When did Houston — at least the Houston that lies inside the Beltway — cease to be a honky-tonk town?
First, let's define our terms. By "honky-tonk," I mean stone-cold, cry-in-your-beer, weeping country music on the order of "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today" and the boot-scooting Texas shuffles perfected by people like Ray Price and native son Johnny Bush. Nashville country (which is hardly country at all) and the Texas music of Pat and Cory are different animals. This is the stuff that used to pour out of icehouses all over Houston and is now very hard to find.
Despite the yearly country-music phantasmagoria that is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the fact that honky-tonk no longer holds much sway here is in little doubt. When Time Warner pulled CMT off the basic cable package about five years ago, it vanished with nary a peep. Country radio stations have diminished in overall number, ratings clout and quality of music since their Urban Cowboy heyday a quarter-century ago. (The 2002 transformation of the once-mighty KIKK into a smooth jazz station was a signal moment.)
Live honky-tonk is faring poorly in Inner Loop venues, at least outside of Blanco's and the Armadillo Palace. (More on them later.) What's more, many of Houston's top-shelf artists of this type have either left town permanently (Dale Watson and Jesse Dayton, to name two) or enjoy much of their success on the road.
The same is not true in Austin, Watson and Dayton's base. "Austin is better for honky-tonk, and I hate to say that," says local performer John Evans. "Jesse's country show does really well over there."
Pete Gordon, an owner of the Continental Club here, learned the hard way that Austinites hold honky-tonk in higher regard than Houstonians. When the Houston branch of the Austin club opened in 2000, Gordon assumed that Houstonians' taste in music would be similar to that of the capital.
To anchor his Sunday nights, he duly slotted in Watson — one of the greatest living singers of hard-core country, and a Pasadena native to boot — and waited for the crowds to arrive. They never did, even with the added inducements of barbecue brisket and an early start time.
"He can play six, seven nights a week in Austin and fill it up no matter what size the venue he's playing in — Broken Spoke, Continental, Ginny's Little Longhorn, whatever," Gordon grouses. "No matter what day of the week, he'll have a full house, and if I bring him over here on a Friday or Saturday night, we'll be lucky to get 50 people. It drives me crazy."
Gordon let the Watson experiment run for about a year before he reluctantly pulled the plug. He did the same with Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers, a Houston-based group that was steeped in the same vintage sounds.
"When Miss Leslie and her dad Country Jim put their stuff together right, that was some really good old-style country music, and she finally had to give it up," Gordon says. "And I know in the beginning she tried really hard to make it work with advertisers and the media, tried to make a scene out of it, tried to make a place for people who enjoyed that kind of music to go, but there just never seemed to be that many of them."
"Houston's a tough town for honky-tonk," says Miss Leslie. "It really is."
One theory I heard from a couple of people was that the smoking ban was playing hell with the honky-tonk scene. After all, what goes better with songs like "These Days I Barely Get By" and "House of Memories" than a glass of iced bourbon and a Marlboro or three?
Miss Leslie isn't buying it. "Austin has had a smoking ban longer than Houston," she says. "Yes, it is weird to see half your audience walk out to go smoke, but the clubs are still full there."
She believes that honky-tonk is struggling here for two reasons. One is that the opening of the Armadillo Palace has halved the already smallish country scene that once centered on Blanco's.
"Before the Armadillo Palace, Blanco's was such a strange mix — the Galleria, thirtyish hipsters hanging out with the cowboys from the outskirts of Houston," she says. "And then Armadillo Palace opened up and that was a new way for the hipsters to listen to more 'modern music' and be able to hang out at the meat market."
But to Miss Leslie, the dueling clubs — which to me seem less like authentic honky-tonks than caricatures of same — pale in comparison to the lack of radio support.
"Where do you go for airplay? KPFT is great, but the Lonestar Jukebox is the only show that you have. Their show is only so long, and they have a long line of people they need to give airplay to," she says.
