Donnie Hons and the Church Picnic Polka

By Gary E. McKee


It’s picnic season again, time to check the tire pressure in the car, and head down the road to a church picnic. To help get you in the mood, order Donnie Hons’ single song cd The Church Picnic Polka from the PolkaBeat store. Also available as a digital download.

Donnie is a singer – songwriter with deep Lavaca County roots. He grew up in the polka/waltz culture, but his musical tastes guided him to an old-school type country music style which perfectly suits his baritone voice. While still in high school, Donnie started singing with the legendary Bobby Lee Nightriders in the Victoria area. Since then he has performed with many country bands and sat in with all flavors of bands at numerous picnics and venues singing and plying his bass. The Nightriders still perform four times a year at Da Costa Hall to packed dance floors as they provide “country and western dancing the way it was meant to be.”

Inspiration in a deer blind         
John Rivard, the former writer for TPN instilled an idea into Donnie’s mind that he should write a song about the church picnics of the area. The idea kept floating around in his brain, until one slow day in a deer blind in the Hill Country, he started jotting down some words for a song. While searching for a melody to put them to, the obvious choice would be a polka beat as that sound is what sets most picnics apart from other gatherings. After smoothing out the lyrics, he enlisted Tommy Detamore of Cherry Ridge Studios in Floresville who contributed his studio and his steel guitar to help bring it together. Chris Rybak showed up to provide the accordion sound and Daniel Jobb of The Red Ravens paired with Donnie’s bass to make the backbone rhythm.

The resulting single, The Church Picnic Polka, is a lively trip around Central Texas as the singer and his date attempt to dance their boots off at all the picnics from Prazska Pout in Praha to Shiner to Hostyn (where Donnie sang the song with the Czechaholics at the recent picnic.) The melody, like the lyrics, incorporates many of the musical styles that will be heard this summer: polka, country steel guitar, and conjunto. You can hear this song on radio shows hosted by Alfred Vrazel, Danny Zapletal, Clinto, and TKO on Texas Thunder.

Where the music's gone
In 2010, Donnie teamed with Joel Nava to record a single “Where the Music’s Gone” which laments the lack of old style country music being played on the radio today. In an interesting twist, he was contacted by Dorin Marincash of Romania (the European country) to get a copy of this song written by Donnie. Dorin is a radio producer that goes by the name “The Transylvanian Cowboy.” Old school country and Texas music has always been by far more popular in Europe than the U.S.

One of Donnie’s next projects will be in the Cowboy Poetry category collaborating with Bobby Flores to record Donnie’s moving poem about a snow-bound Montana Cowboy in 1880 writing a letter back home to his folks at Christmas time.

Donnie Hons can be contacted on Facebook and be seen performing with Gone Country at the Sweet Home Dance Hall, so get a hold of his Church Picnic Polka cd and see how many of the picnics that he sings about you can make this summer. Check out the list of church picnics on

Garrett Neubauer: Polka Accordion King

By Gary E. McKee

For almost a decade, Texas Folklife has been hosting a Big Squeeze accordion competition spotlighting young accordionists across Texas. The competition in 2014 marked the first time that grand prize winners would be selected in three categories – polka, conjunto and Cajun/zydeco. Big Squeeze winner in the polka category was Garrett Lee Neubauer of Altair. Garrett has been playing accordion since the age of 12. When his father, Daryl, passed away prematurely, he felt that the best way to honor him would be to pick up his father’s accordion and learn how to play it. His father had been an accordionist in the Tony Janak Polka Band. Between managing a rice farm, and playing, Daryl took time to guide a young Mark Hermes (of the Czechaholics) on the art of playing accordion. When Garrett made his decision, Mark returned the family favor by showing him around the keys of Darryl’s accordion, which had once belonged to Bobby Jones. Lawrence Ruether, Garrett’s grandpa, also played the accordion and taught him some songs. As Garrett’s skill increased, other members of the Czechaholics, Brian Klekar and Greg and Brian Svetlik mentored Garrett on the intricacies of music and performing. I remember going backstage several years ago at a Czechaholics gig at SPJST Lodge 88 in Houston and finding Garrett playing along while behind the curtains, learning the songs.

