At a recent performance at the Firehouse Saloon, the Hollisters ran through material from Sweet Inspiration, the band's long-awaited second album, its first for the reputable High Tone Records. Though the songs sounded a lot like typical Hollister fare, a backwoods feud between traditional honky-tonk and revved-up roots rock, they also indicated a progression in sound. It would seem the Hollisters, despite a major personnel change, are improving with age.
In person, the band was as tight as ever, hitting all the right notes right on cue. Chris Miller, who replaced guitarist Eric Danheim after the recording of Sweet Inspiration, plays in much the same twangy manner as his predecessor. The thing that separates the Hollisters from other alt-country bands is lead singer Mike Barfield, whose strong baritone, more on record than in concert, sounds so much like Johnny Cash you'd swear The Man in Black had taken over the microphone. Barfield makes no apologies for the similarities.
"You're bringing your makeup, your soul into the music," he says. "It's what comes out without being forced. I'm singing in a natural voice just like those old singers who were raised in the country like Marty Robbins. He always kept it honest and close to the heart."
The Hollisters, more than most acts, honor country music traditions, the players and sounds that went before them, way before them. It's part of the band's nature. In a sense the group belongs to an era that no longer exists, either socially or even geographically, like all those unincorporated areas with pine trees that were gobbled up by the city of Houston in its quest for urbanization. Yet every time Barfield and the Hollisters plug in, that period in time seems to reappear, as if brought back to life by a mere guitar, bass and drums.
"I think you have to know who you are as an artist," says Barfield. "That means knowing your limitations and knowing what you do best. I'm simple, not a simpleton. I'm not a graduate of Berklee.
"We don't know a lot about theory, but we're staying to what our strengths are and doing what we care about most."
The Hollisters' sound grows out of Barfield's lifelong attachment to Houston, such as "the city" was in his childhood. He was raised in the Mason Park area near the Ship Channel. His family then moved to Beverly Hills, a small subdivision in Genoa. "That's what the area was called then," says Barfield. "It was nothing but fields and a house here and there. It wasn't really the city, and it wasn't really the country. There was an icehouse out there, an old-fashioned honky-tonk called the Breezeway. I remember talking one time to Sleepy LaBeef, and he remembered playing there. He knew right where it was at. It's been gone for years."
Genoa doesn't exist anymore, either, and there are only a few icehouses in Houston these days. Fewer fields and thickets, too. And you rarely see cattle or horses grazing in the city anymore.
"We're not really breathing that air," says Barfield. "We're not there anymore. My experience of Houston and my experience of Texas has changed. Yet it's important to hang onto that old part of me, that old part of Houston. It's where I came from."
Maybe country fans have become used to the gloss. Country doesn't seem very, well, country anymore. The labels and the Nashville machinery may be to blame. Together they've clearly misjudged country ears. It seems clear to anyone who spends time in honky-tonks that there remains an audience that really wants rural, salt-of-the-earth country. That's what the Hollisters deliver, especially on the group's latest.
"If you're a country band playing a roots-oriented music, people automatically want to categorize you into a retro pigeonhole," says Barfield. "Or if you're signed to a certain label, they try to make you a country novelty act. The Hollisters are not a copycat sound of something that was popular in the '40s or '50s. If you had to classify us, we're honky-tonk."
The origins of the Hollisters go back to the late 1980s, when Barfield and Danheim founded the Rounders, one of Houston's great traditional country bands. To recall the Rounders is to recall evenings at the Bon Ton Room, the Satellite Lounge and Local Charm. But the Rounders didn't last. In 1994 bass player Denny Dale, formerly with Webb Wilder, and drummer Kevin Fitzpatrick teamed up with Barfield and Danheim to form the Hollisters, which three years later released its debut album, The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, on the Austin-based Freedom label.
The group's name comes from a moonshine-making character on The Andy Griffith Show. Barfield is an Andy Griffith nut. "It's the dream of this simple life," he says.
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Like many people his age, Barfield is just one generation away from old country. His mother was born on a farm in Quitman, north of Tyler. His mother's family was made up of sharecroppers. His father was born and raised in Galveston. "It was a different place back then," Barfield says of the island city. "There was a lot of gambling and a lot of sin. My dad was very Southern, although he was exposed to a lot of things, whereas my mom was from the rural Baptist Belt. Sometimes I do this preaching routine on stage. I like the spirit and fervor that's in gospel. Personally, I'm from the Church of the Seven-Day Rest.
"I couldn't get enough of that movie The Apostle. It seemed almost like a documentary. That Pentecostal fervor is still out there, still rural, maybe fading, but still out there."
Perhaps the same could be said of Barfield and the boys: The old country fervor that the band members embrace may be fading, but it's still out there -- in the form of the Hollisters.
The Hollisters will officially introduce Sweet Inspiration at a CD release party on Friday, March 3, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington. For more information, call (713)869-COOL.