Mention blues towns and most people think of Memphis or Chicago, but Houston  definitely belongs in the mix. It has a long-standing tradition of serving up swampy bayou blues, and some of the state’s grittiest and most soulful players have emerged from the city’s downtown African-American neighborhoods.
One of the best places to hear live blues music is the legendary Etta’s Lounge (5120 Scott St., 713/528-2611). You’ll have to seek Etta’s out since there’s no sign out front, a testament to its unassuming vibe. Inside, you’ll find the real deal—a no-frills, cavernous room allowing the focus to be on the stage. The refreshingly diverse clientele isn’t there to be seen (just to hear). Etta’s shines on Sunday nights, when Grady Gaines wows the crowd with his soulful sax. Bring your appetite for a tasty meal, too, since Etta’s serves some fine soul food in the restaurant up front.
Another big-time blues venue worth checking out is Cosmos (69 Heights Blvd., 713/802-2144, www.cosmoshouston.com ). Cosmos draws an older crowd, many who show up for the remarkable food and stick around for the equally high-quality blues and swing bands. There’s hardly ever a cover, and bands take the stage five nights a week. Bring your dancing shoes, since patrons often shake a leg to work off their meal.
The Continental Club (3700 Main St., 713/529-9899, www.continentalclub.com ) doesn’t stage blues exclusively—roots and alternative rock acts are often on the bill—but the local and touring blues bands that play here are typically the best around. An offshoot of the legendary Austin  venue, Houston’s version of the Continental is appropriately more sprawling, but still dedicated to offering some of the most soulful music in Bayou City.
Houston  is the true home of the Urban Cowboy, so grab those boots if you’re fixin’ to head out for some two-steppin’ at one of these fine dance halls. For a real-deal honkytonk experience, go straight to Blanco’s (3406 W. Alabama St., 713/439-0072). Located near downtown just north of the Rice University area, Blanco’s is small in size but huge in character. Some of the best live acts in the state play here, and there’s always a fascinating array of couples gliding across the dance floor, from old-school octogenarians to new-school college students. The music is classic country, transporting all ages to a bygone era of bolo ties and beehive hairdos.
Another legendary downtown-area country music venue is Leon’s Lounge (1006 McGowen St., 713/659-3052). This Midtown mainstay, billing itself as Houston ’s oldest continuously operating bar, is heavier on the country than it is on the music, but live local acts occasionally take the stage. Leon’s feels like a time warp, with its fancy chandeliers, ornate bar, and historic stained glass, and that’s just the way it should be—it feels like those good ol’ days the boys on the stage (or jukebox) are singing about.
Less charming yet more appealing to the masses are the city’s big-box country music venues. Located near the Galleria among the trendy upscale dance clubs is the refreshingly unhip Firehouse Saloon (5930 Southwest Fwy., 713/977-1962, www.firehousesaloon.com ). There’s some flashiness here—big ol’ shiny belt buckles, fancy light machines, Vegas-style video games—but the crowd is genuinely friendly. Although cover bands take the stage most nights, you’ll find the occasional worthy local band looking to catch their big break.
For an overwhelming dose of Lone Star State culture, drop by the Big Texas Dance Hall and Saloon (803 E. NASA Blvd., 281/461-4400, www.bigtexassaloon.com ). It’s a bit hokey—the décor is pseudo-rustic with cacti and Western “artifacts”—but the scene is vibrant, especially for singles. Live music is the big draw on Thursdays, when regional acts get boots scootin’, but DJs fill the dance floor most weekends.
One of the many benefits of being a music fan in a big city is access to quality jazz clubs. Houston  is a major player on the jazz circuit, and it’s a hotbed for some of the genre’s rising stars. The stalwart on the scene is Sambuca (909 Texas Ave., 713/224-5299). Located in the stunning historic Rice Hotel, Sambuca is a jazz fan’s dream—a classy downtown venue offering nightly performances from local and national performers. Accompany your ideal evening with a juicy steak from the acclaimed restaurant and a post-meal or set-break visit to the cigar room.
Also worth be-boppin’ by is Red Cat Jazz Cafe (924 Congress St., 713/226-7870, www.redcatjazzcafe.com ). Another downtown venue in a beautiful historic building, Red Cat is a New Orleans–style haunt with sweet and somber sounds filling the room most nights. Bring your appetite for music and food, since the restaurant serves up some equally enticing fare—crawfish étoufée and shrimp po’ boys, in particular.
For a truly intimate experience, visit Cezanne (4100 Montrose Blvd., 713/522-9621, www.blacklabradorpub.com ), a 40-seat venue in the trendy Montrose district. Cezanne’s is considered Houston ’s premier jazz club, which is nice for the aficionados who get a chance to sit merely feet away from national acts. Regardless, every seat in this cozy spot is a good one, and you’ll hear, see, and feel every note being played.