Country music makes KSON San Diego’s second-most-popular radio station. So, why are there are so few venues for live country music?
Sure, country superstars such as Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw can be counted on to pack the Sleep Train Amphitheatre. But on the club level, local country artists are sucking hind teat, as they say on the farm.
14335 Old Highway 80, El Cajon
Only one bar, the Renegade in El Cajon, bills itself as “San Diego’s only true honky tonk” hosting country bands on weekends.
The list of local honky tonks that have folded in the past 25 years includes the Pomerado Club, the Valley Center Inn, Leo’s Little Bit of Country, Circle D Corral, Magnolia Mulvaney’s/Wagon Wheel, the Westerner, Beaver Creek, Barr X, Longshot Saloon, the Bumsteer, Zoo Country, Country Bumpkin, Rusty Spur, and Whiskey Spur.
Bob Ryan played traditional country in most of them. He now plays guitar in the California Rangers and has been shit-kicking on local stages since 1977. He says he can pinpoint when the live country scene took a dive.
“It was when the drinking laws changed to .08 percent [alcohol blood level]. That’s when the whole party ended. I saw it happen in about a month.
“I used to play the local circuit five nights a week, every week, all year long for 15 years. We’d make $500 to $600 a week. The club owners just stopped making money. I still pay the bills with guitar, but it’s gotten harder to do.”
5373 Mission Center Road, Mission Valley
The other reason is the In Cahoots factor. That Mission Valley bar has been featuring country music for 22 years — spun by DJs to appease its line-dancers.
“The DJs definitely affected the circuit,” says Ryan. “When the line-dancers started asking for songs [like the Cotton Eyed Joe or the Two Step] instead of for artists like Willie or Merle, that hurt the scene. The crowd didn’t care if it was live or recorded. They just wanted the right groove to dance to. It seems like everything has been dummied down.”
Liz Grace fronts Three Chord Justice, one of a handful of respected local country bands. They are finishing their fourth original album. Grace, 43, moved here eight years ago from Missoula, Montana, a city of 80,000 that had four country bars when she left.
“I was kind of depressed when I moved here because I wasn’t sure if there was a country scene here at all. There were classic rock bands who might do a Lynyrd Skynyrd song or a rare country song. But I wanted to be pure traditional, not that ‘bro country’ Nashville crap. What they play on KSON — Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton — is not country. It’s just pop. Add a banjo and a couple lyrics about a pickup truck and they say it’s country but it’s not. I don’t even listen to country radio.”
But after rooting around the county for a couple years, Grace says she found a solid group of players and supportive fans who shared her appreciation of Dwight, Loretta, and Hank. Her work as an agent has gotten Three Chord Justice recurring gigs at the Riviera Supper Club (7777 University Avenue, La Mesa), Rosie O’Grady’s (402 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights), Mr. Peabody’s (136 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas), and Tower 13 (2633 S. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas).
Grace looks on the bright side. “If we were in Austin there would be 600 live country bands playing each night. And everybody plays for free. Here, no one is cutthroat. We support each other. We’re all family.”
And unlike the wild country bars back in Montana, “Not once in eight years in San Diego have people fought at any of our shows, thrown a cue ball at us, or fallen into the stage and bashed a microphone in my face.”
344 Seventh Avenue, East Village
But just as the live country scene seemed flat, along came Moonshine Flats, which just opened near Petco Park.
Filled with waitresses in Daisy Duke cowgirl outfits, the remodeled 10,000-square-foot bar hired the five-man Jonathan Lee Band to be its house band every night it’s open (Thursday through Saturday). The club built a huge stage backdrop promoting the band’s name and built them their own green room.
The Portland-transplant band is allowed to mix in its originals with the country covers.
“We do country rock, kind of like the Eagles,” says Jonathan Lee. “We try and do the more traditional stuff — George Strait,Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings — on Thursday.” He says the more mainstream country sets on Friday and Saturday have done well. “We had 2000 people cycle through each night,” Lee said of his most recent weekend set. He says Moonshine Flats pays well.
I point out that the Jonathan Lee Band seems a lot more fortunate than the average local country band.
“Yes, I’m lucky. But I also spent 12 years on the road kissing ass. We would drive 150 miles to make $25 a piece.... Maybe when we get back on the road we can pass this gig on to someone else.”
Proving country music has a future is Patrick Goldman, the 17-year-old-frontman of Second Hand Smoke. He has uncovered some venues that have welcomed his music steeped in traditional country. They include Wynola Pizza Express (4355 Hwy 78, Wynola), the Bailey (2307 Main Street, Julian), and Today’s Pizza (481 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas).
“Bar owners don’t think there’s a big market for country,” Goldman says, “but there are a ton of Marines at Camp Pendleton from the South and Middle America who love it.”
Dave Ruel is a pro skater from Orange County who moved to Oceanside last year with his cow-punk band the Skatanic Rednecks. The band got a cover photo on OC Weekly when the magazine named them best bar band in Orange County.
“We started mixing classic country with punk and metal 15 years ago, before we even heard about Hank Williams III.” When they play they bring their collection of hobby horses and display them in front of the stage.
“When we play, people grab them and dance with them and break them. We started it because the plastic horses resemble the plastic minds and plastic chests of the people in Orange County.”