Porter Howell played in bands in high school in East Texas and in college at Belmont University in Nashville. His mother told him she hoped he wouldn’t make this band thing long-term.
That was 30 years ago and Howell is still singing and touring with the band he co-founded about 30 years ago, Little Texas.
Little Texas broke into the country music scene in the early ‘90s — the days of Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Shania and Reba. It was the era of cowboy hats, high-waist jeans and, yes, the beloved mullet for guys, big hair for gals. During those times, they were young country.
Known for their high-energy sound that fused the look and attitude of rock with traditional country themes, Little Texas sold more than 7 million albums, earned three Grammy nominations, won a CMA Album of the Year award and produced hits including “God Blessed Texas,” “What Might Have Been,” “Kick a Little” and “My Love.”
Little Texas, along with Keith Anderson, will take the stage at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, at 7 p.m. Sunday. Anderson has produced hits “Pickin’ Wildflowers” and “Every Time I Hear Your Name,” and has co-written hits for other artists including Big & Rich’s “Lost in this Moment.”
But back to Little Texas.
The band played the Texas club circuit, including shows with Toby Keith and Clay Walker, for a couple of years and even appeared on “Star Search,” hosted by the late Ed McMahon.
“In December 1989, we were playing 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. at a lounge at the Tropicana and drove to L.A. in a van to shoot the show,” Howell said in a phone interview from his home near Franklin, Tennessee. “For about a week, we went back and forth every day.”
They didn’t win — they were bested by a band called Mad About Plaid. But the show did give Little Texas the exposure they hoped it would.
By the time they started playing for record execs, the band had developed their sound and live performances.
“We were really good at playing and making people pay attention to us,” Howell said.
“In 1991, we put out our first single, ‘Some Guys Have All The Love,’” he added.
It became a Top 10 hit. Label execs asked, “Where’s the album?” and the band was on the fast track, playing up to 300 shows a year.
“The next seven or eight years were a blur. It never went down, it always went up,” Howell said.
They opened arena shows for Clint Black, Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood, and then launched their own headlining tour in the U.S. and Canada.
“Most of it was fun,” he said. “We were so young. The first couple of years, three or four of us didn’t even have a house.”
The average age of the band was 22.
But like all good things, it came to an end in 1997. The players needed a break and went their separate ways to work on individual projects.
In 2004, the band’s four original members — Howell (lead vocals and guitar), Duane Propes (bassist, vocalist), Dwayne O’Brien (vocals and rhythm guitars) and Del Gray (drums) rebuilt the franchise with a new sound and new tours.
(Keeping the Duane/Dwayne’s straight is easy, Howell said: “Duane Propes is DUane,” Howell explained. “When we say DUane, the other one doesn’t even turn around! They are very different types of guys.”)
Hitting on the right band name can be challenging. For a while, the label identified them as “Band X,” Howell said.
“We thought about Possum Flats and everything Possum for a while,” he added.
The band had rented a house to practice at in what was then the boondocks of Nashville in a “holler” known as Little Texas, which was named that due to the lore of it being a bit of wild place, like Texas. Noticing a street sign for Little Texas, the name was suggested, but Howell said they weren’t sure that a name with a regional sound would click with fans country-wide. By the time the demo was ready, they needed a name, fast, or it would be Band X. They went with Little Texas.
‘God Blessed Texas’
Howell co-wrote “God Blessed Texas” with former band member Brady Seals. The band regularly played at a “Dallas-cosmo” place.
“And there were a lot of pretty women there,” Howell said. “Me and Brady used to say Texas had the prettiest women. We didn’t write [the song] in that phase [of our career] but it inspired us to write it. I had the ‘God blessed Texas’ line and told Brady no one will ever hear the ‘ed’ of blessed. Within 10 minutes we had the chorus then froze.”
Six months later, they played what they had for a booking agent who said, “Boys, that’s the song we’ve been looking for!”
“It was just a chorus and no verses,” Howell said.
The agent locked them in a room until the song was written.
“I tell people it took us 20 minutes and six months to write that little ditty that changed our lives,” Howell said. “It’s gotten used for everything, including Ford commercials in Texas.”
The song was a hit all across the country. But two major radio stations — one in Denver, the other in Joplin, Missouri — refused to play “God Bless Texas.” Howell said when the band agreed to voice over Texas with “Denver” and “Joplin,” the stations came on board.
Touring is down from 300 to about 70 shows a year now, Howell said.
“We can be with our family during the week and play shows on the weekend,” he said, adding that they like to pursue other projects. Founding member Dwayne O’Brien is a professor of music business at Belmont University.
This weekend, Little Texas is Frederick-bound, with a show that is sure to “Kick a Little” ‘90s country.