Moonpies' frontman embraces country music traditions
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
"I'm based in tradition," says Mike & The Moonpies frontman Mike Harmeier. "I'm not going to stop that."
And why would he? Tradition seems to be working just fine for Harmeier and his band, one of the hottest bands in Austin. They're developing a fervent following around the region — including in Amarillo, where they'll return for a 10 p.m. Friday show at Golden Light Cantina, 2906 S.W. Sixth Ave.; cover is $10 — and their national profile is growing, too.
The band's latest release, 2015's Mockingbird, was even named one of last year's best country albums by Rolling Stone.
"Harmeier writes with a storytelling skill and specificity his heroes would appreciate — and the musicians play with the fire of the hard-touring band that they are," Sarah Rodman wrote for the magazine.
"It seems to be doing good for us," Harmeier acknowledged. "We stick out on the scene ... and kind of benefit from that."
The band's inclusion of steel guitar and fiddle helps, but it's mostly Harmeier's attitude.
"To me, man, it's the songs I grew up with, the song content I grew up listening to — the barroom stuff, the heartbreak stuff, all the themes you don't really hear anymore," Harmeier said. "That's why when I write songs for a record I lean toward those things because they're themes that aren't being done anymore. Now it's party music."
Why do such good-time Charlie themes pervade mainstream country music these days?
"I don't understand that," Harmeier said. "I don't know when that happened."
"Mockingbird," Mike & The Moonpies
Mockingbird in particular pays homage to the songs Harmeier grew up listening to while hanging out in the Longbranch Inn in Tomball with his grandfather and his friends.
"They weren't there to get drunk or anything, they were there to socialize with their buddies," Harmeier said. "I'd sit there and play the jukebox all the time. ... Randy Travis, George Strait, Clint Black — that's what I did all day, just pick out songs I wanted to hear."
And even as a child, Harmeier found his eyes drawn to the stage.
"There was a dark corner where somebody would be playing later, when I wasn't in there," Harmeier said. "Even at that age, I wanted to play at this bar."
He started performing a few years later, around age 15, at a bar where his father often hung out.
"Now, I'm still doing the same thing," said Harmeier, whose band is particularly popular on the historic dance-hall circuit and took part in a still-in-production documentary about the scene.
"I guess they were interested in us because we're the young cats of the dance-hall circuit," Harmeier said. "I'd like, sometime in the future, to record a show in every legendary Texas dance hall. Hopefully, the documentary will help with that.
"The dance halls are not as important as they were back then," said Harmeier, returning again to that sense of tradition. "It was a social thing, but now you can go to bars or downtown, but saving that history is important to Texas music and music in general."
It's not just the earliest traditions of country that Harmeier wants to preserve. The band's also a proponent of '70s outlaw country, building a reputation in Austin at such famed clubs as the Hole in the Wall and the Whitehorse.
There, "we got to be part of that whole thing — where the hippies meet the rednecks and everybody's welcome," Harmeier said. "We left that scene to tour so much, but now I see bands playing those same bars and those time slots, and it's still very much that '70s revival thing."
Does he want to bridge those gaps, like the long-haired, dope-smoking Willie Nelson did when he moved back to Texas from Austin?
"Well, I hope so. That's what we're in it for," Harmeier said. "We like doing (music) because it's an escape for everyone.
"I don't tend to talk about what's out there off stage when I'm at a show. Everyone wants to come in and escape all that," he said. "Hopefully they'll keep coming out and banding together."