San Diegans at the Renegade explain country music

Out there on the dance floor is a bit of paradise

Bob and Grace kissing, Dodie and Jimmy in middle. Grace: "I grew up on the Motown sound. But around the house I love opera, especially Turandot."
  • Bob and Grace kissing, Dodie and Jimmy in middle. Grace: "I grew up on the Motown sound. But around the house I love opera, especially Turandot."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
  • 4:00 p.m. Saturday evening: “Honky Tonk Heroes”
  • Where did it go?
  • Good Lord only knows.
  • Seems like it was just the other day.

(Waylon Jennings, 1973)

People come here not just to drink but to dance and play a little pool.

People come here not just to drink but to dance and play a little pool.

The Renegade Inn is many things, but you don’t notice that yet. When you first step inside the huge darkened barn of a room you swallow a mouthful of air tainted and slightly sodden from a hundred thousand smoked cigarettes. This is your first taste of the place, located on Old Highway 80 near Flinn Springs. Inside you find you’re facing the bar, which is straight ahead and looks miles away. Top lit by a mellow light, the bar’s massive bulk is home to maybe a dozen customers, mostly men, who appear to find connection with it like so many pale-faced Ahabs grappled onto Moby Dick’s back. The usual string of liquor bottles is on display, the taps for dispensing draft beer, the buffed dark wood. A yellow-haired woman, the bartender, wears a white blouse that beckons like neon.

Mary and Pat. Mary agrees with Pat: they like country-western because they can understand the words.

Mary and Pat. Mary agrees with Pat: they like country-western because they can understand the words.

You don’t see the pool table to the right, the dance area to the left, the immense TV screen that lies against the wall like a king-sized sheet. There is a dart board behind you and a jukebox just inside the door to your left; there are a dozen tables and four times that many chairs scattered about and a bright Miller Lite display hanging from the ceiling, but you don’t see any of this at the moment because you’re thinking that you must smell funny because at the bar the men and a couple of women have all turned, moved by that preternatural gift for instantly sniffing the intrusive stink of The Outsider that happens in this case to be you. And when the bartender looks up, perhaps catching from the corner of her eye the awkward gait of your hesitation and calls out something, you miss what she says and hear, instead, the chorus from a Waylon Jennings song on the jukebox:

At the Renegade there is an easy flow of conversation.

At the Renegade there is an easy flow of conversation.

  • Lovable losers, no account boozers,
  • and honky tonk heroes like me...

At the bar, you order a beer and ask for Claude, who owns the place; and while you wait, sipping your watery Bud, you are allowed to sink into an elaborate anonymity that is just a ruse because you know everybody’s secretly got his eye on you. They have already heard you ask for (and be told, sorry, we don’t carry) one of those sissified European beers with the funny foreign names nobody can wrap his tongue around. This was more or less the last nail hammered in your coffin, don’t you just know it, and this came after you’d been given the quick once-over and been found, in evidence compiled from head to toe, to belong to the Valley, maybe the Beach, or (God help you) even farther up the coast toward L.A.; so with places like the Renegade being, as they are, little village hotbeds of gossip and intrigue, the big question hovering in that stale air is “What is somebody like you doing in a place like this?”

The bartender is ordained by profession, like the priest, to nose around and ask leading questions. Thus, perched on their stools, the customers (at this hour, probably what you’d more likely call regulars) are prepped for her to perform her droit du seigneur, but so as not to look too' hungry for the news, so to speak, she will be inclined to lead in with something about the heat of the day, perhaps the state of the economy, or, hey, what about those Chargers?

At least that’s how you feel. And when suddenly, out of dark soil somewhere, the title of Hank Williams’s 1986 hit “Mind Your Own Business” blooms like a bright peony to lie unspoken on your tongue, you realize that something funny is happening at the cellar level of your mind, the subconscious, but at the moment you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.

The bartender, meanwhile and however, knows her stuff and does not pop the question — any question — right away: she is otherwise engaged with the woman holding a steaming cup between her hands. Sitting on her stool like-a plump squab nesting, she looks middle-aged but you may be wrong (she could be younger), because your eyes aren’t used to the light yet, and the woman, dressed in genderless jeans and extra-large T-shirt that hangs below the hips, is clearly not feeling well, and that makes a difference.

“The chamomile tea will settle your stomach, honey,” says the bartender.

Her chin tucked in, the other woman mumbles something into her ample, featureless bosom. From her neighbors to the right and left, tones of murmuring concern bat the air like moths in fluttery descent. The ailing woman takes a sip of her chamomile tea and raises dark, grateful eyes to the bartender. She has the slightly glazed look of the long-term drinker.

“Yes,” she mumbles.

The bartender pats her hand, calls her honey, and tells her to just drink up, and then, now, turns to you, the newcomer, the outsider. Her smile is wide and impersonal. It cannot altogether light up her face, for she has seen too much behind this bar and in the wide world for that sort of profligacy, and besides, she is on duty, and what she is about to do should not be taken personally: she is just doing her job. The smile does recall, for those with imagination, that summer afternoon 20 years before, when she stood smiling in sunlight; it was at Mission Beach, and her 16-year-old body was tight and next to untouched, her hair was bleached a lustrous natural blond, and her smart teenage eyes were still an untroubled sky blue. Johnny Cash singing “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” — you recall this and the date (1957) at the same time it strikes you that your mind is playing games, making tiny neat stitches, back and forth, like a silver embroidering needle, threading together the real and present moment with the titles of country-western songs. Your mind may not always compute the year the song was a hit, and you know the title is often only an oblique reference to what the song speaks of, but that sort of logic doesn’t matter when your mind is into a trick-playing mode like this.

