Sometimes two words just go together, whether the connection can be explained or not, they just roll off the tongue and evoke a feeling. Honky and tonk are two such words, they may not mean much separately, but together they instantly make mouths water for a cold beer and fill heads with the sound of the lap steel guitar. Luba Dvorak is relatively new to the Houston music scene, but he’s already adding his brand of western to the city’s nightlife landscape, holding a Wednesday night residency at Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge.
Just last month, Dvorak released American Sin, giving listeners quality honky-tonk with surprising roots. Dvorak’s history is not from any country singer textbook, he and his family immigrated from Czechoslovakia to Canada and later settled in New York. He describes his particular sound as “Brooklyn Twang”, and is rarely seen without his trademark trucker hat bearing his logo.
“It’s a Bakersfield sound mixed with Texas honky tonk, marinated in New York swagger,” he says describing Brooklyn Twang. “I always say its country music, but with a swagger and not played as well,” says Dvorak.
Dvorak spent most of his youth in Canada, absorbing all the rock and roll an aspiring teenage guitarist could. Music was always in his life, as the Dvoraks boast a long line of musicians. Dvorak’s father was a folk singer in Czechoslovakia and the artist credits his father's influence in creating his countrified sound. The first concert his dad ever took him along to was none other than Texas god, Willie Nelson.
After the death of his father, Dvorak relocated to Brooklyn. “He was always like, ‘I brought you here, you go wherever you need to go to do whatever you fucking need to do’, so that’s why I moved to New York.” The fast paced, stereotypical rat race life proved lucrative for Dvorak as a musician; playing, producing, recording, mixing around the city, but he often found himself without the time to sit with his thoughts and just write.
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When he and his wife were looking for a change of scenery and weighing their options, her hometown of Houston kept creeping up the list. “It’s just so chill, I love it here. I don’t tell anybody about it because I don't want them to come down here,” says Dvorak, laughing.
Word of mouth and musical connections led Dvorak from New York to Houston's local guitar shop, Rockin’ Robin and the Continental Club. Dvorak starting running sound at the club, putting him right in the mix with the city's best artists. Dvorak tapped Houston’s Pete Gordon as a guest on piano, Robert Rodriguez on accordion and Kevin Skrla on pedal steel; all musicians with a sound so strong, local listeners cannot mistake them for anyone else.
American Sin travels down lonely highways, filled with as many good times as broken hearts. “The main thing that inspired this record, and why I even said we need to go make a record, was because I was binging on Gary Stewart, he is the king of honky-tonk,” says Dvorak.
“When I discovered him it was like song after song, there’s not a bad song. That was the whole idea behind this record, that sound which is like late ‘70s, early ‘80s country.” If moving to Houston is what Dvorak needed to kick-start his songwriting, his move was not in vain; American Sin is a sharp collection of original rock and roll, honky-tonk and a solid cover of Tom Petty's "Walls." His song "Queen of the Rodeo" landed him a paid spot in Steve Earl's songwriting retreat Camp Copperhead.
The title track, “American Sin”, is a modern day “Deportee” featuring chilling lyrics about the struggle for immigrants and the current administration's policy of family separations. Dvorak narrates the story of a man and his family just searching for a better life and begging for explanations for the malice of man. Adding to the goosebump-inducing track is Rodriguez’s haunting accordion, which Dvorak initially sought out to add a Flaco Jimenez influence.
“It’s so heartbreaking, tearing kids away from parents. I’m a refuge child from Czechoslovakia, we crossed the border from Eastern Europe to Austria we were refuge status and lived in an army base, so I’ve lived it, but I can’t fucking imagine what that’s like and it's still happening.”
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Dvorak recently took over the long running Wednesday residency at the Big Top from Peter and James, and in doing so inherited some of their regulars but has also picked up his own two-steppers. Every Wednesday night the bar hosts Luba’s Big Top Ramble and becomes a place where you can just as easily find someone shedding a tear in their beer as you can find couples sharing a warm embrace and a two-step on the dance floor.
Luba’s Ramble often highlights Houston’s finest musicians and songwriters joining Dvorak onstage for a late night jamboree. “It’s all like an homage to Levon Helm’s midnight rambles. How Levon explained it in the Last Waltz is, when they played county fairs during the day, after all the kids went home, they would have a ramble and it would get dirty. It was the stuff you didn’t play to the family crowd, it was the cool stuff. Everybody would sit in and jam, but I don't like the word jam, so it’s a ramble.”
Luba performs every Wednesday at Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge 3714 Main, doors at 9:30, Free.
For more information and to purchase American Sin visit lubadvorak.com