A Nashville Extension : Restaurant at CityWalk gives singer-songwriters a chance to perform their own works in 'Words & Music' series.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

The big moment for songwriter Burton Collins arrived at the end of his performance at Country Star Restaurant, and even then all he wanted to do was stand there and listen. That's when Karen Taylor-Good closed the show with "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?" a song they co-wrote and for which they earned a Grammy nomination.

Accompanying herself on piano, Taylor-Good sang:

"I called up mama, she said time will ease the pain Life's about changing, it never stays the same It's OK to hurt, it's OK to cry Let me hold you and I will try."

The emotional ballad was inspired by the death of Collins' grandmother in 1988 and was a hit single for Patty Loveless last year, even topping the Billboard country singles chart. But tonight's singer-songwriter showcase was a rare opportunity for Collins to see for himself the effects this and other songs have on a live audience. "You can get a real feel for it that way," Collins said later.

"I had some friends there, but people also came in off the street, and what was so nice about it is that people were really listening," Collins said of his rare moment on stage. "Instead of it just being background music--like a lot of bar bands--they came in to hear the songs."

Country Star's "Words & Music" series offers a monthly mix of local and nationally known singer-songwriters who perform their own works in the 500-seat room. It was launched in January with a performance by songwriter Kostas (who has written for Loveless, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd) and Randy Sharp (Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, Alabama and Emmylou Harris).

Although foremost a restaurant, Country Star's occasional role as an entertainment venue has helped make it a magnet for country music talent. Just a few weeks before the Collins performance, singer Barbara Mandrell was at the restaurant to be honored with a commemorative star embedded in the floor (other major acts honored this way include Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens, John Anderson and Yearwood). And Country Star's location at the west end of Universal CityWalk has meant a steady stream of country music artists wandering in before or after their shows at the nearby Universal Amphitheatre, one of the city's most active venues for major touring country acts.

That country artists and fans would find comfort within the walls of Country Star is no mystery, since the place is a veritable shrine to the musical genre. Once past the 30-foot-high doorway designed to resemble a giant jukebox, guests find rooms decorated with country music memorabilia from Judd's Harley-Davidson motorcycle to Western-style jackets once worn by the likes of Marty Robbins.

A sea of nearly 100 screens displays music videos and other country-related images at all hours, even above urinals in the men's room. McEntire herself sings "Happy Birthday" to guests from the video monitors. The sound system is designed so that no one in the room is more than 15 feet away from a stereo speaker. And recent country music releases can be sampled at listening stations throughout the restaurant.

Meanwhile, chef Layne Wootten strolls the restaurant greeting many of the 1,500 to 3,000 daily guests. Standing tall in his cowboy boots, Stetson and drooping gray mustache, Wootten gently recommends one of his barbecue dishes (accented with his own Rattlesnake sauce) or his award-winning chili.

It's not unlike the famed Hard Rock Cafe in its way, although Country Star counts three major country artists--Judd, McEntire and Vince Gill--among its shareholders. "It adds personality to the restaurant," said company chairman Robert Schuster. "All the country music associations have been involved in one way or another. But to have the major names of country music involved gives us a personification and shows what we really stand for."

Among the other founders were the Nashville Network personalities Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase, who joined the project after they were approached by Schuster with some drawings of the proposed restaurant.

"My pledge at the start was that this restaurant was going to have good food and enrich people on the history of country music," said Schuster, an entertainment lawyer whose father worked in the restaurant business.

By then, McEntire and Gill were already signed on. "He had all these wonderful ideas for promoting country music in this restaurant," Chase said. "What it offers is like an extension of Nashville, where you have an opportunity to go to the country music museums in town. I think the fans get a kick out of that."

One key reason a heavier live performance schedule is unlikely soon at Country Star, Schuster said, is that the building, constructed 17 years ago, was meant to be just a restaurant, not a live music venue. "We can't do (live shows) as well as we would want to," Schuster said.

Although based in Nashville, both Crook and Chase suggested that the Los Angeles area was a fitting place to launch the company, which plans to open other branches in coming years in Las Vegas, London and Orlando, Fla. "There's always been a very strong undercurrent of country music in the Los Angeles area, with artists like Dwight Yoakam and Carlene Carter," said Crook by phone from Nashville. "Some of the country stars even record their music in the studios out there. So it's never seemed like a flash in the pan there."

Country music is now enjoying one of its most popular periods. Schuster, whose legal clients have included such major country acts as the Judds and Garth Brooks, said interest in the music is always high. "Country music has always been big," he said. In general, "in 70% of all radio markets, country music is either the No. 1 or No. 2 station."

In addition to being a business venture, Schuster's motivation for creating Country Star, he said, was to offer an interactive venue for country music fans that was appropriate for families. "I've got two little girls, and there were very few places I could take them," he explained. "In country music there are dance halls and honky-tonks, and concerts are expensive."

Also important to Schuster and the artists was that the country music theme on permanent display not include the old country music cliches of hay bales and wagon wheels as decor. Instead, the restaurant offers a high-tech, upscale atmosphere that reflects the contemporary mainstream country scene.

"You don't see Vince Gill performing in overalls with a pitchfork in his hand," said Brian Gibson, vice president of operations at Country Star. "That is not where country music is today.

"We hope to educate people about country music now. It's crossed over into blues, gospel, funk and R & B. So this is a wake-up call."

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: Country Star Restaurant.

Location: CityWalk, 1000 Universal Center Drive, Universal City.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Call: (818) 762-3939.

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