As Long as There's Honky-Tonk...
Radio Bean’s venerable twangy Tuesday turns two
Al Gore invented the Internet, Lee “Scratch” Perry invented turntable scratching, and I invented Honky-Tonk Tuesday at Radio Bean. All three claims contain a modicum of distorted truth. Gore’s work as a senator was instrumental in funding the research necessary to create the Internet. Perry experimented with turntable scratching before DJ Grand Wizard Theodore and/or Grandmaster Flash refined the technique and brought it to the masses. And, yes, the honky-tonk sessions were technically my idea. But as is often the case when determining the actual originator of an event or concept, the truth is more complicated than it may seem.
Two years ago, my good friend and then band mate David Stockhausen was a baristo at Radio Bean during the Irish Sessions on Wednesday nights. I have nothing against traditional Irish music — or the talented session players who still play on Wednesday nights. But, having tended bar at an Irish pub in Boston for several years, I’m all too familiar with how grating reels and jigs can become when one is subjected to them over an extended period of time, especially in a work setting. As such, I frequently found myself at the Bean on Wednesday nights out of sympathy for David.
Over the course of several months, the idea evolved to borrow the Ceili premise for a different genre: honky-tonk. The regular-night idea works well with Celtic music, jazz and bluegrass, we thought, so why not country?
We enlisted the help of local country-crooner extraordinaire Brett Hughes and proposed the idea to Radio Bean owner Lee Anderson. He readily accepted, and Honky-Tonk Tuesday was born. Stockhausen and I would handle front man/guitar duties while Hughes manned the drums and provided direction with his wealth of country knowledge. We would invite anyone with a song to sing or instrument to play to join the party.
The first few sessions were modestly successful, and occasionally hinted at the weekly institution the night would eventually become. But before you can take a step forward, sometimes you needs to take a step back and get rid of the dead weight — in this case, me.
As my interest in Honky-Tonk Tuesday began to fade, Hughes was reluctantly forced into the spotlight. As I stopped showing up and he began recruiting heavyweights, the quality of the music increased exponentially. Folks such as pedal-steel guru Gordon Stone, former Phish bassist Mike Gordon — who would later nab several regulars to form the all-star country outfit Ramble Dove — and RAQ guitarist Chris Michetti rotated in and out every week. Word quickly spread that Radio Bean was the place to be on Tuesday nights. Soon, musicians from across Burlington’s vast musical landscape began showing up to lend their chops. The result: Burlington’s answer to the Grand Ole Opry. Last week, Honky-Tonk Tuesday celebrated its second anniversary with a cavalcade of honkers past and present. In addition to Stone and Gordon, Nocturnals bassist Bryan Dondero, jazz guitarist Nick Cassarino, Chrome Cowboy bassist Mark Ransom, Chuch drummer Justin Crowther and other local luminaries crowded the tiny North Winooski Avenue coffeeshop for a night of booze-swillin’, boot-stompin’ fun.
As evidenced by the throng of people standing outside the Bean for most of the night — and an inevitable visit from two uniformed members of the Burlington Police — Honky-Tonk Tuesday’s popularity has grown immeasurably since its inception, thanks in no small part to Hughes.
Regular audience member Josh Talbert, 28, says the laid-back, welcoming atmosphere Hughes has created is key to the night’s continued success. “He treats everyone with the same level of respect,” says Talbert, adding, “Whether you’re Gordon Stone or just some guy from the audience, you’re welcome on that stage.”
As the evening’s cast of characters rotated on and off the stage, Talbert’s assessment proved remarkably accurate: The head honky-tonker even allowed a certain local music critic to butcher a Merle Haggard tune.
Regardless of who was on stage, Hughes maintained a playful professionalism. His interplay with the crowd and the band — especially with long-time pianist and singer Marie Claire, 24 — is pure country camp. Everyone, performers and audience members alike, eat it up. “That’s when it’s the most fun,” said Claire. “When the line between the stage and the audience disappears and the whole thing just turns into one big party.”
Lately, that’s exactly what the event has become; no one, including Hughes, really knows what to expect from week to week. Sometimes only one or two players show up. Other nights, the stage swarms with talent. Sometimes there are themes — murder ballads are always popular. Sometimes Hughes calls on the audience to make up a new tune on the spot — an original staple of the sessions. “That’s my favorite part,” says Talbert. “Every night is different.”
Brett Hughes and Co. have turned Honky-Tonk Tuesday into something more special than either Stockhausen or I could have conceived. The night now offers a musical crossroads and reflects Burlington’s vibrant music community. Who’d a thunk it?
Happy Birthday, Honky-Tonk! Long may you live.