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Barn Dance Keeps Urban Toes Tapping : Cowboys and ‘Melrose trendy types’ share suds and songs at Palomino’s weekly country-Western show

The two country music fans were separated by a few tables and a couple of generations.

In one corner, a rockabilly die-hard, who looked to be all of 18, sported arm-length tattoos, a black leather jacket and silver chains; nearby, a middle-age cowboy wore a plaid shirt, Western boots and a gold belt buckle.

But the music at the weekly Barn Dance at the Palomino in North Hollywood bridged the generation gap.

“To see the kids with the Mohawks and jackets, the Melrose trendy types and the cowboys all together, that’s what’s cool about country and rockabilly music,” said Ronnie Mack, host of the country and rockabilly show that is broadcast every Tuesday on KCSN-FM, the Cal State Northridge radio station. “You can’t get any broader than that.”

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Each week about 300 fans squeeze into the club for the free concert, which is broadcast from 9 to 11 p.m. After the broadcast, the club sponsors an all-out, old-fashioned rockabilly jam session. The stage is open until 1:30 a.m. for anyone with an instrument and a passion. Talent is optional.

Mack, a bookkeeper by day and country musician by night, started the show in January, 1988, to give exposure to “bands who have knocked their heads against the wall for years, playing in bars and small clubs.” The bands are not paid, but Mack said the show is creating a “country scene” in the San Fernando Valley that may pay many dividends later.

“This is the spot to be,” said James Intveld, a singer, songwriter and frequent performer at the Barn Dance. “It’s a hangout. Musicians come here to see and hear each other, and see what’s going on. Even if people are playing somewhere else Tuesdays, they come over afterwards.”

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Intveld, 29, can appreciate the need for exposure. For nearly a decade, he has bounced from one bar gig to another. Recently, he sang the jingle on a new Oldsmobile commercial. “I’ve been playing around for many years,” he said. “To make something happen is very hard.”

Most clubs in the Valley offer various forms of rock. The country music scene is limited to a hodgepodge of bars and restaurants: the Little Nashville in North Hollywood, the Longhorn Saloon in Canoga Park, the Silverado in Van Nuys, J.R.'s Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth--small venues where house bands play much of the time.

Similarly, in West Los Angeles, country music plays second fiddle to mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.

McCabe’s in Santa Monica offers bluegrass and country periodically but doesn’t feature it regularly. Last year, the Music Machine presented a country music night each Wednesday entitled “Club South of Bakersfield,” but gave it up after six months when it didn’t draw big crowds, Mack said.

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“If we had had a radio station behind us, like Barn Dance, we might have been able to pull something like that off on the Westside,” said Deborah Randall, a booking agent for the Music Machine. “I don’t think there is really a place on the Westside to hear country music. We’d like to put more of it back in here.”

Mack thinks that the Barn Dance helps fill that void. Over its 13 months, the show has featured promising new acts, as well as performers who have achieved some success in the world of country music.

Among recent Barn Dance singers: Rose Maddox, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, who recorded Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer” in the 1950s; Big Jay McNeely, who penned the 1957 hit “There Is Something on Your Mind” and played at the Grammys two years ago, and Rosie Flores, who in 1987 was nominated for top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music.

“Barn Dance is perfect for country fans in the Valley,” Intveld said. “It’s centrally located, and people in Hollywood don’t mind driving 15 minutes here. Plus, a lot of the musicians live around here, where it’s cheaper than Hollywood.”

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Regular fans like Teri Alexis don’t miss a show.

Each week, Alexis, 29, of Mar Vista and her friends occupy the same long, rectangular table facing the stage and club entrance. “We can see everybody who is coming and going from here,” said Jan Stout, 34, a friend from South Pasadena.

Alexis didn’t start as a fanatic.

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“Before I came here, I didn’t even like country music,” Alexis said. “I got into it through the rockabilly stuff, and then I branched out.”

When Alexis first attended Barn Dance, the show was held once every two weeks at the Little Nashville. Mack doesn’t miss those early days.

“We had musicians who had to sit on the floor to perform, and waitresses would sometimes bump into them,” Mack said.

In August, with KCSN’s approval, Mack moved the show to the Palomino, which offered a greater seating capacity and a more sophisticated sound system. In addition, Mack preferred the Palomino because there is no cover charge for the Barn Dance and customers are not required to buy drinks on Tuesday nights. The Little Nashville has a two-drink minimum every night.

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Bill Thomas, the Palomino’s owner, said the show is profitable, even without a cover charge and two-drink minimum. And Intveld said the policy makes a big difference for musicians.

“A lot of people stop by for what they think will be five minutes and stay for two hours,” he said. “If they had to pay a cover, they probably wouldn’t have come in at all.”

Originally, Mack was concerned that making Barn Dance a weekly show might make it less of an event, but he said the crowds have not diminished since the change.

Each Barn Dance begins with Mack’s own band, which plays traditional country music ballads and rockabilly. Among its members is Dale Watson, 26, of Burbank, who moved here from Arkansas last year to make a go of it in country music.

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Watson is slender and, at first glance, appears frail. Then, out of nowhere, comes the deepest voice this side of Texas. “They call him the little man with the big voice,” Alexis said.

On a recent Tuesday night, Watson’s impassioned voice and storytelling kept the crowd in a mellow mood.

After a five-minute break, Larry Dean and the Shooters took over. Playing more standard country fare--including one tune, “A Dirt Road, a Six-Pack and a Pickup Truck"--Dean’s group picked up the tempo.

The Blues Busters mixed country and blues, and Saints & Sinners played rock ‘n’ roll.

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“Are you ready for love?” Danny Tate, lead singer of Saints & Sinners, shouted before launching into a set of music that might be more traditionally associated with venues such as Club Lingerie, the Roxy or the Country Club. The band’s guitarist had his shirt open to the last button.

Watson shook his head. “Well, music is music. A lot of this music I can’t get into, but I respect it.”

Mack said he tries to slowly build each evening’s energy, culminating in a fast-paced rockabilly finale. It is that diversity in tempo and style that accounts for the show’s appeal to young rockers and middle-aged country fans, Mack said.

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“I like to get one band that can really crank it up,” he said.

Mark Humphrey, KCSN’s musical director, said that while “Ronnie and I don’t always have the same ears,” most of the performers fall in the category of traditional country and roots music. Humphrey could not estimate how many listeners tune in to the show, but he said about 37,000 listen to KCSN in an average week.

Shortly after 11 p.m., when the broadcast of the show had concluded, the jam session began and rockabilly reigned.

“I grew up with that music,” said Hugh Scott, 47, whose family has attended every Tuesday night concert for the last 13 months. “I used to know all the words of every Hank Williams song.”

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One group after another took the stage. The dance floor, which had been wide open most of the evening, filled up. Intveld said, however, that the talent on stage doesn’t always match the enthusiasm.

“Because other places can’t afford to keep a place open for just jamming, everybody wants to be here and play, and the talent gets diluted,” Intveld said.

Growing up in Baltimore, Mack, 34, always wanted to be a music star. Since 1979, he has played the Los Angeles and Valley clubs regularly.

“I’ve given up on becoming famous,” Mack said. “But maybe these younger bands won’t have to go through the same thing. Maybe more people will hear them now.”

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