NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Paul Marshall has paid his dues, which is what country music has always been about. Country legends such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings made it the hard way, after years of playing low-pay beer bars and one-night stands in joints that Haggard used to call the "fightin' and dancin' clubs."
Marshall, 44, of Tujunga, has been singing and playing bass guitar on the country-Western circuit for more than 20 years. He's played as a sideman for Hank Thompson, Johnny Tillotson and Johnny Rodriguez. He's been named California Country Music Assn. bass player of the year, and he's had songs recorded by Juice Newton and Highway 101. His ballad "Learning to Forgive" is on Patty Loveless' new album, and "C'mon, C'mon" is on the new Boy Howdy album.
On the Barndance show at the Palomino club in North Hollywood, Marshall is playing his own songs with his band, the Marshall Plan. Like most country-Western singer-songwriters, Marshall's dream is to get a recording contract for himself. He's seen other L.A. groups play at the Tuesday-night Barndance on their way to getting label deals.
Barndance night at the Palomino, a weekly showcase for local country musicians, is practically the only place in Los Angeles where country musicians can play original material.
"In the local clubs," says Marshall, who's played them all, "you pretty much have to stick to tunes off country-Western radio playlists. People don't want to hear songs they haven't heard before."
That's a real irony, in a genre of pop music in which most performers traditionally write their own material, and original songs are the primary means of getting noticed by record labels and promoters.
Barn Dance is produced as a nonprofit venture by Ronnie Mack, 39, of Los Angeles, as a place for musicians to present original material and also to perform the traditional country music repertoire that no longer is played in country dance clubs.
"What I'm trying to get across with the Barndance," says Mack, a gangly, gregarious, 6-foot-5 native of Baltimore, "is that country music is a form of American culture. I'm trying to help maintain the integrity of the music and its roots. That's not an issue for country radio stations, or the Nashville Establishment, but it is for me."
Mack, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who describes himself as a "mediocre talent," has made the presentation and preservation of what he calls "roots" country music in Los Angeles a personal crusade. Since founding Barndance in 1988, he has put considerable energy and money into the show.
There's no admission charge for Barndance, unlike the other nights at the Palomino, when the door charge ranges from $6 to $10. But even with free admission, Barndance rarely fills the house.
"It's a shame that country music doesn't seem to be making it that well in Los Angeles," says Linda Cauthen, editor of the Los Angeles-based Country Fever, a country music magazine. "We lost our oldest country radio station--KLAC--and some of the country-Western clubs are closing. People don't realize there always has been a country music scene in L.A.--back through Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, all the way to the movie cowboy days."
The Palomino was part of the Los Angeles country music scene as far back as 1949, when it opened. Most of the legends in country music played at the Palomino during the 1950s and 1960s, before and after they became stars. But in the late 1980s, the club gradually shifted from country to rock. Now, Barndance is the only country music night at the club.
"What Ronnie Mack does with 'The Barndance' is as important a thing as you can do for a music community," says Rene Engel, host of the eclectic Monday-night country music show "Citybilly" on KPPC 98.3-FM.
"He gives you a chance to see someone before they make it big," Engel says. "And then they keep showing up on his show. But it's a real tough row to hoe. There isn't a lot of local support for the music he puts on."
Ronnie Mack introduces another local group, the Plowboys, after Paul Marshall leaves the stage. They kick off with "She's Gone to Austin," a driving, up-tempo rocker.
"That's our Saturday-night Texas fighting song," says the singer, in jeans, Levi's jacket, red neckerchief, black cowboy hat and Western boots. "Now we're gonna do a song about the town of Abilene."
The song has a powerful, hard-hitting beat, and there's warm applause when it's over and Mack takes the microphone to talk up the show.
"Let's hear it for the Plowboys," Mack says, after their performance, with his exuberant, upbeat delivery. "That's the kind of music that shows the 'Achey-Breakey' crowd that there's more to country music than guys with big muscles and the T-shirts."
Mack is openly derisive of much of the country music played on the radio--with the monster hit "Achey-Breakey Heart" by young hunk Billy Ray Cyrus a particular target of scorn.