Lonesome Onry and Mean

Lonesome Onry and Mean: My Son, the Guitar-Slinger

LOM grew up in the oil patch, made a good living in it, saw the world because of it. So it made sense to want our son, Lance, to grow up to be a petroleum engineer. Alas, it was not to be.

Now he's a guitar player.

Two years into the petroleum engineering program at University of Houston, LOM and the wife pulled the plug on Lance's financing. The logic? Exxon doesn't hire engineers with C averages who majored in frat party and skirt-chasing.

He didn't really see the logic in that, but he did have enough self-preservation instinct to realize that in about 20 minutes he was going to be as broke as the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

So, faced with insolvency, he abandoned engineering, took his guitars and his waterbed and moved to Lubbock, where he enrolled in South Plains, a junior college 30 miles west in Levelland that has a music school. Natalie Maines and Lee Ann Womack honed their chops there.

Although he'd taken a few lessons at H&H Music, when Lance left home for South Plains he was mostly just a self-taught three-chord rocker. Country music wasn't even on his radar. So when we drove out to South Plains for the school's semester-ending live performances that winter, we were amazed to see that not only could he play country music, he could tear it up.

We even hung around and sat through a grueling "audition" gig with faded country star Darin Norwood at some trucker's motel on the outskirts of Lubbock. We also got to see his little college outfit that served as the house band at the Blue Light in Lubbock. That Blue Light gig was how Lance paid his tuition and rent that first semester.

That little band included bassist Adam Odor, who has since been nominated for a Grammy for his engineering work with the Dixie Chicks, and teenage fiddler Amanda Shires, who has recently released her first album out of Nashville. That band could tear Dwight Yoakam's "Guitars, Cadillacs, etc." up.

After two semesters, Lance then horrified us by taking a touring job with Jay Michaels, a Dallas outfit that played the motel/hotel circuit from Dallas to Phoenix. Six days at the Albuquerque Holiday Inn was not what we'd envisioned music school leading to. That lasted about three months, and he got himself one hell of an education in music practicalities before he got a lucky break.

Lance Smith, "Red Handed"

Lance Smith, "Red Handed"

Back in Lubbock, he opened a show for Mark David Manders, who had just released Chili Pepper Sunset. Manders asked him to sit in during his set and hired him as lead guitarist right after the show that night. Within a couple of weeks, they were the hottest band on the Texas Music circuit, and Chili Pepper climbed to No. 1 on the Texas Music charts. They were playing four or five nights a week for good money, everywhere from Blanco's in Houston to Billy Bob's in Ft. Worth to Blaine's Pub in San Angelo, where they were literally treated as genuine rock stars.

LOM distinctly remembers getting a phone call from him one Sunday morning.

"Dad, you're not going to believe what Blaine just told us!"

"No, I'm probably not, son. What?"

"We just set the two-night record for most beer sales at Blaine's Pub since it's been open."

"Well, let me wake your mother up and tell her. I know she's going to be so proud."

After three years of hard traveling with Manders, he was ready for something else, and in one of those "right place, right time" coincidences, Hayes Carll called and asked if he would consider joining him and forming a band. Carll was about to release Little Rock, and his management felt like he was going to have to tour with a full band. Their first gig was opening for Ray Wylie Hubbard at Party On the Plaza in Houston.

And then Hayes Carll took off. Another fond memory was the morning after he and Hayes had played an acoustic duo gig at Exit/In in Nashville. The call went something like this:

"Dad, do you know what scared is?"

"No, son, I'm sure I don't. What is it?"

"Well, we sound-checked early, so the stage is all set up when they announce us and we walk out. So I get out there, pick up my guitar, and I'm checking my tuner and my eyes are getting accustomed to the stage lights. Finally I can start to make out people in the audience. And I look down and Guy Clark is sitting right in front of me at the first table with his arms folded, looking right at me like, 'All right, kid, show me something.' It was pretty intimidating."

Lance Smith, "Women Just Wanna Dance"

Lance Smith, "Women Just Wanna Dance"

Another Nashville highlight was being heckled by David Allan Coe.

Anyway, the Hayes thing blew up fast and they wound up playing in places like Amsterdam and London. One of the highlights from that period for LOM was their 2005 SXSW gig. Hayes had just signed with Lost Highway, and the band was razor-sharp and flying high. They weren't going to do SXSW that year, but Lost Highway hastily arranged a showcase and made the signing announcement coincide with SXSW.

LOM was standing near the rear of the bar with Lance, John Nova Lomax, Corb Lund, Scott Miller, and the editors of No Depression while Peter Case was onstage. The crowd erupted when Case finished. I looked at my son and said, "Man, I wouldn't want to have to follow that."

He said, "Dad, just hold my beer and watch this shit." Lomax later reported it was one of the highlights of his SXSW trip that year.

They followed up SXSW with a trip to the Americana Music Association convention in Nashville, where they were the closing showcase at the Mercy Inn. My son called me the next morning with a report.

"We were on right after the Hacienda Brothers, so we're waiting in the wings for them to finish and we're thinking, 'We're gonna kill.' Then Chris Gaffney walks up to the mic to announce their last song and I look over and see John Doe and Dave Alvin walk out and plug in."

High cotton to wade through, indeed.

During his time with Hayes, he also did a tour with Joy Lynn White and backed her up on some gigs in Europe.

When Hayes moved to Austin a couple of years ago, they parted ways and eventually my son picked up with the Gougers, who had a new album that required more guitar than their previous lineup. This led to another phone call from Nashville.

"We just played the Bob Harris show on the BBC. Guess who we were on with?"

"No idea."

"Rodney Crowell was on right before us. Then while we were on for our 30-minute segment, we looked out through the control room glass and there's T-Bone Burnett watching us."

So I suppose strapping on his Telecaster behind Mike Stinson at Under the Volcano tonight (8 p.m.) marks the beginning of a new chapter for the kid LOM once envisioned as a globe-trotting petroleum engineer. And, in many ways, we're glad he screwed that up.

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William Michael Smith