Photos by Matt Smith
Per our recent blog pondering the slow death of honky tonk and the wisdom of pursuing that genre as a career path, after Heybale!’s masterful show at the Continental Club I think it’s safe to assume that honky-tonk is still alive, even if only as a few enclaves among the barren desert of pop-country and so-called Texas music crapola.
Anyhow, whatever the state honky-tonk may be, there's probably no question of the men in Heybale! giving it up. These guys have been doing honky-tonk so long they’ll probably die of it.
The beauty of Heybale! is that, like Mike Henderson’s Blue Mondays in Nashville, it's an all-star side project that's lived long enough to take on a life of its own. So much so, in fact, that the band has become a Sunday-night institution at Austin's Continental Club, where two-step belt polishing is still practiced with vigor and abandon.
The lineup is daunting: old TeleWhacker himself Redd Voelkaert (above) bending the strings; Johnny Cash vet Earle Pool Ball on piano, Long Tom Lewis, who’s drumed with everyone from our own Alamo Jets to Jim Lauderdale; Kevin Smith, whose stout standup bass has taken him from gigs with Dallas rockabilly king Ronny Dawson to Dwight Yoakam; and vocalist Gary Claxton, who brings a seasoned mixture of Dust Bowl whang and Bakersfield snap. Ray Charles must’ve had this band in mind when he said, “Be great or be gone.”
Touring in support of latest release The Last Country Album, Heybale! tear-jerked its way through hardcore 4/4 classics like “Who’ll Buy the Wine,” “Cry Myself to Sleep,” “Brand New Mister Me,” “She Called Me Baby” and dozens more. When they lean into Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop-a-Top” you can almost hear the Anheuser-Busch beer vats being sucked dry.
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When they put the pedal to the metal, Heybale! left shoe soles smokin’ with uptempo powerhouses like Chuck Berry’s classic “You Never Can Tell” and a stellar version of Commander Cody’s “Home In My Hand,” which was a bona fide anthem in Austin during my time there in the mid-'70s.
Heybale! reminds me of the thrill of hearing Johnny Horton on radio's Louisiana Hayride back in my West Texas childhood. Call it country or amped-up honky-tonk if you want, but to my ears what Heybale! offers is that roadhouse rockabilly razor-blade-and-broken-beer-bottle boogie. I can’t think of any band that does it better. - William Michael Smith