There are bands who play country music – and then there are honest-to-goodness country bands. Count Mike and the Moonpies among the latter.
On Friday night, the Austin, Texas, six-piece pulled their 1981 Silver Eagle into Nashville for a stop not at one of the city’s all-genre clubs in the heart of downtown, but at the 41-year-old Nashville Palace, the Music Valley honky-tonk once owned in part by Jerry Reed. Fittingly, the Moonpies nodded to Reed with a double-timed cover of “Amos Moses,” a fan’s request slipped to the group on a napkin, that highlighted the bar band’s versatility, and also segued effortlessly from their 2012 track “Me and Hayes” into David Allan Coe’s “Willie, Waylon, and Me.”
But the bread-and-butter of the set were the Moonpies’ own songs, especially those on their superb new album Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. Crammed onto the Palace’s postage-stamp stage in the front bar, Mike Harmeier and his road dogs began at the end, roaring through Steak Night‘s kiss-off closer “We’re Gone.” Propelled by pedal steel guitarist Zach Moulton’s lush leads and keys man John Carbone’s barroom piano, the rendition captured a band at its most well-oiled, lubricated by both Coors and years spent on tour. The spirited “Getting High at Home” followed, with Harmeier making a case that the most fun evenings are the ones passed high and lonesome on the couch, and also paid tribute to their bus driver with “Road Crew,” the most on-the-nose salute to a live show’s unsung heroes since Motörhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew.”
Produced by Adam Odor, who at one point joined the Moonpies on bass, allowing new member Omar Oyoque a beer break, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is a contender for the year’s best country album. It’s certainly its most well-plotted and concise, clocking in at 38 minutes with zero filler, and succeeds because of the bare emotion Harmeier drops into his lyrics. The title track chronicles his growing up with divorced parents, joining his old man at the bar to watch the ballgame and nurse a Coke, while “Beaches of Biloxi,” with its bait-and-switch “Suspicious Minds” intro, tells of a future gambled away on the Gulf Shore. Both were highlights at the Palace, thanks especially to lead guitarist Catlin Rutherford’s nimble licks.
After a gig in Atlanta, the group heads to France and Italy for a pair of festival dates, long-haired ambassadors of uniquely American music that, while dramatically evolving on country radio, maintains its twang and sizzle in the hands of the Moonpies. As Harmeier sang as the night started to wind down, “Things ain’t like they used to be.”