Tucked in an oak grove behind Lake Wohlford outside Escondido, the Oakvale Lodge seems a lot farther from urban life. On a Sunday afternoon, a throng shuffles through a line dance on the smooth concrete dance floor, moving in unison to live country music.
In a back room, kids and adults play darts, video games and pool. Parents cuddle their infants on a deck outside while old timers tell tall tales and people of all ages graze on fried chicken and french fries the size of buck knives.
Whether they are urban cowpokes or authentic ranch hands, North County's country fans have their favorite watering holes. A few big events--such as the Poway Days Rodeo in October--put Western tastes in the spotlight, but it is everyday music, dinner and dance that sustain the country spirit all year long.
"I like the atmosphere," said Cheryl LaRusch, a secretary at a swimming pool company who decompresses from the work week every Friday night at the Pomerado Club in Poway. "People seem more friendly and open, male and female, than they do at the rock clubs."
Adds Cathie McDill, a real estate and marketing consultant who hasn't yet been able to drag her husband to the Pomerado: "The very first night I walked in, people were doing line dances--you don't need a partner, and I had a blast. The etiquette in a country bar is that the guy asks you to dance, you dance a song, they say, 'Thank you very much, ma'am,' and they leave you alone. I like that."
LaRusch and McDill are among what seems an increasing number of North Countians turning to aspects of the country lifestyle as a means of escaping the daily grind of urban living.
Here are some of the places that offer country-style socializing in North County:
THE OAKVALE LODGE
14900 Oakvale Road Escondido 749-3193 Most every weekend, Henry Rodriguez comes down from his home at the La Jolla Indian Reservation on Palomar Mountain to hit the Oakvale Lodge. With his long gray hair tucked under a turquoise-colored bandanna, Rodriguez works the crowd.
"I've been coming here since 1945 or '48," he said, sitting down at an outdoor table to take a break. "There's nothing else to do and it's close to home. I come by myself, but I know most everyone. I'm recognized as an elder here. I would rate this the best country place for the simple reason that the people are very friendly. If you're in trouble, they help you--if you run out of gas, get a flat tire or a fan belt breaks. One of the band members had a serious auto accident, and everyone helped him out in their own way."
A few feet away, Lynette Boublis sits at a table with sons David, 13, and Stephen, 12, and her friends and business associates David Nielsen and Darlene Hind. The three adults are partners in Cimarron Ridge, which stages Western gunfights for corporate parties and other social occasions. Boublis' boys also participate in the mock gun battles.
Boublis says she and her friends visit the Oakvale Lodge at least once a month.
"It's outdoors and there's lots to do. You can picnic under the trees or down by the lake. It's a good way to introduce kids to music and dancing."
David and Stephen say they like country music, although they confess to liking pop and rock better. They look at each other and wrinkle their noses when asked if they do much dancing.
Since new owners took over three years ago, the Oakvale Lodge has staged something of a comeback.
"When we first took over, they weren't doing 20 dinners a night. Last night, we did 90," said William Chuck, a partner in charge of the dining room. Besides the food--a down-home menu of steaks, chicken, baked potatoes, grilled catfish, moist biscuits--one of the main attractions at the Oakvale Lodge is the dancing. Ricochet, the house band, plays Fridays and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Sundays from 4 to 11 p.m. Free country dance lessons are offered Friday nights from 6:30 to 8 and Sunday afternoons from 2 to 4.
A visit to the lodge can become a camping weekend if you stay next door at Oakvale Park and Resort (749-2895), which offers 60 campsites, some for tents, others for RVs. Reservations are recommended, but campsites are usually available.
THE POMERADO CLUB
12237 Pomerado Road Poway 485-6511 On hot summer nights, the pack of bodies moving and grooving to the Cajun country sounds of the Savery Brothers makes the atmosphere inside the Pomerado Club warm and humid. Dancers escape to outdoor tables on the broad, covered porch, where, under a starry sky on this dusty, otherwise quiet cul de sac, the only thing missing is a pink Cadillac convertible with big tail fins.
Geographically, this place is only a few miles from downtown Poway, but in spirit, it is genuine frontier. The location at the dead end of Old Pomerado Road furthers the sense of isolation. The club occupies a dance hall known for years as the Big Stone Lodge, a long, low structure of stone and wood, built in 1925 at this onetime stagecoach stop.
One of the regulars at the Pomerado Club is John Fitch, assistant city manager for the city of Poway and a member of the Poway Rodeo Committee. On weekend nights, you'll often see Fitch, dressed in jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, two-stepping to the music of the Savery Brothers.
