but we had long hair, so we pretty much steered clear."
Earle, who says honky-tonks in areas like Deer Park and Telephone Road — where Magnolia Gardens native Rodney Crowell grew up playing drums in his dad's band — were "terrifying," thinks country music was such a huge force in Houston because of one thing: blue-collar jobs.
"If you wanted to work, you could get a job, so people just flooded into Houston for work," notes the musician.
"I always avoided getting any jobs in the oilfield or in the refineries because I just knew if I ever tapped into that kind of money, I might let music go entirely."
But back to that Willie Nelson show. Earle fondly recalls the evening as the moment when he saw some interaction between rednecks and hippies similar to what Nelson had started at Austin clubs like the Soap Creek Saloon and Armadillo World Headquarters.
"It was a weird scene, because it was the first time I saw hippies sitting up front on the floor at that redneck joint," Earle remembers. "And all the rednecks were dancing behind them. Some of those rednecks would kick some hippie in the back as they whirled past."
Earle calls what happened next a critical moment in history.
"Willie saw one of these kicks and he just stopped right in the middle of the song," he says. "And with all those rednecks just standing there looking at him, he said, 'There's room enough here for those that want to listen and those that want to dance.'"
Rodney Crowell, whose childhood memoir of East Houston hits bookstores in January, sees Urban Cowboy as a broad-stroke sociological parsing of Houston culture.
"Obviously in a script you have to take shortcuts, so they embodied all the bad traits in Scott Glenn's character," Crowell theorizes. "He's the tough, mean, somewhat cagey redneck capable of violence or petty theft. That was very much a part of the East Houston culture of my childhood, of Telephone Road honky-tonk culture.
"Then there's the rich girl, Pam; she's the embodiment of those West Side elites, exactly the girl that East Side guys like me hoped we'd hook up with," Crowell laughs. "It's a somewhat ham-fisted characterization, but in some ways it works almost perfectly for portraying that place and time."
In the mid-'70s run-up to the Urban Cowboy explosion, at least a dozen artists broke out of the Houston market onto the national country charts.
Former KIKK program director, Country Music DJ and Radio Hall of Fame member and 2010 Texas Radio Hall of Fame inductee Joe Ladd programmed Randy Cornor, Kenny Dale, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee and Gene Watson, who all went on to No. 1s and many other charting singles.
KIKK was the station that plucked Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" from Red Headed Stranger and turned it into a monster national hit, and was also instrumental in breaking Dwight Yoakam about a decade later.
"As program director, I wasn't tied down to a list someone sent out from New York or limited to what the big labels told me was the single," recalls Ladd. "My job was to find music people would get excited about. No program director at a station today could dub a tape of 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain' and tell the jocks to play it."
Ladd thinks the corporate consolidation of radio and the ensuing narrow homogenization of playlists have killed any chance of an artist being broken nationally by a local station.
"Nowadays, the only route is the one Miranda Lambert took: Get on a program like Nashville Star or American Idol or some other talent contest, and get signed by one of the big Nashville labels," says Ladd, who today manages country singer Mark Chesnutt.
"Back in the '70s, KIKK and KENR were in an intense but surprisingly friendly competition, and both stations were very supportive of the local country music scene," he adds. "It honestly seemed like any number of people had a chance to make the big time because they had a hit song in Houston. That doesn't happen at all anymore."
Johnny Bush, who grew up in Houston's Kashmere Gardens and is best known for writing Willie Nelson's signature opener "Whiskey River," agrees.
"Back then, there were a dozen major venues in Houston, and that market was red-hot. And the radio stations had an incentive to find good new stuff," he recalls. "If you played the Winchester or Dancetown USA or Gilley's, it was expected that you'd go by the station, call on the disc jockeys, do an interview. It was very open. That's all gone."
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."
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."
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."
Wood recalls the day he read then-Houston Chronicle music critic Rick Mitchell's column about the founding of No Depression magazine and the idea of a genre known as "alternative country."
"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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