Ken Beeunas: “Everybody and their brother that had a liquor license and a dance floor said, ‘Oh! If John Travolta can dance country, so can my customers.’”
The full moon has come up orange. At eight-thirty on a Thursday evening, a mellow glow lies in thick slabs across the cabs of pickup trucks and swathes the hoods of cars still warm to the touch, all herded on the diagonal into Wrangler’s Roost parking lot, on Mission Gorge Road near Zion Avenue. Inside the country nightclub Willie and Way-Ion sing their poignant duet — “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” — from the juke box, and the line, “Cowboys love smoky ol’ poolrooms 'and clean' mountain mornings,” feels as live as a critter wriggling up the heart line on your palm. The red and yellow neon Stroh’s and Budweiser, the white and red Lone Star crest with its blue star rising, bathe the vacant dance floor gold and kindle upturned faces, young faces and some older, with graying beards and sideburns gone silver and skin grizzled. Almost everyone is in jeans, boots, cowboy hats, but there are also some men in billed caps adorned with slow-pitch team insignias and beer brands. Both sexes hitch jeans with leather belts onto which nicknames and first names are tooled, and many wear red Wrangler’s Roost jackets.
The bearded and mustachioed faces resemble rusty daguerreotypes of a blissful Jesse James, while the women are strikingly contemporary, slender women in tight jeans.
By ten minutes till nine, people are huddling up two and three deep at the bar, clinking drinks to say hello and sucking down beer from long-neck bottles. Reeling back on their heels, the men — whose body types range from prime brutes to beer guts and slack bellies — shake hands, pump the dual palm grip two and three times, slap forearms, roar out, “Hi, Pard,” and huskily, warmly, almost sweetly, call each other “Bro’.’’ Women hug and clasp other women, and strain onto tiptoes to hug and kiss men.
Jim Knight, Mike Shepherd. "There were clubs which did not go into country with a committed effort."
In the dim room, the bearded and mustachioed faces resemble rusty daguerreotypes of a blissful Jesse James, of Civil War combatants home on leave, of passionate bandits, treacherous stagecoach robbers, smoldering gauchos, and pioneers on the rolling prairies of a hundred years earlier, while the women are strikingly contemporary, slender women in tight jeans, and heavier women who are bulky and stolid in their denim, and who strain to smile. Nowhere is there the celebrated Dolly Parton bosom or the teased, high hair. The women are predominantly light-haired, and some could be set on a rodeo parade float, dressed as they are in red and pale blue and stark white, ribbon- and silver-trimmed hats that match colors in belts or three-inch heeled boots. One pair of boots, startling, is shining red patent leather.
Wrangler's Roost shirt. “We say grace and we say ‘ma'am,'/If you ain't into that, we don't give a damn.”
Up close, the back pockets of the jeans reveal three names — Lee, Wrangler, or Levi. They are plain jeans, no tricky stitching. The hats have wide brims, curved low in the front, that protect a range riders eyes from oncoming sun, or narrow brims, higher-crowned bankers' Stetsons, what Dallas's J.R. wears, and both styles come in black, beige, brown felts, and straw, with pheasant feathers and toothpicks tucked into the bands. Country dancers prefer Nikes and Adidas, but tonight most wear boots that range from plain, scuffed, square-toe mahogany Fryes to pointed-toe, two-tone calf and anaconda. Shorter men raise themselves up on two-inch heels; born six-footers don't boast more than one-inch stubs of heel By nine o'clock, heels arc tapping.
“Most people that come in here at night drink from the long necks."
Wrangler's Roost is a family operation, and the general manager's mother, a petite blonde, scoots from table to table, tipping a flaming match into the knobbed red glasses that hold candles. “Hiya sweetie,” she says, and those around the tables look up and smile and say, “Hi, Mom.” More than one man whose candle she lights says solemnly, “Thank you, ma’am." (Hank Williams, Jr.'s song, “A Country Boy Can Survive.” tells the story: “We say grace and we say ‘ma'am,'/If you ain't into that, we don't give a damn.”)
