‘There weren’t enough good bands. A lot of what passed for country music was poorly done. It was too much too soon.’ : --Ed Barkas : Nightspots Put Country Music to Pasture
The late Hank Williams, who was as renowned for his drinking bouts as his country songs, would understand that morning-after-the-night-before feeling that country music fans are experiencing these days.
Over the past three years, country music has completed a long, slow climb to prominence and wide acceptance--and a swift return to its traditional status as a music form with a limited but loyal following.
The pain is all the worse because the nation had seemed to be taking to heart both the music and the style of country.
Upscale urbanites were flocking to movies with country music, including “Urban Cowboy” with John Travolta and “The Electric Horseman” with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
Trend-conscious types in Los Angeles and New York City were taking dance lessons in the two-step and were shedding designer clothes for straight-leg jeans and cowboy hats and boots. Discos were pulling out strobe lights and mirrors to make way for plastic longhorns and Rebel flags.
All that was the night before.
The morning after looks like this: In recent months, nearly half the shows at The Palomino in North Hollywood, Southern California’s leading country nightclub for 33 years, have been rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues.
Owner Tommy Thomas said the famed club almost went out of business a few years ago when the downturn started. “There aren’t enough country fans around to fill this place seven nights a week,” he said. “A lot of them went back to rock or blues after the fad passed.”
And, in Reseda, the only vestige of country at the Country Club is the theater’s name. The 1,000-seat club started with Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn in March, 1980, but within a year had switched to rock. It has never gone back.
Among the smaller, dance-oriented clubs, including about a half-dozen now operating in the Valley, the past few years have seen unusual ferment, with some clubs changing owners, names and formats several times.
By all accounts, the country fad peaked in 1982. The Record Industry Assn. of America reports that country music accounted for 15% of all records and tapes sold in 1982, up from 9% in 1979.
By 1983, country’s percentage had dropped to 13%, said a spokeswoman at the association’s New York headquarters.
Figures for 1984 will not be available until April, but most industry experts agree with the Palomino’s Thomas that country music continued to decline in popularity last year.
Nationally, country music’s share of radio listeners climbed from 9.6% in 1979 to 12.6% in 1982. By late 1984, it had dropped to 10.8%, according to American Radio, an industry reference book published in Kalamazoo, Mich.
James H. Duncan Jr., American Radio publisher, said that, in major cities, particularly Los Angeles and New York, “the bulge in country popularity was even greater.”
In 1979, country commanded 4% of Los Angeles’ radio audience, Duncan said. In 1982, country’s share peaked at 7%, then dropped back to 4% last fall.
Susan Myers, a 35-year-old Van Nuys secretary who has been pushing country to her friends for two decades and is a regular at several Valley country music bars, said she had seen no statistics on country’s rise and fall but had sensed both shifts. She summed up the past few years this way:
‘Dropped Like a Rock’
“In the ‘70s, it seemed like only a few people liked country. Then everyone went for it, although it was only skin deep for a lot of new fans. Then it dropped like a rock, except that a few of those new fans stayed with country, so the audience is a little bigger than it used to be before it all started.”
Ed Barkas, who teaches country-western dancing at several local clubs, confesses that he enjoyed the increase in popularity but recalled: “There just weren’t enough good bands to go around. A lot of what passed for country music was poorly done. It was too much too soon.”
Myers, like a lot of country fans, professes to be unperturbed at the passing of cowboy chic, dismissing many of these short-term country fans as “very superficial, trendy people who never really understood country.”
And, despite the downturn in country music’s popularity, there remains a solid core of fans in the Valley who keep a handful of country bars in business.
Myers and her country-loving friends occasionally attend concerts by country singers at The Palomino or the Beverly or Greek theaters. But they spend far more nights dancing at local bars.
These clubs all have much the same format. They employ low-cost local bands, most of which use part-time musicians.
Many clubs have no cover charge, and those that do seldom charge more than $2 per person.
Only a few advertise.
Typical is the Longhorn Saloon in Canoga Park, which keeps in touch with its customers each month through a newsletter mailed to 2,000 patrons, said manager Linda Parisien.
Many country bands have their own following, Parisien said, and the size of the crowd at her club, which has a capacity of 280, rises and falls depending on the group.
It is the desire to dance, rather than listen to music, that draws patrons to these clubs. Most offer free dancing lessons at least one night each week.
Barkas, pausing while teaching 20 would-be country dancers at the Woodlake Saloon in Woodland Hills last week, noted that country music can be danced with or without a partner.
“Line dancing, which does not require a partner, gets around the age-old problem of more women wanting to dance than men,” he said. “With country, everyone can dance. That’s one reason why clubs like this do well.”
The most popular dance is the two-step, which Barkas said is “similar to a polka when it is danced to fast music and similar to a waltz when danced to slow music.”
The emphasis on dancing rules out much of the newer country music, including most of Willie Nelson’s recent songs, which he said are incompatible with traditional country dancing.
