Ron Houston: A Long Road Home
The circuitous life’s journey of singer/songwriter/guitarist Ron Houston began, in 1961, along the banks of the Ouachita River in the town of West Monroe, Louisiana. When Houston was five years old his parents were persuaded by Houston’s uncle to relocate to Bakersfield, California, where his uncle was working for the Santa Fe Railroad. “He called my dad and said they’re hiring out here,” Houston explained. “So, my dad got the job, and we settled in Bakersfield.” However, Houston’s fondness and nostalgia for West Monroe never faded, as he spent many summers at his grandmother’s house there. “That house had a huge impact on me and the memories it held,” he reminisced. “During those summers my dad would take me to this Coney Island hot dog place in town. He’d get me a chili dog and a coke and then tell me stories of when he and my mom would go there back when they were dating. It was so much fun going there and meeting my dad’s buddies while I’d enjoy my chili dog…great childhood memories,” he concluded.
When Houston was seven years old, he heard a neighbor’s band playing and became enamored with the sound of the drums. “I told that to my mom and dad, and so I wound up with a small drum kit set up in my bedroom.” After a few drum lessons and initial garage band jamming, he formed his first group called AWOL, a quartet of two guitars, bass, and drums. “We wrote our own songs and won a battle of the bands contest, which led us to recording a single at Buck Owens’ recording studio in town.
After high school Houston’s dad got him a job at Santa Fe Railroad in Bakersfield, which eventually led him to a job opportunity, in 1987, to move to San Diego and work for Amtrak. “I didn’t know anybody down in San Diego at the time, but my dad convinced me to try it,” he said. “I drove down in my van and wound up staying at the Pickwick Hotel downtown so I could be within walking distance to the Amtrak station nearby.”
Venturing downtown quite a bit in his off hours, Houston passed a pawn shop one day, where an item there piqued his interest. “It was an electric guitar,” he mused, “an instrument I always wanted to play…I spent a lot of idle time in my hotel room, so I figured it was a good time to learn guitar,” he continued. “I taught myself the intro notes to ‘Wish You Were Here’ and that got me going, even though I didn’t take any guitar lessons.” His brother-in-law, Rich Ortega, had an acoustic guitar that he turned Houston on to. “I liked playing the acoustic more than the electric; the electric sounded thinner as opposed to the full sound of the acoustic,” he emphasized. At Ortega’s suggestion he started learning Johnny Cash tunes. “That was perfect because it taught me how to play simple chords. My first live performance with guitar was at an Amtrak Christmas event along with an engineer that sang a bit,” he chuckled. “We added a bassist and drummer and made it through with me playing a finale of Jimi Hendrix’s version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ he remembered infamously.
When Houston’s sister, ten years his junior, and her husband, Ortega, moved permanently to San Diego, it became the initial spark for Houston’s performing junket. “I started playing Rich’s acoustic guitar when we would go down to Newport Pizza in Ocean Beach and practice cover tunes,” he reminisced. As with most performers starting out, someone has to fit the bill as lead singer. “It came to a point where Rich said that I’d have to start singing these tunes we were working out, mainly Johnny Cash tunes,” he said. As they were practicing at the pizza joint, a customer suggested they attend an open mic night at nearby Winston’s Beach Club. “I wasn’t so sure we were ready to take that step,” Houston recalled, “as I wasn’t too confident about my singing, but we went through with it, and everyone liked us and hence they asked us back again.”
At this point Houston’s brother-in-law challenged him to take another big step in his performing progress. “He asked me if I ever thought about writing my own songs. I figured I was a pretty good storyteller, so why not, even though I only knew three or four chords,” he smiled. “At that point I started taking my guitar on the train where I worked, and I’d play in the cafe car in between stops, writing my own songs.” A fortuitous moment came when Houston played at a popular local coffeehouse, Claire de Lune. “It was the first time singing into a live and booming microphone,” he mused. “Rich said it’s supposed to be loud; I was sweating the whole night and grabbing a towel after every song. I was horrified for a long time singing out front,” he concluded. However, that experience became a pivotal moment in Houston’s performing career. “I said to Rich that we should try putting a full band together,” Houston recalls, “so I put an ad in the paper and hired a drummer and a stand-up bass player in addition to hiring an experienced banjo picker [Jason Weiss] to join me and my brother-in-law on electric guitar.”
And so, a full band was formed, but now they needed a name. Houston came up with the Broke Okies, but Ortega’s suggestion of the Sickstring Outlaws won the day, and so the band’s beginnings were set in motion in 2004.
According to Houston the band had a tough time getting gigs initially. “We were outlaw country playing Lynyrd Skynyrd and touting the rebel flag,” Houston reflected back. “We got a few gigs, one at an Irish Pub in Ocean Beach, the Spring Valley Inn, and a gig at the Del Mar Fair, but I think our blatant representation of the rebel flag may have cost us getting other gigs. I mean, I had the rebel flag all over my guitar and hat, everywhere and innocent as it was, it probably made people feel uncomfortable and I regret that. Also it was a hard partying band, which led to many personnel changes in the band as we were playing regularly at mainly biker bars.”