Sunday evening at Wrangler's Roost. “At work I put on my tie. But if I showed up with my tie on in here. I'd get comments."
A lean six-foot-six, thirty-year-old blond computer salesman, who shows himself to be a skilled dancer once the band starts up, discusses his conversion to country music. “I've done it all — ballroom, disco .... Hated the music but loved to dance, and now I'm into country. Disco is dead.”
He especially likes clogging, a group dance first performed in the American colonies in Appalachia by dancers wearing heavy boots or wooden shoes, and now done in shoes with metal taps. “Clogging’s a blast!” he says. “A blast! Crystal T’s has an aerobic dance contest. I’ve wanted to do a clog for the contest. It's as aerobic as anything.”
He has bought some country clothes. “Cowboy, western wear, whatever you want to call it, it's just another drag, for the straights or the gays. It’s just another uniform,” he says. “At work I put on my tie. But if I showed up with my tie on in here. I'd get comments. And I'd never show up in a full country outfit at work. One day I wore my hat to work when it rained, I had to hide it right away!”
His non-country friends don’t understand. “Not at all.” That dismays him. “I go to operas,” he says, “but I find that people who go to operas don't understand country.” And because most of the women he goes out with don't like country music, he now dates only on weekends, reserving weeknights for country. “Every once in a while the old crowd will call me and say, ‘Meet us at Crystal T's or Bobby McGee's.’” His disco friends rarely agree to meet him here.
He has made some very good friends at Wrangler's Roost, male and female, and dated several women he met here. “Of course," he warns, or seems to warn, but speaks so loudly, straining above the rising din to be heard, that it is difficult to discover his intention, “there's a little bit of Peyton Place here, like in all the clubs." But Wrangler’s Roost is not, he emphasizes, a “rowdy" place, a factor he sees as having led to the demise of other country nightclubs. “The reputation for rowdiness goes around. Rumors happen fast in rock places, clubs happen fast, clubs die fast. In country, rumors go around slower, but once they settle, they settle for good.”
The five-nights-a-week house band that has been at Wrangler’s Roost for three years is Steer Crazy, four pieces plus an opera-trained diminutive “girl" singer, Stephanie Marino, fragile in a long cotton print dress. While the band tunes up and does sound checks, the crowd, edgy, eager to dance, skirts the dance floor. When the band's leader yells out over the mike, “Let’s get those line dancers up!" whoops and ya-hoos break out, the line begins to form, and the dancers step out to Merle Haggard's “Big City" —“Turn me loose, big cit-y/Set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.” Faces go blank, expressionless, and eyes look straight ahead. The mouths repeat the lyric, “Turn me loose . . ." Bodies are immobile above the waist, boots executing intricate patterns without one misstep. Even the bearish broad-backed men in size-twelve boots are as perfectly in step as chorines in a Rockettes kick line. The men, thumbs tucked in front belt loops, keep their upper bodies stiff. They swagger. They reek of menace. On women, the upper bodies' mute postures accentuate vulnerability.
The film Urban Cowboy, starring New Jersey-born John Travolta, flashed on screens in the summer of 1980, three years after Saturday Night Fever. Fevers location was Brooklyn and the disco. Cowboy's Houston and Gilley’s, the country nightclub. The two movies had similar plots: working-class youths, stuck all day in meaningless labor, get loose at night.
Urban Cowboy grew out of a 1978 Esquire article by Aaron Latham, and Latham co-wrote the movie script. Returning to the article, one discovers the progenitor of Cowboy's Bud in a petrochemical company laborer, about whom Latham wrote, “He is as uncertain about where his life is going as America is confused about where it wants to go. And when America is confused, it turns to its most durable myth: the cowboy .... In these anxious days, some Americans have turned for salvation to God, others have turned to fad prophets, but more and more people are turning to the cowboy hat"
By the fall of 1980, Urban Cowboy had spawned country nightclubs and made country dress and manner (or mannerisms) de rigueur for bankers, beer truck drivers, debutantes, and dime store clerks. And it kicked off a craze for country dancing.
