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Outlaw Country Comes To Philly.

September 14, 2016


Text by Dave Miniaci. Top image by G.W. Miller III.

It’s around 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night at Bob and Barbara’s on South Street. The crowd at the legendary bar huddles in various groups, downing cans of PBR under dim lighting and PBR memorabilia-lined walls.

The spot claims to be home to the original citywide special, a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR for $3.50. But tonight, it’s home to something else.

Anticipation is building. A pounding sound on the back door. An attendee opens it and four men file in with their equipment, beards, plaid, hats and all.

“The cowboys are here!” shouts an excited patron. Within an hour, loud country and bluegrass music blares through the amps and the increasingly growing crowd starts rocking.   

In a city that wears its indie rock and hip-hop hearts on its sleeve, Country Night at Bob and Barbara’s, hosted by the Wallace Brothers Band, reminds Philadelphia there are other genres that draw a crowd. And with it comes a cowboy swagger, whiskey drinking and screaming guitars.

“We were playing out in Kutztown a lot and moved to Philly for a change of scenery,” says Zach Wallace, of the Wallace Brothers Band.

He makes up one-third of the band’s core, along with twin brother Colby on drums and longtime friend Khoa Pham on steel pedal guitar. The group is rounded out by a revolving door of friends on bass.

“We took this road trip to the South and discovered some really great country that wasn’t being portrayed accurately up here,” he continues. “We were at this bar in Nashville called Robert’s Western World, where it was a different live band every night and everyone was drinking and dancing and we were like, ‘We have to do something like this.’”

His searching brought him to Bob and Barbara’s, which had jazz nights and drag shows, but no country. Though aware of the bar’s history as a black jazz and R&B venue, he attended a jazz night he describes as “whiskey-soaked,” with a lot of dancing. It was the perfect vibe he envisioned.

So Wallace went to the bar and proposed his idea, which was met with hesitance at first because nothing like this had been done there before. Bob Dix, one of the bar managers, didn’t think it would work.

He was proven wrong right off the bat.

“That first night was incredible and we kept bringing them back,” says Dix. “I expected every single time for it to drop off and it never did.”

That first night was just the start. A wide array of bands wanting to play traditional country came calling.

Many local country fans and musicians, such as Mike Clemmer of the Montgomery County-based band The Keystone Breakers, agree that Country Night and Bob and Barbara’s became the hub for area country music.

“[The Wallace Brothers] created this outlet, this consistent place to play for country bands,” Clemmer says. “Out in the suburbs, you hear the word ‘country’ and it can take on several meanings and can be traditional or the mainstream you hear on the radio. At Country Night at Bob and Barbara’s, you know what you’re gonna get. It’s gonna be folky and bluegrassy. I don’t know of anyone else doing anything like this. Especially in a city like Philadelphia, country can be few and far between, but they’ve been able to shine a light on it.”

The Wallace Brothers curate the lineup at Country Night, which has been going strong for around two years, usually every other Wednesday night. Zach Wallace says his band and several others come from a folk or alt-country background and can cater to any fan base, making it easy to create a Country Night lineup for any given night.

“I went one night and I was just floored,” says singer Hannah Taylor, a fan and frequent attendee of country night before finally playing it herself.  “I was like, ‘This is fucking great, this is in my wheelhouse,’ and I kept going.”

After attending, she approached the Wallace Brothers Band about performing there too. She joined them onstage, admitting she loves harmonizing with other singers and has performed both solo and with a backing band.

“I kinda weaseled my way into playing,” she says with a laugh. ”I’ve played it like six times but I’m there every time. I’m kinda like the hype-woman. It’s a shit-kicking good time.”

It’s a tight-knit community, one which sees bands helping with each other and performing with each other when possible. Case in point, bands are frequently invited back to play and even play with each other elsewhere.

“Most of the bands we have play are regulars at this point,” joked Zach Wallace.

A big draw for the genre is honesty in the music. Several artists remarked how they always appreciated the musicianship and sincerity of old country music. And they try to abide by the spirit of the music.

Lance Davis, aka Grady Hoss, singer of Philly-based Grady Hoss and the Sidewinders, played in various bands over the years. When his dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Davis wanted to play country as a way to continue connecting with his father who grew up listening to country. He wrote several songs but never intended to record. At the behest of friends, he got a group together on his birthday weekend.

“I said to these guys, ‘It’s gotta be fun or I’m not going to do it,’ and we got some beer and some Jack Daniels and spent the entire weekend in the studio and it was a lot of fun,” Davis says.

In keeping with the style of old outlaw country, and wanting to have more fun, Davis insisted each band member have a nickname. His came from his dad’s middle name (Grady) and the Southern term of endearment for friends (Hoss). He also credits his bandmates with keeping things fun and heartfelt.

“In country, you gotta have a steel pedal guitar, and we got one of the best around in Dave Van Allen,” Davis says.

Van Allen has performed solo and in various bands for decades and was recommended to Davis by a mutual friend.

“He actually brought us all to tears in the studio,” says Davis about bringing in Van Allen. “A bunch of grown men crying. That was something.”

The area bands feel the national trend of traditional and outlaw country taking back the genre – with artists like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell coming into prominence aside artists like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton – has been felt in Philly, and that has brought some local bands out of the woodwork.

“There’s a lot of pop country out there but now you’ve got stuff making a comeback,” says Jesse Lundy, who in addition to playing guitar in the Rekardo Lee Trio is a Drexel professor and owner of Point Entertainment, a booking agency in charge of the Philadelphia Folk Festival and Ardmore Music Hall. “You have a lot of kids whose parents were listening to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and Shania Twain when these kids were little and there’s that nostalgia to it. Now they’re grown up and looking for country.”

Lundy adds there is a lot of good country that hasn’t been fully appreciated up North and country music has earned a certain reputation because of pop country music that dominates the airwaves.

“What’s on the radio is this pop country and no band I know is doing that. Most bands have a background in folk or alternative. What’s up here is something that people won’t think is too hokey or twangy,” Wallace says, adding that the nature of traditional country has an edge to it, as opposed to the clean pop sheen on some mainstream country. “If we came in as just some guys all dressed like cowboys and said, ‘Now we’re gonna play you some Jason Aldean,’ this wouldn’t fly.”

The Philly country artists even acknowledge that nostalgia themselves. Various performers credited hearing their parents and grandparents listening to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and other old-school outlaw country when they were growing up.

In Bob and Barbara’s sits a sign declaring it the home of the original citywide special, “Often copied, never duplicated.” The slogan rings true for the state of modern country and the Philly-area country acts that serve as a local look into this idea.

“I think Willie Nelson said it best,” says Clemmer. “He had this quote like, ‘Country music is just three chords and honesty.’”

The national trend in country music is felt in Philly. Zach Wallace has noticed a spike in steel pedals around the city and he has received steady interest from bands wanting to play at Bob and Barbara’s.

“This has kind of centralized the Philly country scene,” Zach Wallace says of Country Night. “If there’s a Philly country band, they’ve probably played here or will at some point. We have taken the country scene and put it under one roof.

“It’s a heavy drinking night,” he adds. “It’s not for the amateur partier.”

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