Although the band succeeded well in that musical element, appeasing the crowds of hard-drinking patrons in neighborhood bars, Houston eventually cleaned up their image quite a bit by mixing in his original tunes along with popular covers and hiring veteran guitarist Dave Berry along with A-list musicians, including Andrew Crane on bass, Jeff Houck on guitar, and Jack Hoole on drums, which became the final iteration of the Sickstring Outlaws. “We started getting some high visibility gigs, including the House of Blues. We got really tight musically and had a great stage image,” he recalled. “However, Covid hit and many of the rooms shut down the music, which led to Dave Berry and I wanting to do a duo.” During that time, they decided to expand their sound by adding bass and mandolin. The additional members made it a family affair with Dave Berry Sr. on mandolin and Jimmy Berry on bass. “We thought about a name for the band when someone suggested “Ron Houston and the Berry Pickers,” Houston recounted. “People really liked our sound and we started to get a lot of bookings, so I thought I’d ride with this Berry Picker thing.” Currently, the band is busy as ever, playing regularly at the House of Blues, Sycuan Casino, and the Downtown Cafe in El Cajon to name a few.
Ron Houston and the Berry Pickers at Navajo Live
Houston is an open book once the subject of his successful sobriety arises. “I had been drinking since I was 14 years old, so it started early on,” he recounted. However, all of it came to a tipping point when he was 19, duly noted on the tattooed date, 12-22 1980 on Houston’s knuckles, which serves as a reminder of a traumatic episode. “I got in a motorcycle wreck that morning of December 22, 1980, with my girlfriend riding on the back,” he vividly recalled. “I flew about a hundred feet in the air and she was thrown from the bike. I died on the street but then was resuscitated, although my girlfriend— my fiance at the time—sustained a severe leg injury,” he sadly recalled. “You would have thought that could have been a wakeup call to my excessive drinking, but once I was able to get back up on crutches I started back in drinking and smoking pot…it didn’t teach me. I wish it would have; it could have been a perfect time for me to learn a lesson, but I didn’t.”
In the many years afterward, Houston continued drinking heavily until a day he now marks as a victorious one, August 18th, 2019, the date he attained sobriety. His wife, Kiki Reid Houston, whom he married on November 26, 2014, lived through the ups and downs as Houston described, “She’s stuck by me, stuck through a lot of things.” Houston’s lowest moment and epiphany came at a gig at the Spring Valley Inn, a moment where enough was enough. “I had some drinks and then ate a couple of pot laced brownies before hitting the stage. I wound up dazed, fell into the drums, started singing the wrong words, and eventually had to shut down the gig an hour early. The next day the look on Kiki’s face said it all. I said to myself, ‘she doesn’t deserve this’ and told her that was it. It was my wakeup call.”
In addition to the Sickstring Outlaws’ live gigs, they recorded two CDs along the way—Johnny Drank Jack in 2012 and Electric Moonshine in 2014—recorded at Studio West. In 2020, Houston decided it was time to record a solo CD, so he got in touch with ace producer and recording engineer Jeff Berkley, who wound up recording, mixing and producing 29 tracks of Houston’s tunes along with a few covers. That culminated in two successive CDs, A Long Road Home and The Streets of West Monroe, released in 2021 and 2022 respectively. “These sessions meant a lot to me, an unbelievable experience,” he beamed. “I’m so glad I did them, not only for myself but for iconic multi-instrumentalist Dennis Caplinger, who played on all four of my CDs. I was sober for these recording sessions this time around, so I was able to soak in some words of wisdom from Dennis,” he continued. “I remember him thanking me for keeping my word that I would use him each time on all my CD recordings. It meant a lot to me when he said, ‘I like this road you’re on, you should stay on it.’”
Houston’s roller coaster ride through life and music has left him ready to reinvent himself through his songwriting. “When I got sober,” Houston reflected, “I started caring again and discovered I had a mellow side that I was always afraid to bring out, which has led me to writing ballads. So now I want to have people see the whole of me.” On that note, Houston will be recording three tunes back at Berkley’s studio, which he feels defines his overall life’s journey through the themes in each. “The first one, “Whiskey Train,” will be perfect,” Houston explained, “My lyrics talk about being a railroader and alcoholic. ‘People Looking the Other Way,’ is my take on a lot of bad crap going on around the world; there are so many with a voice who can reach a lot of people but who are afraid to speak out in fear of what they can lose. With ‘Drinking Got the Best of Me,’ it speaks to my inner self with an impactful line of ‘my family always got the worst of me, ‘cause drinking always got the best of me.’”
Houston’s future musical goals are crystal clear. “I want to play shows where people are sitting and listening,” he emphasized. “I want people to hear the lyrics and let me tell them the stories behind the lyrics. I want to mix my angst from my bad past and meld it with meaningful things that I want to say and hopefully make it as a whole…and maybe I’ll make some kind of new sound.”