You’ve learned that it doesn’t help to worry too much about what is happening, so that when, just now, Charlie Rich’s “Rollin’ with the Flow” comes to mind, you take your cue and decide to do just that.

“Claude is sure to be right with you,” says the bartender, waving a white flag of acknowledgment that says that unlike the others here, as an outsider you probably imagine yourself to be so important and so busy as to require a steady stream of people stroking your ego and telling you just a minute and it won’t be more than a moment now. Or something like that. She runs a small towel over the bar top, a character actress with her prop in an Okie version of Cheers. Along the bar, like barnyard hens sensing the approach of the cock,■the others rustle in anticipation. “Act naturally,” you remind yourself (echoing the title of the Buck Owens hit), because yes, you can feel it coming right about...

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she says.

And just then the telephone rings.

Maybe it is a call she has been waiting for, and maybe not; certainly she is used to this kind of thing, because in one deft gesture, she picks up the receiver and is instantly engaged in a conversation that is surely familiar not only to her and to the others at the bar, but even (strange as it seems) to you. And how about that?

“Didn’t I tell you to do what the baby sitter says?” Her voice, twisted with maternal concern and salty with parental frustration, flattens out like a pretzel thin enough to snap. “Tell your brother I don’t want to come home and beat his butt.”

This is a conversation she has had before, one that the others at the bar have heard before; an air of unspoken support covers you and everyone else like a cuddly blanket. While listening to the conversation, it strikes you that there is something special about this place. Here someone under the weather gets a little personal care; here the bartender, an overworked mother (and probably a single parent), is supported in her remote-control efforts to raise a couple of decent kids. You cannot but approve of this.

“You were looking for me?”

Claude has appeared from the back. He is slightly built and dressed in soiled jeans and shirt. A cap shades dark eyes that dart about nervously. What seems a natural friendliness is overlaid with an eagerness to please, so you trust him and wonder if you should, both at once. You are introducing yourself at the same time the bartender hangs up the phone and turns. She has lost interest in you, her eyes momentarily stuck on some image of her children at the other end qf that dead telephone connection. It is your turn, however, to smile, for this place feels suddenly — what can you say? Certainly you can’t call it “home,” not yet, and maybe not ever, but maybe it’s like being in a favored cousin’s house when you were 11, or your grandparents’, or wherever you were free to go into the refrigerator without asking, wherever the sense of being separate was gone, where the sense of “you” disappeared.

6:00 p.m. Saturday Evening: “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”

  • Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re hard to hold.
  • They’d rather give you a song Rather than diamonds and gold.

(Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, 1978)

A lot can be learned in a couple of hours. At one end of the bar, to the right, is home to the regulars. They call it the No Slack Saloon. Those who have paid enough in time and alcohol consumption to have earned the right to sit there spend desultory hours monitoring the comings and goings of the other customers, and, as they like to say, they don’t give anyone any slack. They also help to keep the peace.

Live fast, die young, and leave behind a good-lookin’ corpse. This was once the credo of most of the men and women who find their way into the Renegade. Old fans of rock ’n’ roll, one day they woke up and found they were no longer so young and (in the frank manner of the No Slack Salooners) no longer quite so good to look at. Had they waited too long to die, they wondered, missing that window of opportunity that closes after about age 32? Yet the live-fast-die-young line is not a rock ’n’ roll original anyway, it was borrowed from country singer Faron Young’s 1955 hit, “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.” Which in a roundabout way may help to explain why the men and women who will be circling the dance floor in a couple of hours, or those now jammed against the long oak bar, or those soon found shooting pool or throwing darts or on the phone explaining to their wives how they got held up but that they’re sure to be on their way home soon — that is, all who find themselves within earshot of the jukebox or the bandstand, are like the Gene Autry 1930 classic, “Back in the Saddle Again.” Country music has put them there.

The Renegade has been around for something like ten years. There is a tack and feed store around back. For years, well before Claude took over, there used to be a restaurant. But that’s gone. Still, almost everybody in East County knows about the place, but not nearly so many visit. This is because the Renegade has a reputation. Rumors of fights are true, if exaggerated. (Regulars explain that fights occur usually when the rodeo is in town, that they’re not your locals; and, yes, sometimes a few of the customers can be, as a No Slack Salooner admitted, “obnoxious pains in the ass.”) But the real source of the aversion, why people stay clear, is what might be called an aesthetic thing. Like the country-western music played here, the Renegade quite literally does not hide behind that generic tyranny of the latest urban middle-class version of good taste. The tavern is in-your-face like Willie Nelson with his red bandanna, like Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas glitter and Johnny Cash in his black suits, like Minnie Pearl wearing house dresses and hats from which the price tags dangle, like Dolly Parton with her blond wigs and all the rest to which she alludes in her well-known line: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” It isn’t bad enough that the building is painted barn red with yellow trim and “Renegade” its lurid span. Adding insult to aesthetic injury, it has chosen to top itself with a life-size stallion, in alabaster white fiberglass, rearing from the roof, kicking at the sky. And there is the name itself: Renegade.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term came into the language in 1665 as “one who deserts a party, person, or principle in favor of another; a turncoat.” Today, “renegade” has taken on the gloss of cool individualism, a spectacular latter-day solitariness to which are added equal doses of an unhappy history (usually meant to be kept secret), a quest for justice, and telegenic good looks: in a word, the TV

