On the eve of its ninth anniversary, we asked Vinyl Ranch founder Dave Wrangler to look back, way back to the earliest days of the traditional country music DJ night that began here in Houston and is about to stretch its reach to Music City itself.
“The early VR scene was the perfect mix of burnouts, young bikers, proto-hipsters, art girls and urban cowboys — an honest cross-section of Houston nightlife at that time," Wrangler recalls. "As classic country music has been fetishized, the crowds have diversified a bit, for better and for worse. Crowds now are young and beautiful; come and see for yourself. People our age always comment on how the music is what their parents listened to in the minivan. Usually with a drunken demeanor, after 1 a.m.”
Those minivan classics will be spun at Vinyl Ranch's series of events in August, beginning tonight at its Houston home of Ladybird’s. The minivan then hits the road for a pair of shows in Brooklyn, NYC, on August 11 at Union Pool and August 13 at Skinny Dennis. The anniversary tour closes with a party at the DJs' Nashville hub, Tin Dog Tavern, on August 20.
An ongoing revival of Waylon, Willie and the boys for new generations of fans was not the early plan, according to Wrangler. He said the event was a one-off DJ night held at Leon’s Lounge in August 2007.
“The central mission of the party was to channel the grit and energy of what was portrayed by those classic Gilley’s scenes in Urban Cowboy," he says. "We wanted honky-tonk debauchery at volume 11 — pretty girls, Lone Star Beer and drunken two-stepping set to a classic-country soundtrack. There was never any plan to host another, but over the course of the next month or so, there was an incredible buzz around the party — plus the bar owner at that time was calling asking for more — so it seemed natural to flip it into a monthly party.”
The party has grown immensely since those early days when Wrangler and indie-rock bassist Lee Walker helmed the event. Walker moved to New York City in 2009, and two years later local media celebrity (and former Houston Press staffer) Craig Hlavaty joined. Houston musician and renaissance man Maurice “Cornbreadd” Duhon was added to the fold in 2013. As those DJs came aboard, so did their vinyl. Initially, Wrangler explains, the event focused on country-radio hits from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it has more ‘80s and ‘90s music in the mix now.
“I’d say the Vinyl Ranch catalogue has got to be the most curated country collection around," Wrangler says. "Between the three of us, we’ve gotta be in the neighborhood of 5,000-plus country LPs and 45s. Since starting this radio show in Nashville, I’ve been buying 30-plus per week in the local shops, in search of those rare gems. I’ve also been receiving a few new LPs in the mail each week from various labels and artist management groups like New West, Red Light Management, 30 Tigers and Oh Boy Records.”
Those stacks of records don’t include everything — Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night” is one holy-grail item, for instance — but there’s more than enough to keep the boots scootin’.
“We’ve all got our niches, for sure. I’ve been a professional DJ for 15-plus years, so I generally try to play to the crowd and create a party vibe with familiar tracks and traditional DJ mixing/programming. Craig’s selections are really honest and great for setting a laid-back, beer-drinking vibe. Maurice comes from a performance background and works his family’s ranch, so he has a natural inclination to blend the vintage chicken-pickin’ bluegrass country with jukebox party classics.”
Throughout its time, Vinyl Ranch has been more than just a vinyl party. There’s a successful apparel branch that features mash-up clothing, with designs that pair Willie Nelson with Misfits and Clint Black and Black Flag, for example. The gear, printed here by Beknown Printing, has been modeled by the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Nikki Lane, Dale Watson, Wade Bowen, Pat Green, WWE’s Renee Young and Josh Carter of Phantogram and Big Grams.
Besides performing for fans at Ladybird’s and around town at sites like Redneck Country Club, Mongoose Vs Cobra, Big Top Lounge and The Commoner, Vinyl Ranch has secured some high-profile gigs opening for Hank Williams Jr., Lyle Lovett, Jeff Bridges and Asleep at the Wheel. They’ve spun for Country Music Association events and Willie Nelson’s 83rd birthday celebration in New York. Today, one of the more exciting initiatives is growing Vinyl Ranch in Nashville.
“Nashville has been a learning curve because you can’t rely on the Texas classics to get you through a night like you can back home," Wrangler notes. "Folks here tend to have the same amount of pride in Tennessee country as we do with our Willie and Waylon tunes. Tunes like ‘God Bless Texas’ will bring the house down in Houston, but you’ve gotta shelve that stuff here and sub in your ‘Dixieland Delight,’ ‘Tennessee Song’ by Margo Price or anything by Sturgill or Chris Stapleton.
"I’ve been forced to learn about the local artists here because ‘they don’t make that on vinyl’ doesn’t cut it anymore," he continues. "Not to say that you’d hear any ‘bro country’ from Vinyl Ranch, but most everyone has a record out these days. Margo Price, Maren Morris, Wheeler Walker Jr. and Jason Isbell are hot requests in Nashville.”
Wrangler moved to Music City in May to “work my claws into the fabric of Nashville’s country-music machine," he says. "The goal is to make Vinyl Ranch globally synonymous with traditional country-music culture. I produce a biweekly radio show with Acme Radio Live and perform at a number of high-exposure events for Acme Feed & Seed. Before I leave Nashville, I’m hoping to take Vinyl Ranch on the road with major country acts, produce and reissue vintage apparel for major country acts and partner with major brands to produce boutique country-music events and products.”
If all that sounds ambitious, consider that Vinyl Ranch never planned to exist beyond that first night at Leon’s Lounge. As long as people want more, Wrangler and company are happy to abide.
“What keeps the wheels turning? I’d say the wagon will continue to roll until this isn’t fun anymore or there’s nothing left to learn and discover through the music," Wrangler says. "Doesn’t feel that will be on the horizon anytime soon.”
Vinyl Ranch’s Ninth Anniversary Tour begins 9 p.m. tonight at Ladybird’s, 5519 Allen.