Album Review – Mike & the Moonpies “Cheap Silver & Solid Country Gold”

photo: Brad Coolidge

Some local musicians refer to Austin Texas as the “Velvet Handcuffs.” This not exactly affectionate moniker was coined to explain how musicians can make a living in the city, but only if they never leave, resigned to playing five or six nights a week somewhere in town, able to pay the bills, but unable to break out into anything beyond the Austin City Limits aside from occasional weekend junkets. Dispel any of your romantic notions about what the Austin music scene is today. That died years ago when Big Tech moved in, many of the legendary venues moved out, and so did a lot of the musicians due to housing costs and dwindling opportunity. When artists whose names are synonymous with Austin such as Dale Watson and Brennen Leigh have left town either temporarily or permanently, you know the situation is direly serious.

In many ways, Mike & the Moonpies had it made. They were mainstays in the Austin honky tonk circuit for many years, playing for crowds of loyal two-steppers in the city and surrounding areas. They were making a living playing music, which puts them in the category of fortunate souls in a business where only a fraction of a percent see their dreams realized. They could have settled for this life and still become legendary, at least locally, like many Austin musicians. And they did for over half a decade. It had to be hard to walk away from guaranteed weekly slots to try your hand at touring beyond the Lone Star State, and making a national racket about your music. This is where many Austin bands stumble, and fall. It’s why the velvet handcuffs fit so snugly.

But in the last couple of years, Mike and the Moonpies have been the band whose name first comes to mind when talking about who is bubbling up, despite some still regarding them as a known quantity as that “Austin honky tonk dance hall band” that perhaps they saw six years ago, and enjoyed, but never really thought of as more than simply a local project. Those years of dues paid in the dance halls and honky tonks in Texas helps underpin Mike and the Moonpies with experience and authenticity, but it also potentially typecasts them in the minds of some.

It was the hiring on of bass player Omar Oyoque that really made Mike and the Moonpies 2.0 something to regard with a fresh perspective. As a live country band, they quite literally became the best in the business. It was not only Omar’s infectious stage presence, but how he brought out the best of all the players that all of a sudden made Mike and the Moonpies one of the hottest names in independent country music. Hard charging, yet sentimental and subsnative when they needed to be, Mike and the Moonpies became something to behold.

Calling Mike and the Moonpies the best live band in all of country is not a way of inadvertently slighting their albums. In fact 2015’s Mockingbird, and 2018’s Steak Night at the Prairie Rose are excellent records with not nearly enough attention paid to them. It’s just what they’ve been doing live recently so outpaces the rest of the field, it perhaps overshadows their recorded efforts. And since their last two albums were recorded before Omar Oyoque had joined the band, you had a sense their definitive record was still there in the offing.

If this all had played out like it should have, The Moonpies would have mashed down on the accelerator with a new record and released something with even more hard charging honky tonk country songs to fuel new their intense live shows for the next year or so, and sent this thing into the everloving stratosphere. And so what do they do? They fly to London to record an album of mostly understated and nuanced material at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony. Risky? You bet. Out of left field? No doubt. Bold? To put it mildly. Successful? Speaking to anyone who has heard it, the answer would be most resoundingly “yes.”

True country fans are used to getting their hearts broken by their favorite artists when they eventually grow bored of country or their original sound, and go venturing off into who knows what, be damned what established fans think, if not to purposely trying to piss them off in some misguided notion about that’s what true “artists” do. The media, and prevailing sentiments in east Nashville claim that country music is too restrictive creatively, and that you must evolve from it if you want to be regarded as a real artist. Of course this overlooks just how expansive and omnivorous the country music genre is, how there are so many different eras and styles to explore, and also how creativity can be expressed just as much, if not more by working within a limited sonic palette as opposed to opening up your music to all influences.

Adding horns and strings or excessive keyboards and backup singers has also been a way for bored country artists to make the music more interesting to themselves, despite what the public desires, or what is truly beneficial to the music itself. On paper, an album from an Austin honky tonk band playing with the London Symphony doesn’t work. Yet that’s one of the reasons the album works so well. Just like taking the big risk by relinquishing their established weekly gigs in and around Austin to go national, Mike and the Moonpies shoved all their chips to the middle of the table with this record, and let it all ride, having to know in the recesses of their subconscious it could cost them everything, or at least set them back a serious pace. But now with this gamble, Mike and the Moonpies can not only be regarded as one of the best live bands in all of country music. They can be regarded as one of the best bands in all of country music, period.

