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Gone country

Call it roots or Americana -- it's finding its niche. Chewing tobacco? That's optional.

March 04, 2004|Jeff Miller | Special to The Times

There are no huge belt buckles, no big hair and not even a little bit of line dancing tonight.

In fact, although the first Thursday of every month is country night at Highland Grounds in Hollywood, there's only one cowboy hat in the room. It's on the head of one David Carpenter, a middle-aged songwriter who's come out for the open-mike portion of tonight's show to make an impression on Nashville honcho Billy Block, who started this Western Beat showcase 12 years ago and is making an appearance at this evening's show.

"I was hoping to pique some interest," Carpenter says, while offhandedly flipping through a newspaper an hour before the show begins.

It seems it's not just the hat that sets him apart tonight. After all, Highland Grounds -- a cozy coffeehouse/cafe in Hollywood that shimmers with kitsch, from the Warhol-esque pop art that lines the walls (a hyper-colored mummy shouts, "Hey, isn't that Courteney Cox over there," in one piece) to the irony-laden records that picture-frame the stage -- isn't exactly your Southern Grandpa's country bar. Nashville this isn't.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
I See Hawks in LA -- A photo caption accompanying an article about country music night at Highland Grounds in the March 4 Calendar Weekend incorrectly identified the trio of musicians as the band I See Hawks in LA. The musicians were John McDuffie on dobro and Bantley Kearns on fiddle providing backup for Lisa Finnie on guitar and vocals.

Freed from the dog-eat-dog pressure of that town's insiders club, acts that play twangy music (most of them prefer to call their music "roots" or "Americana" rather than "country") have been thriving in Los Angeles. Unlike musicians who play on the Sunset Strip, the place musicians traditionally go to "make it" in L.A., these acts survive on underground shows like Western Beat night, where they have the freedom to play music that's been pushed to the fringe of the mainstream.

"Maybe it's because the commercial music empire is so gigantic here. Country music's been in the shadow of this thing, and nobody's really noticed it very much," says Paul Lacques, a member of the critically acclaimed, traditionally old-timey act I See Hawks in LA. "It's allowed everybody to listen to each other, have common interests and develop in a way that's great."

The Highland Grounds show is far from the only night for fans to get their hoedown on. Other regular events include Sweethearts of the Rodeo night on the first Wednesday of every month at Molly Malone's, I See Hawks in LA's Wednesday residency at Cole's downtown, weekly roots nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Cinema Bar in Hollywood and the highly influential Ronnie Mack's Barndance, which recently moved to the Thunderbird Saloon in North Hollywood and is a first-Tuesday- of-every-month gig.

Like the bills on those nights, the Highland Grounds roster is full of an eclectic mix of local performers, but every act is miles away from the slick Kenny Chesney/Shania Twain fare that passes as today's country music on the radio.

Tonight, I See Hawks in LA shares the bill with Kristen Mooney, a singer who sounds more like Norah Jones than Faith Hill, while the young duo High or Hellwater close out the night with more aggressive, alt-rock-influenced twang. The artists have an easy camaraderie; as they come into the club, they high-five or hug before discussing what's happened already -- and what's coming up.

Most everybody in the house seems to know each other, and fans mingle freely with the musicians, even while they're warming up outside.

With a crowd ranging from a couple of blond twentysomething women to a group of men in their 60s, the scene is casually grungy, with no apparent dress code other than an unofficial jeans-and-T-shirts uniform. In an atmosphere where coffee drinks are as prevalent as the Red Hook drafts -- the latter is definitely better to wash down Dan's spicy French fries -- the patrons are more about the music they've come out to support, less interested in pretension than in honesty.

That much becomes clear when High or Hellwater's guitarist disses Toby Keith before strumming a song that plays like a deeply thought response to Keith's war-cry hit "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the angry American)" -- a move that provokes widespread applause. Even more striking is the smile on Nashville holdout David Carpenter's face, as he sits in the corner, listening to the song and tapping his foot.

His cowboy hat isn't on his head. In fact, right now, it's nowhere to be seen.

Jeff Miller can be reached at


Western Beat

Where: Highland Grounds, 742 N. Highland, L.A.

When: First Thursday of every month, 7 p.m. Tonight's lineup includes Shane Allen, Alissa Moreno, Wendy Woo, Tom Gould, Kathrin Shorr & Tim Burlingame, Fran Lucci, Reeva Hunter and Ed Skibbe

Price: Free

Info: (323) 466-1507

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