Inside L.A.’s ‘Underground’ Country Music Scene

As a subgenre within L.A.’s better-publicized pop industry, the country and Americana community is characterized by a noteworthy level of mutual support and camaraderie. They congregate in a spiderweb of unassuming clubs around the city; here’s where you can get a feel for country in L.A.

The music is what brings them together — the people performing and drinking and dancing behind this thick, scarred wooden door. As I step past a knot of smokers and pull it open, I hear an electric guitar solo and fiddle notes leaping to greet me on a whoosh of warm, beer-scented air. Inside, I feel the same flare of energized curiosity and recognition that I’ve experienced in numerous venues around Los Angeles since I was first welcomed into this community in the 1990s at Ronnie Mack’s family-like Barndances, first at North Hollywood’s legendary Palomino and then at Jack’s Sugar Shack in Hollywood. It was at the Sugar Shack that I got to know musicians and music lovers who remain friends to this day. It was there I was introduced to a bouncer aptly named Big Steve by country guitarist Cody Bryant, who advised that this was a trustworthy gent who would make sure no one hassled me. Cynical yet marshmallow sweet, Steve Smith did indeed strive to make it a safe space for women.

The Palomino's sign on display at the Valley Relics Museum | Courtesy of Valley Relics Museum
The Palomino’s sign on display at the Valley Relics Museum | Courtesy of Valley Relics Museum

Big Steve is sadly no longer with us, and it’s been about 20 years since the Sugar Shack’s tiki pleasures vacated Hollywood and Vine. But as it did throughout previous decades, L.A.’s country community has endured through countless changes of venue and evolved with successive generations of musicians and listeners. As a subgenre within L.A.’s better-publicized pop industry, the country and Americana community is characterized by a noteworthy level of mutual support and camaraderie evidenced by artists turning up at each other’s shows and writing songs inspired by conversations with fans and peers. (Country and Americana are separate but related genres and they overlap significantly.)

Explore the history of country music from its deep roots in ballads, hymns and blues, to its mainstream popularity in Ken Burns’ “Country Music.”

“Being the niche music it is, it’s a real small world and we all kind of support one another,” observes musician and Grand Ole Echo booker Ben Reddell. “It’s really amazing. What I think is cool about the L.A. country scene is it’s not a specific subset. It basically travels across every gamut of subgenres, and we’re all friends, even if it’s like a punkbilly or rockabilly band. Nocona’s totally a cowpunk band, but they get along with another band that’s Grateful Dead-y hippie country, and those bands get along with bands doing straight-up honky-tonk. All the players meld and work in all these different projects despite their subgenre. It’s just a big ol’ community.”

To some, this community seems anomalous — a friendly refuge in a sprawling metropolis that can seem lonely and luckless as a busted iPhone if you don’t know where to connect in person. But there’s a lengthy history here of symbiotic community stretching back to the mid-1920s when the Crockett Family became California’s first regional country music luminaries performing old-time tunes music on Fresno County radio from sheet music mailed to the station by listeners; a few years later, they brought their act to L.A.’s KNX.

Fast-forward nearly a century, and the dynamic country and Americana music being performed regularly on L.A. stages reflects the nature of a community with a taste for Hank, Merle, Emmylou and Gram, plus chasers of Austin McCutchen, Sam Morrow, Leslie Stevens, Brian Whelan and Jaime Wyatt — local artists adding new dimensions to this L.A. mix. That community congregates not in one or two country-dedicated clubs but in varying configurations at different venues and events like the Grand Ole Echo, Joe’s Great American Bar, the Cinema Bar, Hotel Café’s Second Stage, the Ranch Party, the Love Song Bar, Highland Park Bowl, Ireland’s 32 and Wine & Song. If you took a grease pencil to a map of Southern California, you could draw lines connecting those hubs of community back to Signal Hill’s venerable Foothill Club in the 1940s and El Monte’s Clarence White-patronized Nashville West in the 1960s; to Santa Monica’s early-’80s Banjo Café, the late Billy Block’s Western Beat at Highland Grounds in Hollywood in the 1990s and Sin City’s buzz-generating Sweethearts of the Rodeo bashes at Molly Malone’s in the 2000s. (Molly Malone’s is the only one of those older clubs still standing; if there’s one thing you can count on in L.A., it’s change.)