Down by the Pond    
Down a sandy country road that leads to a lush, serene oak grove that Garrett calls home, he would spend evenings practicing while sitting in the yard or out by the stock pond. He has ample time for this as he works in the maintenance department at Rice School district just five minutes away. Both he and his dad graduated from there. His neighbors, Gladys and Joe Salinas, big polka fans, would enjoy the notes floating across the cow pasture in the evenings.

As Garrett’s confidence and licks improved through the many hours of practice, he was asked more frequently to sit in with the Czechaholics and Texavia. The Tony Janak Polka Band has reformed as the J & S Playboys, and Garrett sits in occasionally to fill his father’s shoes. Though he loves playing all genres of music his favorite is the Czech polkas and waltzes that he grew up listening to his father play.

His desire to learn more about the unique instrument grew and now he owns four keyboard and two button accordions including the one he won at the Big Squeeze competition. In case anyone stops by and wants to jam, Garrett also owns an electric bass guitar, a keyboard, an electric six-string guitar and a set of drums. The six-string guitar is what he spends more time on now as he is still in the learning stage.

Big City Venues
The Big Squeeze competition broadened Garrett’s horizon as he went from playing the smaller Central Texas venues to performing at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum in Austin and then in front of thousands of people at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston at the annual Accordion Kings & Queens event. The large audience did not intimidate him. “I just got up there and did what had to be done.” The competition gave him a chance to see and talk to outstanding accordionists his own age playing Cajun and conjunto styles. The 2015 Big Squeeze performance will give Garrett a chance to perform once again at the big venues and to turn over his title as Accordion King to a new young performer. Garrett has some advice for those novices: “The accordion is a difficult instrument to play and the only way to master it is to practice, practice, practice.”

The Texas Dream Band, a country/polka band out of Hallettsville is Garrett’s regular gig now, playing keyboards and accordion in this band composed of the offspring of other country/polka musicians. But whenever he isn’t playing with Texas Dream, Garrett can be found with his accordions ready to take the stage wherever polka is happening. There is no doubt that his father would have been proud.

[Editor’s note: Garrett Neubauer performed at the 2015 Big Squeeze Finals on April 25 in Austin, where Brandon Hodde of Holland, TX, was crowned the new polka accordion king. Both will perform at the 26th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens event on Saturday, June 6, at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.]

No Sad Faces

By Gary E. McKee

Mark Halata @ Moravia Store. Gary E. McKee photo

Mark Halata @ Moravia Store. Gary E. McKee photo

Polka: a lively couple’s dance of Bohemian origin, with music in double meter, or so says the dictionary. People who know better define polka dancing as aerobics set to music, accompanied with beer and with no sad faces on the dancers.

Summer Sundays in Central Texas are filled with the gatherings of thousands of people enjoying homemade food, fellowship and dancing to the ethnic sounds of polka and waltz music at church “picnic” fundraisers.

Old school bands, such as the Joe Patek Orchestra, Adolph and the Gold Chain Bohemians, Jimmy Brosch, the Vrazels, the Bacas, Adolph Hofner, and dozens more Czech bands maintained the European musical heritage that had been brought over from the old country.

After World War II, the older musicians and their followers faded with age and their fans dispersed in search of jobs, but the passion for keeping the old music alive still burned. Fewer replacements played the bandstands, the venues disappeared, and the taste of the crowds changed. Yet, bands such as the Praha Brothers, the Ennis Czech Boys, the Shiner Hobo Band, the Red Ravens, the Czechaholics, and the Dujka Brothers still carry the torch of old-time polkas and waltzes.

One of the most dedicated musicians determined to soldier on and keep the Czech music alive in both language and tempo, is accordionist Mark Halata and his band, Texavia.

This writer sat down with Mark and asked him ten questions about his music.

  1. Why did you choose the accordion?  Growing up in Houston, my sister had an accordion but abandoned the lessons. I picked it up and began teaching myself how to play when I was about six. Dad always had Czech music on the radio in the car and house, and I played along with the radio. I started playing publicly when I was eight or nine years old. When my dad would drop me off around friends, I would always turn the car radio volume down so they would not hear the Czech music. This was the mid 70s and polkas were not the cool thing to be listening to. When I was sixteen years old, a family friend took me to see a zydeco concert, and I discovered a whole new world of accordion music.

