Cowboys dance the two-step at the Rawhide. They dance with each other.
Men crowd around a wooden bar at the center of the club as a country band plays on stage. Sometimes they will join arm-in-arm and sway to the music.
Over the last eight years, the Rawhide in North Hollywood has earned a reputation as one of the best places in Los Angeles to hear live country and western music. It is perhaps better known as the city's only gay cowboy bar.
For it is in this place, with sawdust on the floors and bartenders who will pat you on the behind, that two very different cultures meet. As local musician Jack Daniels puts it, country music has its roots in "rednecks and Blue Ribbon beer drinkers," the kind of people who aren't too understanding when it comes to the gay community.
"It's really a weird combination, but in L. A. they go for anything," said Paul Bowman, a country and western musician and disc jockey at KFOX-FM (93.5). "Most redneck cowboys, you mention gays to them and they're ready to fight. Rednecks don't go in there."
Not Seen as Unusual
The club's owner, Dan Collette, doesn't think that the mixture of the country and gay influences is that unusual. Collette was a regular customer at the Rawhide for over a year before he and a business partner bought the bar last spring.
"The gay man is into the macho image and the western bar is that macho image," he said.
One customer, who asked not to be named, said the gay community needs a place like the Rawhide.
"I would never go to the Palomino. Redneck and gay don't mix well," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to go into a country bar and not have to worry."
By appearances alone, the Rawhide looks like any cowboy bar. The decor is rough-hewn wood with open-beamed ceilings. There are wagon wheels on the walls and pool tables in the back room. Draft beer is the drink of preference.
Many customers dress in boots, jeans and Stetsons. As it is in any country and western bar, a good number of them are weekend cowboys. Others wear slacks and sweaters.
Although straight people do come to the Rawhide, the patrons are overwhelmingly male homosexuals and openly affectionate. This, say some of the musicians who play there, takes some getting used to.
"Those guys got out there and started dancing and kissing each other, and I could hardly keep singing," Bowman said of the first time he and his band played the Rawhide.
Collette says there are no gay country and western bands that he knows of. The musicians that play the Rawhide are straight (although Collette says he never asks).
Some musicians won't work at the bar because it is gay. Others expressed concern that if it were known that they played a gay bar, straight clubs would not book them. Still, these musicians appear to be in the minority. The Rawhide is a favorite job for many local musicians. They say the pay is good and the audiences appreciative.
Singer Likes Crowd
"Once you play there and get over the shock of seeing guys dancing with guys, it's a great place," said Toni Dodd, a female singer for the band Southbound.
"They're festive people. They applaud a lot," Daniels said of the Rawhide crowd. "They like 'Stand By Your Man,' things that have a tongue-in-cheek male thing."
"They dance good in there, too," he said. "They know all the latest steps. But you have to watch to see who's leading and who's following."
And there aren't as many fights at the Rawhide as there would be at straight cowboy bars, Collette insists. Gays, he said, don't brawl much. Musicians who play there agree. Over the years, the place has cultivated a friendly atmosphere.
"You never know who is going to walk through that door," said Clinton Brooks, a long-time customer. "They might be straight or gay or the Mexicans from down the street. It's a fun crowd."
Things are gearing up at the Rawhide these days. Dancing lessons start soon. And there will be special nights leading up to the Golden State Gay Rodeo at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in March.
"You have a lot of western activities that gay people enjoy," Collette said. "A country bar is a country bar. The only difference we have is our sexual preference."
Said a regular customer, who asked not to be named, "What a lot of people don't realize is that there are a lot of gay rednecks."