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By Observer Staff
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Maybe that's why Houser has set a narrower horizon on his own dreams, which lie within the confines of the smoky bars and clubs like Adair's, where he and his band are playing tonight. Adair's is a commendable establishment, but that doesn't keep a weeknight on their stage from representing the last rung on the Deep Ellum ladder before the sidewalk. Nonetheless, he has assembled a damn good crew of pickers to accompany him on this off night: Mitch Marine--quite the cross-cultural picture with his shaved head, Fu Manchu, western shirt, and straw cowboy hat--drummer late of Tripping Daisy and still later of MC 900 Foot Jesus, Jack Ingram, Andy Timmons' Pawn Kings, and Brave Combo, here playing bass; guitarist Cameron Morgan, determined not to play like the UNT headcutter he could be; drummer Jimmy "no relation" Morgan, steady in the background.
Houser's up front, strumming on an acoustic guitar, a cowboy hat pushed back on his head. He's got a good, natural stage presence--the embodiment of the kind of strong-but-likable image that beer companies pay actors big bucks for: not too pumped up, not too pretty, and not too self-involved. He knows how to present a song: His voice is controlled and able but not overly sweet, with a roughness that makes it sound everyday, though not ordinary. He runs through some tried-and-trues like "Crazy Arms," and right away you think he must be new at this, for he does this mossy old chestnut with reverence, and without the condescension or haste that the pros sometimes show.
The bar isn't exactly packed, but a double handful of friends and some regulars keep the place from being too empty. It's hard to tell how much of the audience's attention he commands with the TV on and hung right overhead, but judging from the applause, Houser is connecting. This evening is a natural culmination of Houser's whole life: He learned to play in high school in St. Louis, where he grew up and cut his teeth on Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and other progressive country icons. When he graduated, his chops were good enough to get him a slot with the Six Flags organization as a musician, and he played bluegrass in parks in Missouri and Georgia.
Inspired by the then-heady cosmic cowboy scene, Houser moved to the Austin/San Antonio area in 1978 and put together a band, which he brought to Six Flags in Arlington. The group got work there playing, and Houser copped a part-time job in the wood shop, assisting with the construction of the Judge Roy Scream roller coaster. That lasted several years, and then Houser quit Six Flags to go with what he termed a "top-40 country-western dance band.
"It was terrible," he recalls. "I got so disgusted that I quit music altogether for about a year in the mid-'80s." In 1990 he returned to Six Flags to work on the construction of the Texas Giant by day; at night, he'd "go play what I liked to play, but real low-key." He developed something of a name around Denton, playing in little roadside joints with names like Cozy Oaks. That was fine by him, but in many ways it only whetted his appetite. "I was doing mostly covers, and that was about as far as it was gonna go. I had my own music, though," he says. In 1993, he underwent that most C&W of transformations: He got a divorce.
"It wasn't one of those really ugly things," he says of that time, "but I guess no divorce is all that pretty. Anyway, it was during the time that we were still married--but breakin' up--that I met these people who told me that they'd run into my wife at a party, and she was there with her boyfriend, and he was there with my dog. Now, I let her have the dog, but hearing about it--well, you can imagine." The result was the song "The Dog is Mine," a warning to an old love's new suitor that "you can keep the wife/but the dog is mine" (in the first chorus, the term is not "wife," but "bitch"). Although the joke at the heart of this song probably won't win Houser any endorsements from the local chapter of N.O.W., it was a hit with audiences.
"It went over really big; people loved it," Houser remembers. "That's what convinced me, finally, that I could write songs that people would want to hear." The notion to make an album of his songs grew; "just a li'l CD to sell at gigs, with a few friends playing on it," he explains. He asked an acquaintance for advice as to who might be able to help with the album's production; that person put him in touch with Mitch Marine, who had only recently been cut loose from Tripping Daisy.