  2. Tell us about your family heritage. I am a second generation American. My granddad was born in European Moravia in 1894. [There was no Czechoslovakia until after World War I; prior to the war there were three states: Moravia, Bohemia, and Silesia.] When my grandfather was five years old, his family immigrated to Moravia [Texas] and my father was born and raised here and later moved to work in Houston to earn more money to support his family. His new home in Southeast Houston was heavily populated with similar Czech families. So, most weekends we came back to Moravia where I continued to be surrounded by Czech culture and music. At the gatherings at the Moravia Store, where Czech was still spoken, weddings, reunions, and such, people always asked me to break out my accordion and play the old songs.

  3. Is there any difference between Czech, German, Cajun, and Mexican polkas? They are all the same songs; the individual performer adds his personal touch to them.

  4. You cover a Gram Parsons [founder of the alternative country music scene in the 60s] song, which is probably not on any of your peers’ play lists, what are your influences? I love the country music of several decades ago, such as Buck Owens and George Jones. Gram helped revive that style. Jo Ann Castle [accordionist for Lawrence Welk]  is also a favorite.

  5. Watching you play, at times you close your eyes and seem to go into a zen-like state. Is this a style? When I play my accordion, I just concentrate on making each song the best it can be. It’s all about the music and preserving it through quality.

  6. Where were some of your memorable gigs? I’ve played the Lincoln Center in New York, played the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on the fourth of July, and we were the last polka band to play the Bill Mraz Ballroom in Houston before it burned. [Mraz’s had been the hub of Czech music for decades in Houston.] I love playing in Moravia at the Country Store, my second home. [Moravia is southwest of Schulenburg.]

  7.  Do you see yourself as a leader in the Czech community of Texas? I see myself as a Texan first; being Czech makes it a little better. For years Czech was the third most common language in Texas. I belong to the Knights of Columbus, and perform most songs in Czech.

  8.  What would be your ideal gig? Winning the nonexistent Grammy polka award and playing on live television. [Recently the Grammy association eliminated the best polka band division much to the disgust of hundreds of bands and hundreds of thousands of fans.]

  9. What kind of accordion do you play? A Gabbanelli chromatic accordion with an eighty bass button. [It’s showing its age, and if anyone knows where to get a replacement please contact Mark.]

  10.  Tell me about them your band, Texavia,. The band’s name reflects my feeling of pride in being Texan and Czech. The band members change due to personal schedules, as we all play for the love of the music, because the money certainly isn’t the driving force. The core members are Bruce Brosch,  the son of polka legend Jimmy Brosch, and Greg Machac, whose father, Paul was a drummer for Brosch for decades. Other key members are Harlan Kubos, and Mike Gest.

Mark’s website is The Moravia Store is a very special place. The store has been around in various forms, since 1889 and is open five days a week. The Filip family operates a family friendly saloon with a large collection of vintage advertising signage. There is a great little dance hall in the back. Their website is In the words of Alfred Vrazel, “Where there’s polka, there’s a party.”

Homegrown Opry Experience

By Gary E. McKee

The Jordan Sisters at the Fayette County Country Music Opry in La Grange/Gary E. McKee photo

The Jordan Sisters at the Fayette County Country Music Opry in La Grange/Gary E. McKee photo

There is a growing phenomenon in the small towns Central Texas of weeknight concerts in public halls given by area entertainers and emerging stars seeking an outlet for their music.

            The term “Opry” originated at WSM, an AM Nashville radio station that first went on the air in 1925. WSM would broadcast a classical music and opera show followed by WSM Barn Dance. The story goes that in December of 1927, at the end of the first hour of classical music, the sound of a rushing locomotive filled the airwaves, and George D. Hay started his Barn Dance Show by announcing that “You have just heard opera. Now you’re going to hear opry.” With that introduction, DeFord Baily played a classic train song on his harmonica in contrast to the previous symphonic orchestra. Hay then spoke into the radio microphone “…  For the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.” The show was soon renamed Grand Ole Opry and country music was changed forever. For the country music impaired readers, the Grand Ole Opry on high wattage WSM was heard hundreds of miles from Nashville. The show provided inspiration to hundreds of future country music stars listening to it on the family radio (pre-television days.) After the show was moved to the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, these Opry inspired musicians would go on to change music. Maybe you have heard of them, they had names such as Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, and hundreds more.