The dance orientation also rules out rock music. William Allen, bartender at the Longhorn, said a young band will occasionally play a rock tune in an effort to ingratiate itself with younger patrons.
‘Crowd Gets Impatient’
“And it always happens that most of the crowd gets impatient right away,” he said.
Waitress Gloria Jenkins said crowds at the Woodlake react similarly to rock music, but it is “not so much that they hate it as they are impatient to dance again, and they only dance to country.”
Jenkins, a country music lover herself, said she has come to regard country music fans as a “gentle crowd, with very few creeps.”
She said she has gradually made her peace with male patrons who ask her for a “spit cup” to dispose of juice from their chewing tobacco.
“It’s part of the country music scene,” she said. “It’s better than trying to spit into their empty beer bottles.”
Interviews with patrons at Valley country music clubs showed that many had been contemptuous of the music before surrendering to it and that most were introduced to country by a friend.
None said they were induced to sample country music by “Urban Cowboy” or any of several recent television variety shows featuring country performers.
Many said they probably would not have taken to the music were it not for the dramatic stylistic changes country music has undergone in the last decade. Chief among these are less twang, less unabashed sentiment, fewer songs about truck drivers and railroad workers and fewer songs in which the singer pauses to talk.
Most patrons are from 25 to 45 years old, although a few are of retirement age. Many come alone, making the bars in part a honky-tonk version of the conventional singles bar.
“Most of my friends are rock ‘n’ rollers,” said Margaret Timmons of Sepulveda, a 28-year-old accounting manager who was introduced to country music by her husband a few years ago.
‘Can’t Explain the Change’
“I used to call it hillbilly music, and I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “Now it’s all I ever listen to, although I don’t hate rock music. I can’t explain the change.”
Less tolerant of other forms of music is Dale Abbott of Canoga Park, a 29-year-old executive secretary who was lured to country music several years ago by a friend.
She now socializes solely with country-music-loving friends, although most of her co-workers are rock devotees. Abbott said, teeth clenched for emphasis, “I never listen to rock music.”
Allen Adams of Toluca Lake said “no one was more surprised than me” when he became a fan a year ago after a friend talked him into attending a country concert.
Dressed in a blue, pin-striped, three-piece suit, the 46-year-old insurance broker acknowledged that he looked “a bit out of place” drinking beer at The Palomino bar last week while taking in a concert by two country bands. Unlike many patrons, he drank from a glass, not a bottle.
“I used to listen to ‘beautiful music’ stations,” he said. “I never gave country music a thought. I always thought these places were filled with rough characters. Now I come all the time.”
Although Adams’ business suit set him apart, most of the crowd at The Palomino would disappear into any large gathering of Southern Californians at leisure. Only a handful of the 80 patrons on a recent night wore the cowboy hats and boots usually associated with country music. Name-brand sneakers and designer jeans were far more common.
The Palomino’s menu comes closer to what might appeal to the stereotypical country fan. Featured are steaks, ribs, fried chicken and fried potatoes. There are no quiches, crepes or croissants. There are more than a dozen brands of beer but only one mineral water.
Top Country Club
The Palomino, which has been designated the top country nightclub in the nation for 14 of the past 16 years by the Country Music Assn.--losing only to Gilley’s of “Urban Cowboy” fame--seems an unlikely candidate for Southern California’s country music Mecca.
From the outside, it appears to be a neighborhood beer bar that grew unexpectedly. Yet it seats 600 and advertises for patrons from throughout Southern California.
Seldom is there any dancing. Unlike patrons at local country music bars, most customers at The Palomino come to listen to the concerts, which feature some performers recognizable only to country fans and some, such as Emmylou Harris and Mel Tillis, who are regulars on network television variety shows. Admission ranges from $5 to $20.
It seems unlikely that many patrons come for the atmosphere. Paint peels from walls on both the inside and outside, and the indoor-outdoor carpet is extensively patched with silver plumbers’ tape.
Presiding over all is the 60-year-old Thomas, who said he prefers to call the place “rustic.”
Thomas bears the scars of 33 years of Los Angeles nightclub wars. “I’ve had three heart attacks already,” he said, “and I don’t know how much longer I’ll last.”
‘Nearly Went Under’
The past few years have been especially difficult for Thomas, who said he “nearly went under not long ago” when the abrupt increase in demand for country acts induced performers to raise their prices beyond the point where Thomas could turn a profit.
Just as performers were starting to adjust their prices downward, “the country trend went away so fast you’d miss it if you blinked,” Thomas said, and he found his club’s patronage dropping faster than his entertainment costs.
To head off another brush with closure, Thomas began booking blues and rock ‘n’ roll acts, which he said draw a “completely different group of people from our country acts. In fact, if you paid these people on a non-country night $10 each to come back the next night for a country act, I don’t think a one would show up.”
Thomas said he will now book country acts no more than half the time, even if country music again surges in popularity.
“I don’t ever want to be beholden to any one type of music,” he said. “I don’t want to be at the mercy of greedy performers or fickle patrons. It’s been a terrible few years. I don’t want to go through it again.”