“Outside of New York, San Francisco is probably the worst area for country music in the nation.”
Joe Goldmark, Bay Area pedal steel player1
Outside Café du Nord I borrow a light from Smelley Kelley, a smallish man in a large white cowboy hat who talks a metallic Great River Iowa twang. I’m here to see Dave Gleason, but Kelley’s band, Red Meat, is headlining. Kelley extends a yellow bic toward me and strikes it, then nods toward the club and the man inside that I have come to ask him about: “He’s a better country musician now that he lives in LA,” Kelley says about Dave. “LA will do that to you. Polish you up. Wear you down.” Kelley has no delusions about his country music career exploding in San Francisco, but still he wants nothing to do with LA or Austin. “And forget Nashville,” he says. “You can’t find good weed in Nashville.”
When I moved to San Francisco from Santa Barbara last Fall, I left a country band that meant more to me than house and husband, and I had no doubts that in this city of scattered neighborhoods, each brimming with its own distinct cultural character, I would find, not better weed, but some hidden pocket of music geekdom where country music overflows, organic to all the strange artistic creativity that this city churns on. “Of course,” I thought as I packed records into boxes in Santa Barbara, “San Francisco gets country.”
I was surprised, confused, other things. Country music is almost completely absent from San Francisco. Dave Gleason, I am discovering, with his quarterly visits to the Bay, is a foil to this dearth, and his cowboy boots stand out amongst the cardigan and skinny jeans. I lamented my disappointment about the country music scene to Dave late one night at Rancho Nicasio and he answered like he’d given it much thought: “It’s dry here,” he said. “That’s why I moved to LA. You don’t need a day job there; you can play shows and tour and record as a session musician to make ends meet.” Dave’s nonchalance, I suspect, glosses over years of steady work, drive, relentless practice, sweat, callus, the stuff his success and talent is hewn from.
At 42, Dave is ageless. These are the obvious facts as I watch him play at Café du Nord and try to piece together a picture of his elusive character: The shine of his midnight suit paired with a paisley shirt in the brightest of pink hue; one “boot room,” viewable on myspace, which houses an almost obscene number of immaculately-kept cowboy boots (I consider counting them but decide against it); the way the cowboy hat seems to have reached a wonderful and rare agreement of fit with his head; his rockstar easiness onstage; I would be remiss not to mention his haunting rasp, often peaking at a moment of lyric or melodic subtlety; also there is his kind, goofy manner; his quips about his “raw, unnatural talent”; and the way he ends each song of his set with a hearty “thank you,” intonation verging on singsong.
Since recording Dave Gleason for One Night Music, I carry this image: Dave walks tall and lanky across the great speakeasy basement of Café du Nord and opens a door near stage left, leans his torso through the threshold and peers up a tall flight of stairs that turns a corner and trails off somewhere dark. He asks if we can go upstairs.
There are, I must concede, a handful of places in San Francisco that feature weekly country-themed music nights (like Amnesia with its free Bluegrass Mondays or Thee Parkside with Country Twang Sundays), but sometimes these verge on kitschy, and I suspect most show-goers couldn’t tell you the difference between bluegrass and country, or honky tonk and western swing. But in their defense, they can intuit the soul behind the music in the ways they get rowdy, or silly, or drink freely and dance without inhibition. That’s why part of me disagrees with Cary Tennis’ assessment of country music in San Francisco. (A former reporter for SF Weekly, Tennis hypothesized that the lackluster popularity of country music might be explained by the various reasons people come to San Francisco — namely, to reject tradition and reinvent themselves in complicated ways.2) Sure, some of us come to San Francisco to find ourselves or to reinvent ourselves, to become more esoteric or dismissive or cultured. But country music is not our tradition; it’s not what we’re rejecting when we come here. Occasionally I’ll surprise someone I’ve just met by telling him I like country music, or that I used to sing honky tonk, and this tentative revelation is usually matched by the very unsurprising “Oh, I don’t like country.” But he is talking about Tim McGraw, The Dixie Chicks or Carrie Underwood, and I am talking about Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and Buck Owens. There’s an educated culture around country music that’s lacking here — despite a rich history of country music in California — because it’s not our tradition, and this inhibits the genre’s metropolitan proliferation and, thus, our ability to enjoy it, sincerely and wholly.
Back at Café du Nord I am trying hard to contain my excitement. Upstairs the Swedish American Hall (Café du Nord’s sister venue) has a large room that hosts intimate shows most nights of the week, and we find an open room with large wooden thrones and matching mahogany-paneled walls, a long conference table, and floor-to-ceiling blue-and-yellowed curtains. It’s reminiscent of an Elks Lodge, perfect for the echo of country. Following a hasty set-up, Dave plays four songs for our small crew. These songs, though they span many years and several albums, are a play in four acts, thematically tied by the bite of memory and its stinging resistance to fade. Without feeling forced or cliché, Dave’s songs recall common country themes — love and loss, loneliness, nostalgia, and wine — but challenge the listener with nuance and subtlety. My favorite line comes from the chorus of “Turn and Fade” but ironically has no lyrics: It is a long, melismatic “oh” drawn out over four bars in a delicate, musical sigh. Hearing this, my heart breaks. “Boy, what a great room,” Dave says between songs. “This couldn’t have worked out any better. I sound amazing in it.”
In 1970, Jerry Lee Lewis offered writer John Fergus Ryan an assessment of country musicians, or music industry in general, that, in some ways, holds just as true today:
Man, if you can’t entertain without a sound engineer, an’ a man at a console mixin’ for you, you’re in trouble. That’s the way it is with a lot of them makin’ it in the music business these days. You put ‘em on a stage by theirselves with just a guitar or piano, and they’re lost. They’ll all wind up back parkin’ cars. That’s where they belong, anyway. Pumpin’ gas and parkin’ cars.3
Jerry Lee may have been talking about Charlie Rich or Johnny Cash, but I’m sure he’d agree that Dave is one of those musical rarities who can capture a crowd with just his guitar. In fact, while Dave puts on an incredible show with his band, whoever they are at any given time, I prefer to hear him solo, when he presents his songs in their simplest, most humble forms. One night at Hotel Utah, Dave plays a monthly event called Songwriters in the Round, where four musicians in a half-circle trade songs and improvise. After the show, Dave modestly explains that he was “just trying to hang with those songwriter kids,” but hidden in his slight grin is the acknowledgement that we both know differently. To hear Dave in that context, completely in his element yet surrounded by less seasoned talent, is to understand the privilege of seeing him with the well-rehearsed Golden Cadillacs or of catching him for One Night Music in the rushed hour between sound check and set at Café du Nord. This kind of country — honest, heartfelt, pained — exists here and elsewhere too, I swear. You just have to search for it and then, like Dave, touring the whole of California and the Southern States, spread its gospel to others.
1. Gerald W. Haslam, Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 308.
3. John Fergus Ryan, “Jerry Lee Lewis: One Night With the Killer,” in The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, ed. Marc Smirnoff (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008), 200-201.
Recorded in Cafe Du Nord, San Francisco, CA on April 16, 2010.