It's a bit past nine on a Thursday night that's as cold as the cans of Busch Clint Holley has been knocking back. Already, the bouncer-sized redhead is buzzing like a cheap TV.
"I'm higher than a hippie in a helicopter," quips his bandmate Greg Harper, a transplanted Texan who can quote John Wayne movies like scripture. The two singer-guitarists, along with bassist Bill Crompton, are riding in the Orca, a green Dodge van that creaks and moans like rusty bedsprings. "I took a bus to Jersey to buy it for $1,200," Holley says proudly, surveying his family-sized ride with the "Fart Head" sticker on the dash and the Bugs Bunny air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
Tonight, the Orca is pointed toward Cleveland's finest country bars, those shadowy joints illuminated by neon Pabst signs and the sound of Ronnie Milsap's whiskey baritone. The boys in Hayshaker Jones call these dives home. A hard-drinkin' honky-tonk quartet that sounds like Saturday night, Hayshaker comes with an ornery country-western swing marinated in two- and three-part harmonies richer than chocolate. Three of the band members have gotten together this evening to show us the best places to barhop in cowboy boots.
But first things first. "You gotta get something good in your belly before a good night of drinkin'," announces Crompton, a bespectacled, baby-faced twentysomething who's the only guy in the group to get carded on this night. And so the first stop is the Town Fryer (3859 Superior), a small, Dixie-styled pub with church pews lining the walls, Patsy Cline in the jukebox, and a deer head sporting Blue Blockers mounted above the bar. "It's a southern thang," the menu reads. "No white bread here." Fried pickles, grilled bologna, and red beans and rice are a few of the house specialties.
The place is run by a fiery Cajun gal named Sue, whose heart seems to pump Tabasco sauce. An elegant older blonde in red-and-gold Mardi Gras beads, she doesn't speak so much as purr in a sensual southern lilt. Even when she's reciting the night's dinner specials, it somehow sounds like a come-on.
After eating, Holley and Harper break out their guitars. "I've got nowhere to go and all night to get there," they sing, like a couple of mutts howling at the moon. Crompton closes his eyes and harmonizes with a pained look on his face, as if he's trying to pass a kidney stone, while tapping out a beat with a fork. The boys attack their guitars as they did their dinners, their beers shaking on the table before them. Two cops and two older gents sitting at the bar stop what they're doing and stare. A gray-haired fella in a headwrap and black leather jacket taps a boot against the bar to the beat, thump-thump-thumpity-thump. Even the kitchen hands clap along.
"I don't listen to country, but goddamn," exclaims the cook, a large black man with cornrows and a goatee that could double as a juniper bush. "I thought it was the jukebox at first."
"I like to tell the ladies we are a jukebox," Harper shoots back in a mild drawl that seems to get broader with each Budweiser. "We're just warmer when you crawl into bed with us."
The bartender orders us another round, and Sue offers Hayshaker their own night here on Sundays.
"We'll call it 'Cops and Cowboys,'" Harper chuckles, adjusting his pearl-white cowboy hat as we hit the door and head to the near West Side.
"There used to be a country scene from Denison over to the 98th-and-Detroit area," Holley recalls of the district we're about to visit. "You'll still see bars with guitars and stuff hanging off the signs. It was people who migrated up here from West Virginia, Kentucky. They had their own little pockets. I called it mini-West Virginia. I started out playing classic honky-tonk music, and these were the only places that would hire me and my one buddy.
"But about 10 years ago, they started to convert all the bars over to karaoke, because it was cheap," Holley continues. "I went back around to try and get bookings, and they were like, 'Ah, we don't do live music; too many fights, it costs too much -- we just do karaoke now,' because you can pay somebody 50 bucks to show up, and girls can get up there and sing 'Stand by Your Man.' All of those bars just disappeared."
But not the Bluegrass (West 18th and Denison). The place lives up to its name, with a juke that boasts Bluegrass Super Hits, 30 Years of Bluegrass, and Time Life's Treasures of Bluegrass among dozens of other discs. It's a neighborhood bar, the kind where the regulars get their phone calls and young bucks playing pool eye unfamiliar faces with suspicion. You can get a Jell-O shot for a buck and an ass-kicking for free. The green-lit bar, festooned with a stuffed snake and a neon guitar, smells of chalk and spilled beer. Brews are served in a can, and ice is kept in a small red Coleman cooler that sits on a bar stool. A sign, hand-lettered in red ink, screams, "No credit. So don't ask!" from behind the bar.
