Times are tough for honky-tonkers in this once proud land of the twangy guitar. It used to be that a good old boy could slip into his Wranglers, grab his sweetie and two-step his heart out at any number of establishments that catered to a live country audience. But Gilley's burned down long ago, Local Charm finally cried uncle last year and the rest of those ersatz country clubs seem quite content to serve up canned music along with their free buffets.
So here are the Hollisters, a real pearl-snaps-and-denim American roots band, playing in, of all places, Seabrook. It's a basic meat market called The Classic Cafe. The Hollisters, the group that recently rose from the ashes of the disbanded Rounders, are set up in a parking lot, on a makeshift stage with one small rack of portable stage lights casting primary colors on the band members' faces.
Behind this stage looms a pyramid-shaped building that houses an insurance company and a yacht broker. Several cars are parked within inches of the right side of the stage, while to the left several sailboat masts stand at attention in their slips on Clear Lake. Truth to tell, the sailboats are probably paying more attention to the band than these non-paying customers, who straggle around the fringe of the nearby bar tent and talk loudly.
It's only 10:30 p.m. and the Hollisters are already calling it a night. The quartet -- led by vocalist Mike Barfield and guitarist Eric Danheim, the pair who founded the Rounders in 1986 -- has, more or less, manufactured an encore despite a less-than-encouraging audience response. One drunk yells out for "Freebird," which prompts someone else, with much more sense, to reply, "No, we don't wanna hear 'Freebird.' We wanna hear something we can dance to." The Hollisters fill that latter request with a crack version of the old Webb Pierce staple "Honky Tonk." Several couples take to the concrete dance floor and do the best two-stepping that cement, humidity and alcohol allow.
This is the state of honky-tonk in Houston.
The Hollisters, however, don't take such a myopic view of the situation. The band looks at the broader picture and sees hopeful signs. They see the glowing reviews for Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, two longtime purveyors of Texas music. They notice that Oakland, California-based Hightone Records has cottoned to Texas music, releasing discs by the likes of Rosie Flores and Dale Watson. They note the early hoopla over Jesse Dayton's debut CD on Justice, Raisin' Cain, and they point to two upcoming independent compilation discs featuring mostly Austin-based roots artists. The Hollisters, in fact, will be the only Houston band on one of those compilations, True Sounds of the New West, due out this month on Austin's Freedom Records.
"I think the tide in country is rolling over again," Danheim says, "like it was in the early '80s with Dwight Yoakam."
Barfield and Danheim aren't exactly new to this honky-tonk business. Both are East Texas boys, through and through. They kind of delight in their hick-chic ways. Barfield, with his mutton-chop sideburns and ubiquitous cowboy hat, is a walking anachronism. Danheim looks slightly more hip with his Western shirt, horn-rim glasses and modest pompadour. Neither is as simple as he lets on. Both have extensive resumes, and both understand how to play the music business game.
These men know tough decisions are part of that business, and the first such decision these Hollisters had to make was to break up a Houston institution -- the Rounders. Barfield and Danheim dance around the subject of the Rounders' dissolution, neither seeming comfortable with the idea of discussing it. When a waitress at Dave and Lydia's Cafe strolls over and pegs the musicians, she asks, "What happened to the Rounders?" Danheim, appropriately enough, falls back on a food metaphor.
"The same old enchilada gets old after awhile," he says.
Barfield injects, "It was time to move on."
That seems to be the company line -- musical stagnation and boredom. Last summer, when Danheim returned to Houston after a six-year stint in the Austin music scene, he and Barfield tried to make one last go with the Rounders. But Danheim dropped out after eight months, happy with neither the twin-guitar approach of the band nor the rock slant the Rounders were taking. But Danheim maintained his close ties with Barfield; early this year, they quietly woodshedded in Danheim's cramped garage apartment on a concept that would eventually become the Hollisters. After all, Danheim insists, he basically returned to Houston for one reason: to work with Mike Barfield.