loner. And, as it happens, according to Claude, the tavern was used in the Lorenzo Lamas pilot for the TV series of the same name.

“It’s funny,” he says, recalling one of those real-life twists that seem stranger than fiction, “our tavern name was already up there and would have been a natural tie-in, but they covered it up and called the bar something else in the pilot.”

The television action series Renegade shares much with the music that has made the Renegade tavern popular cheap thrills (“Wreck on the Highway” by Roy Acuff), tenderhearted j in -goism (“American Mode” by the Oak Ridge Boys and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver), easy vice (“A Six Pack to Go” by Hank Thompson), depthless dialogue (“I Can’t Get Over You to Save My Life” by Lefty Frizzell) — not to be mistaken for plain ole corny banter (“If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” by the Bellamy Brothers)—and situations whose sexual suggestiveness reaffirms the majority’s long-standing moral code (“Daddy, Come and Get Me” by Dolly Parton). The music is sentimental and draws unashamedly on our emotions.

  • Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old days.
  • Sometimes it feels like the world’s gone crazy.
  • Grandpa, take me back to yesterday when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy.

(The Judds, 1986) .

If life’s rich mystery and the unending distraction offered in personal relationships is to be reduced, say, to the sentimental summary offered in Waylon Jennings’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” heard on the jukebox a couple of hours ago, hey! don’t knock it. It works.

The place that was first seen as only a bar has opened up, not like a flower (an image much too prettified and precious for the Renegade) but like a stage set. The first act takes place at the bar. The second act (so often the least consequential) will be at the game area, pool table, and dart board. The third act unfolds on the dance floor.

The wood dance floor is scuffed smooth from use; big coal-black amplifiers in a corner mark the setup for tonight’s band, Kennard and Miller. There is the pool table with dark green felt surface. The sinful prohibitions of Grandpa Judd’s time are all here: drinking, dancing, and opportunities to gamble (besides pool and darts, an electronic card game holds a place at the bar). And there is something else, another prohibition that is much in evidence and that gives ample proof that time seems not to have much intruded here. Hasn’t anyone heard of the Surgeon General’s Warning on the Dangers of Cigarette Smoking?

  • Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
  • Puff, puff, puff and if you puff yourself to death
  • Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate
  • That you hate to make him wait but you just gotta
  • have another cigarette.

(Merle Travis and Tex Williams, 1947)

Fifty years ago “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” was Capitol’s first million-selling record. That Tex Williams, the song’s composer and “purveyor,” died of a smoking-related cancer in 1985 is a bit of irony that looks likely to be lost on this crowd.

Sunshine makes plants grow. Fluorescent light is so that office workers will work. The low-watt overhead light of bars also has its function. It wraps the place, and its patrons, in a nostalgic amber glow that is known to elicit acts of ongoing self-indulgence (“Addicted” by Dan Seals): Bluntly, it’s a “drinkin’ thing” — the title of a Wayne Carson tune. Here at the Renegade, that honey gold light affords generous shadowy recesses for a deliberate privacy (“I Gotta Get Drunk” by Willie Nelson). The bar stools sag a little where so many other butts have sat, their owners engaged in that place’s signal activity (“What’s Made Milwaukee Famous [Has Made a Loser Out of Me]” by Jerry Lee Lewis).

But this is not a place just to sit and get drunk.

At the Renegade there is an easy flow of conversation that invites intimacies and echoes the music on the jukebox: (“She’s Actin’ Single [I’m Drinkin’ Doubles] ” by Wayne Carson or “She Got the Goldmine [ I Got the Shaft]” by Jerry Reed), griefs (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams), the struggle against temptation (“Please, Help Me, I’m Falling [In Love with You] ” by Hal Blair and Don Robertson), and the general angst of contemporary culture to which even encampment in this hideaway offers no certain immunity (“Make the World Go Away” by Eddy Arnold).

Sure the bar may be purgatorial, a site of suffering, retri-butional recall, and, of course, a place to tie one on; but only a few feet a fray, out there on the dance floor, is a bit of paradise. (How closely linked are sin and salvation.) Claude says to stick around.

“Saturday night we always can expect to have a good crowd.”

Claude, who recently took over the place, charges no cover, and his bartenders pour a good drink. There is popcorn at the bar and homemade food on warming trays. On holidays, he puts out a good spread, and on special occasions like New Year’s there are plenty of party favors.

