Mike and the Moonpies’ “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose” has the Sizzle Country Music’s Salivating For
The romantic notion of what an old school honky tonk band from Texas should be has been used to stoke fantasies and fill television and movie screens for years. It’s also been a template for Music Row-molded fashion plates to play dress up and role play the part for many patently unaware fans. But putting your finger on the actual embodiment of a Texas two-step honky tonk band who can play covers and originals for four hours non stop and make it look easy—and all while looking cool themselves—is a little more myth than reality. Yes, there are many smoky bars and wooden dance floors throughout the Lone Star State. And there are many cover and original bands that play them. And then there’s Mike and the Moonpies.
Ahead of the release of their latest album Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, Mike and the Moonpies didn’t pay for pampered and catered photo shoots featuring a plethora of vintage swag from the finest stores between the coasts. The Moonpies put their new record on in the jukebox of a tiny local Austin watering hole called the Deep Eddy Cabaret and had a party for their close friends and fans. Mike and the Moonpies weren’t the beneficiaries of big production documentary vignettes sponsored by Ram Trucks to help promote their record, their CD release party was at Sam’s Town Point, which is a pier and beam shack in a south Austin neighborhood owned by a fellow musician named Ramsay Midwood. They served steaks at the party to match the album’s steak night theme.
While some artists attempting to emulate the mystique of an authentic Austin, TX honky-tonk band are trying to pass themselves off as paying dues by opening arena shows for Sam Hunt, ahead of Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, Mike and the Moonpies stayed true to their circuit of authentic Texas roadhouses and dance halls, hawking their new album face to face with fans, many of whom they knew on a first name basis from having toured through their towns for years, offering true country music entertainment to hard-working and sometimes remote communities who are appreciative of their efforts at the end of a long week.
It’s the local flavor, the authenticity, the dedication to themselves, their fans, the music, and the true-to-life dues paid by Mike and the Moonpies that make them darn near the perfect embodiment of the Austin, TX dance hall and dive bar band so many want to emulate, but so few want to put in the sweat or make the sacrifices to actually become. And with such a salivating appetite for authenticity now stirring out there among the country music listening pubic, it’s time for Mike and the Moonpies to step out of the shadows of being considered an undercard band of the Texas music circuit, a “poor man’s Turnpike Troubadours” as some have referred to them in the past, and be hoisted forward as just about the perfect example of what a true Texas country dancehall band is all about. It also happens to be that Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is about the perfect record to do that with.
There are many bands and artists out there doing the throwback country thing, but none of them are doing it like this. There is a cavalcade of performing artists in their Nudie finery putting on Howdy Doodie shows in east Nashville and LA’s Echo Park. There is no shortage of Waylon-sounding reenactors with their half-time drum beats and Telecaster phase tearing up the biker bar circuit. But who is taking up the charge of preserving that era in country music when the Outlaw thing was losing its luster, and the “Class of ’89” was still in the offing? Heretofore, there wasn’t really anyone, at least in the younger generation. Now there’s Mike and the Moonpies.
But Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is not a period piece. Attempting to re-create the jukebox era of country may be an underlying theme of the record, but Mike and the Moonpies will always be a dancehall band. It’s combining these two things that make this record not just another neotraditional effort, or simply a representation of new material they’ve worked up recently for the live show. Steak Night at the Prairie Rose takes a snapshot of a time and place so expertly that it’s one of those records that stimulates a flood of memory and nostalgia, and most importantly, the warm and home-like feeling these emotions deliver.
Bandleader and singer Mike Harmeier doesn’t write songs like Tyler Childers, or Evan Felker. This is not deeply-introspective and nuanced poetry, because that’s not what the true essence of Texas honky-tonk music is all about. It’s more rust and leather, reminiscing and reality, though poetic in its own right. Ultimately, the task of a honky tonk band is to entertain, and that’s what songs like “Road Crew,” “Might Be Wrong,” and “Getting High At Home” do.
But Mike has also penned the perfect tune to encapsulate the type of life they live, and the world where they come from in the title track of this record. It’s one of those songs that is so deeply personal in its story, you feel like you’re living in it when you listen. You can see yourself sitting right there at the Prairie Rose, taking in a country cover band, the fatty leftover carcass of a Grade B sirloin growing cold in front of you on the table, and having a ball with all the old familiar folks in a place that feels as warm as home.
Enough can’t be made of the musicianship The Moonpies bring to the table behind Mike Harmeier, crafting these slick, melodically-composed, multi-layered runs with the combination of lead guitar, pedal steel—and one of the signatures of the Moopies sound—the old-school organ that makes for a triple-threat attack of twang and melody. And everything moves. Don’t forget, this is dance music. So there’s no let up. Everything sways. You just want to keep getting out of your seat.
The first half of this record felt a little stronger than the second, and since the songs here are not these deep, thematic movements of verse, some in the Americana and critically-acclaimed independent country world might be apt to overlook what Mike and the Moonpies have accomplished here. But Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is the local, authentic flavor with the appeal to fill a national appetite for something real.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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The Moonpies are Catlin Rutherford (guitar), Zachary Moulton (pedal steel), John Carbone (keys), Preston Rhone (bass), and Kyle Ponder (drums). Steak Night was produced by Adam Odor.