It does not require an ethnomusicologist to understand what is known as “Country Music” rarely resembles what it once was. There are populations who have turned away from a genre that seems to have fragmented into product placement and recycled hip-hop and arena rock techniques. Whether it be the high and lonesome sound of train songs, or the beautiful melancholy of a pedal steel crying with heartbreak, from Western Swing to the revolt of Outlaw Country, a long period of musical output ties us to a time before the omnipotent information age. When culture was still passed by hand and many of the best writers in America wrote songs in Nashville.
Back in March, singer L Denison, Andrew Skates and Austin Jenkins, of Niles City Sound were all discussing a potential group of great local players to bring those songs to life. When I caught them up at Lola’s recently, L explained, “Austin, Skates and I have been talking about putting something like this together for a while, we knew we wanted to get Summer involved but weren’t sure of other players.” Once Skates saw Summer Dean perform, something clicked for the skillful multi-instrumentalist. Something about her voice and presence was key for him to see what Honky Tonk Country Club could become. And from what I’ve seen, I’m inclined to agree, especially after hearing her take on Waylon Jennings’, “Waymore Blues,” accentuating the tune’s understated soul. Dean has a knack for finding a song’s bones.
Once the band started to fall into place, they found a good fit with Lola’s and the Country Club took to the metaphorical lonesome highway with regular Thursday nights. Adding Beau Brauer on drums, L explains how he brought a fresh perspective, “Beau didn’t really have honky-tonk experience, but he has jumped into it by doing a great deal of research. I mean down to every element of the sound, he even figured out which sticks work best.” Rounding out an unbelievable rhythm section they have local songmaster Jake Paleschic, who played bass in the brilliantly short-lived Longshots, and also adds the third lead vocal on the stage alongside L Denison and Summer Dean. If you’re lucky, he might sing you something by Roger Miller.
For L Denison, the group offered an opportunity to cut her teeth singing lead alongside a terribly experienced group of folks. She also figured it was as good a time as any to begin learning to play guitar, “I mean who’ll notice if I miss a chord, it feels safer with the group. But, I really feel lucky ‘cause they’ve all been doing it longer. If you want to get good at something, I’ve always thought you should do it with folks who are better than you.” Similarly, the band allows Andrew Skates to work on playing lead guitar because he plays bass on his adventures as an internationally touring musician with Leon Bridges. Skates, who has also performed with Quaker City Night Hawks is an incredibly tasteful player, who can sit back or straight up burn. He’s easy to talk to and the joy music brings him is obvious.
Whether Bob Wills, Faron Young, or Connie Smith, you can see the influences of each player by what songs they bring to the table as L explains, “When we have time to rehearse, we each bring a couple of songs in we’d like to try.” As most of the group are more accustomed to rock and roll, Outlaw Country or 80s and 90s tunes are more straightforward, but she adds, “Those Western Swing tunes require a more precise sense of time, it is a nice challenge to have, because the rhythm section is what makes people dance and that’s what we really want to see.”
Through Denton’s Raised Right Men, Summer Dean first met pedal steel player Chris Schlotzhauer on a lineup opening for The Derailers at The Live Oak. Elevating their sound even further, Chris has recently joined the Country Club. When I asked him about the group, he was quick to explain how important he thought it was, “Too many of the older players stick to themselves and don’t get out and hear what’s going on in their own town. Honky Tonk Country Club looks forward to welcoming special guests to the stage as they have with glorious accordion player Abel Casillas from Squeezebox Bandits. Five years ago, I tried for a few months to get a Doug Sahm Hoot Night going somewhere in Fort Worth, but I was never able to get traction. As I was getting ready to leave the bar, Honky Tonk Country Club caught fire with the classic Freddy Fender tune, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” which was eventually recorded alongside Doug Sahm for Sir Douglas Quintet. These are the sounds and songs that live inside us and there will always be a call for us to hear them played with care and energy.
Come check them out this Sunday, November 12, from 3-7p, at Shipping & Receiving at 201 S. Calhoun as they join the festivities for the monthly Second Sundays event alongside Chicken Shit Bingo. https://www.facebook.com/events/1901429106841124/