The dance floor is a river that can count to three. Cowboy hats float counterclockwise, and hearts swim beneath shirts of turquoise, pink and purple as a wily fiddle gives a Southern accent to small talk at the bar. The smoky country voice of John Anderson howls on CD from the omnipresent sound system: If you really wanna know, she comes a lot/ She loves to hear the music and dance/ K-13 is her favorite song/ If you play it then you might have the chance, he sings, as a waitress wades through the crowd holding a tray of kamikaze shots over her head.
Some of the dancers spin and turn and whip their partners around in a dangle of arms that suddenly straighten, the spring back in a moving clinch. Others move slowly, stiffly, unable to think of anything except where their feet are supposed to be. Those who aren’t dancing seem to be equipped with heads that swivel like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist as they survey the scene for prospective partners.
Borrowed Money on a Thursday night almost resembles a country and Western nightclub. It’s a modern-day honky-tonk, the kind where Coors Light easily outsells Lone Star and white hats are replaced by black ones from Labor Day to Easter.
As Straight Tequila Night fades out, the club starts vibrating with enough bass and drums to move a shot glass across a table. I like big butts and I can’t deny, Sir Mix-A-Lot raps on Baby Got Back, and the club’s excitement level shoots up like a bull rider’s adrenaline during those fabled eight seconds. The sonic transition is as loud and jagged as a rock crashing through a plate glass window, but everyone seems at ease with the new groove. Some of the dancers who were just two-stepping are now embroiled in lurid weight shifts and it almost looks like Fire Island, circa, 1976, with all these muscular guys with mustaches and cowboy hats snapping their necks in time to the monster beat.
Disco balls never stopped spinning, they just moved to country nightclubs. At places like Cowboys, Stampede, Wild West, Country Connection, Chances and Borrowed Money in Dallas, Cutters Live in Arlington and the Rockin’ Rodeo in Fort Worth, you’re almost as likely to hear Michael Jackson as Alan Jackson, Bobby Brown as Sawyer Brown, Madonna as Wynonna. Even “real cowboys” like Chris LeDoux and Mark Chesnutt have embraced the urban renewal of country music by releasing drum-heavy enhancements (or “remixes”) of their hits to country dance clubs. The kids call this unlikely pairing of country and urban dance music “house country,” and it’s currently the hottest nightclub format in Dallas.
When Mix-A-Lot raps that “even white boys got to shout,” the virtually all-white clientele of Borrowed Money does just that – and the dance floor fills up as the waitress heads back to the bar with an empty tray.
All the regulars at Cowboys know Leon Stamm, and they know him because of the way he dances. With his white jeans, blazing-red Wrangler shirt and white Resistol hat, he blends in with the rest of the concrete cowboys on the railing. But when he’s on the floor he stands out. During Super Love by Exile, a standard Freeze line dance number, Leon and his pals spin around on their hands and push off from the floor while joining the sea of line dancers without ever missing a beat.
“I get ideas from all sorts of things, like one of the moves is something I saw in an M.C. Hammer video and I just put it to country music,” he says. “I’ll think of something and I’ll call up my friend James (Bostick Jr.) and we’ll work it out on the phone and then do it at Cowboys that night.”
During the day Leon works at a Mobil station; at night women ask him to dance and men marvel at his agile footwork: he’s a star.
Cowboys, on the edge of Lakewood, is closed on Monday and Tuesday, but you’ll find Leon there just about every Wednesday through Sunday.
“I started two-stepping when I was 5 years old, and I’ve loved to dance ever since. It’s hard to describe, but dancing just fills me up with a good feeling,” he says. Just then a dead ringer for Phoebe Cates taps him on the shoulder and asks him to dance. He takes her hand and they cut the proverbial rug for three straight songs: two country and one rap. After Leon and Phoebe talk for awhile, he heads back to the corner rail, where he and his friends always hang out.
“I come here to dance and to meet people,” he says, “And one thing I’ve noticed is that the better you dance, the more people you meet.”
Cowboys could be the Gilley’s of the ‘90’s. There are no mechanical bulls, but there’s rap and disco and funk and, oh yes, country music, and a huge dance floor that starts filling up at about 8 p.m. on weekends. At the peak times, it’s not unusual to see upward of 50 patrons line dancing in the middle, while boot-scooters circle them in six-deep formations.
Urban Cowboy’s validity check – “Are you a real cowboy?” – has been replaced by “Can you country dance?” for logistical reasons. The percentage of genuine cowboys at Cowboys is roughly the same as the number of gentlemen you’ll find at a “gentlemen’s club.”