She believes that her music and that of people like Watson and Dayton would be a natural fit on the classic country station Country Legends 97.1, but like most classic rock stations, they won't play anything by new artists, no matter how traditional their sound.
"They are locked into 'the legends,' and it's the hitmakers at that," she says.
Bear with me as I foray into the culture at large for a moment. I'll steer this back toward music in a minute, I swear.
A few months back, I was talking to a couple of friends about the cultural nature of Houston. Is Houston a Southern city, a Western city, a Texas city or an international city?
My view of it was this: Up until about 1925, Houston was as Southern a city as Mobile or Charleston, a cotton port oft-stricken with malaria and yellow fever, ruled by a Protestant Anglo-Celtic overclass with a black underclass doing the dirty work. Sure, Houston was a touch more exotic than other Dixie cities, as there was already a small but significant Mexican minority here, but the fact remains that Houston was as Southern as pecan pie.
But as the Texas centennial rolled around in 1936, a concerted de-Dixie-fication effort was put in place by state leaders, starting at the Texas board of education. Through the use of the once-ubiquitous school history primer Texas History Movies, a new pantheon was constructed. As cultural bellwethers, tales of Travis's mad gallantry at the Alamo and Sam Houston's berserk attack at San Jacinto superseded Pickett's charge and Lee's chivalry.
After all, who wants to hitch their wagon to a bunch of slavery-fanatic losers, which in the end, was all the Confederacy amounted to. Down here we won our war.
This Texas identity held proud sway until the late '60s, when it started falling apart as historians took a harder look at the Texas Revolution and the treatment of minorities here. The process was hastened as blacks grew in political power and Mexican-Americans grew in both clout and number.
White urban Texans also grew more sensitive about how they were portrayed by the national media. I know firsthand that growing up in Houston in the mid-'70s and early '80s, there was tremendous pressure not to be seen as "hick-y." In a generation, the twangy local accent sported by Marvin Zindler and my parents became a thing of the past. To hear them talk, today's Houston teens could as easily be from Tampa or Sacramento as Houston.
The Urban Cowboy/Luv Ya Blue phenomenon was something like the final flare of a supernova. For a couple of years, Houston embraced its rustic identity. Sure, the film wasn't loved here, but we liked being in the national eye, and it didn't hurt that Bum Phillips — who looked like an extra from the movie, and whose team played a smash-mouth brand of football — and his bruising, country music-loving tailback Earl Campbell were enjoying successes on the gridiron.
Houston had an identity — a broad-shouldered, shot-and-a-beer honky-tonk town, a sort of Chicago south — and country music was the sound track. For a couple of years, as long as the Oilers were near the top of their game, we reveled in who we were. The city's fashions, such as they were, were chic across the country, as Boston bankers and Seattle dockworkers alike aped Pasa-get-down-dena styles and danced the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
It all seemed to fall apart with the downfall of the Luv Ya Blue Oilers, which coincided with the onset of the oil bust. By 1984, it was no longer cool to be country.
And then along came NAFTA in the 1990s, bringing with it a tide of new immigrants. One of the great unwritten stories of the 1990s was the disappearance from inner Houston of virtually the entire Anglo working class. H-Town's Collective Bubba migrated en masse to Channelview, San Leon, Santa Fe, Tomball, Humble, Waller, Katy and Conroe.
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With the Collective Bubba went Houston's honky-tonk soul. Honky-tonk was blue-collar working people's music, and today, the Houston worker is more likely to be a fan of Ramon Ayala or Juan Gabriel than Johnny Paycheck or even a slick contemporary Nashville star like Tim McGraw.
For English speakers (and some Spanish speakers, too), rap filled Houston's signature sound void through the '90s and much of this decade, but that seems to be imploding amid the national hip-hop meltdown of 2007. After all, there were only so many ways to rephrase the facts that you gripped grain, rode foreign and were stackin' bank while sippin' drank and blowin' dank before even the most gifted practitioners grew tiresome.
So, English-speaking Houston...With hip-hop in the doldrums and our rustic past a fading memory, what is the sound of Houston now?