Gathering steam

Brian Houser has quite a view from his workplace; his job as a carpenter, responsible for maintaining the aptly named Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags, can take him up to 143 feet in the air. You can't see both Dallas' and Fort Worth's skylines at once, like you can in the steel, 300-foot-plus observation tower that dominates the Arlington park, but "you can see all the way to the ground," Houser says with a laugh, "and that's enough."

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.

For Marine, that parting had been less than amicable, but the energetic music vet is circumspect about the particulars of his dismissal. "You go on to play with other people, so how much do you want to say about the band you just left?" Marine was booted this October 7, the day before his birthday. "My side of the story is that I had given him (Tim DeLaughter, the leader of Tripping Daisy) plenty of opportunities to tell me he didn't want me along, so I don't understand why what happened happened when it did."

Houser also knew Marine: the two had met in the summer of 1996 at Denton's Fry Street Fair, when the drummer had rejoined his old group Brave Combo and then played with his just-joined band Tripping Daisy.

Marine was back in town, with a burning desire to pour his energies into another project. For a relative outsider like Houser, Marine was the golden key. "He's been working his ass off," Houser says of Marine. "The album went from that li'l CD to us playing at Billy Bob's, and to players on the album that are people that I just wouldn't be able to wrangle."

"I no longer had a band," Marine says with a laugh. "I was looking for a production experience, so when I met Brian, I volunteered for basically nothing to get the work."

The result is currently a six-song demo, roughly half of what will be on the album, which is tentatively scheduled for release early next year. Marine put together a stellar roster for the project: Brave Combo's Jeffrey Barnes on sax and harmonica; local whiz Milo Deering on steel, mandolin, and fiddle; Sara Hickman singing; and old Pawn King boss Andy Timmons on electric guitar.

The songs on the demo are good--the sing-along farewell to love "River Run Dry," the bluegrass-inflected "Santa Fe Trail," and the traveler's anthem "Roll Along"--although a bit on the standard side. They don't exactly need saving, but you do gain a new respect for them when you see Houser perform them live. He saves "The Dog is Mine" from being some fit of dumbass pique by singing it with real heat and a palpable sense of injury that cuts through the humor. The demo's "Tryin' Hard" (to settle down) would stink on ice, coming from some preening slab of beefcake like Aaron Tippin, but Houser--with his everyguy affability--pulls it off.

"These songs are geared to radio guys," Marine admits. "We're capable of a lot more."

A lot of that potential comes from the same respect and love that you see in Houser's attentive covers of warhorses like "Bartender's Blues" and Merle Haggard's "Big City." That doesn't mean musty stasis, though: live at Adair's, Houser also does a seamless blend of Neil Young's "Harvest" (probably--along with a duet with Sara Hickman on Tammy Wynette's "Rose Garden"--one of the covers on the upcoming album) and the old Ernest Tubb classic "Waltz Across Texas." Later on, guitarist Morgan leads the band through a medley of surf faves, starting with Dick Dale's "Miserlou."

The band is still rough; there are a few clinkers during the Adair's evening, but the members seem to be building an easy rapport. The six-song demo represents (more or less) the final mix waiting to be pressed; when those tunes are joined by the six others Marine and Houser are currently working on, the album will be ready to roll.

The group is following an auspicious set of precedents. A few years ago, Jack Ingram started out at Adair's with a hell of a lot less direction than Houser and has managed to parlay that early momentum into a bona fide career. Houser is willing to work just as hard, if not harder. "We're working on all aspects of the album constantly," he says. "I don't want this to become just another bunch of country songs. I mean, if I can move from a day job to singing, that's fine, and it's fine if I don't."

Brian Houser and his band open up--appropriately enough--for Jack Ingram at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth on January 3, 1998.

Scene, heard
Tickets are still available for the remaining Saturday performance of the Dallas Opera's production of The Magic Flute at the Fair Park Music Hall, this Saturday, December 27...Stink!#bug are currently ensconced in Last Beat Studios, working on their second album...Check out Transona Five's song "hey, hey, hey" on the bonus CD that comes with the new (#43) issue of Pop Culture Press magazine, then see them at the Barley House Friday, December 26...Advance copies of Slowpoke's soon-to-be-released new album from Geffen are starting to appear in the mailboxes of industry types, but you can check out "Am I Shade" from the band's upcoming Virgin Stripes before that. Last Beat will be putting out the EP Am I Shade just as soon as certain contractual matters are settled. The three-song disc will contain the title track, from Virgin Stripes, and two previously unreleased cuts...

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