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How Mike and the Moonpies Blew Up Their Red Dirt Image at Abbey Road

Texas band enlist the London Symphony Orchestra to make the year’s most sophisticated country album

Mike and the Moonpies

Texas country band Mike and the Moonpies recorded their new album 'Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold' with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Benjamin Yanto

It’s the day after a Nashville tour stop for Mike and the Moonpies, and the band members, with bloodshot eyes and a hitch in their giddyup, are slowly shuffling into the Red Door Saloon in East Nashville. The Texas group’s tour bus is in the shop getting an alignment, and singer Mike Harmeier and his crew have both time and hangovers to kill.

Everyone is in their comfies, except for red-blooded guitarist Catlin Rutherford, who most likely sleeps in his stars-and-stripes cowboy boots, and the denim-clad Harmeier, who left his off-day wardrobe — head-to-toe Adidas track suit and matching sneakers — on the bus.

If it’s hard for Moonpies fans to picture the frontman in anything besides his usual Yoakam-skinny jeans and denim jacket uniform, it may be even more difficult for them to comprehend the orchestral sound of the band’s new album Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, surprise-released on Friday at midnight. Recorded last year at Abbey Road Studios in London, the eight-song LP pairs the Moonpies and producer Adam Odor with members of the London Symphony Orchestra. To call it an ambitious project for a band often lumped in with the Red Dirt scene is an understatement. But it’s a sonic adventure that Harmeier has dreamed about embarking on since he took the stage to sing standards like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack the Knife” in a suit — not a Nudie one — during a gig at Austin’s country dive the White Horse in 2015.

“I’ve always been into Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and I wanted to do a crooner record like that for a long time,” says Harmeier, lighting up a cigarette in between sips of a beer on the bar’s deck.

But string section aside, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, like its predecessor, 2018’s superb Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, is undeniably a country-music album, stamped with Rutherford’s Telecaster, Zach Moulton’s celestial pedal steel, and Harmeier’s Texas twang. It’s not a Countrypolitan album, though — these are mainly gritty barroom songs with orchestral flourishes, in contrast to Billy Sherrill’s lush Sixties and Seventies productions.

It was important to Harmeier that the songs could fit seamlessly into a typical Moonpies dance hall set. “The songs had to stand on their own,” he says. “I wanted it to be us playing, but with a whole layer of strings behind everything.”

When Odor took the idea of a country-and-strings project to David Percefull, his collaborator at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas, Percefull suggested they aim high and cut at Abbey Road. With the Moonpies already booked for a run of European festivals and their travel costs covered by the promoters — an important perk for a band that survives primarily on selling merch and playing gigs — they pooled enough money to schedule three days of recording in the legendary studio where the Beatles redefined the idea of the album with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“There was that first day in Abbey Road with everyone walking through the doors and looking around,” recalls Odor. “It’s one thing for everyone to know their songs and we can go in and nail it, but now we’re adding this element of history: Oh, we’re really here?”

In one corner was the idiosyncratic “Mrs. Mills” piano that Paul McCartney played on “A Day in the Life.” John Lennon’s Neumann U47 microphone was also at the ready. Almost instantly, Odor and Percefull zeroed in on a vintage but precarious Hammond B3 organ they wanted to set up for Moonpies keyboardist John Carbone.

“[The studio workers] said, ‘OK, let us fire it up, but hold on a second.’ They put this stick in the back of the Hammond and pushed it sideways to flip the switches. They said if you don’t use the stick, you might get electrocuted and die,” Odor laughs. “This is the greatest studio in the world, and they still have this old Hammond where in the wrong position, you might get electrocuted.”

For Omar Oyoque, a steel player who joined the band just eight months earlier as its new bassist, the sessions were particularly nerve-wracking. “It was my first Moonpies record,” he says. “I had never recorded bass on any record at all and my first time is at Abbey Road.”

