Kevin Fowler is ridin' high on the hog
The bar inside the Coupland Dance Hall & Tavern is a thing of beauty. Its unvarnished surface, circa 1886, is dark and polished from years of resting elbows, the surface peppered with buckshot holes from a long-forgotten barroom brawl. Beside it is another bar, even older as it dates back to 1700s Louisiana; a third one across the room backs up to a corner by the stage. The sign hanging over it says it all: "Just a Two-Step Back In Time."
The rustic dance hall comes alive every Friday and Saturday night, a dream of a Texas honky-tonk plunked down on Highway 95 in Coupland, between Taylor and Elgin, 30 or so minutes northeast of Austin. Its 7,000-square-foot ballroom has seen the likes of Willie Nelson, Hank Thompson, Johnny Bush, and David Allan Coe onstage over the years and blessedly shows no indication of becoming city-fied with disco lights or mixed-gender bathrooms. Red, white, and blue bunting drapes the high beams overhead and neon beer signs blaze on the walls: Miller Lite, Bud, Coors, and Lone Star. Time hasn't exactly stood still here but it's a might more peaceful than Sixth Street on a Saturday night, even if the buckshot scars suggest an occasional row.
Onstage, the opening band is going through its routines. In addition to a passel of traditional country favorites like "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and "Amarillo by Morning," music includes AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," the Chili Peppers' version of "Love Rollercoaster," the Commodores' "Brick House," and the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up." It's hardly the standard country fare, but it keeps the young 'uns happy.
Old couples, young couples, and families with small children abound. Mothers and fathers shuffle counterclockwise around the dance floor with their little buckaroos. Bachelors in starched white cowboy shirts, tight blue jeans, and summer straw hats swig frosty longnecks and stroll the plywood floors like cocks of the rock. Girls wearing short denim miniskirts and tank tops flutter about in flocks of twos and threes, their brown sugary arms and legs invitingly tan and lean.
The lead singer leans over the microphone and hollers, "Are you ready for Kevin Fowler?" All turn, whoop, and clap at the band's announcement. More than a few folks respond with "yee haw!"
Kevin Fowler stands beside the merchandising table by the stage and surveys the stage action with the long-distance gaze that comes from looking out across the flatlands of the Panhandle. The 36-year-old Amarillo native is tall and fit with close-cropped wheat-colored hair, wears a glittery blue cowboy shirt embroidered in red roses and trimmed in white piping, and lifts the brim of his hat to view the room. His face is enigmatic but a slow smile changes it as three young fans pony up for an autograph. It's gonna be a good night, his expression seems to say.
Before the show, Kevin Fowler picked over a plate of mouth-watering barbecue at the Old Coupland Inn next to the dance hall, musing about the upswing in a musical career that's taken as many curves as a mountain road.
Location, Location, Location
"In the first paragraph of every story on me, they gotta talk about Dangerous Toys!"
His stint in the popular hard rock band is fodder for the press but news to many fans because he did not include it in his biography until recently. Dangerous Toys already possessed a gold record for their debut album when Fowler joined the successful hard rock/glam outfit for "about 13 months." The band had just returned from a tour with Judas Priest and were hugely popular on the touring circuit, but Fowler did not record with them.
When Fowler was wearing spandex and tossing around his hair 10 years ago, Austin's country scene was about Kelly Willis and Monte Warden and Charlie and Bruce Robison. Twenty years ago it was about Joe Ely and Townes Van Zandt and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Thirty years ago, it was about Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and Rusty Wier. Today, it's about Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, and Kevin Fowler. There are plenty of others too, including names like Django Walker, Paula Nelson, Coby Wier, and Colin Gilmore, players wearing the mantle of their famous fathers while trying to establish themselves individually. All of these up-and-coming artists are finding that the most bountiful row is the one you hoe yourself.
But something distinguishes each generation of these young country acts from Nashville's, and much of it is simply location, location, location. Austin has always encouraged the do-it-yourself ethic by providing artists the opportunity to play live in a community with a wealth of performing venues. It also supports singer-songwriters with its strong history of folk, blues, Latino, rock, pop, and country music.
Still, this current brand of country isn't considered as cool as the last three waves. Pat Green is maligned for his Everyman image and songs of simple wants and needs, and while he recently made it on the cover of Texas Monthly, the article relied on the quaint method of using a teenager as a monitor of cool. Green, the most successful of the Young Texas artists, is crying all the way to the bank.
Dave Marcum, program director at KVET-FM, finds the Young Texas acts as fresh as a breath of Hill Country air. "Pat, Cory, Kevin, and players like that are like a Second Coming of Texas music. A taste of authentic Texas music. The audience is so responsive to Kevin."
For his part, Fowler, who has performed with Green and the others, isn't concerned about the degree of hipness involved. He just played three gigs in two days with about 1,000 people at each one. "From frat boys at A&M to family in the country, we do it all."
