After riding into the sunset

Special to The Times

PIONEERTOWN looks like a ghost town seen in countless westerns. Probably because it is.

Built as a 1940s movie set where the likes of Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley shot the films that made them western heroes, rural Pioneertown managed to fight off most of the Sawtooth fire and still holds on to its own identity, honky-tonk and motel. And aside from the post office on Mane Street, Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace may be its biggest attraction.

Off Highway 62, only a few miles from Joshua Tree, many urban denizens seem to find the homage to yesteryear an oasis from city life.

"Oh, you're not going to tell anyone about this place, are you?" cried Deirdre Murphy, 45, of Sierra Madre. "It will ruin it." Murphy, dressed in black with a diamond stud in her nose, was staying the weekend with her husband, Randy Boyd, 47, at the Joshua Tree Inn.

Boyd shook his head at his wife. "Oh, they already know."

Pappy & Harriet's attracts those cursed with ennui all the way from Hollywood to Orange County. At first, the reason may be unclear. The decor at Pappy & Harriet's is distressed wood paneling lined with license plates, posters of bands, deer heads and Christmas tree lights. Drinks are served in kitschy Mason jars.

Previously owned by the real Pappy and Harriet, the honky-tonk changed hands a couple of times until it rested in 2003 with Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, second cousins from New York City with fond memories of crazy weekends in Pioneertown.

"It's not about being cool," Celia said. "This is where everyone comes from the city to get away from all that."

It was Celia and Krantz who steered the saloon away from being a mere biker bar and an alt-punk palace. Knowing that locals wanted country, they used the opportunity to offer different kinds of music: a mix of Americana (a heading that encompasses folk, folk-rock and country) and some straight-ahead rock 'n' roll.

"It's not necessarily a country place, but it leans towards that," Celia said.

The patrons at Pappy & Harriet's are a mixture of ursine bikers, uncommonly pretty girls, Marines and rawboned High Desert folk out for a night in the only hot spot in town -- not to mention urban dwellers on getaway. Lulled by good live music with country roots and a few beers, they come to appreciate a place where, it is said in down-home humor, everyone's just happy not to be in jail.

All anyone needs to cross the threshold is a pair of jeans, an unstained shirt and shoes (the unstained shirt is just common courtesy).

"I like the bands and good music. And there are always cool people here," said Traffy DeSalvo, 32, of Palm Springs.

"Cool" here doesn't mean the same as it does in L.A. It means "mellow" or "down-to-earth," terms not used much to describe any bar or club. Because Pappy & Harriet's is so blatantly uncool, it actually becomes unique to people used to social armor and judging eyes.

"Years ago, I stumbled upon it," said Trifon Trifonopoulos, 36, of Palm Springs, who was wearing a fedora and a sport coat. "I like that it's completely unpretentious."

People of all ages and all walks of life seem to stop by for a drink and a marbled steak that will put you in cardiac arrest.

SOMETIMES the mixed crowd surprises even the bands. Jesse Barnes of country-rock sextet Oakley Hall summed it up best during a recent show: "You are the most incredibly different people we've ever seen."

Wanda Jackson, Calexico, Robert Plant, Michelle Shocked, the Blasters, Gram Rabbit and Johnette Napolitano have all been onstage, and many Austin artists make a stop in Pioneertown before heading to Los Angeles.

Marie Ann Genoud, 38, of Marina del Rey, was dancing with her 5-month-old daughter, Anna, in her arms to the music of Tough Sailors.

"It reminds of me of a place I used to go to in Austin with great live music," she said. "Everybody in L.A. thinks they're a rock star, but here they're really good."

It's not surprising since Tough Sailors features Tim Easton, a Joshua Tree native with four albums to his credit. He's also often a regular at the "Thriftstore Allstars" Sunday jam session at the honky-tonk.

There are downsides to its popularity. Without a reservation, it's almost impossible to get a table for dinner on a weekend without a long wait.

And the narrow, two-lane Pioneertown Road is not meant to be tackled after more than a beer. Expect to stay in a nearby motel or inn and watch the sun rise over the big rocks.

Pioneertown is like the guy who gets better-looking the more you get to know him.

He will never hang out with Leonardo DiCaprio and doesn't have a lot of money, but sometimes you swear he looks a little like Heath Ledger. And maybe you wouldn't mind seeing him again next weekend.


Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace

Where: 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown

When: 5 p.m. to close Monday; 11 a.m. to close Thursday through Sunday

Price: Rarely a cover

Info: (760) 365-5956;

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