NY TIMES Feature
By Paula Disbrowe (photos by Colliena Rentneester)
Published: May 1, 2005
For musicians who straddle the line between local popularity and widespread fame, success -- or perhaps survival -- is measured on the odometer. Anywhere from four to six nights a week, the McKay Brothers (Hollin, 31, and Noel, 36) lead-foot it across Texas in their Chevy pickup, playing honky-tonks, dive bars and coffee shops from Port Aransas to Luckenbach to Alpine, always returning home to Hill Country to sleep in their own beds. A smattering of radio stations now play their music, but they still consider gas money before committing to a show. Road trips as a way of life have an unexpected benefit, however. Traveling musicians, like truck drivers, develop a keen radar for where to exit for the best food. Which means that any given route might suggest the possibility of jalapeno-topped hamburgers, barbecued black-bean tacos, pork ribs, beef brisket, crispy soft-shell-crab sandwiches and shrimp fajitas loaded with guacamole.
''I wonder if there's time for the cheese to wear off,'' Noel says as he scans the menu at Henry's Puffy Tacos in San Antonio on a recent Friday. (He's alluding to the vocalists' rule of avoiding throat-coating dairy at least two hours before performing, a rule that seems to be overridden without much inner turmoil.) ''I had cheese and shrimp enchiladas last night before we played Adair's,'' he confesses, referring to his pre-show meal in Dallas. And at 3 a.m., on their way home from the club, they pulled into the Czech Stop, a 24-hour bakery disguised as a convenience store, for frosted brownies and sausage kolaches -- meat-stuffed yeast rolls -- to keep them awake behind the wheel.
Hollin, who has the sleepy, surprised look of a kid who has been suddenly roused from a nap, repeatedly checks his watch. They're due at the Scenic Loop Cafe -- 25 miles away -- by 7, and that's in less than an hour. Noel orders steak fajita enchiladas (covered with cheese). I spoon hot red salsa over a basket of puffy chicken tacos -- raw corn tortillas that have been deep-fried until crackly and delicate, and then wrapped around shredded chicken, lettuce and onion. Hollin methodically slices off pieces of chicken breast that have been showered with jalapenos, tomatoes and onions.
Arriving at the Scenic Loop just in time, the McKays play songs from their soulful first album and the soon-to-be-released ''Cold Beer and Hot Tamales'' (which was produced by Lloyd Maines, the father of the Dixie Chick Natalie; their 2003 debut was produced by Gurf Morlix, whose work with Lucinda Williams and Slaid Cleaves has made him the most sought-after producer in Texas). They perform against a wall of cedar logs under the watchful eyes of a 12-point buck, a morose buffalo and a longhorn ram. And though they mostly avoid the customary free meal -- ''They always make a big deal about throwing in a meal for the band,'' laments their sometime drummer Mark Patterson, ''and it's always brisket'' -- the food there is so good that they make an exception for the creamy shrimp-and-artichoke dip, charred steak fajitas and an entire avocado that has been stuffed with crab meat, dipped in batter and deep-fried.
Performing in the land of ranches and rivers, the McKay Brothers play mostly to a belt-buckled audience: bikers, gentlemen ranchers, cowgirls in sparkly jewelry and college kids from Austin. When I saw them on an outside stage in Bandera, the crowd included a couple trying to give away Catahoula puppies and a guy who arrived with a longhorn calf on a leash.
The next morning, fat drops of rain cloud the view as we follow Highway 16 to Bandera, the self-proclaimed ''cowboy capital of Texas.'' It's also the McKays' hometown and our lunch stop before the two-hour drive to Fredericksburg, where they are booked for the night. O.S.T., short for Old Spanish Trail, is a restaurant that time forgot, with saddles for bar stools and a combination salad bar and lunch buffet that has been outfitted to resemble a covered wagon. We grab a booth in the back, near an oil painting of John Wayne and various head shots of movie-studio cowboys. ''Iced tea?'' the waitress guesses. We nod. It's late in the lunch rush, and the buffet has seen tidier times. But we scoop cheese enchiladas with chili gravy and beef tamales onto our plates. Not forgetting vegetables, we top everything with sliced jalapenos and salsa.
As Hollin rolls a tamale out of its corn husk and onto his plate, he tells me that the song ''Whiskey, Smoke and Beer'' from their new album chronicles a spectacular domestic squabble that they overheard one night behind a local bar. Cowboys living in Bandera are caught in a sort of permanent lost weekend. ''It's all true,'' Hollin says of the song, ''right down to the dog sitting in the middle of the pickup seat.'' But when he sings it two hours later, there's a break in his voice that registers empathy, not mockery. ''Bottle of Fire,'' another new tune, is an homage to George Jones's famous escapade riding a lawn mower. (To prevent him from drinking, Tammy Wynette, his wife at the time, took his car keys, so he hopped on the mower and drove into town.) It's an irresistible, toe-tapping number, though you can't help feeling sad when the John Deere gets taken away.
If you were to distill the spirit of the McKay Brothers' music, it might boil down to ''Disappearing Texas,'' a song that mourns a rural place that's ''vanishing but not completely gone.'' The lyrics are directed toward rich urbanites who move into Hill Country to conquer and subdivide, driving out wildlife and driving up prices. Their favorite road chow is a taste of disappearing Texas, too. As are they. Their authenticity is as welcome as a drive down a lonely road in a dusty pickup.
Sunday night is family night at the Floore Country Store, the Hill Country music hall. The brothers' parents are there, as well as a bunch of old-timers shuffling around the dance floor. They dedicate ''Hey Old Man,'' a lovely song about a walk on the railroad tracks with their dad, to their father, while their grandfather sits nearby. The brothers are visibly more relaxed. ''This is our Friday night,'' Hollin tells the crowd. It's no coincidence that cold beer and hot tamales are on the menu.
Dallas/Fort Worth: Czech Stop, Exit 353 on I-35 West (outside Dallas). Open 24 hours, with baked goods made hourly. El Valle Restaurant, 204 West Exchange Avenue, Fort Worth. Blistering enchiladas rojas -- and fresh jalapenos on demand. Adair's, 2624 Commerce Street, Dallas. Great jalapeno-topped hamburgers. Hill Country area: Ruby's BBQ, 29th and Guadalupe, Austin. Barbecued black-bean tacos, juicy pork ribs and brisket. O.S.T., 305 Main Street, Bandera. Classic greasy Texas enchiladas that aren't exactly Mexican food. Muy guerro! Herbert's Taco Hut, 419 Riverside Drive, San Marcos. For rice and beans and tasty, hot salsa. Henry's Puffy Tacos, 815 Bandera Road, San Antonio. Puffy tacos! The enchiladas have an excellent Tex-Mex sauce. Scenic Loop Cafe, 25615 Boerne Stage Road, San Antonio. Excellent fajitas. And try the deep-fried avocado filled with crab meat. Gulf Coast: The Spot, 1307 West Jefferson Street, Port O'Connor. The best shrimp po' boy. Taqueria San Juan, 410 Cut Off Road, Port Aransas. Fabulous shrimp fajitas. West Texas: La Casita, 1104 East Avenue H, Alpine. Great oversize burrito wrapped in giant handmade tortillas. Any Time, Any Exit: For fast food at 3 a.m., the Taco Cabana chain has become a staple for the McKay Brothers, who say they like to believe this is the healthiest fast food to be found. PAULA DISBROWE