            This tradition of bringing country music to the “earthy” people continues today in the form of small town opries throughout Central Texas. Though not directly associated with Nashville, each opry is operated differently to achieve a common cause. The formats are similar, there is a house band composed of veteran musicians, with local guest volunteer performers who have been vetted. This gives local people of all ages, with talent, an opportunity to stand in front of a crowd that is not their family and friends, with the spotlights in their eyes, and a crack band backing them up, to see if they have what it takes to become professional. Some of the performers are youngsters, which makes this a good proving ground. On the flip side, many folks have no desire to “make it big,” but just love to perform and this is their opportunity.

            The Fayette County Country Music Opry in La Grange is managed by a small group of citizens who fourteen years ago decided that the town needed an affordable live music venue. Every third Monday of the month, anywhere from 200 to 500 people gather at the rented KC Hall, a special guest performs with a paid back-up band. Frenchie Burke, the Cajun fiddler, was there recently, and the Dujka Brothers played in December. At a recent performance the Jordan Sisters, Minnie (17) and Ella (14), blew the crowd away with their intertwining melodies and intricate fiddle work. Check them out on Facebook. The February show featured a Johnny Cash tribute with an impersonator performing the “early” Cash music. Admission to the shows is $5, which after expenses, leaves very little money in the kitty, however the proceeds are plowed back into a pool. This pool is used to pay for performers with different musical styles to display their music to Central Texians. The City of La Grange and local merchants provide assistance in various forms. This Opry is truly a work of love for Violet Zbranek, Cathy Walla, Geri Mendel, and Donella Cernosek the ladies who make this show possible.

            Giddings, in Lee County, has the Lone Star Opry, which kicked off in 1993.  This Opry is sponsored by the local Rotary Club. What started out as a fundraiser for the club has turned into their most successful “community service” project. Proceeds are used to fund scholarships for deserving high school students in Lee County. During the past 18 years, the club has awarded dozens of $1,000 scholarships. On the first Monday of each month an average of 500 people attend the show, with a large percentage being from out of town. They come in early, save their seats, and then shop or eat in town, contributing to local economy. Previous shows have highlighted Billy Mata and Ken Brothers.

            The Silver Wings Ballroom in Brenham is the home of the Bluebonnet Opry, organized n 1998. Every third Thursday, guest artists perform with a great band, that polkabeat fans will recognize two members: John Dujka and Duane Wavra. Every year the Bluebonnet Opry donates $5,000 – $6,000 to the local Brazos Valley Hospice.

            The Gulf Coast region music lovers are fortunate to have the Flag City Opry in Edna, every third Tuesday of the month, to see experienced musicians backing up such artists as Justin Trevino, Amber Digby and Tony Booth. Shane Lala, of the Red Ravens, is a frequent performer or band member. Local church and 4H groups sell refreshments and gate proceeds, after expenses, go to local hospices.

            The Fayetteville Country Music Show, shepherded by the Peevler brothers, Mark and Greg, recreates the old style “hoot-nanny and barn dance” of yesteryear. The Peevlers spent their childhood playing music with their cousins who had a popular western swing band, The Country Cousins, in the mid 1900s. Mark’s daughter, Amanda, continues the family tradition by singing both solo and with her father and uncle. This opry performs every last Monday of the month in the Shelby American Legion Hall. Proceeds from the show go to various veteran assistance programs.

            If you like “picking and grinning with the chickens,” then the Farm Street Opry in Bastrop is right in your barnyard. This monthly show is held in the Bastrop Convention & Exhibit Center. Recently, the Peevler Family from the Fayetteville Opry opened for Bobby Flores .

            Traditional country music is alive and well in Central Texas thanks to the hard work of many people.

First Monday
Lone Star Opry Giddings

First Tuesday
The Gathering Music Show Geronimo

Second Tuesday
Crossroads Country Opry Victoria

First Thursday
Farm Street Opry Bastrop

Third Monday
Fayette County Country Music Opry La Grange

Third Tuesday
Flag City Opry Edna
Comal Country Music Show New Braunfels

Third Thursday
Bluebonnet Opry Brenham

Fourth Monday
Fayetteville Country Music Show Shelby

And Now for Something Completely Different

By Gary E. McKee

Joe Klaus, Mike Campasso and John Merz are Off the Grid.

Joe Klaus, Mike Campasso and John Merz are Off the Grid.