“For $10 we got a spread that would stand up against anything you get in Mission Valley,” says one happy regular. “Here it’s like a family. In some bars if you ask for water, you pay. A pitcher maybe costs you a dollar fifty. Not here. It’s free, and while, sure, that may not sound like much, when you think back to how your mama made you a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, now that wasn’t much neither, as things go, but didn’t it make you feel special?”

It is generally agreed that it is because Claude treats his customers well that he draws from so much of the East County. With folks residing in Alpine, Blossom Valley, Harbison Canyon stopping by on their way home, the bar has been steadily filling. But the much-awaited dancing seems to have receded even further into the night. Instead, Mac Allen is setting up for karaoke, a prerecorded series of musical selections in which persons sing along, cued to the words that automatically appear on the king-sized screen.

“It’s not just some ‘filler’ before the dancing,” says Mac Allen (who goes by both names). “People really love it. It helps to make this place what I call a ‘country club,’ ” he adds, raising a powerful handyman’s arm to take in the big, barnlike structure. A beefy, good-looking man with a black cowboy hat, pale skin, and a resemblance to Tom Mix, the early movie cowboy, Mac Allen speaks with a drawl that is a pleasant echo of a childhood spent in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“What with the artifacts, sure I call this a ‘country club.’ People come here not just to drink but to dance and play a little pool and sing with the karaoke and just generally have a good time. But because of the music, that’s really why I call it a ‘country club.’ ”

Mac Allen has long-time connections to show business. When he was four, he was on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and later The Ed Sullivan Show. A musical prodigy whose career got stalled after high school and gospel quartets, today he performs locally. He says he means to go to Nashville and record, the songs he writes. In the meantime he gets by with a little handy-man stuff and, for the last 11 years, running his karaoke that he calls “The Mac Allen Show.” “The most requested song I get,” he says, indulging in his habit of repeating each question put to him, “is Garth Brooks’s ‘Friends in Low Places.’ ” Mac Allen is about to sing a piece of that song when, all at once, a crowd barrels into the club and the noise level skyrockets. The men have traded their slicks for cowboy boots, their shirts and slacks and narrow Gucci belts for snap shirts and Wranglers and wide belts with silver buckles. The ladies (never referred to as “women” here) appear in gathered skirts, lace, a few with intemperate hair, and some in tight pants (“Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” by Mel McDaniel). The

Renegade is about to turn magical, which is to say the place is preparing to lift up like a candy-striped kite, shaking loose the airless currents of love and loss (“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle), advancing age (“Backside of Thirty” by John Conlee), and career (“Take This Job and Shove It” by Johnny Paycheck) that is the stuff of the music itself.

Linda, her blond hair pulled back in a no-nonsense pony-tail, has a figure and persona slimmed to a size called “pert.” A former waitress and bartender here, she knows the place, the customers, and the music. She loves the old stuff (Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline) and has an easy storytelling style.

“I got a question for you,” she says. “Do you know what you get when you play country-western music backwards?” She pauses over her question, her timing good. “You get your house back and your dog back and your job back and you r wife back!” she says, and laughs.

Country music recognizes both its market and its draw. B.J. Thomas put his finger on die matter in 1975 when he recorded his “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” It is this self-awareness, the willingness to bathe in the emotion of the moment while at the same time taking neither the emotion nor the moment altogether too seriously (“That’s the Way Love Goes” by Merle Haggard) that gives country its sustaining power. In a feat of marketing know-how and artistic endeavor, country music has successfully managed to appear naive.

As the club fills, the pool table starts to see action. Tomorrow (“Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash) will offer an easygoing tournament with players buying each other beer and exchanging casual conversation. Men and women, serious game players, will arrive like gunslingers with their own cues pouched in leather cases. Tonight, in the meantime, players take their pool cues from the rack. The karaoke music is going and the bar is jammed and a pair, cueing at the pool table for a friendly game, have to scoot around the crowd and say excuse me excuse me just to break (much less make a shot).

At the microphone—with everyone on a first-name basis here (“We don’t know each other by our last names, and we don’t care”)—Bob is just Bob. He is a karaoke star. At 45, he has an opaque, laid-back look that inspires confidence, which seems essential for someone who, like him, is an engineer for Amtrak. But just give him a mike.

Grace, a pretty, dark-haired woman who lives with Bob, shakes her head in wonder watching him belt out something that gets garbled in the hubbub. It is clear from across the room that he is having fun. “We’re so different,” she says, musing. “I was raised on the East Coast and grew up on the Motown sound. But around the house I love opera, especially Turandot, and when I play it, Bob says, ‘I could murder somebody right now!’ I mean, here I am playing my opera and he’s starring in karaoke.”

When Bob stops crooning, applause comes from the right end of the bar. Bob holds membership in the No Slack Saloon, and his friends enjoy seeing one of their own out there having fun. The applause is enough to entice Bob to sing another song. And another. The Mac Allen Show includes country-western and pop tunes of the last 20 years. Bob goes for the pop stuff.

“I’ve got probably a couple of thousand CDs and albums at home,” he says, after finally handing the mike over to Mac Allen. His face is flushed. “I used to play guitar in a rock ’n’ roll garage band, and today I’m more into blues and jazz.” (Among his friends, as evidence of the affection in which he is held, Bob is accepted even though it is recognized that he is not a country-western fan.)

