Don't Look Back
The Lonesome Heroes rewrite the rules of alt.country, Wednesday nights at the Hole in the Wall
BY DOUG FREEMAN
Wednesday night, and the Hole in the Wall is packed to the back. Again. The crowd presses against the jukebox and cigarette machine, allowing a feeble path to the bar. Onstage, Friends of Dean Martinez sweep the room with its atmospheric, dusty Southwestern instrumentals, almost in defiance of what a country bar-band should be.
This is alt.country night, and Rich Russell and Landry McMeans are its consummate hosts. Russell's shoulder-length blond hair bobs and winds through the audience as he greets other artists and Wednesday regulars around the room and kneels in front of the stage to check the sound. McMeans also weaves her way among the chairs and bodies in her familiar denim jacket and skirt, silver tip-bucket hoisted above her short braids. In between sets, the pair plays emcee, announcing each band with a manager's promotional vigor before closing out the night onstage as the Lonesome Heroes.
Since taking up residency at the Hole in the Wall last September, the Lonesome Heroes' alt.country nights have become one of the most popular weekly events in Austin. As a genre, alt.country hardly begins to characterize the eclectic lineups that Russell and McMeans put together, where the experimental textures of Friends of Dean Martinez fit in as easily as the insurgent attitude of American Graveyard, hellbent bluegrass of the Electric Mountain Rotten Apple Gang, or the honky-tonk swing of Doug Warriner. All musical directions ultimately converge in the Lonesome Heroes' easy psychedelic twang.
The Wednesday bills draw crowds mixing Mohawk punks and country kickers, as well as some of the town's top musicians and producers. Behind Russell and McMeans' infectious energy and their intent on building a collaborative environment, it's a scene that recalls the days of Doug Sahm holding court at the Soap Creek Saloon.
"Something about it feels like old Austin," attests Li'l Cap'n Travis' Gary Newcomb, a regular at the showcases even when he's not playing with his own trio. "There's a certain coziness, especially at the Hole in the Wall, that hasn't been around in a long time. We all see how Austin has changed so much, and you can't really go back or anything, but man, they have really made it old and new at the same time."
As local artists and venues struggle to survive in the face of Downtown development and local musical saturation, the Lonesome Heroes have taken an alternative route to the usual new acts scrounging for bookings in the increasingly coagulating circuit of opening slots. Culling talent with a similarly broad country aesthetic and ambition for a different approach, Russell created his own lineups and shopped the entire bill to venues rather than trying to place only his own band.
"Musicians need to take a more active role," offers Russell. "That's why I did this, because all of us together know the problem: Clubs and bookers are trying to get us to bring as many people as we can every time we play so that they can take all the business and then say, 'Don't play a week before or a week after.'
"I've seen so many bands get the cool slot at the big club and then not play for like a month. They end up only playing eight shows a year or something."
The popularity of the Lonesome Heroes' showcases has Russell already booking shows three months in advance, rotating regular bands while ensuring that new ones have an opportunity as well. Yet even as these Wednesday nights maintain their informal impetus, they've helped spur a new generation of artists already making a musical impact.
TCB: Interview with The Lonesome Heroes
Austin duo the Lonesome Heroes have so many gigs, "We're still really just figuring out what we're doing, and it stems from playing so much," says Brooklyn-born Rich Russell. Navigating country, folk, indie rock, and Daniel Lanois arcana, Russell and San Marcos native Landry McMeans, who alternate Dobro and acoustic guitar and lately have been borrowing the Weary Boys' rhythm section, met two years ago at the Austin Music Co-op. "Living there made us realize how hard you have to work to be a musician," says McMeans. The Heroes weren't sure where they fit in locally until hearing Li'l Cap'n Travis on KUT's LiveSet. "I was like, 'We're going to the Continental Club tomorrow!'" Russell says. After 2006 EP Don't Play to Lose on St. Paul, Minn.'s Floodwater Records (an LP recorded live at Flipnotics is due soon), things picked up when the Heroes began hosting Headhunters' popular Wednesday alt.country night, where they've welcomed American Graveyard, the Texas Sapphires, Brennen Leigh, Gary Newcomb Trio, Boxcar Preachers, and the Breathers. "Headhunters likes it because it's mellow, a nice change from the rest of the week," says Russell. The Heroes play Mean-Eyed Cat, 7pm tonight (Thursday), before a brief trip back East and several gigs during South by Southwest weekend.