Now that excitement over the movie has died down, and several country nightclubs in San Diego have changed format (the Alamo in Clairemont and Magnolia Mulvaney's in Santee) or given up and closed down (the Mustang Club, across from the Sports Arena), rumor is, country has died. Not true, insist country DJs, club managers, and clubgoers. The movie, they say, exposed country music and the country way of life to a nationwide audience and broadened their appeal. It helped the music and its aficionados shed a long-standing inferiority complex. And there has been, this group asserts, a slow, steady increase of regulars — young, with suburban and urban roots — come to socialize in country nightclubs.
Long-time country fans echo Mike Shepherd’s assessment of the movie’s effect. “Urban Cowboy rode the fact that country was getting big,” says the program director for country station KSON. “Country had begun to show its strength by 1974, and when Urban Cowboy came along, everyone forgot there was this tremendous prior buildup of country interest.”
Wrangler’s Roost was country in what KSON’s operations coordinator Jim Knight calls “the pre-Urban Cowboy dog days of country music.” The most centrally located country nightclub in the area. Wrangler’s Roost has run a country format for eight years. Only Country Bumpkin in Imperial Beach has been around longer as a strictly country nightclub. Drinking coffee one weekday morning at the Roost’s bar, Ken Beeunas, the club's general manager, reflects on the rise of country. He is an intense, good-natured man in his midthirties, who with his family owns the club. He recalls, “Everybody and their brother that had a liquor license and a dance floor said, ‘Oh! If John Travolta can dance country, so can my customers.’ ” Beeunas calls out to his brother, who is visiting with a customer six stools down in the chilly midmorning dark of the bar. “Wayne, how many were there?”
“I'd have to take my boots off to count them all,” his brother responds, causing guffaws among the drinkers.
“Probably twenty-some sprang up just basically overnight,” Beeunas continues. “They still had all their polished brass fittings and the mirrors and the disco lights, but they had a country band up there playing.” Beeunas says he is not knocking fellow club owners who jumped into country. “A lot of locations have to be a little trendy to survive,” he says.
Jim Knight remembers during that time club owners would call the station and tell them, “Hey, I am going to go country this weekend, I need some promotion.” Knight remembers, too, the boom days when “down at the Mustang Club — where they had a bucking steer — they would run 600 people through the doors on Friday and Saturday night. The line would be built up clear down to the Sports Arena.”
The recent decline reflects the dropout of people whom Knight describes as those who saw the movie and then showed up in clubs wearing “Jordache jeans, always brand-new, brand-new boots, the little scarves tied around their necks, and little straw hats.”
Few stayed. “They're not country inside,” Knight says, adding in a drawl that fibrillates with DJ resonance and comes out slowly, “You can put on a cowboy hat and say, ‘I'm country,' sure. You can go in a country bar and have a good time” But the people whom Urban Cowboy drew initially, people who went, next, back to rock, or on to punk and new wave, were in it, Knight says, “just for the ride.”
KSON's Shepherd, in suit and dark tie, in his office with his computer humming at his back, not only presents an image contrast to the blue-jeans-and-boots dressed Knight, he also talks faster — about as rapidly as a country auctioneer — but he concurs with Knight's appraisal. He says, “Now that the craze has died down, records sales aren't what they were. Country music ratings are not as high, either. At the height, country was up to twenty-five or thirty percent of record sales. Now it’s about fifteen. But everything bounces a little bit. You go real whole hog and then there's a bum factor."
Knight believes some club failure was due to mismanagement. There were clubs, he suggests, “which did not go into country with a committed effort. The urban cowboy patron would go in and think a club was hunky-dory. But a real true person who likes to go into country bars for the music, the friendship,” was not satisfied with quicky country nightspots.
