Hands Up Post: Honky-Tonk Houston's Done Got Out Of Hand

A recent thread on the Hands Up Houston message board found poster "honky honk" complaining (and mangling the English language):

Dear Houston.

Why are you excepting [sic] this right wing, overtly white genre of music known as honky tonk or country? Why do we have to travel that far back in time to that level of thinking only to revisit the Reagan/Clinton/Bush era nostalgia we loathed so much as "punk rock/indi rock" youth?

Why have we two-stepped, hell, 30-year-stepped back in time to a genre of music that is explicitly honky? The masses may repel this retort maybe even call it unpatriotic but we need to consider our evolution at this point. You know those cowboy boots are just a trend.

That thread came up in conversation Friday night at Blanco's, where, once again, Lonesome Onry and Mean noted a dozen or more twenty- and thirtysomething Converse-wearing hipsters two-stepping and mingling with the regulars during the Derailers' show.

LOM had been to Etro the night before and, frankly, it had not been a pleasant musical experience. Although we found the etiquette of not announcing the artist/band's names innocently charming (and frankly, many of the "musicians" at Etro Thursday night are probably better served by not announcing who they are), the seemingly endless stream of indie amateurs who crossed the stage made us wish we had been born with selective deafness.

What was immediately apparent was that, aside from Arthur Yoria, there wasn't a single musician in any of these bands who had the chops and discipline to play in a good country band.

That's where the conversation among musicians and fans went at Blanco's Friday night: The consensus was that honky-tonk is suddenly hot again in Houston because the most talented musicians in town these days play in country bands. Furthermore, what separates the top honky-tonk bands from the top indie bands is musicianship.

"I go see indie bands and the first thing that pops in my mind is that most of these guys haven't mastered their instruments," said one local bandleader. "There's some good young pop bands in town, and I'm sure they work hard and deserve the following they have, but almost none of those people could play in a country band around here, where you've got to be ready to do two or three sets a night.

"I think the last time we played Blanco's we did 50 songs - about 40 originals and 10 covers - between 8 and midnight. I doubt there's a single indie band in town that can do that, but there are half a dozen country bands that can do it six nights a week if they have to."

"And look at the guitar players in country music in Houston - my God. Wayne Turner, Kelly Doyle, Ricky Davis, Geoffrey Muller, Davin James, Dan Kirby, Randy Cornor, those guys come from such wide musical backgrounds and they can play anything. But they primarily choose to work in country bands. What does that tell you?"

Another commenter, a longtime Blanco's regular, said he thinks younger people are coming back to country music because they are actually getting to an age where they get the trouble-and-heartache "reality side" of country music and find that it is valid, something that actually fits the circumstances of their lives.

"Hell, look at the divorce rate," he said. "It's the same for hipsters and Inner-Loopers as it is for the rest of the population. Same goes for cheating and drinking. It seems like a no-brainer that some folks who didn't necessarily get Kristofferson's 'For the Good Times' or Willie's 'Hello, Walls' when they came out would be affected by them later on in life."

"And find me one indie-rock song by a Houston band that approaches the depth or sophistication of 'Night Life' or 'Crazy' or even 'Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.' You can't."

Another Blanco's regular had a different take:

You take these hardcore country bands like Robert Ellis & the Boys, Mike Stinson, even Jamie Richards. They can nail that two-step shuffle - and it's not as easy as it looks to get a dance groove. But when they rock out, they're as rocking as any of the rock bands in Houston.

"Show me any rock band that was nominated for a Houston Press award that can switch from rock to country in a heartbeat. They can't. At the end of the day, for me anyway, the best players in town are doing country right now. Who knows how long that will last, but that definitely seems to be what's happening at the moment.

LOM had our own issues with honky honk's comments. First, it seemed odd to us that he would fault people for liking country music because it is an "overtly white genre," yet he seems to claim that his "punk rock/indi [sic] rock youth" is somehow superior.

We've always thought of punk and indie rock as white in the extreme - let's face it, the Sex Pistols were not exactly at the vanguard of a liberal movement - so we don't quite get the distinction he's trying to make. Plus it rings as a rather hollow reason to not listen to any kind of music.

He also asserts that honky-tonk is "right wing" music. Obviously, that is a huge generalization that certainly wouldn't cover the likes of Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. While it's true that mainstream country radio today leans almost exclusively to the right, that is not the music Houston's best honky-tonk bands are playing at all.

Anyone who listened to Miss Leslie's latest album, Wrong Is What I Do Best, discovered a feminist honky-tonk treatise that had zero to do with "being white," but much to do with psychology and being a woman - hardly the stuff of Toby Keith or Carrie Underwood. In fact, about the only truly redneck cover we hear any of the most notable honky-tonk outfits in town doing nowadays is Hank Jr.'s "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound."

So-called country bands covering Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney were run out of town on a rail years ago. So we don't agree with honky honk's characterization of the current crop of Houston country bands and their music as "right wing."

As for honky honk's linguistically tortured assertion that "the masses may repel this retort," well, we shall see. And hopefully he'll drop by with a comment explaining what he means by "we need to consider our evolution at this point."

Indeed, sir, we believe we just saw your knee jerk.

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