Texas Made Honky Tonk
What comes into your mind when you hear the word Texas? For many it will be the wide, open range that exemplifies the unfettered spirit of Texas; don’t fence me in. For others, the question may still be ‘who shot JR’? Maybe Waylon and Willie at the Armadillo does it for you, hopefully Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills, possibly Milton Brown, but most likely ZZ Top. From the Red River to the Bravos and the hill country to the pines, Texas can be something different for everyone. Whether it’s the Alamo or the Llano, a lasso or El Paso, I’m not sure you have to be in Texas to be in a Texas state of mind. Sometimes you just need the right record to come along.
Considering I have yet to set boot on Texas turf, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Texas recently, albeit just in my head. Weldon Henson bought me a first-class ticket when he sent me his latest LP, Texas Made Honky Tonk. An album built for boots on hard wood floors, if you want to know what gets the crowds to two stepping round the dance halls, this is the album you need to be listening to. No kick-ass country or outlaw posturing here, no attempt at popular appeal or crossover success. Texas Made Honky Tonk is a pure expression of the real thing. If you are looking for a statement on Texas music today, you’ve just found it.
Weldon Henson has been releasing albums from his base in Austin for over a decade, his rising popularity filling dance halls and honky tonks both locally and further afield. Originally from the town of Humble, (part of metropolitan Houston) birthplace of Howard Hughes and home to the last remaining DeLorean factory, Weldon moved to Austin after a stint in the airforce. His first album, 2007’s Trying to Get By, laid a foundation that Henson and his Honky Tonk Frontier band have built on with both their live performances and subsequent albums. Squeezed in around a relentless performance schedule that sees the band scooting all over Texas and beyond, they still manage to hold down their monthly Saturday night residency in Luckenbach, and a weekly night, Two Steppin’ Tuesdays, at Austin’s famous Broken Spoke.
The music on Texas Made Honky Tonk is classic and timeless, but without being a pastiche. This is music that is part of a live culture, rather than one that has died and been revived by some hipster band with a tasteful record collection. This is music made in the same way it has been for decades, real honky tonk with a touch of western swing to keep the partners twirling. So, what is Texas music, has this scene changed at all over the decades, and what’s it like to have the Mayor of Austin name a day after you? I guess we’d better ask Weldon…
How many albums have you recorded and when did you start?
I have recorded five full length albums. After a couple years of recording demos and becoming familiar with the recording process I released my first full length studio album , Trying To Get By, in December of 2007. It’s still a favorite of my most die hard fans. The most recent album, Texas Made Honky Tonk, was released just this past January. I think it’s my best work ever.
Tryin’ To Get By - 2007
Trouble For Me - 2009
One Heart’s Gone - 2011
Honky Tonk Frontier - 2015
Texas Made Honky Tonk - 2019
I get the impression that you arrived fully formed as a country singer, that one day you just walked into town with your band and packed the dance floor. How did it really happen? How did you get started?
I’d like to think it was that easy, but far from it. I moved to Austin in early 2007 to purse “The Dream”. I only knew one person when I moved here and he was a friend from high school that played bass guitar in a rock band. I told him to learn some country songs and let’s go make so money. That’s how the band started here in Austin. Next we found a drummer who was new to town and we started playing as a trio for anybody who would have us (small restaurants, little private parties, or whoever would give us free beer). We did that for about a year and then I found a steel player and grew the band a little. That’s when I started booking the clubs and dance halls. Those guys rotated in and out the next five or six years, there was a lot of late nights and beer, but I kept moving things along and trying to grow as an artist. Around 2015 I grew the band once again to five-piece so I could just concentrate on strumming and singing and all the other day to day operations of running a full time band, which is way more than it seems on the surface. I can’t say thanks enough to my family and the US Air Force for instilling a great work ethic in me. As the years went by things have steadily gotten bigger and better. The current band is as tight as any band you’ll find anywhere, at least that’s my belief!
Before I moved to Austin I had been in a few bands and had learned the ropes a bit of performing and being in a band so luckily I wasn’t a total greenhorn when I arrived. Funny thing is, I never considered myself a “dance hall band”. I just played my favorite songs and ones I had written and folks started dancing to them. Next thing I know, people were packing in the honky tonks and dance halls to dance and drink beer. I never told anybody, I really had no idea how to even dance myself and couldn’t tell you difference between a two step or swing.
You’ve made a huge impression in Austin, and in Texas in general, which is no mean feat. The Mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, has even named a day after you. How does it feel to get such recognition, and can you give any advice to struggling country artist out there wondering what they are doing wrong?
It always makes you feel good to be recognized for your art, especially from the highest office of the city I love. Makes you feel validated and that you are doing what’s right and that people are listening. My advice to any other new musician out there is to always be creating. Not just by writing music but by any means possible, such as making the band a little better, trying a new piece of equipment, finding a new place to play and marketing it, to just maybe working on a new poster or networking with folks in the industry. No matter how small something seems, if you are always creating a way to better your music and brand it all adds up in the end. Complacency kills creativity so always be creating something no matter how minuscule it is.
How do you describe your music to someone who has not heard it? Who are the biggest influences on your music?