One “old-timer” who played country music for many years in the area had a ready opinion of country's status. “I don't think it's never went down,” he said. “The drugstore cowboy, the rhinestone type, he went out. What it is, is that every four years you have a trend change. You had this acid rock,” the elderly gentleman said distastefully, “this hard metal or whatever — that stuff will break your goddamn eardrums. People want somethin' new. That’s all.”
San Diego has not been big-time cow country since before World War I. House pets now take the place of livestock, and the green, green grass of home is lawn. Farming? Container-reared cherry tomatoes on the patio and marijuana straggling upward in the bedroom closet beneath Gro-Lux lamps. Country musicians were fiddling, picking, plucking, and singing harmony around the county in the Thirties, in bars and clubs and Elks, Moose, and VFW halls. During World War II, country musicians performed in USO clubs for servicemen hungry for down-home music. After the war, the legendary Smokey Rogers left Los Angeles, where he had played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and came to San Diego, broadcasting radio shows over a Tijuana station out of a rented house next to the Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon, and producing live country TV marathons on channels 6 and 8. Even with all that, San Diego has never been the natural major country market that cities like Dallas, Houston, Chicago, even Los Angeles, continue to be. Yet country is bigger, locally, than most people perceive.
And country music, or just “country,” they say at KSON. isn't hick music anymore. “Urbanization has changed our lives,” Jim Knight says, sitting at his cluttered desk. “Country music has changed along with the country. I like to say that it is the music of America, the country’s music. And today's country listener is anybody and everybody. The bank president can be listening, the lawyer, the white-collar person in La Jolla that you didn't, typically, in the past, think of as a country fan.”
In response to a knock, Knight cracks the office door in the brand-new KSON complex on El Cajon Boulevard near Comanche Drive in La Mesa, where offices and state-of-the-art broadcast studios are painted white and decorated with Goines prints and Ansel Adams photographs, and speakers hung in each room carry the station’s broadcast. A disc jockey, dressed, like Knight, in worn jeans, shirt open at the neck, and boots, says to Knight, as he hands him a paper, “Here's the jingle, gentle cowper-son.”
Door closed again, Knight continues the conversation, while from the overhead speaker streams the number-two KSON song that week, Ed Bruce's “You Turn Me On (Like a Radio).” “You can ask the average person. ‘What do you think of country music?' and they will answer, ‘I don't like that hillbilly stuff.' But you play them a Ronnie Milsap or Dolly Parton tune, and they say, ‘I like that, but it's not country.' Most people who say they don't like country music are thinking of classical country-western music. They don’t like yodeling. They don't like the twangy sound.”
KSON analyzes its listeners by ZIP code. “Certain ZIP codes in North County are hot for country," program director Mike Shepherd says. “Other ZIP codes you would not expect. Tierrasanta is very big, which is ironic. The biggest for country? El Cajon, Lakeside, Chula Vista, La Mesa, Spring Valley, Escondido."
Shepherd divides listeners into “actives" and “passives." An “active" he describes as “a person who listens regularly to a country station, who goes to a country nightclub, buys country records, and generally will live a country style of life. Your ‘passives' aren't that involved with radio. They listen, but it is not a gathering, or focal point for them. They do not often go out to nightclubs, or shoot a lot of money into the juke boxes." Typical “active" jobs, according to Shepherd, are “construction, law enforcement, although a lot of ‘passives' arc cops, too. ‘Actives' tend to be more stereotypical, to do blue-collar work. They tend to play hard, work hard, drink a lot of beer. A lot of them own guns, some of them wear cowboy hats and have their four-by-four jacked up out front of the country clubs."
