Fifty or so years ago, a local columnist described Houston as a "whiskey and trombone town," to distinguish it from Dallas, where the socialites were too priggish and status-conscious to revel in either rotgut or Dixieland jazz. And never did this town rollick with whiskey and trombones more than it did in the middle and late '90s. No, I'm not being literal here -- there weren't old-school jazz bands barreling through "Maple Leaf Rag" at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, at least not that often, but those were some pretty fat years indeed. The oil bust was over, and truckloads of money were arriving daily from California, thanks to a few companies here allegedly overcharging those hippie West Coast pansies for the electricity for all their grow lights and hydroponic pot farms. Reliant and energy trading firms like Dynegy and Enron threw huge bashes for the whole city -- for no reason at all, other than that they could. Fireworks seemed to be booming downtown every night, the roads were rife with Cohiba-chomping yuppie pricks in their gray Porsche Boxsters, and there was a condo eruption in the Montrose.
I think of the Hollisters, who are back on their old home turf this week on their short reunion tour, as sort of the soundtrack to those boom years. You heard them everywhere you went back then. They were steeped in the honky-tonk of the past, but not bound to it, no mere imitators. Listening to the rhythm section of bassist Cletus Blakely and drummer Snit Fitzpatrick rumble beneath Eric Danheim's Bakersfield-via-Beaumont guitar licks and Mike Barfield's Johnny Cash-like baritone on tunes like "East Texas Pines" was pretty near honky-tonk heaven.
Ten years ago this week, the Houston Press featured a story about the Hollisters, who played that week in a near-empty club in Seabrook. That was one of the last times they would play before such sparse crowds. Over the next four years, they did as much as anyone to keep old-school country alive inside the Loop. In 1996, they were dubbed the Best New Band in our Music Awards, and our scribes gushed about their debut, Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, and their major-indie-label Hightone album, Sweet Inspiration. Writing in No Depression magazine, former Houston Chronicle critic Rick Mitchell called them "the most promising hillbilly rock band -- if not the best band, period -- to come out of the nation's fourth-largest city in this decade."
And then it all fell apart. Danheim's wife got a hot job with Amazon.com that required him to move with her to Seattle, which robbed the band of not just its guitarist but also one half of its songwriting team. (A string of replacements came and went.) They signed with Robert Earl Keen's management company, which promptly foundered. The follow-up to Sweet Inspiration never materialized, and the always, er, "exciting" band chemistry boiled over into a feud between Fitzpatrick and Barfield that only ended when Fitzpatrick left or was pushed out of the band. By 2002, only Cletus and Barfield remained of the original lineup, at which point Barfield decided it was time to drop the curtain on this act in his life, though he did say at the time that a reunion wasn't out of the question.
Evidently not, for they -- the original lineup of the band, no less -- are playing two shows in town in April, on the second at the Continental and the 15th at Blanco's, and more are tentatively planned. And we have Barry Bonds to thank for that.
Barry Bonds? The steroid-addled San Francisco Giants slugger? Yep.
Back in the mid-'90s, SF filmmaker Mike Wranovics was living in town, and one night a girlfriend dragged his country-loathing heart out to see the Hollisters. A few hours later a new country fan -- or at least a Hollisters fan -- was born. A few years later, Wranovics moved back to the Bay Area and became a documentary filmmaker. In 2001, he read an account of the fracas between two fans who were battling over the rights to keep Barry Bonds's 73rd home run ball, and decided to make a film about it. The result is called Up For Grabs, and it will be in theaters this spring and summer and on Spike TV after that. What's more, it will use exclusively Hollisters music on its score.
Danheim and Barfield wrote four new songs for the film, which will be used alongside some of their pre-existing material, and those writing sessions went so well that they decided to put the band back together. The band played its first show last month in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then did a three-night run in nearby Green Bay. (Wisconsin was a Hollisters stronghold.) I caught up with Danheim over the phone as he was rolling out of Green Bay.
Not long ago, Mrs. Danheim quit her Amazon job, and now the couple lives in Dripping Springs. "We finally just decided enough was enough," he says. "It was real lucrative and she did well there at Amazon -- she was an executive there and did real good. We always wanted to move back to Texas -- we wanted to stay there just a couple of years, but it turned into five. And then we just kinda said, 'Okay, X marks the spot on the calendar, and then we are out of there.' "
Even though both Danheim and Barfield now hang their hats in Austin, they still deem this their real spiritual abode. "Austin's cool and everything, but we all consider Houston our home," Danheim says. "I definitely do; I've lived in Houston most of my life. Houston's got such a cool vibe -- that real rich musical crossbreeding that even Austin doesn't have. The Louisiana thing, the Cajun stuff, the conjunto stuff, the blues It's a melting pot of cool music, a real cool, funky town with a lot of rich musical background."
For a few years, they added much to that background. Danheim says the band's shows at one club rank with his favorite musical memories. "The Satellite shows were always the best. They were really high-energy, and we had great crowds. That was kind of our home base, and any of those shows were my favorites."
And right now he sounds audibly jazzed to be playing with Barfield and the boys again. "The shows have been great. We haven't missed a beat. It's almost like a reflex -- it's like it's been five days instead of five years."
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The band's immediate plans are to finish this short tour -- and the Houston shows are the last on their agenda for right now. The band members are all too busy with their post-Hollisters Phase I projects -- Barfield and Snit fronting their own bands, Cletus backing up Davin James and jamming with the Swank Countrypolitans and others -- to commit too much right now to Hollisters Phase II. That could change soon. "We've had a lot of fun -- a lot more fun than we thought we would have," Danheim says. "Mike and I are gonna do some writing, and right now the possibility of another Hollisters record coming out down the road is not an impossibility. There are no plans at this point, but it is something that we would look forward to doing. I'm not gonna say it is or it isn't gonna happen. We'll just go where the writing will take us."
Meanwhile, expect a full-bore assault at these Houston shows. "The music still feels fresh, and we're ready to get into the Continental and kick some ass," he says. "We're gonna get there and do two long sets and try to wear everybody out."
More SXSW news and notes: It's official: Bloc Party will be this year's Franz Ferdinand Death From Above 1979 won over the freakier set in just as big a way Houston's own Chingo Bling is said to have raised his live game immensely, and he left the conference on a big upswing in general Houston hip-hop got the cover of the Austin American-Statesman's XLent section on March 17. Artists Bling, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Deep and promoter/organizer (and former Press music listings editor) Matt Sonzala were all portrayed in a flattering light. Chingo gave writer Joe Gross a killer quote: "Houston hip-hop is on the hero's journey, man. You have to leave where you're from, slay the dragon and come back home and celebrate." Speaking of Slim Thug, his menacing mien was splashed over a huge ad in the Austin Chronicle that ran every day of the conference, thanks to forward-thinking label brass at Interscope San Antonio's Skunkweed was tired of rejection -- they had been turned down by South By six years in a row. So they bought a $2,500 booth at the convention's floor show and gave a free beer to anyone who would listen to one of their songs on headphones Eric Johnson and Bob Schneider were the golden boys at the Austin Music Awards for the umpteenth time, while Ruthie Foster took Best Folk honors. (Foster's label Blue Corn Music is a Houston-based company.) Other Austinite winners with Houston ties: Pasadena-bred Dale Watson (Best Country; election to the Austin Chronicle Music Hall of Fame), Freddie Steady Krc (another new Hall of Famer) and Christopher "the Bard of Friendswood" Gray (elected the Best Journalist/Critic/Writer).