Conroe Americana Musical Festival’s winning debut

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.

Dale Watson and Ray Benson at Conroe Americana Music Festival

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).
  • Eric Taylor

    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.”

Conroe Americana Music Festival: Day One

By Paul T. Mueller

The inaugural Conroe Americana Music Festival got off to a promising start on Friday, May 5, in the charmingly restored downtown area of the small city north of Houston. Perfect spring weather and moderate crowds made for an excellent festival experience, and the eclectic mix of musicians matched the fine atmosphere with outstanding performances. The overall vibe was laid back, with flashes of intensity.

The promoters’ decision to hold the festival in four indoor venues – two pubs, an event space and a converted ice plant – and two open-air stages under festival tents worked out well for the event’s first evening. All of the venues are located within a few blocks of each other, making for easy show-hopping. The relatively large number of performers meant that six shows were going on simultaneously pretty much the whole time, causing some frustration for those who wanted to see everybody, but also dispersing the crowd and avoiding big crushes at any one venue.

Some highlights from the first night:

      Quiet folkie fare, accompanied by cello and mandolin, by Shellee Coley, a onetime Nashvillian now back in her native Texas. Coley filled one of the 6 p.m. opening slots, in the beautifully restored Martin’s Hall, with her own songs and also a well-received rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

          Texas music from Houston-area singer-songwriter Brad Boyer, accompanied by guitarist Chad Ware. Hampered somewhat by subpar acoustics and noisy bar patrons in the Sparkle Ice House, Boyer carried on with a mix of originals (“Five Stones and a Sling,” “Long Cold December”) and covers (Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” Guy Clark’s “Stuff that Works”). There was also a nice rendition of his tribute to Guy, “The Last Folksinger.”

          High-energy takes on introspective songs (“Never the Pretty Girl,” “Whisper My Name”) by Austin artist BettySoo, accompanied by a full band that included Will Sexton on guitar and Bonnie Whitmore on bass, in the Corner Pub.

          Rocking blues from Austin’s Peterson Brothers Band, with brothers Glenn Peterson Jr. on guitar and Alex Peterson on bass, along with two drummers, on an outdoor stage sponsored by Conroe’s Southern Star Brewing Co.

          A diverse mix of originals and interesting covers from Austin-based singer-songwriter-producer Gurf Morlix. The former included “The Best We Can,” which Morlix said is based on a “pretty chord” of the kind he rarely uses. The latter included “The

Peterson Brothers at Conroe Americana Music Festival

Massacre at Glencoe,” a ballad about an 18th century feud between Scottish clans, and Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Morlix closed with the lovely benediction “The Parting Glass.”

          Boogie with a side of spirituality from the seemingly ageless Billy Joe Shaver, who seemed right at home in the cavernous Sparkle venue. Backed by an enthusiastic young band, Shaver cranked through such familiar favorites as “Try and Try Again,” “When the Fallen Angels Fly” and “Live Forever,” plus newer fare such as “Hard to Be an Outlaw.” His brand of rocked-up country appealed to listeners and dancers alike.

The festival continues through the weekend of May 6-7.

Preview: Conroe Americana Music Festival

 

By Paul T. Mueller

Music gets another festival to call its own this year, with the Conroe Americana Music Festival set to debut May 5-7 in Conroe, Texas. The event, described by the promoters as “a grassroots premier festival featuring a mix of Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Folk, Texas Country, Roots Rock, Blues, and Americana music,” will take place in Conroe’s historic downtown, about 40 miles north of downtown Houston.

The festival’s website, http://conroeamericanamusicfestival.com/, currently lists more than 50 scheduled performers. They include such well-known names as Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis (aka the First Couple of Texas Americana), John Fullbright, Billy Joe Shaver, The Mastersons, Gurf Morlix, Angaleena Presley, Dale Watson and Ray Benson, and Mike Farris. Of course, there’s a heavy presence of Texas artists, familiar in the Lone Star State but possibly less well known elsewhere, such as bluesman Guy Forsyth; songstress Terri Hendrix, with longtime collaborator Lloyd Maines; rockers Uncle Lucius; former True Believer Jon Dee Graham; veteran folkie Eric Taylor; Houston-based honky-tonkers Mike Stinson and The John Evans Band; Austin-based blues-folkie Ruthie Foster, and Austin blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland. The complete lineup can be found here and the schedule here.

With free parking and short distances between the festival’s six venues, the weekend’s toughest task figures to be deciding which performer to see at any given time. There are six venues – four indoor spaces and two somewhat larger outdoor stages – with scheduling seemingly set up in hopes of dispersing the crowd. For instance, the Friday lineup includes shows by Gurf Morlix and the Mastersons both at 9 p.m., at pubs located across the street from each other. Those sets will be partially overlapped by four other shows, including Hendrix and Maines and Austin-based bluesmen The Peterson Brothers. Scheduling dilemmas may be eased to some extent by the fact that some performers will play more than once.

As is often the case at the outset of such events, ticket prices are reasonable: $35 for a one-day pass for Friday or Sunday, $50 for a Saturday pass, or $75 for a three-day pass. Parking is free and food will be available from several food trucks.

According to the festival’s website, the event was “(e)stablished through the Conroe Downtown Area Association (501c4) [and] the proceeds of the festival will be used to enhance the Historic Downtown Conroe area with improved signing and beautification projects.”

The Conroe Americana Music Festival gets under way at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 5, and wraps up at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 7.