Country purists see Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton as pop. Rogers's soulful countrypolitan and Parton's silky sweet soprano sold 14,000 tickets in the Sports Arena on January 4. Just how much America's idea of what is country has changed emerges as Shepherd repeats, rhetorically, the question asked him, “A big country song last year?" and then after a well-timed pause, continues. “This will scare you when I tell you. One of the biggest country songs with a country audience last year was ‘Stuck on You’ by Lionel Richie. We felt a lot of trepidation when we were deciding whether to play it or not. But we had a lot of requests for it. And why not? It's a song of devotion, with production values not much different than a Lee Greenwood song — some people thought it was Greenwood. Well, we played it and people went crazy." Shepherd pauses, throws up his hands. “Can you imagine that thirty years ago? You’d have been run out of town even to suggest such a thing!"
And, as if on cue, Michael Murphy's sweet “What She Wants" comes across the speaker as Shepherd, who carefully footnotes his assertions, adds. “In the Sixties, Ray Price — and others — started doing some lush stuff. This helped bring country to the masses. Now, even traditional stuff — Ricky Skaggs or John Anderson — is produced real well, and Anne Murray sounds as techno-pop as anything out there."
No force has as effectively sold country music as country radio. And nothing in the country music industry has done as much changing since 1925 when Nashville's WSM began broadcasting Grand Ole Opry live in what has become America's oldest continuing live radio program. In 1961 only eighty-one country radio stations were broadcasting across the U.S. and Canada. In 1978, before Travolta started hanging out at Gilley's to learn the Cotton-eye Joe, the count had grown to 1150. By 1983 the number of stations broadcasting solid country had nearly doubled to 2266. Country became second only to rock in radio listenership. At the same time, country music record sales boomed, with country, again, second to rock.
KSON-AM, the oldest country station in San Diego County, went on the air in 1946 as an AM classical music broadcaster. In 1963 KSON went country, adding FM in simulcast that year. Much of the credit for positive changes at KSON over the years, Knight notes, should go to former owner Dan McKinnon, the first broadcaster to be elected president of the Country Music Association. McKinnon recently sold KSON to Jefferson Pilot, a broadcasting company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, for almost eight million dollars.
Nobody worked as hard as McKinnon to make country radio first class. In February of 1962 McKinnon bought KSON. which at that time was broadcasting an easy-listening format. In those days, country disc jockeys still came in to do their shifts, hauling boxes of records, many from their personal libraries. Each DJ programmed his show, and from shift to shift what went on the turntable could alter so radically that in one day perhaps no two DJs would play any of the same songs. While individual country DJs built loyal followings among listeners who shared their tastes, they could also offend listeners who did not, and with offense would come “tune-out.” “It was” McKinnon recalled recently, “like having six different stations. There was no consistency. Eventually, what I did in October of 1963 was take KSON country. But I did it in a way that hadn't been done. Instead of having the DJs determine what they would play. I took control of all the music. I had management format programming like they do rock and roll. It was an elementary format at that time, but the idea was that if you listened at seven or two or ten at night, the music was consistent. You heard one radio station, not six. The radio station's ratings tripled. All of a sudden country music became a factor in the market.
“KSON became the first country music radio station to ever get advertisements from the big airlines — United, Western. PSA — from Equitable Life, the Wall Street Journal. We began to be able to sell the pulling power of country music. But previously these blue-ribbon accounts would not advertise with us. They saw country stations as just a bunch of hillbillies.
“We pointed out we weren't hillbillies,” McKinnon continued. “We started wearing business suits. Before that, country radio management had worn boots, dirty white shirts, gone around smoking smelly cigars. It gave the wrong image.”
Part of the change in country radio is that stations now conduct listener research. Mike Shepherd manages KSON's research department, whose yearly in-depth contacts with country listeners help determine what songs go on the station's computerized playlist. A staff of eight people telephone numbers across the county at random, eventually contacting 700 country listeners each month (8400 per year) who answer music survey questions.
A tape is played that consists of the hook line of each of the fifteen songs being tested, and the person is asked to rate each song. This survey. Shepherd states, “reflects exactly what our audience wants to hear.”
