When frontman Mike Harmeier sang “they don’t make ’em like they used to” at the start of Mike and the Moonpie’s last studio album (2015’s Mockingbird), it wasn’t the idle complaint of an armchair country music critic: It was a self-imposed challenge, answered by Harmeier and the rest of his band of young but stage-hardened, old-soul honky-tonkers, to do something about it.
“The idea was, if I walked into a bar with my dad or grandfather, I wanted the album to sound like the stuff that I would play on a jukebox at that bar,” says the 33-year-old songwriter, who started Mike and the Moonpies not long after moving to Austin from his native Houston a decade ago. “That’s why it had a bunch of different styles on it: there’s a Bob Seger kind of thing on there, some Randy Travis sounding stuff, a George Jones kind of thing … That was all a grand scheme that I had in my head.”
The reaction was pretty grand, too, with Rolling Stone Country picking Mockingbird as one of the genre’s best albums of the year. The accolades neatly coincided with the band’s signing with powerhouse Americana booking agency Red 11 Music, and the following year’s jam-packed double-disc Live at WinStar World Casino and Resort only offered further indisputable affirmation of Mike and the Moonpies’ hard-earned status as one of the Texas music scene’s finest real country bands since the release of their auspicious 2010 debut, The Real Country. It turns out Harmeier had something of a scheme in his head for that live album, too — but unlike Mockingbird before it, it had nothing to do with looking back. The rest of the Moonpies — guitarist Catlin Rutherford, drummer Kyle Ponder, bassist Preston Rhone, steel guitarist Zachary Moulton, and piano, organ and Wurlitzer player John Carbone — may not have known it at the time when they hit the WinStar stage, but the frontman was already laying the groundwork for their next studio album.
Harmeier laughs as he admits this, but the results — as heard on the band’s freshly minted Steak Night at the Prairie Rose (February 2018) — speak for themselves. Recorded in April at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas, the Moonpies’ fifth album is not only their best effort to date, but arguably the first to really nail the irresistible, good-time spark and spirit of one of Austin’s best bar bands (in any genre) in the studio.
In keeping with the “keep it in the moment” vibe of the whole record, Harmeier wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 10 songs (the exception being “The Last Time” by friend Jonathan Terrell, who wrote “Damn Strait” for the Moonpies’ 2012 sophomore release The Hard Way) in the span of about a month or two, right before the week-long recording session. And although every song on the album is as unabashedly country as any fan favorite from Mockingbird or the rest of the Moonpies’ catalog (including the dozens of classic honky-tonk covers from their salad days residencies at Austin’s Hole in the Wall, White Horse, and Broken Spoke), Harmeier notes that the only “concept” he had this around was to keep the writing “simple” enough to allow the rest of the band — and producer Adam Odor — room to really go to town.
“I love that era coming out of the outlaw thing and going into the more ‘contemporary country stuff,’ where the production starting getting a little bit more poppy but was still kind of dirty,” Harmeier explains. “For me, that’s when things started to get really interesting musically, and I think this whole record kind of has that ’80s thing to it — probably because there’s so much Wurlitzer all over it.” There’s also a whopping dose of twin electric/steel leads, a little Talk Box (played by guitarist Catlin Rutherford on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be”), a hint of Willie-worthy harmonica (courtesy of guest Mickey Raphael on the waltz “Worst Thing”), and a whole lot of humor, ranging from the nudge-nudge-wink-winkery of “Might Be Wrong” to the barbed-wire irony of “Wedding Band.”
For the record, he’s no slouch when it comes to writing earnest, either — especially when drawing from the well of first-hand experience. Much like “Mockingbird” before it, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose’s title track plays like an early chapter from Harmeier’s autobiography, this one going all the way back to his very first time playing music onstage in front of an audience at age 13.
“I grew up kind of going to the bars with my dad and my grandfather and playing the jukebox all the time, which of course is what ‘Mockingbird’ and a lot of the last record was kind of about. But then I started to take guitar lessons, and when I got to where I could pretty much play two hours’ worth of songs, whether it be Clint Black or Kansas, anything — that’s when my dad got me that gig playing every Wednesday night during ‘steak night’ at the Prairie Rose in Decker Prairie, Texas. So yeah, that’s all real …”
“It’s a weird road we’re on right now––I guess it always has been,” Jamie Lin Wilson says. She’s sitting on her porch in D’Hanis, a tiny town on the Seco Creek in South Texas, not far from San Antonio. She laughs a little, then adds, “But nobody’s life is the same. There is no blueprint.”
Thank goodness for all the lonely paths Jamie’s had to find that no one else has taken. With a voice that slides in and out of notes with easy grace, a sly sense of humor, and lyrics that highlight the details most of us miss, Jamie creates stark vignettes: intimate conversations between friends who might be lovers and lovers who can’t be friends; kids hopping from stone to stone in a graveyard; the way rolling clouds can signal a new season. She lives and works in that sweet spot where folk and country meet––Guy Clark territory.
“It’s unfair that the poets and songwriters are the ones who have the songs about their lives, when maybe that’s not what’s poetic,” Jamie says. “Maybe the moments are the ones happening in everyday farmers’ lives, or to a widow, or a son.” It’s her comfort in and commitment to two distinct worlds––that of the dream-chasing artists and the dirt-under-their-nails realists––that makes Jamie and her songs not just inviting, but cathartically important.
Jamie’s anticipated new record Jumping Over Rocks marks her second full-length solo album, but she’s not the new kid. She cut her teeth fronting and co-fronting beloved bands including the Gougers and the Trishas, winning over listeners and peers across the country. Now, her place as an acclaimed singer-songwriter on her own seems fated, imbued with a singular blend of freshness and road-earned wisdom.
Jamie didn’t pick up a guitar until she was 19. Casual remarks she dropped to her mom and cousin led to a gifting of an acoustic that Christmas. She started attending open mics in College Station, and was immediately welcomed into what was primarily a boys’ club of aspiring pickers and writers that included future fellow Gouger Shayne Walker. “By the end of the summer, I was playing gigs in a band, the Gougers,” she says. “I learned how to play guitar on stage.”
Jamie never looked back. She fell in love and married her college sweetheart, Roy. Together, the two raise their children and make their “weird road” work beautifully. “I’ve been taking kids on the road for eight years, touring constantly, just taking breaks to have babies,” Jamie says.
Jamie recorded Jumping Over Rocks during four days at Arlyn Studios in Austin. A fierce cast of musicians joined her, including Charlie Sexton on guitar, and together, Jamie and the players cut every track live. “You’re hearing my voice with the band––their playing, reacting to my emotions, and my voice reacting to the things they’re playing, all in real time,” Jamie says. “I think that adds to the feeling of these songs.”
The result is a rich collection of story songs delivered over rootsy strings, moody keys, crying steel, and sparse percussion, carried by Jamie’s songbird soprano that can convey tears or laughter with equal panache, sometimes in the same bar.
When asked how she hopes listeners react to Jumping Over Rocks, Jamie brings up a hero: John Prine. “On his new album, there is a song that always gets me––‘Summer’s End,’” she says. “Every time I listen to it, I start crying, and I think, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying!’” She laughs her big laugh, which comes often and easily. “I hope something I create can get to somebody in that way. That’s what gets us through––finding common ground with someone else, whether it’s in songs or friendship. It makes you feel better about your own life.”