Reddell started helping out in 2010 at the Grand Ole Echo, which takes place Sunday afternoons from March through August at the Echo. Bands like the Blue Rose Rounders might break out some pedal steel on the back patio, while acts like Little Lonely, Maesa, Leroy From the North and Patrolled By Radar plug in on the mainstage inside, where little kids are sometimes known to twirl beneath the mirrored disco ball.

Hear Little Lonely’s “Interstate Hum”

“I’m inspired by my Texas roots, of course, and that’s where my love of country comes from, but I am very much a part of this neighborhood,” Reddell says. “This show couldn’t happen the way it happens in any other place. It’s also heavily influenced by the Hispanic culture and the artists that have been in this neighborhood for 25 years. This is where Warren Zevon lived, where Jackson Browne, Elliot Smith and Woody Guthrie lived. It’s always been this bohemian place, and it’s inspired by its surroundings .… It’s had a downhome backyard party feel since Kim Grant started it in 2005. I’m just trying to keep that dream alive.”Bands playing at Joe’s Great American Bar in Burbank are generally more traditional, not unlike the old-school club itself, with its mirrored wall, defined dance floor, raised stage and corner pool tables. James Intveld dresses up in sparkly Manuel suits and shows how it’s done, singing and entertaining dancers like he stepped out of a midcentury country dream. Bands like the Stardust Ramblers and swingier, jazzier outfits like Dave Stuckey & the Hot House Gang and the California Feetwarmers also embody retro musical and visual style, while once a month, Jonny Whiteside hosts his country-punk-surf extravaganza the Messaround.

Blue Rose Rounders performing on the back porch at the Grand Ole Echo | Katie Stratton
Blue Rose Rounders performing on the back porch at the Grand Ole Echo | Katie Stratton

Hear the sound of
L.A.’s Country music scene

Over in Culver City, raucous house favorites Groovy Rednecks have made the Cinema Bar, aka the world’s smallest honky-tonk, their home away from home. Its hole-in-the-wall size means that when L.A. country veterans like Rick Shea and Tony Gilkyson play a double bill, or when I See Hawks in L.A. swoop in with psychedelic country-rock owing as much to the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Grateful Dead as to Merle Haggard, patrons can easily imagine they’re listening or dancing in their own living room. Dog-eared band posters, bumper stickers on the wall and songs on the jukebox attest to decades of sweaty gigs and romances made and broken within those decorated walls.

Midtown, the Ranch Party attracts a multigenerational crowd that can dance around tables alongside EB’s Wine Bar on Saturday nights in the open-air Original Farmers Market with the likes of David Serby or Elijah Ocean twanging onstage. In Highland Park, the atmosphere is more attentive on Americana Music Nights at the Highland Park Bowl. On a recent Wednesday, a crowd of Eastside hipsters listened appreciatively to vocalist/banjoist Chelsey Coy and guitarist Charlie Rauh of Single Girl, Married Girl, named after a Carter Family song, and their vocal-centric pop-American blend. The older audience drawn to Wine & Song’s weekly songwriter showcases at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course in South Pasadena is similarly hungry for new music, while Monday songwriter nights and Tuesday acoustic jams at Ireland’s 32 pub in Van Nuys are a convenient spot for musicians to connect and try out new material. Smaller groups gather ’round when, for instance, Pretty Polly harmonizes at a restaurant gig in Calabasas, or old-time musicians jam on a pub patio in Sierra Madre, or Chris Laterzo honors the legacies of Gram Parsons and Neil Young out at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown.