Every Thursday afternoon the KSON DJs, the research staff, Knight, and Shepherd spend four hours discussing these listener responses, together with juke box and record distributors' tallies and call-in requests. From four hours of what Shepherd calls “agonizing," which includes consideration of each song’s “texture," its particular appeal to either sex, if any, its relation — historically, aesthetically, psychologically, philosophically — to other songs, the week's playlist and the rotation of songs on that list are determined.
If country radio keeps country music alive in homes, cars, work places, stimulating “actives" and “passives," the country nightclub provides the fellowship. Asked what makes a country club work, Jim Knight ticks off, “a good band, good dance floor, some specials, some promotions, a good price on liquor." Ken Beeunas, manager of Wrangler’s Roost, characterizes the country nightclub in this way: “It is a good place to come and meet people. You have the opportunity to get to know people a lot better; it’s something other than walking in here and saying, ‘Well, what’s you sign?’ When someone asks me that, I just tell them I'm a feces," Beeunas says gleefully.
Wrangler's Roost sells “about a fifty-fifty mix between beer and cocktails," Beeunas says, noting that you can’t have country music without long-neck beer bottles. “Most people that come in here at night drink from the long necks. They don’t pour from them. They just kind of drink out of the bottles."
Urban Cowboy concentrated on Travolta’s struggle with Gilley’s mechanical steer. Although some clubs installed these. Wrangler’s Roost never put one in. Bucking machines, alcohol, and insurance companies, Beeunas says, do not mix.
Fights and fear of violence, it has been said, have closed down more than one country nightclub and made others at least appear to be off-limits to any but regulars. No club has suffered as badly from talk of violence as the old Lakeside Hotel in Lakeside, where Jim Knight says that “in the old days when there wasn’t a lot of law enforcement out there, Indians from hereabouts and the cowboys would get into it,” and that “men would sit at the bar and take bets, draw straws, and say, ‘Okay, you got the short straw, the next guy that walks through the door, you gotta hit him.’ So you’re out for a night on the town, you walk in, ‘Wham, pow' If you got hit and came back in, you could hit the next guy who came in, and so on."
On a recent Thursday evening, a country “active" at Wrangler’s Roost said, “I’ve heard the Lakeside Hotel is pretty rowdy. I’ve been told people will pick a fight just to fight. I find that hard to believe," he laughs. “But it’s a good image! I’ve been tempted several times to go." A woman “active," hearing Lakeside mentioned, voices her opinion. “That was a heavy-duty place. It was roughneck. My ex played in a band there for ten months. They always protected the musicians. Anybody done anything to the musicians, everyone in the club would come down on them. But the place has really mellowed. It still has a reputation, that’s its problem.”
A visit to the hotel on a recent Saturday night revealed a relaxed and calm atmosphere. On one table a fat purring brindle cat dozed among beer bottles. The Shadow Riders, potentially one of the hottest bands in town despite having been together only three months, keened and wailed out funky cowboy rip-it-up guitar solos for dancers, listeners, and couples in the back shooting pool. Nobody was hitting anybody, and nobody appeared to be drawing straws.
Knight, who is out in country nightclubs and bars several nights a week doing KSON promotions, says it has been more than a year since he saw a fight in a country bar. Beeunas admits that every six or seven months a fight breaks out at Wrangler's Roost, adding that “the image of country bars being real rowdy isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be.” Whether you have fights or not has more to do with management than entertainment format, Beeunas says, making a point all country bar-hoppers make, that rock places, because they typically cater to a younger crowd, are more prone to violent outbreaks than country nightclubs. (The typical age of patrons in his club, Beeunas figures, is between twenty-eight and forty-five.)
“People who come here help police the conduct,” Beeunas says. “They'll tap you on the shoulder if you are out of hand, and say ‘If you don’t settle down, somebody from management will speak to you.’” Beeunas won’t hire hulking bouncers. “If you have big, intimidating people walking around looking like they are looking for a problem, a problem is going to find them. With alcohol and some people you will get a guy who is five-eight and weighs 160. You give him six beers, all of a sudden he's eight feet tall and bulletproof. You get this five-foot eight-inch guy going up to your doorman who’s six-six and saying, ‘Lets go outside.' That’s one reason I don't hire brute types for the door.”
