By Paul T. Mueller
Conroe, Texas – The good times continued through the weekend at the premiere edition of the Conroe Americana Music Festival. Fair weather, a strong lineup and a relaxed vibe made for a fine experience for the hundreds in attendance in the small city north of Houston.
The schedule on Saturday, May 6, began at 12:30 p.m. and ran until midnight, with 26 shows at six venues. A noon-to-6:00 Sunday schedule featured 17 shows. Many fans found themselves trying to decide among several good options at the same time; the event’s relatively small footprint, spread over a few blocks, made it possible to see parts of multiple sets without spending too much time in transit.
Some Saturday highlights:
- The appropriately named Caleb and the Homegrown Tomatoes, from Conroe, kicked off with a lively set that included “Family,” a look at the ups and downs of life on the road, and nice covers of the James Gang’s “Funk 49” and Robert Ellis’ “California.”
- Sophia Johnson, a native of England who relocated to Austin a few years ago, played an energetic set of bluegrass and swing that showcased her impressive guitar skills. The supporting cast included Beth Chrisman on fiddle.
- Texas honky-tonker Mike Stinson demonstrated his gift for catchy hooks and rocking riffs on songs such as “Late for My Funeral” and “The Box I Take to Work.” The set featured nice contributions from ace guitarists Lance Smith and Brian Whelan (for whom Stinson played drums in an earlier set).
Iconoclastic singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, a mainstay of Houston’s folk scene in the ‘70s, played a few long songs featuring his unorthodox vocals and guitar playing, interspersed with rambling stories about marital misadventures and the time Lucinda Williams introduced Bob Dylan to Townes Van Zandt. Taylor eventually left the stage to his wife, Susan Lindfors, who played a couple of nice songs including her “A Matter of Degrees.”
- Notable moments from Sunday:
- Houston-based trio The Great Trumpet played an engaging set of energetic folk featuring guitar, washboard and cajón, plus nice contributions from a guest fiddler (but no horns). The songs were marked by interesting arrangements and nice harmonies by guitarist Andrew Smythe and washboard player/singer Sarah Haug.
- Folksinger Ray Bonneville, a native of Canada now living in Austin, entertained an attentive audience at the Red Brick Tavern with songs exploring the problems and rewards of living, all filtered through his weathered voice and distinctive guitar playing. Selections included “When I Get to New York,” “Funny ‘bout Love,” “What Was I To do,” and a couple of requests “Canary Yellow Car” and “Tiptoe Spider.”
- Honky-tonk star Dale Watson and Western swing master Ray Benson (frontman of Asleep at the Wheel) put on a clinic in crowd-pleasing showmanship during one of the festival’s closing sets. Songs included some by Watson (“I Lie When I Drink”), some by Benson (“Miles and Miles of Texas”), some by both (“The Ballad of Dale and Ray,” “Feelin’ Haggard”), and some classics (Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”). There was also plenty of comic interplay between the two veteran performers. The encore consisted of exuberant renditions of Hoyle Nix’s “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” featuring assistance from fellow festival performers Guy Forsyth, Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis.Festival talent booker Tracy Brandon, speaking shortly after the last notes had faded and crews had begun breaking down the outdoor stages, pronounced the festival a success. “The fans had a great time,” Brandon said, noting that the event had drawn attendees from other states as well as from around Texas. Asked about future plans, she said the event’s producer, the Conroe Downtown Area Association, “hope[s] to continue to grow the festival.”