Release the Hound! Sam Turner Goes All In for a Classic Country Winner

Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats
Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats Photo by Juan Mendez, courtesy of Sam Turner
There’s a song on Rodeo Hound, the new album by Sam Turner and the Cactus Cats, called “Back to Houston,” but listening to the LP, you might actually imagine yourself driving away from the city in search good times at some backwoods Hill Country honky-tonk. "Back to Houston" has something to say about Turner’s hometown and its own honky-tonk legacy but it also speaks to the commitment he and the band have recently made to crafting classic country songs.

Although the band’s planned a record release event Saturday, November 6 at Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, Turner admits the venues they’ve played in recent years don’t necessarily conjure glory days at Gilley’s.

“We’ve played Satellite Bar, Continental Club, Shoeshine Charley’s — those kinds of places definitely aren’t honky-tonks,” he said. “We played so many of those shows after putting our first album together and putting it out and it’s been a long time since it came out. On that album we weren’t exactly the same as we are now. There are some singer-songwriter country songs but then there were some straight-forward rock songs and some old crooner type songs.

“I don’t know if it’s a necessarily great thing as far as success in music, but we’ve always been able to kind of blend in with a lot of different bills. That’s opened up some shows at Satellite Bar and those types of places that you don’t necessarily think 'honky-tonk country music' when you think about those places.”

Even if it hasn’t always been the focus, classic country has been at the heart of the band, which formed in 2013. Hearing Turner, lead guitarist Michael Trakhtenberg, bassist W.D. Hesser and Troy Tabner on drums today proves their longtime love of the genre. Rodeo Hound is a collection of exceptionally well-written original songs, performed by a band that’s now following its true north with confidence. They got big assists on the album from fiddle player Ellen Story and Kevin Skrla on steel guitar, two busy country music artists attached to acts like The Broken Spokes and Western Bling. Turner even asked his sister Maggie Turner to guest on vocals and said, “Ever since I started playing music, we’ve got some family harmony type thing going on. She’s on a few of those songs.”

Whether it’s a “Baby What a Shame,” a rave-up with full-band backing vocals, or “G.S.’ Lament” — so plaintive it’d give Hank Sr. the blues — or “Lonesome For,” which we and Turner tab as a favorite track from Rodeo Hound, the songs sound as good as they do because the band is assured they are doing what they were meant to do after a feeling-out period. The journey began almost 10 years ago when Turner met Tabner through Tabner’s wife, who is a childhood friend of Turner’s.

“He moved here from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and his wife introduced us and we started playing together and recording some songs. This was back in 2013 or so,” Turner noted. “We did that for a few months and we’d have some friends over and all of a sudden, through a friend of a friend, Michael, who plays guitar now with us, showed up and sat in for a little jam session in Troy’s garage apartment in Montrose. He became a permanent member after that night, pretty much.

“After that, probably a month or two later, we had been looking for a bassist the whole time and randomly William had been hanging out, coming to these get-togethers,” Turner continued. “Never said he played bass or anything. Out of nowhere his girlfriend told us he played bass and we were like, ‘Well shit man, c’mon.’”

click to enlarge Guests like Kevin Skrla (far left) round out the sound on Rodeo Hound - PHOTO BY JUAN MENDEZ, COURTESY OF SAM TURNER
Guests like Kevin Skrla (far left) round out the sound on Rodeo Hound
Photo by Juan Mendez, courtesy of Sam Turner
“It’s been a long time in the making as far as that chemistry and tightness, that cohesiveness,” Turner said. “That comes from us being together for so long and it speaks to Ellen and Kevin, just how talented they are that it kind of blends right in.”

The timing for Rodeo Hound is right, since there seems to be a resurgence in interest in honky-tonk music in big cities like Houston and Austin.

“Part of it is knowing the history of Houston. Neon Boots, where we’re playing our record release, used to be called The Esquire Room. Growing up, I’d hear stories about that place and how Willie Nelson would sell a song for five bucks and a beer and a sandwich to Ray Price. And it’s a hit song that he’s selling, too,” Turner said. “You hear stories like that and about the honky-tonks on Telephone Road and even Anderson Fair right there in Montrose that had people like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. I don’t know how much they’d call themselves country artists or songwriters, but I associate that to them.

“I’ve always had it in my mind just from hearing those stories that Houston is one of the last real honky-tonk towns. I agree, these days it’s definitely changed a little bit but I think from what I’ve seen - and this may not be a Houston specific thing - there’s just an old-school country sound revival kind of happening. I’ve seen it in Houston too, just looking at people like The Broken Spokes and Western Bling playing western swing music and having people come out and dance to it. When you go see it live you can see that there’s a home for it. It’s been gone, it seems like, but I think it’s coming back.”

The album released to all streaming platforms on October 22 but the band is playing its official release event this weekend. A quick tour of Neon Boots with its owner convinced Turner he was in the right place.

“I had been there once or twice but she kind of gave us the grand tour, showed us this wall, it’s a big poster type thing that had every name that you can think of in classic country music, people that played there,” he said. “If she’d just showed me that I’d have thought, alright, this is the spot, but then you walk out and see the big dance floor and you’re just thrown back into that era when Houston really was a honky-tonk heaven.”

Bonnie Montgomery is gonna come and open the show up for us. If you haven’t listened to her, I mean, she’s a very talented songwriter and singer, an amazing voice, just a really cool style. She’ll be opening things up for us and then we’re going to take the stage and try to keep people on the dancefloor for as long as we can.”

Turner said they plan to play the new album in its entirety, plus some well known country classics that night and that “God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re gonna have vinyls the night of the record release. That’s when we’ll start selling those and stocking up record stores around Houston and anywhere else we go.”

click to enlarge The album's cover is an homage to classic country music and Turner's "best buddy," Clay - ALBUM COVER ART
The album's cover is an homage to classic country music and Turner's "best buddy," Clay
Album cover art
If you miss the release show, the band has a Saturday, December 11 date booked for Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge. We closed our chat by asking Turner about the album’s title. It’s part homage to the classic country sound the band’s chosen and part homage to a dearly departed friend, Turner said.

“I was thinking about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, this album by The Byrds. They started out as kind of a folk-rock band and then put this country album out that was just, I mean, it’s a very iconic album,” he said. “So, we were thinking about that and maybe Rodeo Clown to kind of poke fun at ourselves a little bit and make a call back to that kind of idea.

“The real reason we stuck with it is that dog that’s on the cover of the album was my dog that I had for 12 years and he passed away about a year, year-and-a-half-ago. It’s pretty much just me dedicating something to him and immortalizing him in any way I can,” Turner said of his late dog, Clay, brought to album-cover life by artist Rosanna Romero. “We had a very talented artist draw that up and point it to what kind of looks like the cover of Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, which is another little call out.

“That’s the real reason,” he said. “I like Rodeo Hound, I think it sounds good, and then that dog was my best buddy.”

Sam Turner and The Cactus Cats celebrate the release of Rodeo Hound Saturday, November 6, at Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, 11410 Hempstead Road. With Bonnie Montgomery. 8 p.m., $15-$40.
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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.