Featured Music: Wednesday, September 12, 2002
Still Kickin’

Honkytonk is thriving around these parts — you just gotta dig a little to find it.


In any Tuesday night at the Finish Line, a congenial little watering hole off I-30, the dance floor stays full of couples hot-footing it to shuffles and occasional waltzes. Even the bartenders will occasionally venture out from behind the bar to cut a rug with a patron. On the bandstand, the Insiders, a band of top pickers led by bassist-vocalist Reggie Brown, holds forth with all the crowd’s favorites — songs like Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” George Jones’ “The Race Is On,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Motel Time Again.”

Far from the maddening crowds of turistas and line dancers in the Stockyards, it’s like stepping into the nighttime world of a ’60s Texas honkytonk. The crowd is about evenly split between listeners, drinkers, and dancers. “We get all kinds of people in here,” said Brown, “and folks will leave you alone and let you do your own thing.” All five Insiders, each dedicated to capturing the pure spirit of honkytonk, are seasoned but unheralded veterans of the Fort Worth scene. “This band,” said fiddler and sometime Charlie Pride sideman Reggie Rueffer, “is a testament to the greatness that is Fort Worth. We do the shit that Nashville wishes it could do.”

These days, Music City shamelessly courts the generation that teethed on mainstream rock, and the country airwaves are dominated by performers who owe more to James Taylor (or sometimes Lynyrd Skynyrd) than they do to Price or Jones. As Insiders drummer Wayne Bennett opined one night at the Finish Line: “The stuff you hear on country radio these days isn’t real country music. It’s more like ’70s soft rock with a steel guitar buried deep in the mix and a fiddle player trying to sound like Hendrix!” But honkytonk isn’t dead — though Nashville would have you believe otherwise.

For starters, you can hear some honky-tonk sounds on the radio by tuning into KYXS-FM/95.9, “The Radio Ranch,” out of Weatherford every Sunday from noon ’til 5 p.m. Joe Bielinski, unofficial “mayor” of Mingus, Texas, spins old faves on his “Classic Country Review.” But the best way to hear this music is live, and there are a couple of places down around these parts that are worth your time. Besides the Finish Line on the west side, there’s the Borrowed Money Saloon and Big Balls of Cowtown in the Stockyards area, and the Stagecoach Ballroom on East Belknap.

Honkytonk is the sound of rural people shaken loose from their connections to the land and their families and deposited in urban centers and depersonalizing industrial jobs. It’s still good-time music but with an undercurrent of guilt and sin. And it’s electric music, with amplified steel guitars and fiddles providing the soul cry to lyrics that deal with subjects a lot deeper than Mama, trains, and pickup trucks. Just listen to “I’ve Just Destroyed the World (I’m Living In),” an apocalyptic take on a relationship gone wrong, written by Willie Nelson and Ray Price during Price’s classic ’60s period. Or “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill” and the prison escape song “The Ballad of Frisco Bay,” both of which show conclusively that singer-songwriter Johnny Paycheck didn’t shy away from controversial subject matter or surprising plot twists in his pre-“outlaw” days.

Besides the keening sounds of steel and fiddle, honkytonk is the sound of compelling vocalists like Ray Price and Johnny Bush — big baritones who can nail a tricky melodic leap without sliding up or down. This is almost unheard of in the current “age of the non-singer.” The songs have strong melodies, too — a far cry from the stereotype of country songs that consist of “three chords in the key of G.” Dismiss this stuff as “tear-in-your-beer music,” and you’ll be missing out on a deep well of both musicality and emotionalism.

Perryville native Price is probably the daddy of the style. In the 1950s and ’60s, his band, the Cherokee Cowboys, served as a launching pad for singer-songwriters like Willie Nelson, Bush, Paycheck, and Darrell McCall, as well as steel guitar virtuoso Buddy Emmons.

Houstonian Bush was originally thought to be too much of a Price sound-alike to record until Nelson bankrolled Bush’s classic Sound of a Heartache album. Bush returned the favor by writing Nelson’s signature tune, “Whiskey River.” In the ’70s, a rare nerve disorder called spastic dysphonia robbed Bush of his vocal range, but since then, he’s managed to regain enough of his original voice to resume performing and recording.

