So the last couple of weeks have found me in email conversation with maverick Nashville/Austin/Mississippi record producer/songwriter R.S. Field, a guy who has worked with everyone from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Buddy Guy, John Mayall and Webb Wilder to Billy Joe Shaver and Sonny Landreth to Scott Miller, Hayes Carll and Todd Snider. I burned him a few CDs of local artists I thought he might dig -- Michael Haaga, Jug O'Lightnin' and Greg Wood/Horseshoe, and I was right. He did dig them. In fact, he was pretty much floored. He likened Haaga to the Raconteurs, only with better songs and a better voice. He said Jug was like a combination of the Black Keys and Procol Harum, and that Greg Wood ought to be dating Kate Moss. He added that hearing such great music from people who are virtually total unknowns outside of Loop 610 made him seriously wonder how music was harvested these days.
Another guy who makes you think that way is Alvin honky-tonker Johnny Falstaff. Few artists of my knowledge have a wider gulf between their talents and their renown than Falstaff. He's got an amazing Chris Isaak/Dwight Yoakam-style voice and a natural-born Texas drawl. He's a mean guitar-picker and a great showman on stage. Chicks dig his chiseled features and lanky, six-foot-five frame, and he's one of the nicest guys in town. He's not possessed of any serious vices -- he likes his whiskey, but he's a sipper and not a shooter. Greg Wood wrote a song -- "Tall Walkin' Texas Trash" -- about him that was recorded by Jesse Dayton. He's even got a new song on his MySpace page called "Shine" that should be a smash hit Texas country single. Why is Johnny Falstaff not a household name from Brownsville to Dumas, Orange to El Paso?
"Well, I am a star, but people don't know it yet," laughs Falstaff, who operated under his given name of Johnny Wolfe until earlier this year. "I went on the road with Davin James for four years, and then when I got off the road, there was this whole pack of wolves running around Houston," he says. There is another country singer in Houston named Jon Wolfe, for example. And further afield, there's a Johnny Wolfe doing the afternoon drive time on radio station KHJ, "American Samoa's #1 Hit Radio Station." "Johnny Falstaff was the most white trash name I could think of," says Wolfe. "I don't know if you can still get Falstaff beer or not, or if it's gone like real country music."
Actually, Wolfe says, "real country" of the sort he plays and enjoys -- think Ray Price, Buck Owens and George Jones -- is making a comeback. "I think XM and satellite radio are bringing a lot of people on home to real country," he says. "I'm hoping that we will continue to regress on that front."
Born in the South Texas town of Alice, Wolfe learned music from his father, a rockabilly/R&B guitarist. "There was always a guitar around the house and a classic record on the turntable," Wolfe says. "But we never did that gospel, singin'-in-the-church shit. The songs we sang were about sin, wine and cheating." Wolfe arrived in Alvin in first grade and has lived there ever since. His first band was the Sundowners, a band that today has graduates in both the Honky Tonk Heroes and the Luxurious Panthers. Wolfe went solo and released the criminally overlooked album Bad Tonight in 2000, and then took the road gigs with James.
Which just about brings us up to the present. This past year, he got to play the New Orleans Jazz Fest and tour Germany with Kim Carson, a Houston/New Orleans honky-tonker. "Kim's been great," he says. "She lets me play a few of my songs, and I never could have gotten those gigs without her." Wolfe enjoyed himself intensely in both the Big Easy and Deutschland. "You go in some of the dives in New Orleans and you can just feel centuries of sin permeating the walls and floors," he says. "And Germany was awesome. There's lots of people who really love rootsy music over there, and they come out to support it." The only other time Wolfe had been to Germany, he was in the Army. "This was a lot better than that," he says. "A little more, um, liberal."
Wolfe now has a new band, featuring former Isaac Payton Sweat steel guitarist Bill Howard, drummer Scott Young and doghouse bassist Shawn Supra, who has played with Wayne Hancock, Sean Reefer and Kim Lenz. ("Make sure you spell Shawn's name right," Wolfe advises. "He will sexually assault and then annihilate anyone who misspells his name.") Wolfe loves Howard's steel playing. "It really moves me," he says. "He's got that crying, weeping tone that's getting pretty hard to find."
That tone and Wolfe's plaintive voice and crackling Telecaster and Supra's thumping bass provide a perfect soundtrack for a Friday evening at the West Alabama Ice House, one of Falstaff's favored haunts here. In fact, it's so perfect a marriage of venue and music that Press food critic Robb Walsh dubbed Falstaff's material "ice house music." Wolfe mixes his originals in with classic country covers -- a couple of weeks ago, he was on a Waylon kick, so he did "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" and "Good Woman Blues."
"When you've got those four-hour ice house gigs, you've got to throw in some covers," he says. "They might as well be cool." (Elvis and Roy Orbison are two other faves.) And then there's his original "Shine," that song we mentioned earlier that should be a hit. "That was one of the quickest and easiest songs I ever wrote. I didn't really overanalyze it or get too deep with it."
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"Shine" will be one of the centerpieces of his upcoming album. He released an EP earlier this year so he could have something to sell his fans in Germany, but has withdrawn it with an eye toward releasing a full-length in the next few months. Maybe then, at long last, he will get harvested by someone who can spread his name as far and wide as he deserves.
But in the meantime, he's one of the privileged few musicians to have a song written about him, even if the song is called "Tall Walkin' Texas Trash." " People have said a lot of things about me, but never had sung Ôem before, I guess. Having Greg Wood do that was such an honor," he says. "It's real flattering. And me and Greg go back a few years. If he could cook...No, strike that." Johnny Falstaff performs Friday, October 14, at Goode's Armadillo Palace, 5015 Kirby. Call 713-526-9700 for more info.
It's shaping up as a great weekend for honky-tonk all over. Spooky, hard-living balladeer James Hand is playing around the corner from Falstaff Friday at the Mucky Duck, and Dwight Yoakam is in town Sunday at the Verizon...Moving on from country to the countryish, Scattered Pages release Lazy Are The Skeletons Wednesday at the Proletariat. La Cauchette, Antarctica Starts Here and Savoy Special are all also on the bill. Watch these pages for a review of Lazy Are the Skeletons in the coming weeks.