Many country nightclub fights start out as hair-pullers between women. In one country bar ladies' room (the doors to the women's room in country bars don't ever read “Women,” but always, “Ladies”), an overheard conversation hints at what starts fights. Briskly combing out her long red hair, static electricity crackling with each stroke of the aqua comb, one woman yells to another that somebody named Earl had “upped and gone off with that goddamn bitch, an’ she practically had her of joy juice runnin' down her jeans 'fore they got out the door. They were rubbin’ like dogs.”
Her friend, her pink mouth set in a perfect 0, suggests in a hushed tremulous alto, “She's prob’ly goin' to give him clap."
“Shit," the redhead responds, sticking her comb back into her hip pocket, “I hope she gives him fuckin' AIDS."
A third woman comes in, checks her face in the mirror, and hearing this exchange, says, “Isn't there always some jerk aching to have his butt kicked, is my theory."
Wrangler's Roost on a Thursday night is full of “actives" — men and women who come three, four, even five or six nights a week. Sitting around a table set on one of the banquettes, these regulars talk about the country scene. “In San Diego you either have to develop a hard-core clientele like this place has or go with the latest fad. This place has a lot of regulars but it's not cliquish," says Phil, a thirty-five-year-old spa salesman and sax player in a brown cowboy hat with a feather stuck in its band. Phil has liked country since he was a youngster listening to Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya" and Louisiana governor Jimmy Davis's “You Are My Sunshine." He admires Steer Crazy, the Wrangler’s house band (“Consistent — real solid"), likes to dance, and has taken dance lessons, including clogging. He comes to Wrangler’s Roost because, he says, “You don’t have to know a lot of people to have a good time. It's real open." He would like to play music for a living, but cannot afford it, he says, given the pay scale. (A band earns S250 to $375 per night in larger clubs. The Shadow Riders at the Lakeside Hotel make $165 per night.)
Linda, in her Alabama T-shirt, jeans, and boots, mixes elegance and enthusiasm on the dance floor. She's been a regular here for two years, coming four, five, occasionally even six nights a week. “To me this is home. This is what I do for fun besides things I do for my daughter." Linda works in the rental department of a medical supply house, is divorced, and lives in Santee with her eight-year-old daughter. Linda came to San Diego from Ohio eleven years ago, when she was sixteen, and while it's probably not Ohio, she talks with
a country twang to her voice. “Wrangler's Roost is kept in order and there’s no crap," she says. “I like to be in a place where you don't have to be worried about being hit in the head. You can bring your mother in here and you don't have to worry about her. I bring my mother in here, and I sit her up in one of these booths and she’s mom to everyone, and she parties, and she has fun."
“My mom would go for it, too," Phil interjects.
“You can bring rock and rollers in here and they have a good time,” Linda continues. “You'd be surprised. I’ve converted a lot of people to country.
“Before I started coming here, I went to Magnolia Mulvaney's. I took my clogging lessons there.” Linda liked Mulvaney's, she says, complaining that many country nightclubs are “an uppity-type situation. I cannot handle going into a place and feeling strangled by rules. I can't stand that feeling of ‘you can't, you can’t, you can’t.' We come to these places to have fun. But Mulvaney's, that was good… They had some of the best bouncers in San Diego. They were good to people, easygoing, but they knew their stuff. Just like here.”
Aaron Latham wrote in his Esquire article, “An urban cowboy doesn't have to know how to brand or rope, but he must know how to dance,” and when talk turns to dancing, Linda suggests, “People like us almost have a sickness. We have to dance. It’s like alcoholics or something. Especially clogging. I have to dance. A lot of times if I'm tired and I’m gonna come out, I go upstairs to get ready and I'll turn the music on, and something happens. All of a sudden I’m ready to go"
Other than clogging, Linda never took lessons. “I always just learned out on the floor. Not very many people can dance with somebody they haven't danced with before and pick it up quick. It's like a thrill to me to be able to do that. But then you start getting picky. You sit and you watch for a good dancer ”
“Someone,” Phil explains, “who is light on her feet, so that it feels like you're doin' it together. You just start floating.”