“It is the people who are produced, not the music,” he says, marshaling support for his nay-saying attitude to country music. “They don’t write their own music. Instead, they have the looks, the personality; they are a commodity that can be sold. Take Billy Ray Cyrus. He looks like he just got off the dude ranch.”

Dick, who will arrive for the dancing a little later, has loved country-western most of his life, and, like the Davis Sisters’ 1953 hit “I Forgot More than You’ll Ever Know,” knows a lot about the country-western scene.

“About Billy Ray Cyrus,” he will say, “sure, it happened that the song, the video, and the dance were all marketed at the same time, and this gave him some immediate visibility. And sure, he’s a nice-looking kid. But he had been singing for years by then—most of these singers get their start in church. And if he didn’t pay his dues before, he’s paying them now. Anybody in the country:music business knows they’ve got to be in for the long haul.”

And besides, Billy Ray Cyrus wasn’t half bad for the industry. Five years ago the huge success of the line dance created to promote Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” spawned a renaissance of country-and-western dancing in clubs across the nation. Country music producers began to concentrate on dance rhythm albums while new line dances sprouted in the biggest boom for new dances since the Cotton-Eyed Joe in the 1940s. New dance steps hitting the hardwood in 1992 included the Boot Scootin’ Boogie, the Cheatin’ Heart, Breaking the Bank, the Cowboy Hip Hop, the LeDoux Shuffle, and the Cleopatra. With older dances like the Ski Bum-pus, the Tush Push, and the Reggae Cowboy resurfacing, virtually every major dance record came out with its own new dance. None, however, caught on quite as well as the Boot Scootin’ Boogie and Cyrus’s Achy Breaky.

The line dance craze hit the country music industry like a sudden summer squall. In time it passed on. And the industry can handle the debate about marketing and production. The music was here, after all, before the industry. It was in the rhythm of the rocking chair and the wagon wheel, the square dance and the lumber camp, the quilting bee, the roundup, the harvest, the songs of courtship and worship from rural America. The music evolved from the folksongs and fiddle tunes of the very first settlers.

When slavery brought musicians from Africa, the music of the African and American cultures was mingled. Successive immigration brought the Irish lyric and the lilting melody; the lively dance and sense of beat

(as well as the accordion) came from the Nordic and German settlers; the vaquero brought his guitar The minstrel show brought a sense of show business and madcap fun; the Great Revival brought powerful new religious songs. In the face of such a cavalcade, pretty boys and girls parading for MTV with guitars slung over their shoulders seeking crossover appeal seem like small fry indeed.

But what makes a song, especially in the case of crossover appeal, “country”? Is it the singer? The song? The band? The region where the song was recorded? The “message”? Maybe the problem of definition is best approached by looking at the country music audience, the people at the Renegade bar and around the pool table and the dancers filing into the club on this otherwise uneventful warm summery Saturday evening.

Throughout its history, country music, with all its styles and subgenres, has usually appealed to a cohesive group of people with certain attitudes and lifestyles in common. According to Martha Hume, author of an irreverent, informative guide to country music called You’re So Cold I’m Turnin’ Blue, “rock ’n’ roll often works as a force to change the way its audience thinks or feels; country music served to validate ideas and attitudes already extant. Country music has been a unifying force, an expression of ‘we are all alike.’ ”

The country music audience was, until recently, made up of people who were born and raised in rural settings in the South or Southwest or people whose families had migrated to Northern cities from rural areas in the South. In general, this audience was composed of working-class whites who were patriotic, politically and reli-

giously conservative, and who professed to believe in the “old-fashioned” virtues.

“Country” is a term applied to a wide spectrum of music that includes the Bakersfield sound, bluegrass, Cajun, con-junto, country blues, country-and-western, folk music, gospel music, hard country, hillbilly music, honky tonk music, the Nashville sound, old-time music, outlaw country, progressive country, rockabilly, singing cowboy music, Southern rock, string band music, the Texas sound, Tex-Mex country, Western string, and zydeco. With much of this list more than 15 years old (“Fifteen Years Ago” by Conway Twitty), “country music” is so stylistically broad that it is all but impossible to define with any categorical precision.

Don’t even attempt to ask those who are here for the dancing. They make no claim for categorical precision. They know what they like and why they like it.

“Country music tells stories,” says Gloria, an accountant for the superior court. “I was with rock ’n’ roll until the stuff got too far out,” says Mike, her husband and a county real estate appraiser. “And then one day I went to a country-western bar, and suddenly I could understand what they were saying.”

While Gloria and Mike (actually, it should be “Mike and Gloria,” for at the Renegade all references to couples begin with the man’s name) look like a comfortable middle-class couple, Pat and Mary, some 20 years older, seem to be from an altogether different, irreverent world — like kids too big for Halloween trick-or-treating but still out there ringing doorbells and grabbing the candy. He is approaching senior citizen status, sporting a Salvador Dali mustache waxed to curl up at each end and a cowboy hat that covers a shiny bald pate. Mary, his date, is a grandmother who looks like a white-haired Sally Field, especially when she smiles — which she does when lifting her skirt to show her garter.