When he walked away from the lucrative hard rock scene in the mid-Nineties, Fowler acknowledged his Amarillo roots, first forming a band called the Hellhounds, then with the Southern boogie band Thunderfoot. But when he traded his silky mane of golden hair for a cowboy hat and recorded One for the Road in 1998, he was embracing the music he'd grown up with.
"I used to channel surf the radio in high school. I liked the Cars, and I liked Merle Haggard. I think that helps in my songwriting. I can write a song that Blink-182 can do as well as Sammy Kershaw. For some reason, a lot of songwriters hate that, like you're only supposed to dress retro and wear your jeans rolled up to be a country songwriter. I don't understand that train of thought. You do what you gotta do."
"I thought I would catch more grief than I really did, going from rock to country. The records doing well helped a lot. People that come see us play never heard of Dangerous Toys. They don't give a damn."
If the audience didn't care about his past, they sure gave a damn about the present. Fowler's sophomore effort, Beer, Bait and Ammo, was everything a promising musician could want. It oozed cowboy attitude and country sentiment and yielded a handful of catchy tunes that the listeners couldn't get enough of. "Speak of the Devil," "If These Old Walls Could Talk," and "Butterbean" were favorites but it was the title track that they loved, a sure-fire, attention-grabbing redneck anthem that most recently caught the ear of Sammy Kershaw. He promptly recorded "Beer, Bait and Ammo." The album sold "between 22,000 and 24,000 copies," Fowler guesses, thanks to show merchandising and statewide radio airplay.
"The radio support is amazing. We got the Wolf in Dallas and KVET here and KFAN in Fredricksburg ... Pat Green kinda kicked the door open and we walked in."
What Fowler walked in on was a generation that takes pride in being young and Texan, one ready for its own artists and musical heroes to define it. That he happened to be based in a community where country music is intrinsic and quality songwriting is the standard was pure frosting on the oatcake.
"Howdy, y'all!" Kevin Fowler stands before the microphone with his guitar slung over one shoulder. About a thousand voices greet him in return.
The Redneck Ethic
This time, the "yee haw" chorus echoes throughout the dance hall. Roadie Ben "Lovey" Dorsey, longtime member of Willie Nelson's crew, watches the proceedings from the side of the stage. Fowler hitches up his guitar and looks over at Glenn Suchan, the band's steel guitar player, who nods back. Ronn Dixon lets a drumstick tap the side of his floor tom while fiddle player Chris Whitten sets the bow to strings. Clay Karch, whose hair is so long it literally touches the back of his knees, runs his fingers up the bass' neck. Kevin Fowler launches directly into "100% Texan."
I love the sound of rain on a tin roof
on a hot summer night
Love to hear those hound dogs a-barkin', howlin' in the full moonlight
Love to see those fireflies a-buzzin'
lightin' up the Southern sky
I'm a hellbent
One hundred percent
Texan 'til I die
The evening's show is being broadcast via Alabama radio on a show called Coon Hunt. Hearing the name of the show made Fowler wince at dinner but he's the first one to call this music "redneck." It's clear that Fowler's idea of redneck is much closer to Jeff Foxworthy's humor than the unpleasant images Coon Hunt conjures. The redneck ethic he celebrates has less to do with race than lifestyle.
"Mark Chesnutt wanted to do 'Beer, Bait and Ammo,' but Sony thought it was too much. Rebel flags, guns, beer. There's more rednecks out there than anyone knows. Another label wanted it on a compilation record but they wanted me to change 'rebel flag' to 'American flag.' Hell, no! You'd lose the gist of the song."
Dave Marcum gets it, too, and knows what those sentiments mean to a country radio audience. "Kevin hearkens back to that lyin', cryin', cheatin', and dyin' era of country music. Some of that is a nod and wink, a little bad boy, like 'The Lord Loves a Drinkin' Man' and 'Beer, Bait and Ammo.' Kevin strikes a chord in our inner redneck."
"This is a family show tonight." Fowler explains somewhat sheepishly, and though the T-shirts at the merchandising booth that read "YEE FUCKIN' HAW" will be displayed, the "U" and "C" are obscured by a piece of hastily arranged paper. Country music traditionally loves double entendres, but country folk are conservative by nature and it's bad manners to cuss in front of the ladies and children. The redneck segment is nothing if not polite.
"It's all about beer and pussy."
Beer and You-Know-What
Vocalist Jason McMaster might be talking about Dangerous Toys or Gahdzilla Motor Company or SSIK or Broken Teeth or any of the heavy-hitting rock outfits he fronts, but no, he means Kevin Fowler's music. And with great admiration for his former bandmate.
"Forget that it's country music, it's Poison and Bon Jovi. Take away the cowboy hats and it's tits and ass. It's all about partyin'. It's rock & roll. And it's good to see people of all ages lighten up and enjoy it."
