When did Houston — at least the Houston that lies inside the Beltway — cease to be a honky-tonk town?
First, let's define our terms. By "honky-tonk," I mean stone-cold, cry-in-your-beer, weeping country music on the order of "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today" and the boot-scooting Texas shuffles perfected by people like Ray Price and native son Johnny Bush. Nashville country (which is hardly country at all) and the Texas music of Pat and Cory are different animals. This is the stuff that used to pour out of icehouses all over Houston and is now very hard to find.
Despite the yearly country-music phantasmagoria that is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the fact that honky-tonk no longer holds much sway here is in little doubt. When Time Warner pulled CMT off the basic cable package about five years ago, it vanished with nary a peep. Country radio stations have diminished in overall number, ratings clout and quality of music since their Urban Cowboy heyday a quarter-century ago. (The 2002 transformation of the once-mighty KIKK into a smooth jazz station was a signal moment.)
Live honky-tonk is faring poorly in Inner Loop venues, at least outside of Blanco's and the Armadillo Palace. (More on them later.) What's more, many of Houston's top-shelf artists of this type have either left town permanently (Dale Watson and Jesse Dayton, to name two) or enjoy much of their success on the road.
The same is not true in Austin, Watson and Dayton's base. "Austin is better for honky-tonk, and I hate to say that," says local performer John Evans. "Jesse's country show does really well over there."
Pete Gordon, an owner of the Continental Club here, learned the hard way that Austinites hold honky-tonk in higher regard than Houstonians. When the Houston branch of the Austin club opened in 2000, Gordon assumed that Houstonians' taste in music would be similar to that of the capital.
To anchor his Sunday nights, he duly slotted in Watson — one of the greatest living singers of hard-core country, and a Pasadena native to boot — and waited for the crowds to arrive. They never did, even with the added inducements of barbecue brisket and an early start time.
"He can play six, seven nights a week in Austin and fill it up no matter what size the venue he's playing in — Broken Spoke, Continental, Ginny's Little Longhorn, whatever," Gordon grouses. "No matter what day of the week, he'll have a full house, and if I bring him over here on a Friday or Saturday night, we'll be lucky to get 50 people. It drives me crazy."
Gordon let the Watson experiment run for about a year before he reluctantly pulled the plug. He did the same with Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers, a Houston-based group that was steeped in the same vintage sounds.
"When Miss Leslie and her dad Country Jim put their stuff together right, that was some really good old-style country music, and she finally had to give it up," Gordon says. "And I know in the beginning she tried really hard to make it work with advertisers and the media, tried to make a scene out of it, tried to make a place for people who enjoyed that kind of music to go, but there just never seemed to be that many of them."
"Houston's a tough town for honky-tonk," says Miss Leslie. "It really is."
One theory I heard from a couple of people was that the smoking ban was playing hell with the honky-tonk scene. After all, what goes better with songs like "These Days I Barely Get By" and "House of Memories" than a glass of iced bourbon and a Marlboro or three?
Miss Leslie isn't buying it. "Austin has had a smoking ban longer than Houston," she says. "Yes, it is weird to see half your audience walk out to go smoke, but the clubs are still full there."
She believes that honky-tonk is struggling here for two reasons. One is that the opening of the Armadillo Palace has halved the already smallish country scene that once centered on Blanco's.
"Before the Armadillo Palace, Blanco's was such a strange mix — the Galleria, thirtyish hipsters hanging out with the cowboys from the outskirts of Houston," she says. "And then Armadillo Palace opened up and that was a new way for the hipsters to listen to more 'modern music' and be able to hang out at the meat market."
But to Miss Leslie, the dueling clubs — which to me seem less like authentic honky-tonks than caricatures of same — pale in comparison to the lack of radio support.
"Where do you go for airplay? KPFT is great, but the Lonestar Jukebox is the only show that you have. Their show is only so long, and they have a long line of people they need to give airplay to," she says.