A lot of comparisons are being drawn between Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, and the new Tyler Childers album Country Squire which was released on the same day, with many giving the tilt to the Moonpies. Though these comparisons are understandable, they’re also patently unfair, and to both artists and albums. Country Squire was the birthday present you knew you’d receive once the date rolled around. Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold was like the lottery ticket you found in the gas station bathroom that paid out $1,000. As a surprise album, there were no expectations to overcome. It’s all gravy.

Though it’s hard to find fault with anything on Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, it’s also fair to point out we only have eight songs here, including two well-recognized covers. Tyler’s Country Squire is a short record too, and it’s understandable why Mike and the Moonpies may have only included eight songs since renting the London Symphony can’t be cheap. But time will prove better where both records should be regarded in the 2019 pecking order, while we should all also be mindful that music is not a competition, and any pecking order will always boil down to people’s personal tastes. Tyler Childers will win the sales race, because he’s the one with the massive team behind him. Mike and the Moonpies are hoping Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is their ticket to the big time Tyler Childers has broken into (and it probably should be). That “Hail Mary” aspect of Cheap Silver is one of the reasons this record is so cool, especially since they pulled it off.

One of the things that makes Mike and the Moonpies so lovable is their ability to not take themselves too seriously, even if they have the goods to do so, and even on a record such as this playing at Abbey Road with members of a European symphony. Where some bands might avoid certain subjects or modes as seemingly cliche, Mike and the Moonpies embrace these things as timeless, and breathe new life into them by applying their own perspective. The songs of Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold are still steeped in their honky tonk style, both in writing and approach, but with a fresh and bold feel. The strings don’t comes across like embellishments or add ons like they can often feel like in country. This effort feels very collaborative throughout, not just between the respective Moonpies players, but with the studio, its location in the world, and the strings.

The Moonpies embraced the challenge, navigated themselves out of their comfort zone on purpose, wrote and recorded a record taking a holistic approach to everything involved in it, and worked without a net. Where many bands and artists probably think, “Shit, wouldn’t it be cool to fly to Europe and record at Abbey Road?” Mike and the Moonpies actually did it. They called their own bluff like many of us wish we had the guts to do.

And despite the cohesive feel of this project, there’s a lot of variety here too. The song “Danger” has a distinctive Outlaw texture. “Cheap Silver” has the feeling of classic pop, applied through Countrypolitan influences. But no matter how far away from Austin they are, you still get that Texas honky tonk perspective in a song like “If You Want a Fool Around.” The up tempo “Fast As Lightning” will give them another steamroller for their live show. And tackling an unofficial Texas anthem like Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” deserves kudos by itself. Breathing new life into it by adding some minor key arrangements is even more admirable.

Each of the Moonpies shows off talents we didn’t know they possessed on Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold. Mike Harmeier morphs into a crooner. Steel guitarist Zachary Moulton—who may be one of the best in the entire business at the moment—was tasked with showing some restraint from his regular blazing runs at live shows to find the ambient sweetness of melodies and tastefully embellish them. Guitarist Catlin Rutherford, who might be the most unheralded Moonpies member, feels like he’s in his perfect element on this record, not trying to overpower you with twang, but seeking out the evocation of moods, of which Cheap Silver has many.

With all that’s involved here and the surprise element of the record, it may take some time to settle upon any hard conclusions of what exactly we have here. More so than most records, this album will be worth revisiting in the coming months and years to conclude if all the risks they took here were worth it, and how much so. But one thing it’s easy to settle upon when listening to Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is that Mike and the Moonpies are one of the most interesting and unexpected bands in all of country music at the moment. And their efforts should not just be resigned to the Austin honky tonk mindset. From London and all the parts in between, Mike and the Moonpies should be considered on of the preeminent projects in all of country music, and so should Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold.

Two Guns Up (9/10)