Houston Music

Particular Brilliance With Houston Music Nonconformist Kerry Melonson

Kerry Melonson
Kerry Melonson Photo by Gloria Mashayekhi, courtesy of Kerry Melonson
Every good music scene needs an artist like Kerry Melonson. A lifelong Houstonian, Melonson is a veteran singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, music entrepreneur, idea person and fly in the ointment. He’s a risk taker, music scene surveyor and bullshit caller. And, of course, he does it all for the sake of the music.

We caught up with Melonson, perhaps best known for his long-running band Satin Hooks, to ask about a song of Particular Brilliance in his life. During our chat, he told us about a new project he’s honed for rodeo time and what he worked on over two years of COVID lockdowns.

“I couldn’t do the band thing during the pandemic and I had been wanting to do — I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to say ‘illegal’ music, that’s a funny kind of joke-y way of saying it, but I wanted to grab really tiny samples from random albums, like really terrible records,” he said. He’d then engineer those sounds “and then through my sampler, through a keyboard, it becomes an instrument that I can play. That’s the kind of stuff that I was trying to do because I couldn’t play with other people. I just thought let me explore this thing.”

That thing became a project he calls CONCRÈTE MÈLANGE and Melonson is aiming for danceable music that can be performed in EDM settings. The project is slated for a live performance at an Orange Show event in June. Initially, it lived a former life as Fabergé. He didn’t get a cease and desist from the company but he said his Facebook accounts with that name were suddenly erased. That’s a very Melonson story, the sort that comes with all kinds of boundary pushing and push back from the authority, whoever the authority happens to be.

He’s taken on other artists, show promoters and area venues. To get his music to people he’s all but eschewed the traditional music venue, choosing to build a fan base beyond city limits via the Internet with projects like De-mix/Un-mix, a long form music Web series, or posting to The Trip Channel on Instagram or curating an upcoming TikTok series where he’ll attempt to release 100 new songs in 100 days. When he does focus on local audiences, he does so by busking on the city streets before or after major events with lots of foot traffic. He dubs these performances “pop-ups.”

Melonson said his music story began at Sterling High School where he asked the school’s band director to teach him guitar. The instructor handed him a Mel Bay guitar book, a bass guitar and a spot in the school’s jazz band. From there, he went to the University of Houston to study in its acclaimed Moores School of Music.

“And then I kind of became disillusioned with the whole thing because I was spending my time in the libraries looking at all the journals and magazines,” he said, “and they were like, ‘There’s no money for jazz. There’s no money for classical music.’ And I looked around like, what are we doing here? I mean, people make good livings in orchestras and whatnot but I realized, oh, I’ve just been trying to get orchestrations and complex musical ideas out of my head that I’ve had and had been having all my life since I was a kid and thought that there was no way to manifest it.

“Then you go out and you’ve got to learn everybody else’s stuff. You’ve got to learn all this European, Eurocentric music history,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to find Dr. (Barbara) Lange at UH and she taught an ethnomusicology class and from there you find the others.”

Others like Dave Dove, director of Houston’s own Nameless Sound and the Deep Listening Institute’s Pauline Oliveros, innovators who heard music in the unorthodox way he did. Melonson’s latest project reflects this philosophy. He’s recently bonded with and created his own take on a genre of music he disdained in his youth.

“I grew up and country music was like, ‘Ugh.’ I mean my family’s Black so they were like, ‘Ugh. That’s all there was to listen to when we were really little kids.’ My parents were born in the ‘50s, at the beginning of the ‘50s. They were like, yeah, we know all that stuff and we don’t want to hear it, that’s the only music we could listen to on the radio,” he related. “So, I had this barrier. Oh man, country music, this is music I didn’t want to hear, no matter what.”

Still, he waded through the music and found some amazing songwriters and performers he could relate to and respect, most notably George Jones, Buck Owens and Faron Young. But he also found and collected some “really racist independent country music that I’d found on vinyl.” His new project is his way to come to terms with country music. He’s created “dead-on renditions” and “transformative interpretations” of classic country songs and plans to perform them at pop-ups during Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo this month.

“It’s called Kerry’s Country Klassiks. I wasn’t gonna add a ‘K’ to ‘country’ but I was considering putting two of them in ‘classics,’ just as a razz,” he said. “Also, because it’s really funny, me singing these songs, a guy with an afro singing these country songs, but it’s really shocking when people walk up on me testing this stuff out on the public.

“I’m just trying to make sure I know all the lyrics so I don’t have to think,” he said of the 50-song setlist he’s developed. “I just want it to look and sound like it’s just flowing through me. I’m not gonna play a cover gig where I’ve got the iPad in front of me reading to people.”

“If I’m going to learn these songs and do like a transformative version or modernize them or even just strip them down super bare and perform them, I knew that I needed to take in that style and I’d found the epicenter,” he said of the late George Jones, the true impetus for the project. “You know, the way that Max Roach is the jazz drummer is the same way George Jones is the country singer.”

Melonson said Satin Hooks, his longtime rock-and-soul group which began in the Myspace era, is still active. The lineup has changed over the years and has featured artists like Lucas Gorham. He said the latest iteration showcases the talented singer-songwriter Markell Gibson and Jordan Donald, the professional touring saxophonist who’s shared stages with the likes of Stevie Wonder. The constant has been Melonson. If the project has slowed any over the years it’s been so he could focus on fatherhood.

“Stuff happens, I got two kids,” he said. “I mean, I could still do all these things but for a minute I shifted my attention so I figured I’d try to be a good dad, or the best that I can be. I wanna earn that World’s Greatest Dad T-shirt. I don’t want somebody to just give it to me.”

Like any dad, Melonson sees himself as a protector. In a city of millions, Houston’s music scene is still small and sometimes artists go to great lengths to not step on the toes of those who wield a little industry power. Melonson isn’t searching for feet to trample but isn’t afraid to speak out for artistic control or freedom, either.

“I was doing shows and I was making more money playing for tips than I could playing in venues. Maybe I haven’t met enough of the new people — and I’m not going to say the names of anybody — but it just seems like being able to play in a venue became like a privilege rather than you’re the entertainment and people come here because they like being in this place and good music plays here,” he said. “I just like to warn musicians there’s better ways of doing business. Your thing is a business, whether you want it to be or not. If you go into a venue that pays lights and licenses and all the stuff to operate and if they make money or not, then you’re a business, too. And, you’re doing an exchange with that business.

“A lot of venues don’t see it that way,” he continued. He admits he hasn’t taken a real stab at booking in traditional venues since the pandemic but said too much of the burden to promote and carry shows seems to fall on the artists. “I just don’t see these as sustainable businesses, most of them. They’re just relying on people to beg their friends and families to come drink so that the venue stays open or the bar stays open.”

“You have to just be nice and roll with it and that way a gatekeeper or a venue or someone on a festival will go ‘Hey, come on in, you’re a nice person,’ but, that doesn’t make for a great show,” he added. “Down here on the street level it’s just so sad where it’s like wait, these are all musicians and you claim to be supporting the music scene with what you do here and it seems to be hurting the quality of music.”

“We have the physical infrastructure with hundreds of venues all over Houston. You could literally tour the ‘burbs here seven days a week,” he continued. “With all of that, we don’t have venues that are booking and paying artists fairly so it doesn’t even attract people who could potentially be great performers and songwriters. They’re just like, ‘I’ll just go into something else. I’ll just do TikTok instead of playing live.’”

“I didn’t give up on Houston. I’m not saying ‘f' Houston, this giant, multi-cultural, sprawling city with so many people and so much potential,” he clarified and singled out Continental Club and the late Walter’s as music businesses that proved to be good business partners with artists. “But I run ads that run in other cities in the world when I run an ad. I’m not aiming for Houston, to get the public to listen to me so that they’ll find me so that they’ll come and check me out. I’m looking to do other things and tap into other income streams so that I can make a living.”

“Okay, it’s called ‘Lesnoto Oro.’ It is a Bulgarian folk song. I’m not joking here,” he said, bringing it all back to music and his one song of Particular Brilliance. “It’s a Bulgarian folk song from Macedonia about a young Macedonian woman or girl and the lyrics are just really beautiful and it has these violins, the interplay between the strings, they’re really slight-sounding things, really lifting melodies and playfulness that you hear in country fiddle work. It’s just amazing. It’s got a dance that I don’t know how to do yet that one day maybe I’ll learn.

“It sounds amazing. It’s just really uplifting and long before I found the English translation to the lyrics I could listen to it endlessly almost,” he said. “It is kind of the complexity of the song that’s intriguing. I listen to all this other stuff and this is complex. It can be broken down pretty simply, you know, people dance to it. But the meter does totally attract me to it.”

Melonson first encountered the song while picking albums in a South Houston record store. He bought the record for a quarter years ago and the song has stayed with him. Its airiness might be the perfect foil to his stark takes on the music business. In spite of it all, music is still the prominent word in the phrase so perhaps it’s no surprise he chose something inspirational and pretty, elements he may not always see in a music scene or even in a lot of modern music. But they’re still there and worth chasing.

“You can hear the emotion in it, in their voices and in their melodic placement, you could hear that without understanding a word they’re saying and it’s just so beautiful,” he said. “It sounds like a bird taking flight.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.