This article is part of our November 2017 issue, which features a comprehensive look at Texas music.
We’re gonna start this next set off with a slow number, by special request,” says guitarist Larry Guy, and a muted cheer rises up throughout Mr. Gino’s Lounge, in Houston’s blue-collar South Union neighborhood. For 44 years now, locals have been rounding out the weekend here every Sunday night in this low-ceilinged, wall-unit-AC-cooled ramshackle hole in the wall, presided over all that time by genial and bespectacled Eugene “Mr. Gino” Chevis, seated, as always, just inside the front door, collecting the $5 cover.
“I know you are gonna like this one, coozan,” Guy says to an audience member who, like Guy and many of the other patrons, is decked out in full-on cowboy attire, from snappy Louisiana-style black felt hat down to weathered jeans and broken-in boots. There’s a strong Creole undercurrent here, thanks to Mr. Gino’s southwest Louisiana heritage, most visible behind a snack bar toward the rear of the club, where a crucifix and a portrait of Jesus and Mary vie for space with a rack of pork cracklins for sale.
The coozan laughs as Guy, who is house bandleader these days, continues to reminisce about their upbringing in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Then he tells Guy, “Play on, Larry!” and Guy eases into the opening notes of “Tennessee Whiskey,” the song that launched bearded, long-haired country music renegade Chris Stapleton to widespread fame two years ago when he performed it on the nationally-televised Country Music Association Awards in a duet with Justin Timberlake.
I used to spend my nights out in a barroom.
Liquor was the only love I’ve known.
But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom,
And brought me back from being too far gone.
While it might be surprising to hear a stone-cold C&W weeper performed live in a club with a 99 percent African-American clientele, it’s all part and parcel of the world of grown folks music, a catchall descriptor for Southern down-home music that mixes modern iterations of soul and blues with country and rock and roll. Grown folks music is a genre with its own self-referential culture: songs respond to other songs, singers shout one another out, and lyrics offer a wealth of tropes—recurring characters like “Jody,” a mythical, low-down seducer of married women, as well as Jody’s female counterpart, “the Cleanup Woman.” Even though the bands don’t stick to classic blues rhythms or chord progressions as often as blues purists, practitioners and fans argue that this music is every bit as much the blues as Blind Lemon Jefferson. The blues is decidedly not dead, just evolved, as grown as the folks who love it now.
Regulars like to joke that the roof on Mr. Gino’s could fall in at any time and gently poke fun at the overall dive-iness of the place: “Bandstand’s been in three or four places, the front door’s done been in four or five different places, you never know where it’s at,” laughs Pee Wee Stephens, who played keyboards in the bar’s previous house band.
That rustic charm keeps patrons coming back over what is now close to half a century. These days, its allure is multigenerational. Some patrons come in to commune with their late family members. Marcus “Travelin’ Chef” Broaden, a Houston native and twenty-year Navy vet now living in Atlanta, never fails to swing by Mr. Gino’s on visits to Houston, not least because it reminds him of his father, who passed away in December. “Whenever I would come home to Houston, my dad and I always went to Gino’s, and I had the best times of my life bonding with my dad there and other hole-in-the-wall clubs like it,” he says. “Last time I was home, my sister, cousin, and I all went and it was like you could feel my dad there as well.”
For Willie Sullivan, a former Mr. Gino’s regular who is getting back in the habit again, it is a reminder of his youth, one he is reclaiming now that his kids have grown. (Though he tells me he’s 63, he looks 35.) “The nice thing about Mr. Gino’s for my generation is that we can come in here and be in a nice atmosphere. It’s not a lot of kids and all their drama. You can just come in here and have a nice time. With Mr. Gino, what you see is what you get. Everybody in here is gonna mind their own business, and you get to hear some great music.”
Guy shifts gears from “Tennessee Whiskey” into “Don’t Make Me Beg,” a contemporary blues hit by Tucka, a youthful graduate of the Louisiana zydeco scene turned silken-voiced grown folks music crooner. Along with Pokey (a.k.a. “Big Pokey Bear”), whose 2014 hit with the Louisiana Blues Brothas, “My Sidepiece,” also gets a rendition from the stage, Tucka reigns as one of the preeminent stars of the genre.
As women whoop and holler over the rolling Tucka’s rolling Marvin Gaye-ish bass line and the disco-lit dance floor fills again with couples dancing sinuously, working up a sweat, Sullivan tells me this is the only club in Houston he would consider visiting. “I know Gino is gonna keep this place pretty peaceful,” he says. “And he’s got the pool table. Man, I’ve been coming in here for thirty years. Just ease on in, drink a couple of beers, shoot some pool, and ease back on down to Pearland.”
Watch: a scene from Mr. Gino’s.