“Don’t let age fool you or fool with you,” says Mary, winking and dropping her skirt like a veil, at once returning to the cozy image of a cookie-baking grandma. She agrees with Pat: they like country-western because they can understand the words.

“Country swing touches the younger people,” says Linda, the pert former waitress/bar-tender. “The sadder stuff hits the older folks more. Country-western is real and heartful. It’s . what happens in people’s lives. Crying. Dying. Maybe it comes out depressing sometimes, but it is something you can relate to.”

With each song a short story, the material speaks quietly what may be called its generally accepted verities. Reflective in manner, oddly unperturbed in tone, it is a form in which American humanism finds a voice. Wry wisdom, muted humor, and frequently a downbeat, pensive, deceptively rambling tone — this is “country music.”

Before he died, Townes Van Zandt, father of the Texas folk/country music of the past two decades (and guru to artists such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle) said, “Two words can be poetry. And if you add one note on a guitar, you’ve got a song. It’s not nearly as difficult as everybody thinks.”

9:45 p.m. Saturday Night: “Why Walk When You Can Fly?”

  • In this world there’s a whole
  • lot of trouble.
  • In this world there’s a whole lot of pain.
  • In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble but
  • A whole lot of ground to gain.
  • Why take when you can be giving?
  • Why watch as the world goes by?
  • It’s a hard enough life to be living.
  • Why walk when you can
  • fly?

(Mary Chapin Carpenter,

1994)

The gentlemen stand beside the ladies, all facing the same direction. Each gentleman places his right arm behind the lady’s neck, with the weight of his arm resting lightly on her shoulders. His left arm is bent at a 90 degree angle and held directly in front of and across his stomach, his hand cupped with hers.

Both start with their left foot.

  • “Let us go then, you and I...”

The first line of the first poem in T.S. Eliot’s first book, a calming phrase that began the change of plot of modern English literature, has nothing on the “poetic” refinement of a good country-western ballad like Elvis Presley’s 1955 hit, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” But Eliot’s line is echoed by what starts now on the dance floor: “Let us go then, you and I...”

The dancers move forward on their right feet.

Emerson said that Americans need the boundless West to become themselves. “The land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false and fantastic in our culture.” In the absence of that boundlessness, there are here a few feet of dance floor and a dozen couples starting to move around it. Of course it is a conceit. These men are no more cowboys than their partners are cowgirls. They work in banks and bakeries, as university professors and insurance underwriters.

On the dance floor of the Renegade the men bring to mind Henry Fonda waltzing stiffly in My Darling Clementine and an aging Gary Cooper foregoing Grace Kelly to stand alone and for principle in High Noon; but especially they seem like John Wayne acting out a clash of cultures in The Searchers, the trauma of economic change in Red River, the pathos of social displacement in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

As for the women — pliable, sensual, mysterious, resilient, and, finally, as tough as any man — they are all Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, ready (if need be) to strip off that encumbering pale diaphanous gown for more practical men’s gear.

  • Stand by your man,
  • give him two arms to cling to
  • and something warm to come to
  • when nights are cold and lonely.

(Tammy Wynette, 1968)

The dancers move counterclockwise around the floor.

With their mix of electronic and traditional equipment, Kennard and Miller, the musicians, produce themes so fully pitched that it is like listening to a soundtrack of a film, a visual commentary on the largest themes of America’s history in its westward expansion: the “original sin” of seizing land from the Native Americans, the waves of immigration west — the trappers, miners, herders, ranchers, farmers; the play of overlapping new technologies— the stagecoach, the Conestoga wagon, the telegraph, the railroads, barbed wire; the relations of people with the land, of the individual with the community, of vigilante law to settled courts. The music sends the dancers through a pattern of long-short-short steps while documenting, in the metaphor of dance as change, the disappearance of the frontier, its reduction to a few square feet of dance floor: the cowboy roped in and civilized. Round and round the dancers move, patterns within patterns, giving definition to the American spirit as motion — graceful, lively — the man and his woman, roaming the landscape in an elegant loop, searching for space as an arena of freedom.

How quickly, of course, Main Street intruded. In a New Yorker article last year, Jonathan Raban described the “line of boxes, wood and brick, laid out on the prairie, transverse to the railroad line.... The half-built new towns, in which the typical business was a shed with a two-story trompe-l’oeil facade tacked on its front end, were architectural fictions, more appearance than reality,” boxy structures that “housed a post office, a hotel, a saloon, a general store, a saddlery, a barbershop, a church, a bank, a schoolhouse, and a jail. Beside the line, sites were earmarked for the grain elevator and the stockyard. A few shacks, and the city was done.”

The dancers do their steps, partners are traded, the music changes. Outside the wind might be rising, keening, in the long grass. Far off, the high-throated cry of coyotes is almost heard.

Writing of the Montana settlement, Raban notes that “each homestead needed between five and seven miles of fences. For every mile of fence, one needed to cut and haul some eleven hundred posts — in a country where timber grew in isolated pockets, often many miles from any homestead. The new arrivals lived and breathed fencing. It was hard, cold, tedious labor—a much bigger job than the building of a house and barns.”

