Gene Davis and the Star Routers are the usual band up at the Alamo, with their pictures on permanent display outside for the last three years.
Some people still think that country-western music is just something you hear on the car radio passing through Oklahoma, between the news and the sermons. But almost anyone can find the sounds considerably closer to home; San Diego offers a wide range of bars with that down-home beat.
Quite a lot of the places where you can find live country-western music turn out to be little neighborhood bars, like Mama’s Mink in El Cajon. It’s just a little place. One of my friends says she remembers the sign from her childhood, back in the days when she used to go to the Saturday matinees at what is now the Pussycat Theatre on Main Street.
The band wasn’t in evidence when we went into the bar, and there weren’t too many customers, either; only one table was occupied, and three or four regulars lounged at the bar, gazing incuriously at the dozens of felt football pennants that covered the dark walls. Near the jukebox hung the solitary picture, a golden Tijuana nude on black velvet.
The band was set up on a platform behind a low, curved bar at the back of the room, with a small space cleared for dancing in front of it. The band members wandered into the place a few minutes after we came in; four guys in varying shades of blond, three guitarists and a drummer.
I don’t know if you’d call Boone’s Farm a country-western band exactly. They play all the rock standards, introducing every song with “This is a little something by....” But the lead guitar is strongly influenced by that country twang, and it provides a solid emphasis for the sound; every now and then the vocals will slide into that familiar whine and your foot starts tapping. The vocals are very good; all four of them can carry a tune, and the back-up harmonies are quite pleasant. The lead was usually taken by Paul, who looked like a sailor on leave, with his neatly cropped goatee and clipped haircut. His style is distinctive and interesting, if not always appropriate to the individual, tunes. When he’d finished his version of “Roll Over, Beethoven,” one of my friends looked around and muttered, “Chuck Berry for downer freaks?” That smoothing out of all rough edges had its uses here and there, but there is no way to smooth out a Bread song without drowning in the syrup.
Sometimes the lead guitar player, who bore a strong resemblance to Peggy Cass with a droopy mustache, would take over for a real country sounding tune. He had the requisite sloppy diction that indicates a “good oT boy” drawl, and his voice was strong and clear enough to make that bearable, even on an oldie like “Goin' to Kansas City." he didn't do anything but country sounds, but he did them very well.
It took a little while, but the place started to fill up and eventually a few of the customers got out on the dance floor. It was an interesting group, not quite what you’d expect at a bar featuring a rock band of sorts. There were a lot of older people there, particularly one rotund fellow about fifty-five with a lady half as tall but quite as round. It was pleasant to see them dancing together; they looked happy and un-self-conscious. It’s that kind of place. Not many people over thirty-five will get out and dance to “Honky-Tonk Woman.”
There are lots of these little bars, anyway. The Kentucky Stud in Lakeside has a country-western band on Friday and Saturday nights called the Country Express, and on weeknights there’s a one-man band. The Shay Wen on Campo Road in Spring Valley has a band on Friday and Saturday nights and a rowdy reputation all week long. One guy said, “I guess none of them drive. They just call taxis to get home.”
At the other extreme, you find the “modern Country-Western Nightclub,” like the Alamo in Clairemont. The complex that houses the Alamo is utterly amazing. First of all, there’s a bowling alley that runs the length of the immense hall, which advertises a special of three games for a dollar and a quarter — after midnight only. The din is nerve-racking and is hardly diminished by the other rooms, offering pinball, foosball, billiards and two bars at either end of the alleys. From the dais above the bowlers, you have a full if hazy view of everything (there’s a lot of cigarette smoke to be dealt with) while waiting on a busy night to get inside the Alamo proper. The woman in front of us asked of the doorman, “Is it really worth it?” and his noncommittal answer was “Depends on how you like country-western music.”
As soon as a booth was found, we were ushered inside. Walking into the nightclub is somehow like walking into a beating heart, a la “Fantastic Voyage.” It isn’t just the heat and noise of the hundred odd occupants, but the red lights casting their rosy glow over the plump red booths and pink walls, turning every blonde to strawberry, giving every skin the hectic flush so popular in porno flicks. Maybe a casino in hell is a better simile.
Gene Davis and the Star Routers are the usual band up at the Alamo, with their pictures on permanent display outside for the last three years, but the night we went, there was a guest band taking their place. Garland Frady and the Outlaws have the sound you can hear on any country-western show on television — you just don’t get The Stoneman Family out here. Anyway, Garland and the boys were playing up a storm, all the country-western middle of the road classics, from “Rocky Top” to “Folsom Prison Blues.” The sound is smooth and professional, and Garland himself is the epitome of the fifties country singer, with his slick dude haircut and white, conservative Western cut shirt. The band is good but uninspired, and nobody cared. The crowd was lapping it up, and the dance floor was always a crush. Somebody pointed out the difference between the Alamo and a rock bar succinctly, saying, “At Led’s, the floor empties on the slow songs, and here it fills up even faster.”
There was a wide range of clientele, from the bleached blond with her Tammy Wynette hairdo and Frederick’s of Hollywood jumpsuit to the blue-jean and midriff crowd, and some varieties of good taste in between. The waitresses were older than you find in rock bars, and looked more than a little bored in their red and white (I’m guessing on that now, it did look pink in the dim light) cowgirl costumes that skimmed the hip, but the service was good and not too pushy. They leave you alone while the band’s playing and they don’t hang around your neck while you nurse your drink.
The major irritation is to the eyes; the smoke inside the nightclub is much worse than out in the bowling alley, but come to think of it, that’s a characteristic of almost every bar I’ve ever known. It’s pretty crowded on a Friday night, with couples, groups, trios of girls looking to meet someone interesting and pairs of guys who are just looking.
Some of these country-western bars have changed character faster than you can say gunsmoke. The Lost Knight on Harbor Drive (not to be confused with the Lost Knight in Chula Vista) has just recently gone from country to folk; the Den in El Cajon went from rock music to country to rock again and is now out of business; the Branding Iron on Enterprise Street, kitty-cornered from the Main Post Office, now has country, but used to be a go-go bar that serviced the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (this Branding Iron is also not to be confused with the Branding Iron in Lakeside or the one in Jamul). Even the Shay Wen doesn’t have the fervent country western music it used to.
Four more places that cannot in good conscience be left out — The Westerner in National City (22 West 7th Street, 474-2919), a good place if you like Navy talk (“that’s affirmative,” “roger that”) or if you’re in the market for meeting WestPac widows (Navy wives gone astray); the Valley Crossroads in Spring Valley (Jamacha Road and Sweetwater, 466-6161), where Jim Nixon, a “really hot country singer,” performs; Wild Bill’s in Santee (10055 Mission Gorge Road, 448-9801), where Grant and the Rejects sing from 9 to 2 throughout the week; and C.C.’s Lounge in the Lakeside Hotel (9940 River, Lakeside, 443-9591), where the manager claims that Fire Creek will belt out any kind of country tune requested, “with a little rock here and there for the hippies, if there’s any of ’em left alive.”