Honky tonk heroes

Jake Houston & The Royal Flush

Jake Houston isn't afraid to wear his own band's T-shirt. Here he is with bandmates Ivan Gates, Drea Ballard and Casey Hansen.

Jake Houston isn't afraid to wear his own band's T-shirt. Here he is with bandmates Ivan Gates, Drea Ballard and Casey Hansen.

Photo/Brad Bynum

4th of July at Red Dog Saloon, 76 N. C St., Virginia City, 847-7474, at 3:30 p.m., which Houston calls “the hot dog hour.”
For more information, visit www.jakehouston.com.

As a kid growing up in Carson City, Jake Houston thought he didn’t like country music. At age 15, he’d already been playing guitar for a few years, learning blues licks and classic rock songs. Then one day, he heard a song that spoke to him directly about something he already loved: fishing.

“I was like, hell yeah, fishing is the shit,” said Houston. “It was that Brad Paisley song ’I’m Gonna Miss Her.’ It’s a great song even though he kind of sucks nowadays.”

After hearing that song, Houston immersed himself in country music, learning and singing songs by several country artists, especially George Strait tunes like “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.” He describes growing up in Carson City as “hick enough” for country music. “We’re close enough to Gardnerville for it to make sense. It’s definitely more rural than Reno.”

Houston was already playing guitar in Foothill Road, a blues band that played a weekly gig in Genoa on Friday nights. His bandmates overheard him singing before the show one night. “Then, during the set break, they said, “Jake’s going to sing some songs for you,’” according to Houston. His bandmates just threw him head-first into the deep end of the pool, but Houston had no problem swimming. He has an immediate, engrossing voice, a croon with some crackle that sounds “country” without sounding forced or affected.

He started performing regularly as a solo act, playing covers and before too long, his own originals. He started writing songs when he attended Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida, studying recording arts. One early song, “Dixie,” won him a scholarship. It’s on Carrying the Flame, an album of all originals released in May.

“At first it was hard for me, because I was always thinking about what everybody else thought about the song,” said Houston about his writing process. “I had to break that. It’s been a progression. Now, it’s easier for me to just play what I feel. … Melancholy heartbreak songs—I like them. It’s honkytonk music—stuff you can drink to. I’ve always gravitated toward slower songs. Fun songs are fun, like ’Boy Named Sue,’ but slower, sadder, George Jones stuff just hits you.”

Guitarist Drea Ballard, better known locally for his work in the rock band Moondog Matinee, also plays in Houston’s band, Jake Houston & The Royal Flush. He agrees that there’s a lasting appeal to a good, sad country ballad.

“They never become dated,” said Ballard. “They’re so well written. The hard part about country is writing a simple song that gets a complex emotion across. If you have a really good country song, it’s going to be timeless.”

One of the primary functions of music is to express emotions, and while some other genres might try to mask the emotional content, country music is blatantly about expressing emotions.

Houston said the band name Royal Flush made sense when the group was a five-piece, including one woman, fiddle player Samantha Gates, who recently left the group. “Now I’m just going to hang onto [the name] because we have shirts with it on them,” said Houston. The current lineup includes Houston, Ballard, Ivan Gates and drummer Casey Hansen. The instrumentalists all play dynamic supporting roles that help the songs come across as clearly as possible.

The group’s live sets includes some originals but focuses mostly on covers of classic country songs like Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” and Hank Thompson’s “A Six Pack to Go” as well as newer songs from contemporary outlaws like Sturgill Simpson.

The slow, sad songs make the audience members cry tears in their beers, and the upbeat numbers make the audience want to hoot and holler and kick holes in the dance floor with their cowboy boots.