This writer was introduced to the idea of the Off The Grid Band at Sengelmann Hall, after a rousing performance by the Czech Melody Masters. The band was packing up and people were slowly exiting. Weaving its way through the conversations, scraping chairs and latching instrument cases, the strains of an accordion playing the Rolling Stones 1966 song Paint It Black as a polka caused several of us folks of a certain age to give a questionable look at each other. Were we really hearing the Stones on accordion after Texas Czech polkas and waltzes? I tracked the sound to where the now former CMM accordionist was just finishing playing. In the ensuing conversation, I learned that he, Joe Klaus, played such tunes in a group called Off the Grid Band (OTGB).

OTGB are a trio based in the Austin, San Antonio, New Braunfels area. The members are now “Otto” Joe Klaus, “Hans” Mike Campasso and “Wolfgang” John Merz. OTGB formed in 2011 with a great guitar player and had been gigging around the area playing classic country. The guitarist was injured in a car accident, so Joe and Mike began the search for a replacement. After several false starts, John Merz auditioned and it was an instant match. It was decided that they should quit banging their heads on the wall competing with dozens of bands playing the same songs. You know, do something off the grid. So they began working the kinks out of the polka, country and rock and roll songs they knew.

In 2012, utilizing their old contacts, they began getting gigs billing themselves as a FUN, entertaining band. Over the next year, this developed into weekly gigs at restaurants in New Braunfels, South Austin and San Antonio. Last year was a hectic year as their popularity grew. An example - on the last weekend of October, they played three gigs on Friday, two on Saturday and finished on Sunday at their weekly polka party at the Bier Garten in San Antonio. The highlight of their season happened in November when they were asked to play in the beer tent on race day at the Circuit of the Americas Formula One Grand Prix. The total performance count for October: 21.

A person might wonder if they got tired setting up and tearing down all their equipment. They have a couple of secret weapons besides John’s guitar. Joe plays a Roland electronic accordion, which enables him to play, among many melodies, a bass line and the accordion keyboard at the same time. Mike keeps the rhythm on an instrument known as a Zendrum, an electronic drum set mounted on a guitar body, or as Joe refers to it as “drums on a stick.” So three guys with three instruments are able to perform thousands of different style songs easily and economically.

A typical set of FUN music, might include polka versions of songs by Dire Straits, Rolling Stones, and the Mysterians,  a little of “normal” Bob Wills ala Faded Love thrown in, followed by German Beer Hall songs, the Mavericks, and Adolf Hofner covers, and, yes, they play A Já Sám. This wide array of music appeals to many audiences fueling their success.

The band’s motto: “May the Oktoberfest road go on forever and the Polka Party never end.” (Borrowing from the Robert Earl Keen song.) And every time they play its Oktoberfest!

For more information on this versatile FUN band, you can find them on Facebook or contact Joe at 512-560-0440. Did the writer mention that they are a FUN band?

Bobby Flores: The Consummate Musician

By Gary E. McKee


Bobby Flores was playing, on a Thursday evening, at the Farm Street Opry in Bastrop. This is a musician who very recently, was inducted into the Country Music Association of Texas Hall of Fame. Bobby is now in the company of Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Little Joe y La Familia, Bob Wills, Ray Price, Johnny Rodriguez and George Jones, just to name a few. He has a Grammy Award hanging on his wall; yet he was performing a solo show, at a homegrown venue for a crowd of approximately 140 fans who paid a five-dollar admission fee. Why would he do this, you might wonder?

            The answer lies in the path of Bobby’s life. At the age of seven, he started singing gospel duets with his mother around the San Antonio area. In 1971, at the ripe old age of nine, he began playing guitar professionally with George Chambers and the Country Gentlemen, a popular Texas band. The crossover from gospel venues to honky-tonks was fairly easy, as his parents had frequented the family friendly icehouses with Bobby in tow.

            The 1970s saw Bobby fronting his own band, playing any venue that would book them. His fan base began to grow and the “buzz” in the music industry was that this young man had the vocal and instrumental licks to move forward careerwise. Bobby, with different bands, began opening for stars such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Rodriguez and Tanya Tucker. By performing with different bands, styles and venues, Bobby was being exposed to many different facets of musical styles and learning the “music business.”

            In 1980, Bobby was the show opener and fiddler in Johnny Bush’s band, the Bandoleros. When Bush’s band disbanded, Bobby headed in two different directions; one to spend several years in pop, blues and rock and roll bands. The other direction was to pursue his love of classical music. He began formally studying music theory and classical violin, while performing with the Trinity University Community Orchestra. Bobby’s love of classical music was evident when he was asked what was on his stereo when he arrived in Bastrop to perform Bob Wills and Western Swing music; his answer was Rachmanioff.  Sergei Rachmanioff was a renowned Russian classical composer and pianist who died in 1943 at the age of 70.