Back at the Finish Line, guitarist Chad Rueffer, who recently departed the “high-velocity honkytonk” band Speedtrucker, is singing Johnny Paycheck’s “A-11.” His vocals have been lauded by ex-Bob Wills vocalist Leon Rausch, a high accolade. On fiddle, Chad’s brother Reggie lights up the strings without any Hendrix allusions, and when he steps to the mic to sing Mel Tillis’ “Stomp Them Grapes,” the hall echoes with the sound of boots stomping on the dance floor.

Next, Reggie Brown steps up to sing Ray Price’s “The Only Bridge You Haven’t Burned,” a song he recorded on his Texas Nights and Honky-Tonk Lights c.d. for the United States of Texas label. Brown’s a vocalist in the classic mode and an agile player who gets an amazingly punchy, clear tone from his stand-up bass.

His rhythm section teammate Bennett has his kick drum inscribed with a Latin phrase “Non sunt arma, est armiter!” which translates loosely as “It’s not the gun, it’s the gunner!” A veteran of the Ray Price and Boxcar Willie bands (remember “America’s favorite hobo”?), Bennett propels the music with snappy fills and accents that never detract from the sense of the song.

The Insiders’ secret weapon is steel guitarist Gary Carpenter. A busy session player, Carpenter has a sound like molten silver, his bar gliding across the strings the way the dancers’ feet glide around the dance floor. On his self-released c.d., Steel Guitar Favorites, the Oklahoma native covers territory from spirituals (the gospel song “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”) to swing (a couple of Duke Ellington tunes and several jazz standards) and does ’em all up fine.

The Insiders honor their Fort Worth western swing heritage and cross into jazz territory at will. In fact there are times when the band is cooking so much that it almost feels like a jazz gig, with Brown stomping his foot and leaning into his big stand-up bass, Bennett dropping bombs, and the three soloists flying. “We see this as an ensemble gig,” said Reggie Rueffer. And, indeed, the communication among the bandmembers seems almost telepathic. But it’s social music, after all, and the dancers never stop.

One recent Tuesday found Fort Worth R&B/zydeco daddy Johnny Mack and his accomplice Stoney Bass checking out the action while other players were waiting to sit in, like at a blues jam. At one point, the Insiders were joined onstage by a young lady who was dressed as though she had just come from the beach but who could belt out powerful versions of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Jeanne Pruett’s “Satin Sheets.”

Later, Abilene legend Curtis Potter took the stage to front the band for a couple of tunes. Potter was western swing/honkytonk kingpin Hank Thompson’s bandleader from 1959 to 1971, when that band was among the tightest and toughest in the nation. Since then, he’s released several albums under his own name, most recently Six Hours At Pedernales with Willie Nelson and The Best of Curtis Potter, Volume 1, both on Arlington-based Southland Records. The singer also performs with the National Swing Band of Texas, a full western swing big band with three fiddles and five horns. He’s got tremendous pipes and is worth hearing if you can catch him on one of his Metroplex visits.

On another recent night, the Insiders were joined onstage by Carl Vaughan, a singer who’s been active since the 1960s with a style similar to Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall. Lately, Vaughan’s been performing in venues like Big Balls of Cowtown and the Stagecoach Saloon. His latest album, Yours Forever on Rafter V Records, features four songs by Fort Worth songwriter Jerry Max Lane, an ebullient version of Dave Kirby’s “You’re Just Another Beer Drinking Song,” and covers of Ray Price and Darrell McCall tunes.

Too soon, it was quitting time for the band, but Reggie Rueffer took the mic to announce, “We’re going to make Wayne Bennett stay up and play music for another 20 minutes.” Then the Insiders played on for an hour or more, singing songs of sorrow and heartbreak while becoming visibly transported by the sheer joy of performing, and the dancers continued swirling around the floor. Country music — hell, life itself — gets no better than this.

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