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Cowboy Country Draws a Line

The Long Beach dance hall, bar and eatery keeps the two-step crowd kicking up its boot heels.

April 12, 2001|ZAN DUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few years ago, a nightclub in Huntington Beach staged a reunion for the cowboy-hatted crowd that jammed the place when it was part of the well-known Denim & Diamonds chain.

This was probably half a decade after the "Achy Breaky" craze that, for a time, turned line dancing into something even college graduates were learning. It was 15 years after the previous country obsession hit with "Urban Cowboy." But the dance floor was packed tighter than ever.

Round and round went the two-steppers, the D&D regulars who had tush-pushed not five, not six, but seven nights a week. Round and round went those who had crunched numbers, filed motions or closed sales during the day only to don snakeskin boots or broomstick skirts for night after night of sweaty dances to songs about whippoorwills and second chances.

A few more reunions followed, but the idea eventually died out, just like the scads of honky-tonks that closed in the mid-'90s. The die-hards, however, didn't bury their passion. They gravitated to the remaining handful of country venues, including Cowboy Country in Long Beach. It rose from the ashes of a hip-hop club and appears to be the only spot offering a country theme six nights a week.

"We both have a fond spot for the music," says co-owner Ken Littlefield, who with Patricia Boggs opened the huge, roughhewn dance hall, bar and eatery in late 1999. "And I felt a lot of people had become disenfranchised by all the country bars closing."

Littlefield spoke during an interview in his antler-adorned office, a small corner of Cowboy Country's sprawling main floor. Just outside his door, patrons made a mad rush for position as the local band Killin' Time cued them for a line dance with "a five, six, seven, go!" Just as these acolytes stamp and kick like they did when Billy Ray Cyrus was king, they still love the country scene for its lack of airs and glitz.

"People don't come here all decked out to look and be looked at," said Dennis Thorpe, a dot-com entrepreneur who attended at least one D&D reunion. "They come to dance and have a good time."

Jenni Cornwall, a talent agent from Hollywood by way of Sandwich, Ill., agreed. "The music's great and everyone's friendly," Cornwall said. "I'm from a small town and I like a small-town feel."

That atmosphere was what producers of "Thelma & Louise" captured when they shot part of that 1991 movie at this 15,000-square-foot barn. Back then it was another country hang called the Silver Bullet, and the look hasn't changed much. Animal hides dot the knotty-pine walls, red-and-white checked clothes cover tables in the Chuckwagon Restaurant upstairs, and neon beer signs double as mood lighting. TV monitors are tuned to rodeos, and an American flag stands on the stage where the band plays.

Also like the old days, many of the same local bands, including the DooWah Riders, play Tuesday through Saturday. West Coast Swing dancers take over on Sundays--although the blues, which many West Coasters prefer, are out. Western swing tunes, only, please.

The place keeps up with the times in its own way. Littlefield has just begun to book name country acts for live concerts; a recent one featured Chad Brock, a relative newcomer getting a lot of national radio play. Deejays spin all the newest country-pop stars during band breaks, and on a recent Friday night even Ricky Martin made it over the sound system. That made the Denim & Diamonds days seem centuries ago, but still, as Ricky sang "Uno, dos, tres," the clientele performed the crusty grandpappy of all line dances: the electric slide.

Maybe the real question is whether another country revival is afoot. Somebody should ask Madonna, who's gussied up like a dusty cowgirl in her current "Don't Tell Me" music video. They say she's quite the trend-setter.

* Cowboy Country, 3321 E. South St., Long Beach. Tuesdays through Sundays, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Live bands Tuesdays through Saturdays. No cover, but some dance lessons are $3 to $5. (562) 868-1863.

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