            Bobby Flores is the master of many instruments: fiddle, violin, guitar, mandolin, keyboard sequencing and bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar). He next is thinking of tackling the banjo.

            The fiddle is his main instrument and when asked who living or dead he would like to play a duet with, he mentally went through the short list of great fiddlers and came up with Tommy Jackson, a session fiddler in the 1950s and 60s. If you ever heard a Hank Williams, Bill Monroe or George Jones recording, you have heard Jackson. Jackson also played in Ray Price’s band, in which Bobby filled his position for 14 years. Ray Price was Bobbie’s choice to be able to sing a duet with again.

            During this time, Bobby’s prowess as a fiddler and his skill as a recording session arranger made him in high demand as a studio musician and producer. The demand for his talents reached the point where he was in three different recording studios a day. This demand, while financially and musically fulfilling, took its toll on his energy. The solution was to found his own recording studio, Yellow Rose Recording Studio, along with his own label Yellow Rose Records, which in 2007, was named Independent Record Label of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists.

            One of Bobby’s most proudest accomplishments is not any of the numerous awards that have been bestowed upon him, but the music school he founded, Bulverde Academy of Music (BAM!). BAM! only accepts budding musicians that are disciplined and serious about growing their musical abilities. At the academy, top notch musicians, such as accordionist Joel Guzman work with students in an individualized flexible program (not rigid) while teaching them theory and musicianship with a focus on live performances. This fall BAM! took the students on a small concert tour around San Antonio to give them a taste of what it is like to perform in front of strangers. Bobby himself teaches fiddle, guitar, mandolin, steel guitar, Dobro and violin. This reporter had to ask what differentiates a fiddle from a violin? “The way the same instrument is played,” Bobby replied.

            Interesting facts about Bobby: former instructor and owner of the Blanco Tae Kwon Do Academy; his last “day” job was a machinist in his dad’s shop, but he quit after realizing he could lose a finger or more; Bobby has had only one formal singing lesson approximately three years ago; he attempts to keep his personal spaces void of harmful chemicals; and he contributed heavily to the soundtracks of two movies featuring Tommy Lee Jones.

            In a great example of life coming full circle, Bobby began his career singing gospel and now will have a Gospel recording coming out soon, that features both well-known traditional songs and highlights one of the best gospel singers, Dottie Rambo.

            Bobby’s successful career has always been about giving a great performance to the people who have followed him through the years, and that is what he gave to the small crowd that night in Bastrop.

Thanks for the Encouragement Ben!

By Gary McKee

At the reception in the Schulenburg KC Hall following Ben Sustr's funeral (which was attended by many uniformed members of the Polka Lover's Klub), Shiner Hobos Johnny Barton, Walter Hermis, Leo Rainosek, Larry Krupala and Nathan Loth took the stage.

Larry told the story of how Ben Sustr had just started teaching in the Agriculture Department at Schulenburg High and encouraged them to enter the FFA Talent Team contest as a band. In 1958, Barton, Hermis, Rainosek, Krupala and Elton Kaase participated in the State FFA contest as a quintet called the Offbeats. (Photos A and B) Back in Schulenburg, the future Hobos added Nathan Loth, got spiffed up, and performed for events while in high school. (Photos C and D)

Photo A

Photo A

Photo B

Photo B

Photo C

Photo C

Photo D

Photo D

The Band Played, The Rain Came Down and the Cars Slowly Sunk

By Gary McKee

When asked what was one of the most memorable gigs that he had played, Texas Sound Czech Band leader Bennie Okruhlik told the story of a church picnic in East Houston. Bennie and his band were doing what they do best, playing the music that makes folks dance away their worries and enjoy the moment. So good, in fact, that nobody, staying dry under a tent, had thought about the buckets of rain that had fallen until it was time to pack up and leave. Some of the band's vehicles had sunk up to their frames and a tractor had to pull each vehicle (and the band trailer) to the paved road several hundred yards away.



See Texas Sound Czech and Red Ravens at the American Legion Hall in Rosenberg, Sunday, January 6.