“The fences are still a wonder. You can sight along a surviving line of posts, and not a single one is out of true, though the ground on which the/re set dips, roils, and breaks, and the unwavering vertical of the fence keeps on being lost to sight, then pops up again, exactly — but exactly—on its marks. People were proud of their fences. The fences were not merely functional. They were a statement of the belief that this unruly land could be subdued and civilized.” “It was like a fence,” Dick says, describing the scene in a Houston country-western club that had a dance floor so large it was set out like a racetrack with a rail all around the outside. “Folks would pull up their chairs and watch the couples. And in Indiana there was a place called Little Texas. It was originally the largest bowling alley in the state. When they converted it, they had this huge dance floor, a stage for performers, four food franchises, a clothing shop, and a lot more. There was even a mechanical bull, I think.” Dick looks around the Renegade. “But this seems just fine,” he says, beaming.

A small man who takes gargantuan pleasure in country music, Dick is elfin, almost petite, with short-cropped brown hair. At 54, and a neat fit in his Wranglers and boots, he has been couples-dancing for only the last six or seven years but has loved country music all his life. “I grew up on it,” he says (“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Barbara Mandrell). A manager for an auto-tech services company, Dick lives in Northern California with Shirley, his wife of 35 years. Whenever his job sends him on a trip, he says, he finds out where there is a country-western bar. Fairly bristling with pleasure, he attacks the Billy Ray Cyrus issue of slick

production. Like a grease monkey with a wrench bending over deep inside the engine compartment, intent on locating the source of an ongoing and irritating ping, he acknowledges that the phenomenal Cyrus hit of a few years back, the “Achy Breaky Line Dance,” was a consequence of good marketing but argues well for the idea that Cyrus is not, himself, a production toy. And he goes on:

“Country music will thrive wherever there is a radio and not a lot of city lights,” he says, yelling a little to be heard over the music and hubbub. “Diamonds and denim, boots and buckles,” he says, alliteratively. “That was what the last 15 years of country popularity was about. The movie Urban Cowboy tarted it all. But the music goes in and out of fashion. Maybe we’re starting to see the downside. People who like to dance aren’t always the same people who like to drink, and these places stay open because of the drinks.”

When asked about a favorite country song, Dick shakes his head. “How do you pick? How do you select a ‘favorite?’ I don’t think it’s possible.”

“The music is cyclical,” he says, speaking with the wisdom of years of affectionate listening. “It comes and goes. Which means it always comes back again.”

As the music volume drops, Kennard, in a white cowboy hat, promises a line dance after the break. In the pall, couples move about, greeting each other. Some go outside for air. Others head for the bar. Walt is there, tipping back his beer. A tall, graying man in his mid-50s, he sells investments as a venture capitalist and looks more like a businessman than a cowboy. His concession to any kind of dress code here is to unbutton the top two buttons of his white shirt. But if he does not look like everyone else, he carries the same saddlebags: strong opinions.

“I come to the Renegade because it’s got one of the best dance floors, and on top of that, it’s clean. And I come because of the guys in the band. Rob Ken-nard, he sounds exactly like Willie Nelson. And Terry Miller is a great guitarist.” Between the two of them, Walt says, they are the Everly Brothers of San Diego. “They play music that you can dance to all night long.”

Walt’s dance partner has drifted off. Mentioning sue grandchildren but no wife, he will sit out part of tonight’s dancing, the line dances. A confirmed two-stepper, he has a theory about line dancing, which he does not describe (unlike others here tonight) as the “ugly girl dance”:

“Line dancing is what people do when they can’t find anybody else to dance with,” he says. “It’s a way to get noticed so that they can get asked later on. There are guys who will do line dancing, but the girls want somebody to dance with, somebody to move ’em around the floor.”

As a sign of his disdain, Walt turns his back as the lines start forming on the dance floor. Behind the bar he finds something better to look at. Ilene has replaced the bartender who was here a couple of hours ago.

“Friday and Saturday nights are my shift,” she explains.

A mother of two, with a brash, in-your-face charm, Ilene runs a tight ship. She is 41 and not unwilling to mention her age, probably because she looks a good ten years younger. Moving up and down the bar, taking orders and talking over those who are trying to get her attention, she laughs, “I work too hard to worry about age. I don’t have time to get old!”

Ilene fills the waitress’s order for a couple of Dr. Peppers. “That’s a shot glass with mixture in it,” she says, demonstrating, “and then dropped into half a glass of beer. It’s called Dr. Pepper because it tastes like the soda. And you know how good that tastes,” she says, her mouth turned down. There are a slew of drinks with raunchy names like Duck Fart, but for the most part her requests are pretty traditional.

There are four bartenders at the Renegade. Three are blond; Ilene, alone, has dark hair. She is also the only one to show so many acres of cleavage. “My people expect it,” she says, speaking with a queenly possessiveness crowned by laughter. (The men’s eyes do indeed follow her up and down the bar.)

“I live in San Diego. I work in La Jolla, and I come to work here in East County after hours. And the reason I do is because this place is very special. I have nothing against the beach community, but the people out here are warmer and they have more respect. They don’t have any more fights here than they do at the beach. You get a lot of respect from the cowboys.”

A naturalized citizen originally from Germany, with a college background in interior design, Ilene says bartending two nights a week has helped incomewise in the raising of her two children. She is a single parent.