McMaster recalls that Dangerous Toys had tried out many a guitarslinger when the future country idol came along. "Even then, he was playing that countrified rock, Black Crowes-style. He was good on slide guitar, too. We'd flown guys in to audition for us, and Kevin was the best."
"I really like what he's doing today. It took his bands after Dangerous Toys like the Hellhounds and Thunderfoot to get where he was going. He had the twang, the Southern riffs going on back with us. I don't know if it was his guitar tone, his singing style, or what, but he had it in him all along. I'm very happy he's his own boss, selling his own records, owning his bus, managing the band, paying everyone. He's his own man, doing what he's got to do and loving it."
Kevin Fowler likewise holds Jason McMaster in high regard. While recording "The Lord Loves a Drinkin' Man," Fowler ran into a typical studio dilemma. "I was thinking, 'I need someone who can sing really high and really clear' and then I thought, 'Jason!' He tagged it, and then said, 'let me play percussion.' So he grabbed a tambourine."
Besides "Drinkin' Man," McMaster ended up singing on "There's a Fool Born Every Day" and "Senorita Mas Fina," as well as playing percussion on several other songs.
"Hell, no, I wasn't surprised Kevin went country. I'm way more impressed now because the quality of his songwriting has tripled," McMaster avers. "He totally knows what he's going for and he's really nailing it now. And he's come full circle."
Dave Marcum agrees with McMaster's assessment. Before joining the veteran country music radio station in 2001, Marcum knew the local rock audiences from teaming with KGSR's Kevin Connor on the 1986 Z102 morning show.
"Playing with Dangerous Toys informs the kind of country act he has become. I don't think anyone knows their audience better than Kevin Fowler. At the very least, he'll wear a trail to the mailbox with his writing."
With his audience foremost in mind, Fowler's follow-up to One for the Road and Beer, Bait and Ammo is High on the Hog, loaded with future dance floor faves, the likes of which have become Fowler's hallmark. Hog is special to Kevin for one particular reason: Willie Nelson sings on "All the Tequila in Tijuana." Kevin raves about the experience.
"Singing with Willie was a trip. Willie fuckin' Nelson. Singin' my song!"
Fowler's own "The Lord Loves a Drinkin' Man," released as a single in July, has already picked up steam. "Tall Drink of Water," the title track "High on the Hog," and a cover of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" (yes, you read that right) will also likely attract good notices, as will "Tequila."
Fowler's tour bus is another measure of how well he's doing. "It's almost paid for," he boasts with pure Texas pride. The significance of that might be overlooked but it means that he is serious about touring and is investing in himself.
And how does the regional success strike Kevin Fowler? The man who lived in a trailer as he built his own house for his family displays no false modesty about appreciating the benefits.
"Ain't no pride in being poor."
There's little that Kevin Fowler and his band play that the audience doesn't love. A cover of "(Is Anybody Goin' to) San Antone" would conjure Doug Sahm in Austin; here in Coupland, it's still Charlie Pride's hit. Fowler's unpolished tenor has just enough gulp and twang to it to qualify as classic country. He launches into his own "Butterbean," and the little kids go wild.
Texan 'Til I Die
"Yee haw!" One tyke snatches off his miniature cowboy hat and tosses it in the air.
Two teenage girls sidle up to the merchandising booth with an air of purpose as the band plays on. Their faces radiate a corn-fed beauty but the way they dress indicates that Britney Spears has her share of rural fans.
Brett McCormick grins at them. A veteran of the Back Room scene, McCormick does double duty as bus driver and merchandising man. Fowler's merchandising features about a dozen different styles and designs of T-shirts (including children's). There are stickers, CDs, press-on tattoos, and two kinds of foam beer holders (the can variety and a zip-up for longnecks), but the most popular item is a red thong for women with "Speak of the Devil" emblazoned on the tiny triangle in front. The merchandising table is where it's at.
"If you model it for me, it's free," McCormick teases. The girls blush and giggle and one buys a "YEE FUCKIN' HAW!" T-shirt. Her friend antes up her money for the thong, allowing that the boyfriend's gonna be in for a surprise tonight. She stuffs the minuscule lingerie item in her pocket, where it takes up no more room than a wadded up tissue. Then she struts toward the women's room.
Standing outside the dance hall, another woman leans on one of the rough-hewn porch posts by the pipe railing, where a slim crescent of the moon rests on inky clouds. The mass of bleached blond hair on her head is scrunched and moussed as if her best years were in the Eighties and her lipstick is such an audacious shade of metal flake candy pink it might have been filched from an auto body paint shop. Her heavily lined eyes are closed but she's singing to the night, loud enough to be heard a few steps away.
I'm a hellbent
One hundred percent
Texan 'til I die