Alaska honky-tonker returns

CROON: Hitting his stride in Texas, Bo Porter brings his guitar north again.

February 15, 2009 

Bo Porter's musical career flourished in Austin, Texas.


AUSTIN, Texas -- The honky-tonk man, long and lean, stood before me with a guitar slung high upon his chest. He was clad in a black pearl-snap shirt with the tips of black steel-toe boots peeking from beneath cuffed dark jeans. His long hair was pulled back in a tightly woven braid from a lightly lined tanned face with smiling green eyes.

"Hi," the man said, "I'm Bo Porter."

The crooning thunderous baritone voice will grace the great white north with his presence -- and not for the first time. This week, he returns to Alaska for five days including appearances with Walter Trout and local talents such as bassist Dave Arrowsmith, guitarist Stu Schulman and the Ken Peltier Band. Porter is a husband and father. He is a biker and businessman. A purveyor of American roots music with an edge. He has traveled from the southern tip of Florida to the northern reaches of Alaska and everywhere in between, his guitar never far from his side.

Porter has spent the past three decades in and out of the music industry, plying his trade as a highly skilled espresso machine technician, waiting for the moment when his guitar strings would once again pull at his heart.

The year was 1995, and the traveling troubadour spent it playing at Dollywood, near Knoxville, Tenn., four to six shows a day, six days a week for miserable pay. To make ends meet, Porter gigged nightly at honky-tonks. He burned out, headed for Alaska and set down his guitar.

The next eight years were spent entrepreneuring with his wife, Andrea, in the espresso business and recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle collision with a moose. Porter said he didn't play often; the back pain was excruciating.

Even so, by 2003 his guitar called to him. Sometimes, he said, it takes good friends to "get you back in the saddle again." With encouragement from fellow musicians Schulman, Robert Howard and brother Butch, they recorded the eponymous album "Bo Porter and the Dixie Rockits."

From his recording studio in Anchorage, Schulman, Porter's spiritual and musical mentor, said, "I've tried to make Bo aware of a couple of musical weaknesses, to make him a stronger performer. He's got the tools to succeed. Everyone likes him. He is a true friend."

After arriving in Austin, Texas, almost two years ago, Porter's musical career has flourished. He has performed with his Dixie Rockits on a Time Warner show, on an XM radio show with Texas Hall of Fame inductee Gary P. Nunn and a plaza gig for the mayor. That day was formally named Bo Porter Day in Austin.

His music is basic hard-driving honky-tonk. But on any given night the band may play a Taj Mahal blues song or a Jimmy Reed tune. Maybe some old country by Jimmie Rodgers.

"We're really just roots music with an edge," Porter said. "We are a dance band. When the people are ready to shake a tail feather, we kick it up a notch."

Now working as Bo Porter and Honky Tonk Horsepower, the band plays regularly at Austin landmark venues such as the Saxon Pub, Hill's Cafe and the Broken Spoke.

Porter was born into a family of musicians in the town of Niceville on the Alabama-Florida state line. His father is the renowned singer and guitarist Reid Porter. His uncle owned and operated the Panhandle Opry, purveying liquor, smoking and the devil's music.

He was a fighter, a smoker and a drinker. He grew up in the Church of Christ but was -- and still is -- the black sheep of the family.

Yet Porter believes a good work ethic is necessary, and a requirement for his band members. Respecting your audience and your employer includes timeliness, he said. He expects his band to be set up and ready to play 30 minutes before the downbeat, and a 15-minute break means 15 minutes.

He doesn't want to have to go looking for you out smoking a joint behind the dumpster. His dad taught him that "there are more ways of stealing from a man than sticking your hand in his pocket."

Porter began playing the bluegrass circuit at the tender age of 14. He remembers being pretty wild, though he is adamant that he was always responsible and honest.

"I kept ending up in jail," he said, "but I never cheated nobody, never stole from anybody and never hurt anyone that didn't need hurting."

He still enjoys a drink and curses a bit much and keeps biking; only now he rides for the Guardians of the Children and has been a foster parent.

Despite playing what Schulman calls "the kind of music that sells beer and starts fights," Porter has a tone of devotion when he recalls what he has accomplished. He gives credit, first and foremost, to God.

Porter says God has put him everywhere he is supposed to be. Some of the most important lessons he has learned are to be open-minded and forgiving but most of all to be giving. To be good to your neighbor and be good to all children.

"Everybody's got something to give," Porter said. "The moment you need something, give something. By doing that, you'll get what you need."

Former Alaskan Katherine Abbott studies journalism at Texas State University in San Marcos.

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