"This is not a lounge, this is not a dance club. This is a bar," Harper says as he glances about the place. "And there is a real shortage of bars."
The most country thing about the Bluegrass is the bartender, a gruff but good-humored gal named Gabby, who sports tattoos on her forearms, a face that looks as if it was cut from weathered burlap, and a crackling smoker's voice that should be coming from a scratchy old 45. She coughs and curses continuously. Her long silver hair falls upon a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, but no one dares give her any shit about it.
"This is the Bluegrass. If they don't like country music, they can hit that fuckin' door," she says with a nod toward the exit.
Later, as we head back to the van, Holley comments, "I've seen bluegrass music in that place. That's as country as it gets."
And so is the Ugly Broad Tavern (3908 Denison). This windswept watering hole is the kind of place you think twice about entering without a couple of friends behind you, preferably the big-shouldered kind. Despite the dark facade and faded sign hemorrhaging paint chips, the Ugly Broad is actually a welcoming little bar. A book swap featuring Harold Robbins and Whitley Streiber paperbacks sits in a corner; on the bar stools across the way, stuffing explodes from cracked vinyl seats. The only clue as to how rough-and-tumble this neighborhood can be comes from a trio of video-surveillance monitors mounted on the wall.
Behind the bar, dozens of framed photos of John Wayne wallpaper the joint. There's a picture of the Duke airbrushed into a hunk of lacquered maple, paintings of the paunchy cowboy on dinner plates, and an endless series of sepia-toned movie stills that get Harper grinnin' like a kid who just farted in an elevator.
"In The Cattlemen, the whole town gets in this big fuckin' brawl down by this water tower; everybody's all muddy," he snickers, recalling one of his favorite movie passages in order to justify more boozing. "They get home that night, and there's this young guy that Wayne is helping out; he gave him a job. This young guy is talking about moral character, and John Wayne looks at him, he's got his shot of whiskey, and he says, 'If we had any moral character, we wouldn't be standing here covered in mud and drinking.'"
Holley and Harper sing a Travis Tritt tune in unison, as we head over to the last stop of the night, the big, boxy Country Club (13835 Lorain). "I'm a member of the country club/Country music is what I love/I do my drinking from a Dixie cup/ I drive an old Ford pickup truck," they harmonize as we approach the place.
The Country Club stands in stark contrast to the homey honky-tonk joints we've visited throughout the night. It's a large rectangular bar with lots of loud talk, TVs that blare King of the Hill, and silver lights suspended from the ceiling like inverted candelabra. A paunchy guy talks on two cell phones at once; three leather-clad dudes chat up a girl in a blue hoodie like sharks circling a wounded swimmer. The place is more George Strait than George Jones. Shania Twain's "Redneck Woman" blares from the jukebox.
"Back in the early '80s, country was getting its ass kicked. It was the losing format in terms of radio -- how many stations were playing it and who was listening to it," Holley says, sighing over the brash direction that country music has taken in the two decades since. "I think Nashville consciously wanted to attract younger women -- people who actually got out and spent money buying records. Your old-school fan that sits and listens to country, usually he was sitting in a bar, pumping quarters into a jukebox, playing George Jones singles. That's how that whole system existed from the '40s up until the '70s -- up until the urban-cowboy movement, when the country image took off in another direction. And then Garth Brooks hit in 1989. That was the end, right there."
Brooks and his nouveau-country contemporaries are popular here. It's country-karaoke night, and a William Perry-sized man in a light blue windbreaker sings "Tender Years" in a sad, pretty voice that sounds like a Bassett hound looks. A cop in uniform follows him up onstage. At first he fidgets nervously with the mic, but he nails an uptempo country tune to a round of applause.
Then it's Harper's turn. He stands in front of the crowd with a cigarette in hand, letting loose with a rancorous backwoods yodel, taking drags of his Marlboro as he sways back and forth. People whistle immediately.
"He's got it, man," Holley notes with a grin.
Shortly thereafter, the bartender, a lady in a beige-and-white sweater who looks as if she hasn't slept since the turn of the millennium, turns off the TVs and turns on the lights. She shoots us one of those "You-don't-have-to-go-home-but-you-can't-stay-here" looks, and we head to the Orca. The night is over, all the drunkenness rationalized by another of Harper's John Wayne anecdotes.
"Katharine Hepburn walks up to John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn," he begins. "He's all drunk, and he's sitting on his ass on the ground, throwing these corn dodgers up in the air and shooting at them. She says, 'Why do people wish to be stupid?' He looks right back at her and says, 'Why do people wish to be sober?'"