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VALLEY WEEKEND : Country Singers Find a New Niche at Valley Coffeehouses : Performers are discovering popularity at the small venues, which often attract a young and enthusiastic audience.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Country music has seen better days in the San Fernando Valley. Bad enough that the “world famous” Palomino remains closed, but other longtime pillars of the local country community may soon disappear.

Even the deejay-driven “denim and diamonds” dance fad (the bane of longtime country fans) seems to be on the decline, with only In Cahoots dance club in Glendale still surviving by spinning Top 40 country records.

Nearby, Glendale-based KZLA-FM (93.9)--for several generations Los Angeles’ flagship for mainstream country--was recently purchased by a Dallas company, leading to the inevitable rumors of a format change. And this comes after stations KLAC-AM and CSUN’s KCSN-FM have dropped country from their schedules.

“Morale is going to go way down” in the local country music scene, says Beth Bleiberg, executive director of the California Country Music Assn. In the once-thriving Valley, she adds, only three country venues remain: Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth, Crest in Reseda and Jack’s Cinnamon Cinder in Burbank.

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“There is a wonderful audience out there,” says Bleiberg, a resident of Agoura. “I think we’ve learned to take things in stride. We know it’s going to go up.”

Despite the bad news, a new venue for country players has emerged: the coffeehouse scene.

“The coffeehouses are allowing country artists to perform,” says singer Pam Loe, who appeared last week at Common Grounds in Northridge. “They are really providing a terrific forum to us.”

“It’s limited and they don’t pay very much, but it’s keeping country alive,” says Bleiberg, whose organization works as a support group for country players, and boasts more than 4,000 members throughout the state.

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“The small venues are also introducing a new, younger audience to the virtues of country singer-songwriters. It’s an audience largely of college students and miscellaneous bohemians who would rarely, if ever, venture out to a honky-tonk,” says country veteran Chad Watson.

“I remember five years ago I would get hecklers: ‘Hey Tex, hee haw!’ But that was years ago, man. I’m getting people to stay now who would have walked out before I even got to my first song.”

Adds Common Grounds owner Paul Solomon: “When we put country on our flyers, we get a pretty good crowd.”

Watson, who performs Mondays and Wednesdays at Cowboy Palace and is a regular at coffeehouses across the Valley, said the coffeehouse scene reminds him of the Los Angeles folk-rock scene of the 1970s, which spawned such artists as the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

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“It’s been 20 years since there was a folk-rock scene that amounted to anything out here,” says Watson, who has worked as a sideman to the late Charlie Rich, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ronnie Milsap and Janis Ian.

“Now I smell it in the wind: that vibe in a room. I haven’t felt that before. I always felt I was keeping alive a tradition, in the name of the good old country days. Now we have a whole new audience. We’re at the edge of a whole new era.”

Besides the regularly scheduled country music shows, local coffeehouses offer a venue for new talent via weekly “open mike” nights, similar to the old Palomino’s “Talent Night.”

In rooms from Northridge’s Common Grounds to the Coffee Junction in Tarzana, a handful of new singer-songwriters with heavy country influences share stages with rockers and jazz players.

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“The singer-songwriters are not just some guys with blow-dried haircuts,” says Watson. “They’re playing nitty-gritty stuff.”

Blow-Hard: B.B. King’s Blues Club on the Universal CityWalk continues its tradition of presenting the best of local harmonica-blues harp players on Nov. 17 and 18 with a set by John (Juke) Logan.

Logan, who has become a semi-regular at the club, is well-known in local music circles as a valued sideman for a variety of blues and rock artists, and is the source of all those harmonica bits every week on ABC’s “Roseanne.” He’s also co-host of the “Friday Night Blues Revue” at 8 p.m. Fridays on KPCC-FM (89.3).

For more information on his performance at King’s club, call (818) 622-5464.

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