The exterior of Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown | beccacantpark (Flickr/Creative Commons)
The exterior of Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown | beccacantpark (Flickr/Creative Commons)

At the sold-out August release show for Grant Langston’s “Los Angeles Duets” at Hotel Café in Hollywood, inherent in the applause for Langston’s album was a celebration of this diverse community. As its title suggests, “Los Angeles Duets” is a collection of 10 storytelling songs he wrote and recorded with fellow L.A. country and Americana artists, including among others, David Serby and Dan Janisch (Langston’s bandmates in their side project the Jolenes); irreverent Groovy Rednecks frontman Tex Troester; singer-songwriters Claire Holley and Manda Mosher; and producer-bassist Ted Russell Kamp, a prolific musician who constitutes his own hub of community. (When he isn’t producing his own or other artists’ albums, he’s touring with Shooter Jennings’ band, which is basically Kamp’s own band). It felt appropriate that the show was held in Hotel Café’s Second Stage space, a cozy haven for songwriters. The room was packed with a mix of musicians, writers and other L.A. creatives, fans and photographers, newcomers and old-timers, people whose relationships had been forged at past shows, and out-of-state friends delighted to share in the uplifting atmosphere. When Langston and Kamp performed their country-rocking “The Road to Fame,” heads nodded in recognition as the lyric honored classic country tropes, Hollywood dreams and sacrifice:

“When you play three chords you tell the truth
Every show is a fountain of youth
Each singer I know is a living proof
You’ve gotta push on through the pain
… You don’t pick music it picks you
And there ain’t another thing that I wanna do.”

With this community, a rough voice is accepted as long as it’s delivering an honest lyric —line dancing, not so much. Respect is paid to L.A.-birthed songs like soulful country-rocker Sam Morrow’s Little Feat-flavored “Quick Fix” and “San Fernando Sunshine,” which soulfully captures the tension between L.A. dreams and reality, and local heroes like former X and Lone Justice guitarist Tony Gilkyson (son of folksinger and “Bare Necessities” composer Terry Gilkyson), who dedicated his song “Gypsies in My Backyard” to longtime Merle Haggard guitarist Roy Nichols:

“Here’s to the famous and forgotten
I feel I’ve played with them all
Rose and Fred, Merle and Lefty
And a hundred more that I could recall.”

Sam Morrow (with guitarist Brian Whelan visible over his shoulder), one of the rising lights in LA's country/roots community, taken at the Grand Ole Echo | Leslie Campbell
Sam Morrow (with guitarist Brian Whelan visible over his shoulder), one of the rising lights in LA’s country/roots community, taken at the Grand Ole Echo | Leslie Campbell

Folks request locally set ballads like Rick Shea’s “Mariachi Hotel” and Alice Wallace’s wildfire-inspired “Santa Ana Winds,” which transform real-life California woes into healing melodic poetry. Former Angeleno-turned-Houstonite Mike Stinson remains beloved for his anthem “Late Great Golden State” (also recorded by Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton) and “Fool at the Bar,” informed by many late-night gigs at the Cinema Bar. They all fit naturally on a playlist headed by Dave Alvin’s “King of California” and the Mojo Monkeys’ Bakersfield-boogying “Californialabama.” As they jawbone at the bar or two-step with partners, this generous, open-hearted community bonds through music that gives voice to their understanding of life and country in L.A.

Listen to David Serby’s “When Couples Fall In Love”

Catch a glimpse of L.A.’s Country-lovin’ community in these spots around the city: 

The Cinema Bar
3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City
thecinemabar.com
A neighborhood hole-in-the-wall where you can catch local and touring country, blues, Americana and rock bands, plus Hot Club of L.A.’s longstanding Monday night gypsy jazz residency. Good place to catch RJ Bloke, Groovy Rednecks, Dan Janisch, David Serby and Rick Shea.

Grand Ole Echo at the Echo
1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park
thegrandoleecho.com
A family-friendly, Sunday-afternoon showcase that takes place Sunday afternoons from March through August. You’ll hear country, country rock, country soul, Americana, bluegrass, old-time, indie rock and many permutations in between performed by rising local (Sam Morrow, Pretty Polly, Alice Wallace, Jaime Wyatt) and veteran (Rosie Flores, Dale Watson) artists.

Highland Park Bowl’s Americana Music Nights
5621 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park
facebook.com/pricklypearpresents, highlandparkbowl.com
A mix of Americana, country and pop artists perform in the intimate Mr. T’s Room on Wednesday nights. Recent guests include Francesca Brown, Pi Jacobs, Bob Woodruff and Emily Zuzik.

Hotel Café’s Second Stage
1623 ½ N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
hotelcafe.com
This cozy room is not genre specific by any means, but it is a magnet for singer-songwriters, especially Monday showcases. Highly recommended if you’ve a taste for singer-songwriters and acoustic or semi-acoustic melodies.

