One Piece at a Time

Billie Jo keeps Houston's psychobilly flame lit at her weekly nights, now at Numbers.
Courtesy of Shin

For the past five years, as acts like Reverend Horton Heat have gained widespread acceptance, the curious rockabilly-punk offshoot known as psychobilly has been clawing at the mainstream gates. Underground, it's been festering four times as long, at least since UK horror-punks the Meteors' essential 1983 LP Wreckin' Crew.

"I was at the mall the other day, and I heard Nekromantix in two separate stores. Every Hot Topic has Nekros merch in stock," says Billie Jo, the de facto matriarch of Houston's nascent scene, who recently moved her weekly psychobilly night from Jet Lounge to Numbers.

"Tiger Army is co-headlining the Warped Tour, [and] the Chop-Tops are also playing," notes Xavier Ortiz, singer and guitarist for the Hotrod Hillbillies, who relocated here from Austin not long ago. "I think that's a pretty big deal."

Psychobilly began when a few bands blasted out of the strident early-'80s rockabilly revival scene by throwing some punk in the mix but keeping the stand-up bass. Lyrically, the parameters are simple: horror, gore, sex and getting wasted, with extra credit for all four at the same time.

Even so, the scene in Houston still feels relatively new, as in both "fresh" and "green." The crowd is there — touring acts like Koffin Kats or veterans the Quakes always draw well — but actual bands are somewhat sparse. Groups like Ghost Storys, the Unzipped and Ese do live here, but often find their best gigs four hours to the west.

"It's a lot easier for us to get shows in San Antonio," says single-named Ghost Storys guitarist-singer Stephen. The trio, who finished their debut disc Subliminal Messages in April, hit Houston with a vengeance after forming a little over a year ago. However, they received limited response and began playing out of town: San Antonio and Beaumont most often, but also Dallas and Denton.

"San Antonio has a big scene, a youthful scene," says Billie Jo. "The venues there are more amenable to the under-21 crowd; the kids feel more comfortable. Houston is a bigger city. It's more expensive to do that in a city this size, once you start dealing with TABC."

Credit for the word itself probably goes to Wayne Kemp, who wrote of a "psychobilly Cadillac" in Johnny Cash's 1976 hit "One Piece at a Time." As rockabilly shaped rock and roll's early musical path at least as much as folk or R&B, its attendant culture — and eventually its psychobilly offspring — became a true way of life.

"That music and lifestyle are timeless," says Big E, a longtime Houston rockabilly promoter who does a regular Sunday night event at the Big Top. "No one is ever going to say, 'No more Elvis, no more Carl Perkins.' All that stuff, it's not old. Now it's 'vintage.'"

"It's about the thrill of the hunt," E continues. "You find this cool-looking record player, then you get the records to play. Then you find a table to put it all on, then you gotta get some plates with interesting designs on them. Then come the chairs, the pictures to hang on the wall. You get the car, you need the shirt to match, you know? It's something you belong to."

While contemporary psychobilly's sound owes more to punk than rockabilly, it certainly takes its culture cues from the latter. The music sound-tracks a fashion show of wedge-coiffed haircuts, cuffed jeans, hot-rod worship and pinup couture for the ladies. Musically, psychobilly is not simply driven by style — its substance is its style. No scene is more proud of its uniform, and the look is the foundation for everything else.

"Bands and individual musicians are always coming up with some way to grab your attention, like building a bass that looks like a coffin," says Ortiz. "Light one or two instruments on fire, stand on top of a bass, have your drummer play standing up and be the lead singer. Bands are being creative with their appearance."

"It's entertaining to watch," Stephen agrees. "The look is definitely part of the package. If you're going to do it, you've got to have the stand-up bass and the style."

Hailing from Texas alone scores its own style points. The term "Texas psychobilly" is frequently used in promoting shows by bands from the Lone Star State. These bands typically utilize a bit more twang than, say, an Orange County band; the billing is more a badge of honor than a declaration of independence from the genre.

"From our experience, if you're playing outside Texas and advertise that you're from Texas, yeah, a flag goes up," says Ortiz. "People love to see Texas bands. If we went on tour and said we were from Ohio or Iowa, that just doesn't sound very exciting."

This scene was born into a subterranean existence, and by its very nature is a fine fit for the underground. Despite the success of bands like Tiger Army — whom more fervent psychos dismiss as "pansy" — Nekromantix and HorrorPops, the national and international scenes rely on a support system that harkens back to the DIY fan support that built alternative rock in the 1980s.

This insularity is especially apparent in smaller scenes like Houston, where psychobillies face a choice of hanging around the rockabilly and punk scenes or staying home. Mingling with these crowds gives the local scene a unique social dynamic.

"Houston is different," says Big E. "Especially in places like Austin and Dallas, the lines are drawn: You can't be psychobilly and listen to rockabilly. Here, the same people who come to my Sunday night at the Big Top will probably be at Billie Jo's thing the next night. Some of them even go rockabilly for one show and psychobilly for the next."

Sonic influence aside, the most prescient contribution by the Meteors may be front man P. Paul Fenech's "no-politics zone," which to this day causes the genre to stick out like a sore thumb, considering the forced political awareness dominating most every other scene these days. Some may view psychobilly as merely a classy lady being courted by a scuzzy shitheel with a bad haircut and no future. But the scene has no room, or patience, for this kind of thinking, which may ultimately be its greatest strength. Psychobilly exists purely for the joy of existing.

"No one is here for bullshit," agrees Big E. "Psychobilly and rockabilly are about having a good time. Get dressed up and go out, have some drinks."

By remaining close to its roots, psychobilly conveys a good deal of the footloose energy that spawned rock and roll in the first place. If Elvis's hair, showmanship, seductive swagger and party-hard-love-harder legacy are truly what it's all about, psychobilly — for all its relative youth, gratuitous imagery and requisite pitfalls — may be the purest kind of rock and roll. It's not here to challenge your ideals or make you want to vote. It's here to get some kicks before the barn burns down, and to look damn good doing it.

Billie Jo hosts psychobilly night Mondays at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, 713-526-6551.

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