At Cowboys you can be an accountant or graphic artist or even a Yankee, but if you can double two-step or three-step, then you’re the real thing. The pretenders are those who wear Resistol hats and rodeo shirts and cowboy boots, yet only dance to the ol’ thump and bump of Prince or Tone Loc.
Cowboys is always chilly unless it’s packed. It’s as if the air conditioning knob broke off at “high,” which is a change from the usual nightclub ploy of keeping it warm so customers buy more drinks. At Cowboys, they seem to want you to dance, if only to stay warm. Co-owners Mike Murphy, Bobby Bosworth and Steve Albeck agree that dancing is the main attraction, and they’ve got the figures to prove it.
After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1992 to bring in big name talent like Pam Tillis, Aaron Tippin, Tracy Lawrence and Brooks & Dunn, the club surveyed its customers and found that the main reason folks came to Cowboys was to dance, with “to meet members of the opposite sex” not far behind. Since then, the club has mostly scrapped national acts with little, if any, loss in attendance.
“The dance floor is our thermometer that tells us whether we’re sick or well,” Mr. Murphy says. Every song played at Cowboys is entered into a computer that keeps track of when it was played and how many people dance to it. If it doesn’t fill the floor after a few plays, the tune gets cut from the playlist – even if it’s a hit single. Also, certain songs are pegged for certain hours. The ‘70s disco tracks like You Should Be Dancing by the Beegees and YMCA by the Village People work much better later in the night, when the crowd’s been loosened up a little.
“Trash Disco has been the hot thing in Deep Ellum for the last year or so, but I wasn’t sure it would go over with our crowd,” says Cowboys DJ Ruben Castro. “I was a little worried when I tried it out, and sure enough, the first time I played Car Wash (by Rose Royce), a few people looked up at the DJ booth like ‘What the heck is going on?’ All I had to do was look at the packed dance floor to know that it was working though,” he says.
Mr. Murphy, who sold the last of his 17 topless bars in 1986 to make his move into country music, grew up in Dallas and remembers dancing at the venerable Debonair Danceland.
“I compare this new country dance craze to what was happening with swing dancing in the ‘40s,” says Mr. Long. “If you don’t know how to dance, you’re missing out on the biggest part of this whole thing. And you’re also missing out on a lot of physical contact, which is something that people always crave.”
Though purists prefer that country music never stray far from its down-home roots, this soul music of the white South has always evolved with its surroundings. In the ‘20s, Jimmie Rodgers, “the father of country music,” mixed folk with the blues because that was what was all around him, while Hank Williams’ songs of pain and self-exploration were right for postwar America. And the heavily produced Nashville sound of the ‘60s reflected the heightened technology and new-found luxuries of that prosperous time.
The new urban country dance scene holds up a mirror to society made plaid by so many intersecting cultures. Satellite dishes bring the full force of the electronic media to even the most rural areas, and kids who milk cows in the morning are watching Yo! MTV Raps in the afternoon. How are you going to keep ‘em down on the farm when they’ve seen Prince’s Gett Off video?
Farm-raised kids and young adults are seeing all the new looks and hearing all the latest sounds, and they don’t want to learn to play the banjo: they want to be more like the people they see on TV. Feisty suburban types, meanwhile, crave the street-wise sounds of today to help bridge the distance for which they’ve paid such a high price.
People all go out for basically the same reason. They want to have fun, and they way to do that is to dance, meet people and drink. Ask them what kind of music they like and most folks will say “all kinds.”
“House country” proves it.
There’s a hardwood camaraderie out there where the music matters most. On the dance floor, there is no black or white; there’s only lust and indifference, sober and drunk, left and right and the beat that keeps them apart.
At 2 a.m. on Friday night, Cowboys’ security force, dressed in black and white “Garthwear,” starts clearing the house, and within minutes the parking lot looks almost like the start of a demolition derby, with cars and trunks darting off into different directions simultaneously.
One couple argues in the parking lot – there’s always a couple fighting in the parking lot – and she storms off, then suddenly stops and turns around as if the oncoming truck is packing a spotlight. “If you like her so much, then get HER to drive you home!” the woman shouts. OK, he might just do that.
Inside, the club is suddenly freezing, as if all the heat had been sucked out into the night, and the house lights sanitize the place where, only 10 minutes ago, sweat glistened like temptation’s jewelry. One bouncer fetches a necking couple from a distant nook and as he shepherds them to the exit, a group of waitresses in blue fringe blouses meet by a round table and sigh and count their money.
Black or White, by Michael Jackson, comes out over the PA, ever so softly.