“Last night was dead, but tonight the band is hot.” She jeans over the bar, exposing a little more of her north 40 (“There Goes My Everything” by Jack Greene). “There are people here from out of town. There are a

couple of private parties going on.” (Somewhere there is a crash and a tinkle of glass, and instantly Claude, the puckish proprietor now in cowboy drag, with a mop and pail, darts into the crowd that parts to admit him and then closes in on itself.) Ilene looks out at the room hazy with smoke, loud talk, and laughter. Her smile, hardened a little from years of professional use, is still genuine.

“Generally, I’d say what we have here is a genuine kick-ass

crowd.”

12:15 a.m. Sunday Morning: “Killin’ Time”

This killin’ time is killin’ me, drinkin’ myself blind thinkin’ I won’t see.

Now if I cross that line when they bury me, well, I just might find I’m killin’ time for eternity. (Clint Black, 1989)

Forty-five minutes and the band will call it quits. That’s okay; Jimmy and Dodie have had a great time. Resembling young versions of Cher (that is, before cosmetic surgery) and Burt Reynolds (with hair), they share an easygoing way. Their relationship seems typical of many of the Renegade couples. Like so many others here (with the notable exception of Dick with his 35 years of happy marriage), Dodie has gone through an earlier

divorce.

Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today and me and little J-O-E will be going away.

I love you both and this will be pure h-e-double-1 for me;

Oh, I wish I could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

(Tammy Wynette, 1968)

Dodie was the mother of a little

girl when she met Jimmy 14 years ago. It was at a country-western dance and, like the title of the Ronnie Milsap song that had been a hit some six years earlier, “It Was Almost Like a Song.” “He was wearing John Denver glasses, and after a dance he gave me his cowboy hat.” Her face lights with the memory. “You have to understand what a big deal that is.”

“Basically, she taught me how to dance,” says Jimmy, who gives to the phrase the significance of metaphor, of their life together.

Earlier, Mike and Gloria, both married to others for more than 20 years, described how country-western dancing gives them something to do. (“Otherwise we’d be on our fat butts, sitting in front of the TV watching Cops. ”) They credit the country-western scene with helping to keep their marriage on track.

With country-western a key to Jimmy and Dodie’s first meeting, it was natural that they would have a country-western marriage ceremony. Jimmy’s gray tuxedo (sporting a “cowboy cut”) was flown in from Texas; he wore a gray cowboy hat. Dodie wore lavender, her cowboy hat dripping with lace.

He has worked at United Parcel Service for 21 years, and she oversees security for San Diego Gas & Electric. While they both work full-time, seldom do they let a week pass that they don’t make it to the Renegade.

Jimmy is something of a philosopher and likes the chance to meet friends and exchange ideas. Dodie is a recent karaoke fan.

“ ‘Mama, he’s crazy — ’ ” she sings the title of the Judds 1984 hit, her favorite, “ ‘crazy over me. Mama, he’s crazy, crazy over me. And in my life is where he says he always wants to be.’ ” Jimmy chimes in with George Strait’s more recent “I Cross My Heart,” messing-up the words until he gets to the repeating chorus, which he knows well enough:

  • I cross my heart and promise to give all I’ve got.
  • In all the world you’ll never find a love that’s true as mine.

At the bandstand, Kennard and Miller start another piece. It is a two-step and is likely to be the last dance of the evening. Here and there among couples at the bar, the talk seems to take a warmer note. In 1976 Mickey Gilley wrote “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Well, the times have changed, and the girls are finding the boys get cuter at about this time too. Jimmy and Dodie take off, wending their way through the thinning crowd, heading for the floor. With her go the fragrant traces of her perfume, Blush. The air suddenly feels heavier and smells staler.

On the dance floor, couples stretch and improvise a little, tacking down each corner of the parquet with a cute lift of the arm or a look over the shoulder.

It’s been a full night with a genuine kick-ass crowd.

Maybe it’s the cool night air, but outside, almost at once, before turning the key in the ignition, you discover that you are you again. How quickly it happens.

You steer carefully, making your way out of the cramped parking area. Turn left down the incline, and turn left again, crossing lanes, heading west for the I-8. So black and cool is the night. It has been eight hours and the masks and poses, the drinking, the dancing and the music, always the music, they are behind you: A Midsummer-night’s Dream:

  • Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
  • Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
  • That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
  • And ere a man hath power to say,
  • “Behold!”
  • The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
  • So quick bright things come to confusion.

You stick your head out the window and look back and think for an instant that it is moonlight pouring over that plastic stallion that rears back on the roof of the Renegade (“Blue Moon with Heartache” by Rosanne Cash). But there is no moon in the sky, not even a sliver. The horse is the symbol of the West and the freedom the frontier promised; but here both its material and illumination are man-made. With no moon, you draw your head inside and instantly smell the cigarette smoke that the draft of night air has loosened from your clothes, your hair, your skin. Barbara Mandrell had a hit in 1978 called “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” You smile thinking of the warm shower you will take before slipping between the cool sheets of your bed. You smile heading home. For no special reason, you are just smiling.

Hawkins Mitchell received a Wallace E. Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford.

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