In Texas, where driving is a way of life, great ideas are often born on the road. Wim Wenders wrote more than half of Paris, Texas in his car during the shoot. More recently, another movie, the Jesse Dayton-Lew Temple collaboration Balmorhea (set to start shooting soon) was written on a car trip from Los Angeles through Texas and on to New Orleans. Add to the list the creation of Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys, Houston's finest purveyors of the sort of country-as-buttermilk-biscuits music made famous by Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb.
"I came off the road with Hank III, and I did a tour with John Evans, and the whole two weeks we were in the car, we came up with the concept of a pot-smokin' Western swing band," says Dan Johnson, the Resin Valley Boys' resident steel guitar hot shot. Former John Evans Band drummer and current Resin Valley Boys singer-guitarist Sean Reefer was his accomplice in this endeavor. "And then we wrote about seven tunes -- pretty much half the album we wrote in that car ride. Then all of the players we wanted were either nonexistent or in other bands."
That soon changed. Bassist Shawn Supra cast his lot with the RVB after burning out on Wayne Hancock's heavy touring schedule, and former Clay Farmer/Hank III fiddler Jason Ellsworth also decided to join. Later, the band enlisted drummer Neal La Croix, and the lineup was complete by September of last year. In March, the band will release its debut, Texas Hill Country, which sounds fairly generic as titles go, but let Mr. Reefer explain it for you. "We've kinda got a bluegrass sound, country and western, Western swing, jump swing, a little bit of rockabilly -- it all kind of blends together," he drawls in his East Texas twang. "People ask me what we call our music, and I just say, 'Texas Hill Country,' THC."
Meanwhile, the band's been gigging a bunch all over Texas, which is by necessity, not design. Owing to a certain member's legal woes, the band cannot leave the state. (Check the band's Web site www.resinvalleyboys.com for more details, though suffice to say that the group is aptly named.)
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The rest of the country's loss is our gain. Live, the RVB don matching monogrammed overalls and mix great originals like "Diggin' in the Dirt" with covers of Tubb, Pierce and several Wills foot-stomping instrumentals such as "Steel Guitar Stomp." Reefer's voice has that Hank Sr./Wayne Hancock high lonesome whine, which causes him a little trouble on vocal Wills covers like "Bubbles in My Beer" -- Tommy Duncan's baritone is a bit too deep for Reefer. Instrumentally, the interplay between Johnson's steel and Ellsworth's fiddle is fascinating -- as the final notes of one of Johnson's solos wafts away, Ellsworth will start stealthily sawing along, and before you know it, he's front and center. You find yourself wondering who's playing what half the time.
"That's hard work," laughs Johnson. "I picked that up when I was playing with Hank III. He had a fiddle player who passed away named Michael McCanless, and he kinda showed me how to play on the verses like they did on a lot of the Bob Wills recordings. He taught me how to do a lot of these twin licks. When he got ill, I noticed that Jason, who was playing with Clay Farmer then, had that same ability. So we sat down for a couple of months, and always had eye contact with each other and really listened to each other and tried to make it so quick that you're like, 'Whoa, when did he come in?' "
You're liable to ask something similar -- namely, "Where the hell did that come from?" -- when you hear some of the weirdly psychedelic wah-wah licks Johnson coaxes from one or another of the multiple necks of his steel. Johnson says they aren't as postmodern as they sound. "That was a big thing on some of those old records--" he begins.
"Those hillbilly/rockabilly/country things that Alvis Wayne used to do ," cuts in Reefer. "Alvis told me they'd hit the steel with a towel and stuff like that."
"That wah-wah trips everybody out, but it's really an old thing," continues Johnson. "It's just not really been listened to. If you really listen to it, I'm trying to get some Dixieland, kinda trumpety sounds out of it."
Johnson has long been a pupil of local steel guitar legend Herb Remington, who was Wills's steel player from 1946 to 1949, during which he wrote the classic "Boot Heel Rag." (He later wrote another classic, "Remington Ride.") Remington also leads a Hawaiian steel guitar band called the Beachcombers, issues instructional books and videos, and manufactures a top-selling line of steel guitars called (you guessed it) Remington Steels. In addition to all that, his very existence helped catalyze the Resin Valley Boys into being.
"He's also played with Wayne [Hancock] and Hot Club of Cowtown, and still to this day he's getting exposure for what he does," Johnson says. "He's in a Patsy Cline play right now. When a guy like that goes, it's a tragedy. That's it. So that's why we want to keep it going -- even if we don't sell a lot of records or have shows that are packed, at least we'll be keeping it alive somewhat."
So far, RVB has found more favor away from Houston. Austin and Galveston are two of the band's hotbeds, but so far Houston's proved to be a tough nut to crack. "Not to mention any names, but the thing about this town is that you've got all these Texas A&M/frat-boy type of bands and when we play with those guys the crowd looks at us like we're pariahs or something," Johnson says.
"They say they're 'Texas country,' but all they do is wear a ball cap on stage," puts in La Croix.
"Right," adds Johnson. "You will never hear the Resin Valley Boys do a song about tubin' down the Guadalupe drinkin' a Shiner Bock."
"A lot of that stuff sounds like bad John Cougar," says La Croix. "And I like good John Cougar."
"If you play me a Pat Green song, or a Roger Creager song, or Cory Morrow, or Robert Earl Keen, I couldn't tell you which one of 'em was which, because ever' one of 'em sings just alike," adds Reefer.
Not that they think the whole Texas country (bowel) movement is all bad. After all, for some, Pat Green and Cory Morrow prove to be gateway drugs to the better stuff beyond.
"If they dig that stuff, the cool people will go in and they'll research stuff and go back, and before you know it they'll be checking out Spade Cooley," Johnson says.
One tack these misfits on the Texas country scene have taken is to look for fans beyond the usual hotspots. They love playing the Continental, sure, but their next show is at the Last Concert, which, given their band name, makes perfect sense. They have a growing following on the biker circuit, too, and they're even making inroads among the punks. "We played Fitzgerald's one time and there was nothing there but punk bands besides us," remembers Reefer. "We were right there in the middle of 'em, and while we were setting up I was wondering how the hell we were gonna pull it off. So I just got up there and said, 'Hey, all you motherfuckers out there! Are y'all ready to jam?' And we got the biggest response of any of the bands that night."
Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys appear Friday, February 27, at the Last Concert Cafe, 1403 Nance, 713-226-8563; and Wednesday, March 3, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899.
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