Guitarist Chet Akins, the Country Gentleman, would describe the Nashville sound by jingling some the change in his pocket and saying, "It's the sound of money." Mainstream country's lucrative turn toward pop in the late 1950s eventually blossomed into the unholy genre called countrypolitan, in which Glen Campbell sang about rhinestone cowboys and Ronnie Milsap wrote about looking for a lost love in the Smoky Mountain rain. You're god damn blind, Ronnie. You're not finding anything.
Luckily none of that sap infects Wednesday open mike night at Blanco's. (I did hear a Jimmy Buffet song but I'll try to pretend that didn't happen.)
What goes on is usually closer to a Texas/Bakersfield/outlaw deal. When I walked in Wednesday, a guy who dressed a lot like Waylon Jennings was playing Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean." That wasn't bad. Better was the guy with the pompadour and rose-embroidered western shirt who shook my hand and asked if my three friends and I were going to "rock the world" that night. I told him I wasn't playing, and he offered to buy me a beer anyway. Later that evening I overheard him discussing Pakistani arms dealers over a kamikaze with an older man in a cowboy hat. This was a well-rounded gentleman. I'm not just saying that because of the free Budweiser.
In addition to being country-only, Wednesday night at Blanco's is distinguished from most other open mikes around town by the fact that it's not a total shit-show. Don't get me wrong, it's still an open mike, which is not everyone's thing, but it's better than most. Each week, a different songwriter or band plays from 8 until 10 p.m., then hosts other acts, who either supply their own band or get available sidemen to help out. Drink specials run until 9 p.m. and include $10 buckets, $3 Jack Daniels and discounted wells. (The kitchen closes around 9 as well.)
The crowd includes a lot of musicians, of course, plus a mix of city folks and shitkickers. (Fitting for a 29-year-old country bar in River Oaks owned by Micheal DeBakey's son and situated on land owned by the Taub family.) The bar's website is houstonredneck.com, but there are more than a few luxury cars parked outside on busy nights. This distinction was demonstrated Wednesday when the driver of a Ford diesel pick-up accidentally sprayed debris from the dirt lot into the gunmetal paint job of a shiny new Audi. "I'd have beat that motherfuckers ass," one onlooker said. "I've been in too many fights to be afraid of anybody."
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What sets the night apart, besides the atmosphere that cheesy clubs like Rebels and Wild West lack, is the quality of some of the players. (Also, full-length, free shuffleboard.) A few are downright virtuosic, like guitarist Chad Ware. Others do solid full-band Gillian Welch covers, which gives me the vapors. As much as a cover can, at least.
Toward the end of the night, my friend Casey noticed the fiddle player's flight case had "Ace in the Hole Band" stamped on it. It turned out the guy is part of George Strait's group.
"If you can't be George Strait," Casey said, "you might as well be George Strait's fiddle player."
And if you want a country bar but can't actually make it out of the city, you might as well go to Blanco's.