The fact that Barfield and Danheim are together again at all is a testament to their friendship and strong musical bond. When Danheim first left the Rounders in 1988, just two years after launching the band, Barfield felt angry and betrayed. He understood that Danheim was chasing a dream -- the guitarist had been asked to join Monte Warden's Wagoneers, which at the time was signed to RCA -- but that didn't ease his hurt feelings.
"I was pissed off," Barfield recalls. "I knew it was going to be hard for me [to replace him]."
But what goes around comes around. When RCA dropped the Wagoneers, Warden decided to go solo, leaving Danheim to fend for himself. Danheim went to work for another roots band, Chaparral, that almost got signed to a major label before finally flaming out in early 1993. For the next year and a half after that, Danheim kicked around Austin, playing in blues bands and selling vintage guitars, but ultimately he decided to seek out his old Rounders soul mate in Houston.
Danheim and Barfield have been careful to distance the Hollisters from the Rounders' legacy, which, considering the band's enduring popularity in this town, might seem a strange decision. Nonetheless, when it came time to take the Hollisters -- whose name is borrowed from the singing moonshiner named Rafe Hollister on The Andy Griffith Show -- from concept to reality, Danheim and Barfield made two critical decisions: to hire a new rhythm section and to never play any Rounders originals.
"We wanted to cut the umbilical chord," Danheim says. "I just didn't want to be compared to the Rounders."
The Hollisters' rhythm section comes with credentials out the wazoo. Before joining the Hollisters, bassist Denny "Cletus" Blakely and drummer Kevin "Snit" Fitzpatrick maintained the bottom line for the Chris Masterson Band. When the Masterson band dissolved, Blakely and Fitzpatrick insisted on being hired as a team. Barfield and Danheim had no problem with this, considering that, along with their Masterson experience, Blakely had been a member of Webb Wilder's band and Fitzpatrick has laid down beats for groups all over the Southeast.
"These guys are unbelievable," Barfield says succinctly.
Together, the four musicians reconstitute, Texas-style, what was once called the Bakersfield sound (circa the '50s and '60s). They borrow and adapt from Buck Owens, early Johnny Cash and even Don Rich, the underappreciated guitarist and fiddler in Owens' Buckaroos who penned such hits as "Waiting in Your Welfare Line" and "Cowboy Convention." The result is some cool, crisp and ironically sophisticated country music.
What on the surface may seem like nostalgia is, to the Hollisters, merely an acknowledgment that some music is timeless. Barfield and Danheim are no pretenders. This is the music they listened to growing up; they're tied to it by history, culture and, most important, personal attraction. These guys truly love to honky-tonk. Barfield's voice sounds like it's directly descended from Cash, while Danheim's guitar work has a classic country soulfulness about it, yet can wander into more stinging country-rock territory when a song requires it.
The band wants to succeed without compromising its music for major labels or radio play lists, which seem to prefer an increasingly homogeneous sound meticulously concocted by a revolving set of session players in Nashville studios. The Hollisters have already recorded a four-song demo tape in Austin with the help of Rick "Casper" Rawls, the band's unofficial fifth member whose previous credits include stints with Chaparral, Kelly Willis and the LeRoi Brothers. The band is presently in the process of writing and rehearsing even more tunes for an upcoming CD project, which of course they'll shop around to sympathetic labels, perhaps Hightone or Black Top or Antone's.
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"I just want to be make a go at it," Barfield says sincerely. "I believe we'll be on the road within a year. We made a vow not to stay stagnant."
How far the Hollisters go will depend on how well the band develops its approach. One industry insider who's heard the Hollisters generally likes the group, but thinks the band lacks an edge and a distinctive personality. "Craftsmanship without passion" is the way he described it.
Of course, one could argue it's hard to have a lot of passion when you're mostly playing for sailboats.
The Hollisters play Friday, August 4 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. The Derailers open. For info, call 869-