Mike and the Moonpies Talk Texas Dancehalls, ‘Prairie Rose’ With Chris Shiflett
It’s been 11 months since Mike and the Moonpies released their fifth effort, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. During that time, the Texans have performed upwards of 200 gigs at home and abroad, cementing their reputation as Red Dirt road dogs along the way. It was a recent run of West Coast venues that brought them through Los Angeles, where the Moonpies and producer Adam Odor sat down with Chris Shiflett for the newest episode of Walking the Floor.
“[Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is] the kind of record that makes you want to dance, drink beer and get into trouble,” Shiflett says during the episode’s early moments, by way of introduction. From there, he talks with the group about collaborative songwriting, dancehall culture and the amorphous definition of Red Dirt, a genre whose kingpins appear to be bound together by geography more than musical similarities.
We’re wrapping up 2018 with our usual Monday-morning tradition: a roundup of podcast highlights and a premiere of the newest episode in full.
Steak Night at the Prairie Rose takes its night from a weekly, childhood ritual that frontman Mike Harmeier shared with his father.
“That’s a true thing,” he says of the album’s title, which references the Prairie Rose saloon in Decker Prairie, Texas. “I had a weekly gig every Wednesday, when I was 14 to 17, and I just played acoustic for two hours at this bar called the Prairie Rose. My dad and I used to go in that bar a lot when I was a kid. So I played there every Wednesday for a few years, just me by myself.” The song — one of Rolling Stone Country‘s best songs of 2018 — draws a line between those childhood experiences and Harmeier’s current job as a barroom musician, fictionalizing the final verse by recasting his father (who remains alive and well) as a gone-to-heaven relative who still joins his son for those Wednesday night dinners, albeit in spirit.
Before planting permanent roots in country music, the Moonpies’ singer tried his hand at the blues…with middling results.
Harmeier was raised on the twang of early-Nineties country acts and the shred-heavy swagger of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Following those teenage gigs at the Prairie Rose, he formed a blues trio and began playing three-hour shows largely made up of cover tunes. The group gave him plenty of opportunity to stretch his legs as a lead guitarist, resulting in extended solos and open-ended jams. “The setlists got shorter, but the shows got longer,” he remembers with a laugh. Later, after relocating to Vaughan’s old stomping grounds of Austin, he received a much-needed reality check. “When I moved to Austin,” he explains, “I started to do blues jams around town, just to get to know people. Quickly, I learned it wasn’t what I should be doing.” That realization opened the door for a new, country-leaning project: Mike and the Moonpies.
The Moonpies quickly became a local favorite in Texas’ dancehall community. Looking to play shows beyond their home state, they also made inroads into the Red Dirt scene.
After inking a career-changing deal with the Red11 booking agency, the group began associating itself with the Red Dirt scene, “because that’s how we could branch out.” These days, the Moonpies tour more widely than most Texas-based acts, canvassing not only the Southern states, but also much of the West Coast and Europe. That said, they don’t necessarily have much in common with other members of Red Dirt’s royal class. “We do what we do,” the frontman explains, “[and] we just happen to be playing shows with those other dudes.”
Performing in dancehalls taught the band to read the crowd, play for hours and think on their feet.
“There were a lot of cover songs in that set,” says Harmeier, recalling the band’s dancehall days. “We kind of just learned more songs, and that’s where we learned not to have dead air in the set. It’s just like, bam bam bam. There’s no setlist. It’s just reading the room. Like, ‘If they’re dancing to this, then I know I’m gonna do a shuffle next, [and] throw a waltz in every five or six songs.’ It’s all about the dance.”
The Moonpies have maintained independent control of their business, producing and releasing their own records without outside help. Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is an independently released album as well, but it also marks the band’s first time recording a studio album with another producer.
“This is our first record with an outside producer,” reiterates Harmeier, whose band tapped Adam Odor — who’d previously worked on the Moonpies’ 2016 concert release, Live at WinStar World Casino & Resort, and assistant engineered the Dixie Chicks’ Home — to help them record Steak Night. “It kind of straightens us out. We’ve never done a record like this before…and I think it let us create a whole different, truer identity of who we actually are on the road.”
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