"I was born and raised in Oklahoma, so I've always liked country-Western music," said Fitch. "About 11 years ago, after my wife and I had our third child, we were looking for something to get out and do, away from the kids. We took country-Western dance classes, and we've been coming here for 11 years. You meet a lot of really nice people, and it's really good exercise."
"We get people from Temecula, Santee, Lakeside, El Cajon," said Bob Long, the club's manager and son of the owner. "But we also get quite a few transplants from Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana. For what we have here, there's big interest. It's not twangy country music, but country rock."
At many country night spots, bands rely primarily on versions of country hits by other artists, but the Savery Brothers, the club's house band for five years, chooses from a sizable repertoire of original tunes. The music is deeply rooted in the Louisiana bayou country where brothers Richard and Robert Savery grew up.
And the Pomerado also brings national country stars to town about once a month, including appearances by Joe Diffie, Carlene Carter, Allison Krause and Eddy Raven so far this year.
In fact, though the music at these North County clubs is categorized as country, most of it isn't the twangy, heart-rending George Jones/Hank Williams (Sr.) stuff you might be thinking of. Mostly, this is slicker, smoother country rock, the kind of music featured on radio stations like KOW. This music has a tremendous crossover appeal, luring listeners away from other types of music.
"I started listening and dancing to country about seven years ago," said LaRusch. "I was out celebrating someone's birthday with some girlfriends. We went to a rock place and when the band took its break, someone put a few quarters in the jukebox and played that twangy stuff we didn't like. But I got dragged out on the dance floor and started to like it, and I started learning all the dances.
"I usually go the Pomerado Club by myself. Jerry reserves a table for me every Friday, I guess because I've been going so long, because I never asked him to. My friends are always there. But usually I'm dancing too much to sit. The two-step is the most popular, and waltzing. Line dances, a lot of people are really down on those, they don't think it's real country dancing, I guess because you're not dancing with a partner."
Owner Jerry Long bought the lodge and accompanying 3.5 acres last year and has big plans. A new kitchen will begin serving lunch and dinner in August, with a grand opening scheduled for Sept. 3. The food? Chicken-fried steaks, barbecued chicken and ribs, salmon, burgers and the house dessert specialty: strawberry shortcake.
RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
1529 E. Valley Parkway Escondido 746-7408 Here is the epitome of urban cowboyhood: a country night club located in an urban shopping mall, in this case, The Vineyard in Escondido.
The outside of the building is rustic wood, while the inside has an odd country kitsch decor. Harnesses hang on the walls. Three mannequins dressed in petticoats and fishnet stockings look down from platforms next to some tables. There's a stuffed raccoon over one bar, and a Wile E. Coyote replica sitting in a saddle.
"It's just a real nice place where you can come and feel very safe," said Bonnie, a corporate officer at a construction company. "There's people of all ages, and a real homey atmosphere. Martha, one of the owners, is there every night, and you just feel like she's your Mom. Everybody knows everybody, and newcomers always feel welcome. I'm newly single, and I've come here several times by myself and never felt uncomfortable."
LEO'S LITTLE BIT O' COUNTRY
680 W. San Marcos Blvd. San Marcos 744-4120 James (Leo) Koo came to the United States from Korea 25 years ago, and until two years ago, ran a pair of country clothing outlets in North County.
Meanwhile, seven years ago he had a chance to take over this cavernous building, once a disco, near the intersection of Highway 78 and San Marcos Boulevard.
"I changed the format to country-Western," said Koo, who wears a cowboy hat when he greets visitors at the door. "I had run my country stores for 18 years, every day listening to country music, that's the only thing I know. The American people, this is their original music."
His club has more of a reputation as a hangout for urban cowboys than the earthier Pomerado or Oakvale clubs, but Koo claims his clientele includes authentic Western types.
"We get real working cowboys and genuine country people," he said. "Most of them have horses, ranches. The ones that come down from Camp Pendleton are from all over the country: Alabama, Texas, Colorado, Arizona. They join the Marine Corps and find us, and feel like they're home."
Koo considers Leo's a homey "social club." He claims the atmosphere is highly conducive to new romances; 59 couples have met in his club and married, he said. Like his patrons, Koo says he feels comfortable among the gregarious, country crowd. It's obvious in the way he works the room.
"How many club owners welcome you at the door, shake your hand, joke around, sit down at a table with you?" he asked. "After five minutes, they feel like they are at home."