Young country traditionalist Will Banister wows ‘em from Portales to London
Story & photographs by Tim Keller
Adam the doorman sprinkles handfuls of cornmeal across the empty wood dance floor. Every Wednesday and Friday night, Kelly’s Bar & Grill on bustling Prince Street in Clovis turns itself into a two-steppin’ honky tonk. The floor is ready, the crowd of couples finishing savory dinners intended to fuel four hours of dancing.
At exactly seven o’clock, the band strikes up Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and eleven couples circle the dance floor before the singer reaches the first chorus. The hour-long first set swings through classic country songs by the likes of Hank Williams, George Jones, and Freddy Fender. Whenever the young singer tosses in one of his own songs, both the song and the voice sound right out of country music’s golden years. Already stirring up excitement in England where he’s got three upcoming tours, 24-year-old Will Banister from nearby Portales has spent a lifetime mastering classic country music.
“I’ve got videos of me wearin’ diapers singin’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’” he tells me over enchiladas at Leal’s up the street where we got acquainted the night before Kelly’s. “My grandpa would always get me to sing that one for him. My dad was always singin’ to us. He’s the one that got me turned on to old country.
“When I was 11, I started singin’ in front of people a lot. After I sang at the Floyd Jamboree, my mom took me up to Johnny Mulhair’s recording studio in Clovis and I cut a nine-song demo CD, mostly for family but we gave it to some radio stations, too. That Christmas, my mom got me my first guitar.”
His voice, though, didn’t join the team until his freshman year at Portales High School. “My voice was kinda girly when I was 11,” he says. “It was changing when I started high school. In a school talent show, I tried singin’ high like I’d always done and my voice cracked real bad. I was embarrassed.” But it turned out well: the singer of classic country songs emerged with a classic country voice, deep and resonant with obvious similarities to the enviable voices of Merle Haggard and George Strait.
At 6’2” and topped with a black Dusty Rhodes cowboy hat from the sprawling Joe’s Boot Shop right here in Clovis, Banister stands tall above the circling dancers at Kelly’s. This Wednesday night home gig has been regular for three years, along with any Friday night he’s in town, which is increasingly rare. The band plays weekend dances over a wide swath of eastern New Mexico and north Texas as far as Dallas.
If the music sounds too good to be true for such a young bandleader, credit the lead guitarist. Johnny Mulhair produced and accompanied LeAnn Rimes until her career skyrocketed with the release of her 1996 album Blue, which has sold eight million copies. After 11-year-old Will Banister recorded a bunch of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell songs at his studio, Mulhair stayed in touch.
The Mulhair home and adjacent recording studio, just up Prince Street from Kelly’s, became Banister’s home away from home. Johnny and Jill Mulhair met at Clovis High School in 1970; they’ve been making music together ever since, with Jill now providing vocal harmonies and electric bass in Will Banister’s band. Together, the Mulhairs have nurtured the young musician and managed his career.
Two other big influences on Banister’s life and career both arrived five years ago, when he was 19: he started writing his own songs, and he found his future wife and muse.
Tessa Banister tells me how they met. “I was an elementary education major at ENMU in Portales. I graduated from Santa Fe High School but I chose Portales because I wanted to find a country boy,” she smiles. She found herself one. “I walked out onto the back patio at a little party and there was this young guy under a straw cowboy hat singing Johnny Cash’s ‘Jackson.’”
Will tells it this way:
Pretty girl from the city
How she loved her rock & roll
Screamin’ guitars and hip hop bars
Is all she’d ever known
From one little glance
To one slow dance
Any city girl could see
That I’d turned her on to country
And country turned her on to me
Two years later, at 21, he released his debut album, Turned Her On To Country, with eleven songs that could have come from George Strait’s songbook except that Will wrote every last one. And you can find Tessa in most.
He admits that he hasn’t suffered the heartache that seems requisite for a career as a honky tonk singer. But every time Tessa takes their baby girl Kylee home to visit the grandparents in Santa Fe, Will finds a way to squeeze a heartbreak song out of it, including one on the album called “I Hate Santa Fe.”
The album got rave reviews from England’s Country Music People magazine, leading to brisk sales and a gig at last February’s annual International Festival of Country Music at London’s Wembley Arena. The next day’s Daily Telegraph review noted, “The most memorable moment found 23-year-old Will Banister wowing the crowd with a sublimely straightforward ‘Lovesick Blues.’”
During a break at Kelly’s, Johnny Mulhair tells me, “I don’t know how many songs Will knows, but it’s in the hundreds. He’ll call out something we’ve never played, and there we go.” Work on the second album of original boot-scootin’ honky tonk music is nearing completion, with several of what Will calls his favorites – “I like the slow sad songs.”
As his touring circle grows wider and now extends to England, he and Tessa have no intention of leaving Portales. “Portales is home,” he says. “It’s a good place to raise a family. Besides, nowadays it’s possible to do music from wherever you want to.”
Tonight he’s doing it at Kelly’s, his big voice filling the large room over a deep pulsing rhythm and steel guitar twang, propelling the dancers around and around the cornmeal-dusted dance floor. With everyone this happy, there’s nothing for a bouncer to do so Adam’s just sitting at the door smiling.
Tim Keller is a writer, photographer, and teacher based in Des Moines, NM. See his work at www.timkellerarts.com.
Kelly’s Bar & Grill, 2208 N. Prince St., Clovis, (575) 762-0044. Steaks, burgers, salads, bar.
Leal’s, 2115 N. Prince St., Clovis, (575) 763-9069. Mexican food.
Johnny Mulhair Recording Studio, 3101 N. Prince St., Clovis, (575) 763-1441.
Joe’s Boot Shop, 2600 Mabry Dr., Clovis, (800) 658-6378. 16,000 pairs of boots, plus everything else western.
Floyd Jamboree, 63rd annual, March 28-31, 2013; 30 miles west of Portales. Dave Nash (575) 478-2574.
Turned Her On To Country, Will Banister, from Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, etc. On Facebook.
Will Banister shares Johnny and Jill Mulhair’s lack of ego. Johnny, especially, has had a long successful career, and Will’s got the potential to be a big star, but I couldn’t get any of them to sing their own praises. As I took notes and photographs at Kelly’s, many of Will’s fans came to me to sing his praises for him, and between sets he spent his time greeting fans like old friends.