Praha native, Bennie Okruhlik, began his love affair with the accordion when his father brought home a two-row button accordion that he had purchased from a fellow in Moulton for $15. By the age of 12, he was playing solo music at church picnic cake walks. The term cake walk comes from when you actually walked around a table while music played and when the music stopped you won the cake in front of you, much like musical chairs.

His father, aware of his natural talent, soon purchased a trumpet for Bennie, which he then shared with his younger brother, Ernie, who demonstrated similar musical talent. A polka legacy was born as the two brothers traded instruments back and forth and learned how to play the music that they heard played by the Vrazel and Patek bands of the 1950s.

When Bennie graduated from St. Mary's school in Praha to Flatonia High School, Flatonia was in the process of forming its first school band. Bennie, playing trumpet, experienced for the first time, the feeling of performing in front of a large crowd as the town watched the band's first performance. Soon, his brother, Ernie, started attending FHS and the brothers broadened their playing skills by performing structured pieces of music as opposed to learning by ear the music of their Czech culture. The brothers also learned to balance the responsibilities of family and playing music as they were unable to stay after school to play at extracurricular activities as they had to be at home in the evenings to work on the farm. These limitations failed to dampen the brothers love of music.

After high school graduation and military service, Bennie was living and working in Houston. By attending dances at the legendary Bill Mraz Ballroom, Bennie's desire to play music was rekindled, and he soon purchased a piano keyboard style accordion from Chic Spencer's music store for $75.

In the mid 1900's it was difficult to meet a Czech who did not play music or was in a band. Many family functions had “bands” made up of brothers, cousins, fathers and sons who had never played together as a group, providing the entertainment. At one such event Bennie and his wife Earline Kaase, met family members who shared Bennie's love of music. Most of these relatives lived in Houston and it wasn't long before a more formal band was rehearsing and they performed at St.Theresa's parish picnic in Houston. Their first paycheck was not monetary, but all the food they could eat. At a New Year's Eve dance at the Houston S.P.J.S.T. Hall, the seven-piece band was paid $100 total (you do the math). Needing a name for themselves they decided on the City Polka Boys (CPB) and a legend was born.

Bill Mraz heard the buzz in the polka community about this new band in town. He summoned them to his ballroom for an audition. At first listen, he was not impressed. Mraz thought they sounded very nervous, and told them to go visit the “refreshments” area for a while and then come back to audition again. The libations must have helped as he listened to them a second time, then thanked them, and sent them on their way. They packed up their equipment and went home not sure of what Mraz had thought of them. Their uncertainty was soon resolved as they were booked for several nights at the ballroom.

Leroy Matocha, the Fayetteville Flash, soon heard about this new polka band in Houston. He requested a reel-to-reel audio tape of them to listen to and possibly play on his radio show. After figuring out how to record themselves, they sent him a tape which he liked and played. The public wanted to hear more of this great band and they went into the studio and recorded the vinyl album “Long Road to Praha” which was released in 1970. Wes Matus was the only band member who could read and arrange this music and began transcribing the notes as the band members played their parts helping ensure that the music would live on.

Ernie Okruhlik, had kept playing music after school and began playing various instruments in the Bobby Jones Band. The popularity of the band soon had Ernie playing three to four gigs every week which upset the balance between his love of music and his successful real estate business. To relinquish the balance he later joined his brother in the CPB which generally played about twice a week.

The original City Polka Boys stayed together 16 years before life intervened and older members retired and new ones joined. The CPB played for about 14 more years with revolving members and changing sounds. After successfully maintaining the equilibrium of personal life, job and music for thirty years, Bennie still wanted to keep playing music that keeps people happily dancing. With his original drummer, E.J. Macik, they formed the Texas Sound Czech band, who along with present members, Ben Orsak, Larry Netardus and Dennis Shimek, delight crowds from Wurstfest to the Ennis National Polka Festival to Mollie B.'s television show to rural church picnics throughout Central Texas. Over the years this sound has evolved from all horn-type arrangements to guitar, keyboard and saxophone blends to compliment the accordion and the changing tastes of the audience. Bennie and the group have kept step with the evolution of music technology from the reel-to-reel tapes to the digital recording of the bands's latest CDs.

Several years ago, the band's self-penned song “The Wild Goose Waltz” won the Texas Polka Music Association's song of the year. Every polka band scrambled to learn this new traditional-styled waltz as playing popular music that people want to hear and dance to is the reason that these bands Polka On.

©Gary E. McKee 2012 for