Ireland’s 32
13721 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys
irelands32.com
A scruffy neighborhood pub in the Valley that hosts roots-rock, blues and Celtic bands throughout the week, in addition to Monday songwriter and Tuesday acoustic jam nights. Keep an eye out for Mojo Monkeys and Ted Russell Kamp and veteran country and blues musicians swapping stories.

Joe’s Great American Bar
4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
joesgreatbar.com
An old-school club that hosts the Magnolia Street Jazz Band at noon on Tuesdays and turns over the stage to classic country, blues, Celtic, rockabilly and big swing bands throughout the week — a stylistic mix reminiscent of barndances Ronnie Mack once hosted here. Keep an eye out for shows by L.A. country and roots veterans Cody Bryant, James Intveld, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys.

Love Song Bar
450 S. Main St., Downtown L.A.
spacelandpresents.com/events/the-love-song
A homey, inviting space that hosts a range of music throughout the week. If you know who to keep an ear out for, you’re likely to catch local and touring country and Americana acts (Tawny Ellis, Lasers Lasers Birmingham, Sam Morrow, Smith Allen, Rusty Tinder, Renee Wahl, Brian Whelan) and occasionally veteran country heroes like Jim Lauderdale.

McCabe’s Guitar Shop
3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica
mccabes.com
An acoustic music mecca for six decades that remains one of the best listening rooms in which to hear singer-songwriters and roots artists like Dave Alvin, Dead Rock West, Robbie Fulks, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison.

The Ranch Party at EB’s Beer & Wine Bar
Original Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., LA
facebook.com/RanchPartyAtEbsBeerAndWineBar/
Country and roots bands perform on the West Patio here on Saturday nights. It’s a loose, family-friendly environment in which to listen or dance to music by local acts like Molly Hanmer, John Surge & the Haymakers, the Dime Box Band and host Mark Christian’s instrumental trio Merle Jagger.

Wine & Song series in the Blue Guitar Room
Arroyo Seco Golf Course, 1055 Lohman Lane, South Pasadena
wineandsong.com
Two Americana acts are featured each Wednesday plus sit-in performances by area songwriters. Chances are very good you’ll hear terrific country-folk and bluegrass tunes from the likes of Tom Corbett, Tony Gilkyson, Claire Holley, Nathan McEuen or Pretty Polly.

Keep an ear (or two) out for these great acts regularly playing Los Angeles:

Cody Bryant — codybryant.com
Nocona — noconamusic.com
Austin McCutchen — instagram.com/austinmccutchen/
Sam Morrow — sammorrowmusic.com
Leslie Stevens — lesliestevensmusic.com
Brian Whelan — brianwhelanmusic.com
Jaime Wyatt — jaimewyatt.com
Blue Rose Rounders — facebook.com/blueroserounders/
Little Lonely — littlelonely.com
Maesa — maesamusic.com
Leroy From the North — leroyfromthenorth.com
Patrolled By Radar — patrolledbyradar.com
James Intveld — jamesintveld.com
Stardust Ramblers — thestardustramblers.com
Dave Stuckey & the Hot House Gang — stuckeyville.net
California Feetwarmers — californiafeetwarmers.com
Groovy Rednecks — facebook.com/Groovy-Rednecks-229743945933/
Rick Shea — rickshea.com
Tony Gilkyson — tonygilkyson.com
I See Hawks in LA — iseehawks.com
David Serby — davidserby.com
Elijah Ocean — elijahocean.com
Charlie Rauh — charlierauh.com
Single Girl, Married Girl — singlegirlmarriedgirl.com
Pretty Polly — prettypollymusic.com
Chris Laterzo — chrislaterzo.com
Grant Langston — grantlangston.com
Dan Janisch — facebook.com/Dan-Janisch-Music-274812109210293/
The Jolenes — facebook.com/JolenesLA/
Claire Holley — claireholley.com
Manda Mosher — mandamosher.com
Ted Russell Kamp — tedrussellkamp.com
Alice Wallace — alicewallacemusic.com
Mike Stinson — facebook.com/StinsonCountry
Dave Alvin — davealvin.net
Mojo Monkeys — medikullrecords.com/mojo-monkeys