Kevin Fowler at the Rodeo Cookoff, 3/1/2014
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Kevin Fowler World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, Reliant Park March 1, 2014
Because it's swirled together with so many other events, the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest feels somehow underestimated in Houston's annual onset of rodeo fever. The trail riders get plenty of coverage before arriving at Memorial Park, the downtown parade blankets local TV and digital media, but a handful of reporters smacking their lips over plates of ribs and sausage for a couple of days doesn't quite do justice to the cookoff's sheer Texan magnitude.
Maybe this will: this past Thursday through Saturday, a full quarter of a million people streamed into a tent city some 300 strong -- complete with its own police substation -- laid out across eight "streets" in Reliant Stadium's south parking lot, where they freely indulged in every kind of sensual human appetite publicly allowed by law. It was like Mardi Gras without the nudity.
As the trash cans overflowed and the cookoff drew to a close, tasked with entertaining the thousands of party-hearty souls who weren't inside one of those tents (or waiting in line outside one) was Kevin Fowler, who headlined the Miller Stage in the Garden. Fowler is country as crawfish pie, and has ridden tall in the Texas music scene for a solid decade, but what made him such an ideal choice to serenade this particular Saturday-night hootenanny had as much to do with KISS or Van Halen as it did Georges Jones or Strait.
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Once upon a time, Fowler was a member of Dangerous Toys, the glam-inflected Austin hard-rockers who never quite broke through nationally but around these parts came about as close as it gets. He eventually decided that two-stepping was more his speed than headbanging, but a zebra can only change so many stripes; in many ways Fowler is still an arena-rocker who just happens to employ a fiddle player and steel guitarist these days.
Whether Fowler personally selected it or not, even his pre-show warmup music -- AC/DC's "Sin City," Metallica's "Whiskey In the Jar" cover, even Extreme's "Hole Hearted" -- seemed like it was chosen to encourage maximum fist-pumping and beer-guzzling. He's a master of striding across the stage with the microphone held out toward the crowd at arm's length just like Steven Tyler or David Lee Roth, and even his honky-tonk shuffles like "100% Texan" are paced at the same deliberate clip as a typical AC/DC bruiser. So a full 90 minutes (and exactly one slow song, "Not Lovin' Anymore") after Fowler started, the only proper way to ensure the crowd completely lost whatever collective mind it had left was to finish up with Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls." Why not?
Fowler is such a showman and genuinely funny human being, both in his lyrics and his stage banter, that his honky-tonk credentials tend to get overshadowed. You could be too busy laughing at "Don't Touch My Willie" or "Speak of the Devil" (about the hell-raisin' females he fancies) to notice how squarely the songs fit into the Haggard/Paycheck tradition. "Butterbean" even dips its toes into Western swing, albeit with lyrics a little bluer than even that old salty dog Bob Wills could come up with.
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But R or PG-13, Fowler's lyrics are almost always easy to sing along to, and lots and lots (and lots) of them involve beer: "Lord Loves a Drinkin' Man," "Beer, Bait & Ammo," "Hell Yeah, I Like Beer," "Not Drinkin' Anymore" ("...but I ain't drinkin' any less") and "If I Could Make a Livin' Drinkin'," from his brand-new album How Country Are Ya? Those are just the ones with booze in the title, but just for kicks he switched to tequila for "Senorita Mas Fina."
For once, in an unusual act these days, the crowd held more beers aloft than phones, urged on by Fowler's exhortations like "somebody's going to jail tonight." A few girls climbed up on willing shoulders. One especially inspired gentleman used his phone to snap a photo of the stage while balancing not one but two beer cans in his other hand. The title track of How Country Are Ya? was precisely the wrong time to think about going to the bathroom, due to the amount of two-steppers in the vicinity.
But amid all the revelry (which, to the crowd's credit, never slipped into debauchery), one particularly illuminating moment stood out. As Fowler sang "Hard Man to Love," his candid admission of the romance-related shortcomings that avidly pursuing his profession can create, every lady within earshot began singing along -- loudly, and even somewhat on-key. It wouldn't be fair to speculate what such enthusiastic participation says about each one's choice of mate (or lack thereof), but it does speak volumes about Kevin Fowler's talents as an entertainer.
Personal Bias: Hard man to love. 100 percent Texan. Ain't drinkin' anymore.
The Crowd: Early spring breakers, many clad in Cabela's and Cavenders' finest; the rest of them loud and proud Texas girls. Partaking freely, but overall not too wasted.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I had to wait 15 minutes to go to the bathroom."
Random Notebook Dump: This:
Photo by Chris Gray
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