Amid all the hand-wringing by traditionalists over authenticity, "true" country and various anointed country music saviors, one facet of the conversation has been lost in the country shuffle: maybe country music doesn't need saving at all. After all, it's in good hands with Texas honky tonkers Mike and the Moonpies.
The band just released their fifth album Steak Night at the Prairie Rose (out Feb. 2), a collection of hard-won tales of wild nights, loss, regret and chasing down dreams. It's a lot of what country music needs, but it's also a reminder that the music of old-soul country troubadours never really went away.
For the Love of Country
Mike and the Moonpies lead vocalist Mike Harmeier says the band isn't concerned with how people want to label them, just as long as they come to the shows.
"There's a huge genre argument that's been happening now for a few years. Everybody loves to get in on it and compare us to other people and that's just not the game we play," Harmeier tells Wide Open Country. "This is just the way that this band is. We're not trying to be traditional. We just are that way. We play shows to 10 people and we play shows to 100 people. It doesn't really matter. We're going to do whatever we're going to do. I couldn't care less what people want to classify it as. I just want you to come listen to the record and buy a ticket to the shows."
The album's title track is based on Harmeier's own upbringing in Tomball, Texas, from his first gig at 14 at the Prairie Rose in nearby Pinehurst, Texas to meeting his musical heroes when they came through town for the Houston Rodeo. (Harmeier's father is a member of the Houston Rodeo.)
"That was everything that I did as a kid. I knew forever that this is what I wanted to do and I was fortunate enough to have my parents be very supportive of that and my dad being connected in some ways to help me get gigs," Harmeier says. "I was very, very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of musicians that my dad knew through the Houston Rodeo. For me, there was nothing else that I wanted to do. Being surrounded by those people and seeing how everything worked and the real side of that, rather than just watching CMT or whatever, I was really a part of it back then. It really kept me going and kept me inspired to keep trying to make it happen."
And it has happened for Mike and the Moonpies. Since the release of their 2010 debut The Real Country, band members Catlin Rutherford (guitar), Kyle Ponder (drums), Preston Rhone (bass), Zachary Moulton (steel guitar) and John Carbone (keys) have taken the Texas scene by storm with gigs at the Broken Spoke, Floore's Country Store and just about every historic Texas dance hall that's still standing. Now the band is gearing up to set out on their first European tour after spending the better part of the last five years taking their Texas-born honky tonk to the rest of the continental U.S.
Harmeier says the years spent in the dance halls helped the band shape their sound to every crowd, something that comes in handy when they cross the Red River.
"We kind of figured out how to keep people dancing all night and that was a really cool thing we got to do," Harmeier says. "I'm really fortunate for all the dancers that attached themselves to us and came out and supported us. Now as we've evolved and we've played different types of places all around the country, like rock clubs and little dive bars, tailoring our shows to every club is really important to me."
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose was recorded over five days at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberly, Texas. Producer Adam Odor captured the freewheeling live feel of the band's shows.
"I wanted to do a record that was just letting the band do whatever they wanted to," Harmeier says. "Our previous records I knew exactly the way I wanted it to sound. I knew the parts I wanted and where I wanted everything. This time I just wanted to let the band and producer have free reign and do whatever they wanted to do. I think it let everybody have a lot more fun doing it."
The album kicks off with the rollicking "Road Crew," an ode to the roadies and road dogs who make the magic happen. They keep up the tempo for the bawdy "Might Be Wrong" and slow down for a slick '80s country groove on the down-and-out "Beaches of Biloxi."
The irresistible "Wedding Band" would sound right at home on early 90s country radio and cleverly tips its hat to the greats -- Randy Travis, Gary Stewart, John Anderson and Conway Twitty, among others.
Playing country music for the love of country music is a theme echoed throughout Steak Night at the Prairie Rose and on the recently released honky tonk lament "Country Music's Dead" with John Baumann, in which the artists extol the virtues of playing clubs filled with disinterested bar patrons talking over the music and gigs paid in cases of beer. As Harmeier says, country music is here if you want it. Even in the hard times.
"People love to say that country music is dead and there's not really anything going on, but they just don't really know where to find it," Harmeier says. "There's a ton of bands like us that are doing this in little bars all across the country. You just have to find an outlet for country music rather than just whatever's on your pop radio station or whatever. I just want everyone to know that there's more than just us doing it."
Mike and the Moonpies are currently on tour across the U.S.