Austin City Limits

Mike Barfield Comes Home. And He's Ready to Dance!

Mike Barfield returns home to Houston for a throw down dance party.
Mike Barfield returns home to Houston for a throw down dance party. Photo by Barbara FG

It’s the morning after Mike Barfield has played his regular Thursday night gig at the Continental Club in Austin, so he’s shaking off a bit of fuzziness. The ragweed count around his house isn’t doing his allergies any favors either.

Still, he’s more than happy to be able to say that he graced any stage the previous evening, even if it’s not quite like old times.

“I had a ball playing out last night, it’s such a relief. But it doesn’t quite feel all the way back yet,” he says. “When I played the Club’s grand reopening, it was almost like a weird dream, like this pandemic thing never happened. Even though you couldn’t escape it.”
Barfield notes that while there’s still people venturing out to live shows, the crowds are inconsistent. And while he and his entire band have been vaccinated, he’s not quite so social yet with his audience when he’s not onstage. “It’s just a weird world,” he admits. “But I know that things will eventually get better.”

But none of that will hold the Houston native back when he returns to his hometown to headline The Tyrant’s First Annual Backyard Boogaloo and Dance Party on the outside stage at Houston’s Continental Club on October 9.

For those who only recall Barfield as the frontman of the Rounders, or later the much-beloved Houston country/roots band the Hollisters in the mid/late ’90s, the show’s title and his moniker as “The Tyrant” may be a bit confusing.

That’s because these days, though he still sports a cowboy hat onstage, Barfield and his band’s music is more tear-up-the-dance-floor than tear-in-my-beer.
“I don’t consider what I do now a true funk band. It’s more of a garage-swampy-rock thing with blues in there. And funk,” he offers. “I was always kind of involved in blues and grew up around Soul Train and graduated from Ross Sterling High School. These were the days where even the white kids had afros and platform shoes. It was always around me and I loved it, but I also loved traditional country and country rock.”

Alternately billed as Mike Barfield the Tyrant or just The Tyrant, the origins of that nickname go back to a used record store in Neenah, Wisconsin. Barfield was on tour in 2003 when the owner of the record store—who was also helping out the club promote the show—told Barfield that he hoped he didn’t mind being dubbed “The Tyrant of Texas Funk” on promotional materials.

Not only did he not mind, Barfield thought the name was very cool. And once Austin Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer heard it, it stuck.

click to enlarge Mike Barfield in the groove. - PHOTO BY BARBARA FG
Mike Barfield in the groove.
Photo by Barbara FG
“Steve had his wife make a cloth banner we used to hang up behind us that said ‘The Tyrant,’” Barfield says. “It was around the time of Saddam Hussein and we were invading Iraq, so that word was out there. It kind of took the sting out of it.”

Well, at least it was more PC than calling Barfield “The Führer of Funk.”

The switch has also been reflected in his original material, though he totally understands how some Houstonians who have not really followed him since he moved to Austin in 2000 might be confused.

“I think some of the people in Houston, because I haven’t done much there, probably won’t accept it. And there’s people in Austin that don’t know either. Every once in awhile people will say to me ‘Didn’t you used to do country?’” Barfield explains.

“But I play later and it’s a younger crowd that’s going out now, and they don’t know about the country stuff. I’ve become kind of a freak show to them. It’s like Mick Jagger [comparing himself to] being an old stripper dancing around up there!”

A lot of people in Houston do know about the country stuff, way back when Barfield was fronting the Rounders, before co-founding the Hollisters in 1995 (the band’s name taken from Rafe Hollister, the moonshine brewer on TV’s The Andy Griffith Show).

The Hollisters were primed for a national career, riding the wave of the nascent No Depression/alt-country movement. Their indie 1997 debut The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure debut record turned heads, leading to a contract with singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s management company and a Hightone Records for a 2000 release, Sweet Inspiration.

But the band at the time—Barfield, Eric Danheim (guitar, also from the Rounders), Kevin “Snit” Fitzpatrick (drums) and Denny “Cletus” Blakely (bass)—began falling apart due to personal conflicts. Then Danheim moved to Seattle when his wife landed a job at a newish company called Amazon, and Barfield headed for Austin.

A planned Hollisters second release and live effort never materialized. Barfield tried to keep things going with some other players, but by 2002, the Hollisters story was over, save for a one-off 2011 reunion show. Barfield then released his solo debut Living & Loving in Stereo, in which he first began to move away from traditional country.
In 2008, he began a partnership with Paladins singer/guitarist Dave Gonzalez. The pair had first met at Houston club in the 1980s and crossed paths over the years. Barfield even played Gonzalez’s wedding to his (now ex-) Houstonian wife in the ‘90s.

After the 2008 death of Chris Gaffney, Gonzalez’s partner in the band the Hacienda Brothers, a series fo benefit shows for Gaffney’s family were planned. Originally, Barfield was only going to play those. But the duo hit it off, and formed the Stone River Boys.

They released one record, 2010’s Love on the Dial, but the bulk of their career was touring Europe and America—the latter under sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances. That includes driving a used 1995 Cadillac across the country towing Gonzalez’s 1950’s-era Nationwide trailer.
“You get five people in a Cadillac, one of you has to have the seat above the drive train in the back, and that’s rough!” Barfield laughs. “We also had to keep the tank 3/4 full all the time, because the trailer was so heavy, the fuel pump hung low and that was the only way to keep the gas flow going.”
Barfield says he and Gonzalez remain close. “I really respect Dave’s work ethic and his playing. I just texted him yesterday, he’s married to this girl I know, and I saw him at his birthday in April.”

Mike Barfield was born in Houston, and with his parents lived in the East End near the ship channel until he was four. He then grew up in the southernmost part of Houston in Genoa, near where would later rise the Almeda Mall. In the eighth grade, a friend named Randy Ament heard Barfield singing in class and asked him to join a band, which Ament dubbed (right with the times) The Electric Birdbath.

His current band includes Johnny Moeller (guitar), Michael Therieau (bass) and Nico Leophonte (drums). Moeller in particular is key to Barfield since the pair write the music together. They first met in 2002 or 2003 when Barfield was playing a solo acoustic gig at Flipnotics in Austin, which lead to Barfield attending a show by Moeller and his brother.
“I just knew from that moment I wanted to play with him someday,” Barfield says. Moeller is also key in creating that Tyrant sound.

“There were some real hangups with the Americana scene that I was getting irritated with. It became too exclusive, it was a turn off,” Barfield says. Noting that some acts were striving for a Countrier-Than-Thou sound on one end, while self-appointed “Rockabilly Nazis” policed other acts for “authenticity.”

With his current group, there is an age discrepancy. But Barfield truly believes it’s just a number. “I’m the oldest guy in the band by far. I’ve got 18 years on them. I relate to them better than a lot of my older friends who are my age, and I don’t have a whole lot of them left,” he says. He’s been thinking about loss in the past few years, especially as it relates to former bandmates. Danheim passed in 2017, and then former Rounders bandmates Danny Gardner and Rex Wherry.

For his Continental Club homecoming show, Barfield says he’ll mix funky and danceable Tyrant material, some choice covers and newer songs like “Galveston County Jail” and “Up Ain’t Worth the Down.” He’ll have some older CDs to sell at the gig, and plans on releasing new material next year. Just don’t expect him to dip into the past for anything by his former band.

“The only thing onstage that will be country,” he laughs. “Will be me!”

The Tyrant’s First Annual Backyard Boogaloo and Dance Party is 7 pm, Saturday, October 9, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit $10.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero