Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Long Time Coming: Deepstep Rocks the Augusta Country Club

AUGUSTA, GA – It’s taken me more than two years since I first heard of this place, but I’m finally here at the Country Club. Even with the address in hand and a Google map printout, I almost missed the place, tucked in an old shopping center behind a Hooter’s on Washington Road. The signs are faded, so it doesn’t show up well while the sun’s setting on a Saturday evening.

The policewoman at the door checks my ID (a move always appreciated, although at my age, I doubt they think I’m under-age). I pay my $5 cover charge – accompanied by a chorus of “honey” and “darlin’” and an apology that I have to pay extra because there’s a live band tonight – and walk inside. It’s a typical cowboy-themed honky tonk: wooden walls, a wooden fence around the polished dance floor, three bars and the typical Western motif touches on the walls.

It’s 8:15 and weekend dance lessons are still in progress. Less than 20 folks are on the floor – mostly women, mostly 40s to 60s, but all trying to learn the steps through all the repetitions. I hunt for my first beer of the evening. The bartender says it’s $3 for a Miller Lite (luv that!), but cash only because she doesn’t have change or a credit card yet. So I take my first frosty bottle of the night and take a position along the rail next to the dance floor, close to the where the band is tuning their instruments. After the lesson ends, the Electric Slide brings out the jail bait.

Like most places, it’s still early here, but I like to come in before the crowds so I can check out the setting and get a feeling for the mood of the place. There’s maybe 50 people here and lots of tables, but more folks are filing in as show time approaches. There must be a prom tonight; limos pull up outside, and pimply boys in tuxes and blonds in sundresses pile in. (Aren’t they too young for this?) But the crowd is mostly hairless GIs from nearby Fort Gordon or big ole Georgia boys, all sharing tables with their ladies.

The band is called Deepstep (named for the town in Washington County that some of them call home, I learned later), and their repertoire is amazing. They open with “Honky Tonk Woman” and go straight into “The Race Is On.” Any band that can open with Stones and Jones is all right with me. There’s a bluesy version of Conway Twitty’s “Goodbye Time” that really blows me away. The girls in prom dresses crowd the stage for “Redneck Girl” and “Little More Country than That.” An older bald guy with a Confederate battle flag for a shirt comes out for the oldies. But everyone in the Country Club – which is standing room only by 11:00 – finds something they can dance to.

Everyone except me. I’ve made the fatal mistake of coming without a dance partner, and this place is packed with couples – college kids, GIs or big bubbas who I’m not going to cross. I usually come honky tonkin’ with a crowd but it’s worked out that none of my usual Honky Tonk Angels can join me tonight.

When the band takes a break, I hit the wall. I’d love to stay, but I’ve been on the road in Arkansas and now Augusta for seven days, and I’m exhausted. And a little lonely. Even with a friend in Louisiana emailing me and another sending Facebook messages while she huddles in the bathroom to avoid tornadoes, it hits me that I’m the only one here solo. So I head back to the motel for some much-needed rest.

But I’ll be back to Augusta later this summer – and I’m giving notice now to my friend across the river in Edgefield, S.C., and my new acquaintance from the next morning that my third trip to Augusta is 2010 will not pass without us dancing at the Country Club!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Johnny Cash's 'San Quentin' Guitar

Speechless and humbled and honored.
That was my reaction recently when I stumbled across the guitar that Johnny Cash played during his historic 1969 concert at San Quentin Prison. Part of my surprise was that it was totally unexpected. I wasn’t at the Country Music Hall of Fame, or even the Cash Museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee. At this particular venue, I was caught off guard.
If you recall the movie Walk the Line, Cash’s Folsom Prison concert revived his career after drug abuse and personal problems. Certainly the song “Folsom Prison Blues” is much better than “San Quentin,” which he said he penned 24 hours before that concert. In fact, you can easily find the Folsom concert CD at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, while I had to order “At San Quentin” online to get a copy. (My LP was worn out decades ago.)
But I’ve always been more partial to “At San Quentin.” One reason it caught my attention while still in high school was the profanity. At that time, most people knew Johnny Cash as a network musical/variety show star who sang gospel with Billy Graham. “At San Quentin” showed the “real” Cash – the anger, the anti-establishment attitude, the darker side ABC kept hidden. On the album and the British documentary, you felt what Cash was really like on stage. You heard (or saw) him antagonizing authority figures from cameramen to prison guards. He performed the songs he wanted to do, not what the TV producers told him to sing. He did “A Boy Named Sue” uncensored and cursed San Quentin prison in its namesake song. (He got such a great response from the prisoners to that song, he sang it twice – and put it on the album twice back-to-back, another middle finger at Columbia Records.) From start to finish, “At San Quentin” was authentic Cash – a voice seldom heard again until the “American” recordings just before his death. When he sings ballsy ballads like “Sam Hall” and “Tear Stained Letter” on “American IV”, the words “You can all go straight to hell” echo “At San Quentin.”
So, when our tour guide pointed to a beat-up wooden guitar in a glass display case and said, “That’s the guitar Johnny Cash played at San Quentin,” I was awe-stuck. It wasn’t just because it was a Cash guitar – I’ve seen the cool one over the door at Stages in Nashville, signed by the Highwaymen – Johnny, Willie, Waylon and Kris. It’s because it was THE San Quentin guitar.
The guide showed my group how the guitar was modified so the “Man in Black” could still play it despite the arthritis that had already damaged since fingers in the 1960s. He talked about the concert and Cash’s life. He asked if we knew who was in the audience at San Quentin, and I alone knew the answer: Merle Haggard.
At first I wondered why the “San Quentin” guitar was here – at the Hard Rock Café in Gatlinburg. But it makes sense this one hangs next to guitars from Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page. Cash started in rock ‘n roll with Elvis and Jerry Lee and the others. While he eventually settled into a conventional country and gospel groove, his attitude remained firmly grounded in rock.
In Nashville, the “San Quentin” guitar would be lost in the crowd of artifacts. But it both stands out and belongs at the Hard Rock.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Midday in Montgomery: Hank Williams Museum and Gravesite

MONTGOMERY -- If there’s a pilgrimage for the country music faithful, this must be the Promised Land – visiting Hank William’s grave.
Hank Williams Sr. was born an hour south of here, moving to the Alabama capital several years later. He shined shoes and sold peanuts on the streets in downtown Montgomery; played cafes and clubs around town; won a talent contest here at the age of 14; sang 15-minute segments on the radio; and left for Nashville while still a relatively young man. He considered Montgomery home. And he and longtime wife Audrey are buried here at Oakwood Cemetery –a shrine frequented by fans and country music stars alike.
So, where else but Montgomery would you find the Hank Williams Museum (www.thehankwilliamsmuseum.com)? Located downtown on Commerce Street, it contains the largest collection of Hank memorabilia in the world. The centerpiece: his 1952 baby blue Cadillac where he died in the back seat in West Virginia, on New Year’s Day 1953. (Hank Jr. actually owns the car; he drove it while he was in high school.) And of course there are Hank’s awards, records, suits, boots and everything else you can think of on display here.
Beth Petty manages the museum, which opened in 1999. Beth’s father, Cecil Jackson, had the initial dream and put together the early collection. She can talk for hours about the Williams family legacy, how Hank Jr. supports the museum and what Hank meant to the people of Montgomery.
She’ll also give you directions to Oakwood Cemetery just a mile away. I’m told it’s easy to find Hank and wife Audrey’s graves – they’re on the top of the hill with the biggest marble markers. So I drive five minutes and pay my respects. There’s a beautiful river view to the north with mountains in the distance. In the midday sun on a clear afternoon, it’s easy to feel the energy and reverence that inspired songs like “Midnight in Montgomery” and “The Ride” years after his death.
My only surprise was that there were no other people in the cemetery. Maybe a Wednesday afternoon in September provides a quieter time to visit,
And probably this peaceful serenity is for the best. Hank led a difficult life – physical pain, heartache and the rigors of a professional career that only lasted five years. Yet his hardship brought such honest, heartfelt lyrics that touched millions – from my parents and millions of early fans who cried when he died, to artists who continue to pay tribute to his influences. If there’s anyone who deserves a peaceful Montgomery resting place, it’s definitely Hank.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Farewell, Sherwood Cryer (Do Atlanta honky tonks still have mechanical bulls?)

Once upon a time, mechanical bulls were a staple at country nightclubs and honky tonks. But are there any Atlanta clubs that still offer that unique “Urban Cowboy” experience?

That question crossed my mind again today with the news that Sherwood Cryer has passed away in Texas. Cryer is best known as the co-owner of Gilley’s, the rowdy Pasadena, Texas nightclub that became an international sensation with the John Travolta movie. What’s not is well known is that Cryer made the mechanical bull a staple of Western-themed clubs. He acquired the rights to produce the “El Toro” brand of bulls just before movie production began. While he and Gilley split up in a nasty legal proceeding, and Gilley’s burned to the ground around 1990, Cryer kept shipping his bulls around the world for years afterwards.

Which leads me back to my original question: is there anywhere in Atlanta where you can still ride the bull? I don’t recall seeing one last time I was at Wild Bill’s or Cowboys – both of which used to have their own. Twisted Taco in Midtown lists bull rides on the first Thursday of the month, but they’re more of a Southwestern restaurant/bar than a country club. Occasionally I’ll see a club bringing in a bull for a special event, but I can’t find one “living” here on a regular basis. In fact, the last one I saw was at Maverick’s in Jacksonville last winter.

My Web research has come up blank. So, if you know of any mechanical bulls still operating in the metro area, please drop me a line and let me know.

Meantime, let’s raise a Lone Star and toast Sherwood Cryer. He may have been an ornery cuss, as the Houston papers are writing, but his contributions to country bars and honky tonks will live on!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Marshside Mama's: Slipping Away to the Real World

Marshside Mama's is calling to us.
After three days at the Daufuskie Island Resort, we’re getting a little restless. It’s a fantastic resort – great food, cool sports bar, tennis and golf and biking and water sports – everything a civilized tourist enjoys. But the 5,000-acre island is only accessible by ferry, and after touring the Gullah cultural sites and the school where Pat Conroy taught, we’ve developed a hankering for a different taste of South Carolina culture. So we hijack some golf carts and slip away from the resort for an unauthorized field trip.
So we make our way to Marshside Mama’s (no Web site: 843-785-4755), the only place open after dark. It’s part café, part general store, part bar and all honky tonk. There are some typical redneck décor touches – Christmas lights around the room, bras stapled over the bar -- plus cold drafts, a wooden dance floor, live music and tasty Southern food (not cuisine – home cookin’).
But there are also some unusual touches -- like several families with small children enjoying dinner a few paces from the barflies and the band. The crowd includes blue collar locals, fisherman, and a good number of people like us, who’ve slipped away from the upscale resort to check out how the seamy side of island life. Out back, fires burn in sand pits close to the beach. The restrooms are in a separate old concrete building; the folks in my group put off a visit as long as they can, and they scurry back as quickly as they finish their business.
The band is one of the regulars: Southern Breeze, mixing country, blues and rock. They came over from the mainland, but they wrap up their show at 10:00 so they can catch the last ferry home. We decide to head out soon after the band does, but it’s obvious that the regulars will keep drinking and dancing to the recorded music for hours to come.
After all, what else is there to do on Daufuskie?

Tootsie's: Classic Lady Doesn't Show Her Age

People may be drawn to Tootsie’s by history – after all, this is where Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline used to slip over from the Grand Ole Opry across the alley for whiskey between shows. But don’t think Toosie’s is a living museum: it’s still one of the best bar scenes in Nashville.
“The World Famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge” (www.tootsies.net) remains the queen of Broadway. She’s surrounded by other clubs on Honky Tonk Row: The Stage, Legends, Second Fiddle and plenty more. But Tootsie’s has outlasted them all. Like the Ryman Auditorium behind her and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop across the street, Tootsie’s was country when country wasn’t cool. Tootsie Bess, the former owner, is long gone but her nightclub still carries on.
The walls are lined with autographed photos of the many stars who’ve played (on-stage and off). Willie Nelson got his first songwriting gig after he performed at Tootsie’s. Legend has it that Roger Miller wrote “Dang Me” here. Movies like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” were filmed here. The list goes on – even after the Opry moved from the Ryman to Opryland Park, Tootsie’s keeps drawing crowds and making history.
While history may set Tootsie’s apart, people don’t just flock here for the memories – and much of the crowd is college-age. There are two small stages, with the front venue catering more to a country crowd and the larger, upstairs rear stage typically featuring rock. If you really want to check out the walls and the old wooden bar and the rest of the décor, go before 6:00 – it’s standing room only when the sun gets low, and a long wait to get in after dark. And definitely come early if you’re claustrophobic – it’s awful cozy when the lights get low. But if you can endure being elbow-to-elbow with rowdy strangers, you’ll have a ball – especially when the waitresses dance on the bar.
Tootsie’s may be a classic, but she never shows her age.

Flora-Bama: 'Last Great American Roadhouse'

Local legend has it that after Hurricane Ivan partially destroyed the Flora-Bama in September 2004, folks found bras scattered along the beach for more than 20 miles. That’s right, brassieres: there used to be hundreds of them tacked up over many of the 20 bars, one of the many hallmarks that make the Flora-Bama a truly classic destination.
Flora-Bama Lounge & Package (www.florabama.com) is a beachside nightclub and live music venue that straddles the Florida and Alabama state line. The mailing address is Pensacola, but it’s really closer to Orange Beach, Alabama. The original Flora-Bama was built around 1964. The ‘Bama reopened soon afterwards and patrons immediately returned. Renovations have continued slowly but the Flora-Bama has remained open, and the bra collection is being rebuilt as well.
Holidays like the Fourth of July always draw huge crowds and weekend-long parties. But the real not-to-be missed signature event is the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss in April. Yep, competitors line up for the change to toss fresh fish from the Florida side into Alabama. They held the 25th toss in 2009, and the winners’ names and distances are posted on the Web site.
Superlatives come easily here. The Flora-Bama bills itself as the “last great American roadhouse.” Bikers, celebrities and just-plain-folks pack the watering hole, including the NFL’s Manning Brothers and Kid Rock. There’s music seven nights a week, as many as five bands can perform at the same time on the weekend. Jimmy Buffett – who grew up along the Alabama coast – wrote “Bama Breeze” about the Flora-Bama and similar memorable spots along the coast. From redneck cultural landmark to internationally known tacky décor, the Flora-Bama is a must-see.