My upbringing was musically blessed.
My dad bought me my first turntable when I was in
third grade, and searching for records was our bonding activity. We
spent all weekend hitting up record dealers and flea markets in search
of rare scores. We agreed on almost everything when it came to music –
except that I refused to listen to country.
Country was for rednecks and I was becoming a little new wave, punk rock girl. I couldn’t understand how my incredibly cool father could listen to such crap. He insisted that when I grew up I would appreciate country music. I firmly stated, never!
Of course as I grew older, I ate my immature words. In my late teens I got involved in the budding rockabilly scene. This new world of ex-punks turned hillbilly opened my mind to honky-tonk. As the years went on, I found myself putting on George Jones and Patsy Cline more often than the Descendents or The Smiths.
I was shocked at how connected I felt to the music. As much as I tried as a child to block out the lonesome and rebellious crooners, I knew the words to every country standard by adulthood. I still love all types of music, but these days I’m definitely a little bit more country and a little less rock and roll.
In this rock- and electronic-heavy city, it can be hard to find some good honky-tonks to hang out at, but with a little country know-how, you can find that hillbilly spirit within these urban confines.
The Rite Spot Café describes itself as the Mission’s “dive of elegance,” and that pretty much sums up the place. The cozy, casual demeanor of the space is accented with a touch of class: there’s white linen dining with table service here. It’s also a great place to enjoy a variety of local acts – bluegrass, solo piano players like Kittin on the Keys, and my favorite artist, Toshio Hirano, a yodeling Japanese country singer who performs here monthly. Toshio has that perfect wavering, old-style country voice and he covers such greats as Buck Owens and Guy Mitchell. And just you wait till he starts yodeling a Gene Autry song.
On my recent venture to see this adorable crooning cowboy, the Rite Spot was surprisingly packed. My friend and I snuck past the crowd congregating at the entry and slyly occupied the last table right up front. We were both hungry buckaroos so we ordered big plates of pasta and sat back to enjoy the show. Toshio sang alongside his stand-up bass man, Kenan O’Brien. He wore a bucket-sized cowboy hat and a bolero tie while belting out songs like “Heartache Number One” and “Honky Tonk Blues.”
My friend, a novice country listener, laughed as I got overly excited at every song and told stories about their significance in my life.
I reminisced about my dad over a heartbreaking rendition of “I’m So Lonesome” and had to refrain from getting a tear in my beer.
There was a break after the first set, and then Toshio came back for another round, this time with a banjo player. I adore the banjo, and while I listened, I daydreamed of taking lessons.
After we had our fill of food, libations, and good ole’ country tunes, we moseyed on home. But not before stuffing some well-deserved dollar bills in Toshio’s cowboy hat!
Heartbreaks & Hangovers is a recent addition to the Make-Out Room’s schedule. Every second Tuesday of every month, the amazing Nicholas Koch (aka DJ Nicky) hosts a night at the bar, spinning old country during happy hour. He’s been covertly DJ’ing there for the past year, making the bar a hip honky-tonk destination for those in the know. It gets packed with both old-timers and younger fans – different types who all share a love for country music.
Last month I headed over to the Make-Out Room with a few pals. We piled into a booth and started drinking whiskey. “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. came on – coincidently my dad’s favorite song, which he labeled our family anthem. I bounced up and down in the booth, singing along to “So don’t ask me, Hank, why do you drink? / Hank, why do you roll smoke? / Why must you live out / the songs that you wrote?” with a huge smile on my face. Afterwards, I let out a real big yee-ha!
Nicky has the charm of a Southern gentleman to go with his great taste in music. In between flipping the likes of Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard, he makes his rounds to welcome everyone, and sometimes even cooks homemade cornbread to hand out to patrons!
Sadly, most of the men who hang out at Heartbreaks & Hangovers don’t seem to know how to swing a lady around. But lately a couple guys have been getting up the nerve to join us ladies on the dance floor. Last time I was there a young hipster in nerd glasses spun me around a few times while people laughed on the sidelines.
I’ve been bugging Nicky to invite someone to teach line dancing or the two-step at the next Heartbreaks & Hangovers. I think I have him convinced – so if you make it out in May, throw on your cowboy boots before you arrive.
There are often live country acts playing around town at venues like the Riptide, Amnesia, and the Knockout. But sometimes I just need to sit at a bar with a nice strong drink and listen to some good ole’ country on the fly. When I get that hankering, I go for an old-fashioned jukebox with the choicest country standards.
Over at the Hemlock, the jukebox is always free and stocked full of greats, like Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens.
The dark, divey man’s den atmosphere isn’t exactly cowboy, but it’s reminiscent of my father’s rec room, and a perfect place to listen to music, sip on a beer, and get your fill of barstool philosophy.
When I hang out at the Hemlock, I like to reign over the jukebox and flirt with the impossibly cute boys who always seem to be around – but I keep it classy! In the back of my mind, my father’s words linger, reminding me to drink my whiskey straight like a man and act like a lady. So I mostly bat my eyelashes and smile as I sip on my Mitcher’s. Then I saunter home in my cowboy boots with a little smirk on my face, knowing this city holds many more nights to come filled with country music, straight whiskey, and handsome men.
God bless my daddy for teaching me well.
You want to be an urban cowgirl or cowboy? Throw on your boots and mosey on over to the Rite Spot Café to check out Toshio Hirano. (He also plays regularly at Amnesia. Check out his schedule on his website .)
In true honky-tonk fashion, drink stiff whiskey before sundown at the Make-Out Room, while DJ Nicky spins the Heartbreaks & Hangovers. Need some country on the fly? Head over to Hemlock and dominate its jukebox.
Up and coming events include a new rockabilly night at the Knockout that’s supposed to happen the last Saturday of every month, serving up live acts and DJs playing bop, jive and jump. Follow the hickswithsticks.com calendar for weekly live country acts – you’re sure to see me out there doing the two-step.