At the end of the sessions, the group, rounded out by drummer Kyle Ponder, flew home to the States for a gig in Billings, Montana, and the string musicians arrived to play to the charts that Percefull had written out. Harmeier continued to write and rewrite lyrics to the new material, and would cut his vocals back in Wimberley at Yellow Dog — all except for one track that he was adamant about recording at Abbey Road using Lennon’s U47 mic.

The song was a forlorn cover of Gary P. Nunn‘s “London Homesick Blues,” an appropriate choice for Harmeier, who up until the trip hadn’t traveled overseas. “I had never been across the pond at all. That was it,” he says. Missing his wife and young son back in Texas, he connected with Nunn’s lyrics about wanting to “go home with the armadillo” and arranged the 1973 song not in the upbeat style that viewers heard when it served as the theme to Austin City Limits, but in a downcast, minor key.

“It’s a sad fucking song,” Harmeier says. “Shooter [Jennings] told me, ‘I don’t think anybody has captured the mood of that song until you.'”

“I didn’t necessarily care if this was a country record or not.”

Harmeier also addresses his fish-and-chips-out-of-water status in the song “Fast as Lightning,” a rollicking, rapid-fire list of mishaps that plays like a country “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The bus breaks down, the flights are long, and the language difference in Europe hard to grasp for a native Texan: “Words I’m using, you can tell I’m from Houston/je ne parle pas français,” he sings.

Like Sinatra’s “A Very Good Year,” a touchstone for Harmeier and Odor, a melancholy vibe permeates the whole of Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, from the sweeping title track right through to the closing “London Homesick Blues.” The loose concept album is a letter to Harmeier’s son, an unguarded explanation for why he hasn’t been — and likely won’t be — around for much of his childhood.

“Danger,” with its Waylon guitar lick and Shooter Jennings on background vocals, finds Harmeier talking directly to his kid about what his old man has sacrificed on the road. “I’ve never been lazy/hell, I’ve been working my ass off/waiting for the payoff and going for broke,” he grumbles, “but I love this life, kid/I was always gonna do it.”

If Cheap Silver is a personal project for Harmeier the father, it’s also a validating one for Harmeier the artist — who, with Odor and his Moonpies, has succeeded in making the most sophisticated country-music album released so far this year. And not simply by adding the London Symphony Orchestra. The songs are fully formed, the arrangements intricate, and the lyricism lived-in and worldly.

When it came time to write the single “You Look Good in Neon” — a song about after-hours hookups that Harmeier refers to as the LP’s “ringer” because of its inherent appeal to Texas-country radio — he didn’t choose Lone Star staples like tequila or Shiner beer as the lyric’s lubricant, but an Italian digestif. “When it’s closing time and the lights come on/we should share a shot of Fernet,” goes the chorus.

Harmeier laughs at the result of that decision: fans have begun buying the group rounds of Fernet when they play the song live. He’s happy that they’re embracing something different from the Moonpies, but he has no illusions that Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold will hit the right notes for everyone.

“[Traditionalists] like my dad are not going to like it. My dad was always weird about us even [having an organ player], because it’s not Asleep at the Wheel,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily care if this was a country record or not. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing. I thought of that years ago, where I just want to have this band, with this name, and make whatever the fuck we want. It can be ever-evolving.

“We’ll make another straight country record,” he adds.

Just not right now. With Cheap Silver, Mike and the Moonpies are embracing this new phase and have loose plans to perform with a string section or local orchestra in select cities. Their setlist is evolving too, adding the group’s recent cover of Fastball’s 1998 alt-rock one-hit-wonder “The Way” and highlighting their biting 2017 anthem “Country Music Is Dead,” the message of which Harmeier sums up as “Kiss my ass.”

“Some fans will want Steak Night 2,” says Odor, “but we can’t give them that because we already did Steak Night. And now that we’ve done this, we don’t need to do another project with a symphony.”

Harmeier pauses to light up another smoke. “I get in this mindset,” he says, “where I just want to go against the grain of what everybody is wanting.”