I would say it’s called “Texas Made Honky Tonk”, traditional country blended with real life experiences in the Texas honky tonks. Straight from the bars and dance halls of Texas, it has evolved into an original style of music that is unabated. My biggest influences would have to be Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Gary Stewart, and Waylon Jennings. When I was first learning to play guitar and performing in bands I sang and learned more songs by these artists than probably everyone else combined.
Your new album, Texas Made Honky Tonk, is packed full of great tunes. There are some notably more jazz-inflected numbers, particularly Things I Don’t Want to Do. Where does honky tonk become Western swing?
“Things” is a song that was written many years ago. I actually wrote it for the second record, but it didn’t make the cut and I forgot about it. Fast forward eight years or so and I was going through all my old songbooks to see if anything maybe would spark my interest and there sat this song. I messed around with it for a few minutes and it seems to fit and feel more natural than it ever did before. When I showed it to the band everyone was on board and it came together super quick and was a perfect fit. I think there has always been Western Swing in honky tonk music. If you are looking for the perfect mix of the two listen to Hank Thompson.
How would you define Texas music?
Texas has always been a place where people create their own rules. Out of that comes lots of originality and authenticity. Texas Music to me means music that is not influenced by outside industry. I think it’s the purest form of art for music. Maybe it’s not that way anymore but I still like to think that way.
You are a regular fixture on the Texas dance hall scene, keeping the floors packed and the dancers twirling. Can you describe a night playing to a packed dance hall floor, for those of us that have not had the opportunity to be there?
It’s not a super glamorous life style but you meet the nicest and most authentic people you’ll ever meet. The joy that you see and the vibes you sense from the crowd makes you feel good. Everyone is just happy to be there and be around other good people. It gets a little hot in the dance hall and that’s when the excitement builds little more. It’s like a non-stop party where nothing is planned but everyone knows what to do.
Where is your favourite dance hall to play?
The next one on the schedule… That’s a tough question, lots of first place contenders.
Is the Texas dance hall scene evolving? Is the two step evolving?
I think the Texas Dance hall has changed a lot. Years back it was where all the local communities gathered to dance. Now days people come from everywhere to experience something that is still authentic. The scene constantly changes but little has evolved is the way of enjoying yourself and enjoying the comradery of being with other people that can at least be “like minded” for the evening. The two-step remains the same. There’s always folks that dance a little different but I think that’s a true statement for anything in life.
What’s better for dancing, beer or whiskey?
I suggest trying both and seeing what works best for yourself… You can become the best dancer of all time after a few of both.
What do you make of modern country music? Which of today’s new artists have something to say, in your opinion?
I like how you call it “modern country music” cause that’s what it is. Maybe even call it “modern, pop-influenced, industry controlled, country music”. Maybe even drop the word country from it all together. Personally, I think some of it is actually good music, but I wouldn’t call it country. Country has just become a term used to expand the market base. But, aside from all that, there are still guys out there putting out good country music on the big stages and doing their best to do so. George Strait still does, especially his newest record, Honky Tonk Time Machine, which actually has a pic of the Broken Spoke on the front cover. Cody Johnson is probably the best to recently explode on the scene. bThere are lots of acts out right now who are super talented and the music is awesome but it’s hard for me to call them country.
Who makes the best cowboy boots?
Another tough question. You can pretty much go to any city in Texas and find more than one custom boot maker who will make the most comfortable pair of boots you’ll ever own.
There are a huge number of musicians making and performing music in Texas, most of whom I will never have heard of. Who do you consider to be your contemporaries and who would you suggest I check out?
I’ve been around the business just long enough to see many artists come and go, some who were just as good or better than the well know guys. It’s a tough business, someone is always showing up with a bunch of hoopla and money but can they last is the question. Just off the top of my head, check out a few of my friends Jake Penrod, Bob Appel and Aaron McDonnell. There are so many others as well, if you’re in Austin you can’t go wrong with any of the bands playing at the local honky tonks.
Does outlaw country interest you at all? Do you get cowboys and hippies on your dance floors?
The original outlaw country I love. Waylon, Billy Joe, stuff like that like. Not so much what they call “outlaw country” now days, it just seems too formulated for me. A kick drum and a bottle of whiskey doesn’t make you an “outlaw”. In a way I’d like to think my music is more “outlaw” because I do what I want and don’t answer or care what the industry side says, nor do I formulate my music to fit a mold. Yes, both cowboys and hippies are at the dance halls. It’s been that way for a long time here in Austin, but Texas as a whole has warmed up to the idea in the recent decade or so.
Given the opportunity to host your fantasy music festival, alive or dead, who would you have on the bill with you?
Wow, now that’s a great question. I have so many favorite artists but let’s pick a line up for a two-day festival:
Day one: Weldon Henson, Johnny Horton, Gary Stewart, Dwight Yoakam, and Chris Ledoux can close out the night.
Day two: Marty Stuart, Keith Whitley, Merle Haggard and then Waylon and Hank Jr. can finish off the night.
What a fun question…we can always dream can’t we?
Thanks Weldon, I think everyone should have a pretty clear idea of what we’re talking about now. Real honky tonk for hard wood floors. Simple. If you want to hear more form Weldon, try this episode of Songwriters Across Texas in which he features (see below). Texas Made Honky Tonk is available now, go check it out, buy it and play it loud. You’re neighbours need to know, too.