“The only thing to it is don't lift up your feet,” Linda says. “You just slide. Some people can't learn it. Either you have it or you don't, not like rock where you can do anything. This is totally different ” She points toward the dance floor, where couples sweep across the floor, moving with hypnotic fluidity to the pulse of Anne Murray's “Can I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life?” “Watch the feet action,” Linda says. “You tell a smooth dancer by how they glide their feet.”
Phil explains that several years ago the men danced in an older style. “They took a posture, and held themselves stiffly. Now it is a more relaxed Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movement.” He points toward a particularly graceful couple on the dance floor. “See? They glide. They never bounce.”
On Sundays and Tuesdays Ken Beeunas and his wife and two other couples offer free country dance lessons, a practice the club began eight years ago, “when there was nobody doing it,” Beeunas says. He admits that “dancing's one thing I thought would never last.” When Urban Cowboy appeared, other clubs began to hire Beeunas’s teachers, so he took on teaching. “I said, ‘This thing can’t last that long. I will go ahead and learn to do this, and after a year or so it will fade away and I won’t mess with it anymore.’ That was six years ago. We still get sixty-five to eighty-five people a night.
“There’s a lot to country dances. But to begin to learn how to country dance? You can learn that in two nights if you want to. We have people who have been coming to dance lessons for three, four years now. They come out and take dance lessons because it’s a good way to meet people.”
Line dances, Beeunas explains, are somewhat structured with basic guidelines for what the group will do, and they also offer room for individuality. Routines for clogging groups are more structured, almost choreographed. Clogging, Beeunas says, is not something you watch somebody do out on the floor and then copy. Wrangler’s Roost does not allow people to wear the clogging taps on their dance floor. “It's real hard on the floor. We don’t teach clogging because it’s hard to learn if you can't hear the taps. People here clog without taps. We’d as sewn let other clubs teach them to clog and tear up their dance floors.”
The keystone holding together the country scene, what's at the heart of country, is the country song. Latham wrote that country music is “the city cowboy's Bible, his literature, his self-help book, his culture. It tells him how to live and what to expect.” Dancing-obsessed Linda puts it this way. “I can be down and I turn the radio on and listen to it and I can almost relate to every song I hear. It can sit there on you and say, ‘Whoa.’ Anymore, to me, country is what makes sense. It's everyday living. Some of this rock and roll, my eight-year-old daughter April listens to, some of the lyrics to some of those songs, I think, my God, what’s going on? It’s just not for me.”
KSON's Mike Shepherd suggests, “The stories are the reason that people listen. It’s not all cheatin' and drinkin’. It does talk about hurtin', feelin' good, what it’s really like to cope with the Eighties. If music does not tap you on an emotional level, then you are listening to noise. I like to say that music and radio provide soundtracks for people’s lives. People go through life just like they’re in a movie, and music sets the stage for them, at least subconsciously. People do get hurt, do fall in love, are dedicated to one another, do get terribly depressed. Music reinforces what they are going through and provides underlying rhythm and reassurance that whatever they’re going through — good, bad, or indifferent — it’s okay. There are people, I am sure, who do wake up somewhere on some mornings feeling like they're ‘the happiest girl in the whole USA,' as corny as that sounds.” A good country song, says Shepherd’s former boss, Dan McKinnon, “is a three-minute soap opera.”
You don’t look for country on a map. You couldn’t call it Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, or Texas, says Knight, who suggests you’d have to call it a place in the heart. To “be country,” he explains, is not about wearing boots and hats and jeans or driving a pickup truck, not about anything you can count up, not anything you can really put your finger on. “It is not necessarily that you live in the country or on a ranch or out in the sticks somewhere,” he says. “It’s what you feel inside.”