The Wild Side of Life: Roadhouses, Honky-Tonks and Dives

The Almont Resort, between Gunnison and Crested Butte. Photo: Dawne Belloise

You’re sitting on a stool in some mountain dive bar where the music is beyond the aural spectrum your ears can handle, which is OK, because the melodic nuances were lost at the bottom of that fifth pint and shot you ordered. In this scenario, it’s not likely that you’d be musing about the origin of your historic watering hole and the various music genres that have bounced around the dance floor, but it’s staggering in more ways than the obvious to visualize what may have come before. Tap into the collective wildness of its previous incarnations and perhaps in your elevated consciousness ask yourself, “Where am I?”

… a roadhouse, honky-tonk or just a dive?

According to Dr. Chani Marchiselli, a Colorado mountain native and now a Professor of Communications at New England College, “Roadhouses developed outside of municipalities that had been subject to zoning and regulatory acts put forward by Progressive Reformers who were interested in saving cities and towns from the scourge of noisy, drunken dance halls and their attendant business and prostitution. Roadhouses developed in the teens and 1920s when they wouldn’t allow dance halls and sometimes alcohol consumption so houses moved outside (of town and city limits) to avoid regulations. They were made possible by the invention of the autos.” Although given an understandably bad rap, Dr. Marchiselli explains that teetotalers shouldn’t be bashed since their main thrust was to curtail the exploitation of women. “They were interested in banning alcohol in cities because husbands would work in dank, dirty factories, get drunk and then beat the shit out of their wives. So a lot of the Progressive Social Reformers were concerned about how wives were treated.”

Honky-tonks came later, as did the music so associated with those venues that it eventually came to bear the name. Jazz came out of the brothels of New Orleans and the nastiest honky-tonks of the West. Dr. Marchiselli adds that honky-tonks get “blamed” for some of the raunchy influence on American music, mostly ragtime and jazz. “Roadhouses were out of town; honky-tonks were basically filthy folk-music saloons and, like roadhouses, were associated with prostitution and suspension of social order. Honky-tonks were usually associated with out West and a particular kind of music and they were really rowdy … and mountain honky-tonks were way off the maps (as far as unruliness). Hymnals actually influenced country and blues.” Country music didn’t show up in honky-tonks until the 1930s.

Craig McManus, a popular KBUT radio (kbut.org, Crested Butte) country music DJ and bass player in rock-and-roll bands for a couple of decades, thinks the true honky-tonk is either dying or just plain dead and, if nothing else, on its last breath in the mountains. “The road house is usually in between two small towns, like the Almont Resort between Crested Butte and Gunnison or The Sleepy Cat between Meeker and Buford,” both of which McManus has frequented. Although The Sleepy Cat was turned into a private residence by new owners, long-time owners of the original roadhouse, the Wix family, plan to eventually build another close by to appease the pleas from area locals who miss the joint’s good times. The Almont Resort, with some of its cabins dating back to the late-1800s, is still a place for a raucous evening of drinks, live music and dancing.

Between Bond and Wolcott, State Bridge was another off-the-beaten-path roadhouse with all the fixins’ of music, dance and rowdiness that unfortunately burned to the ground in 2007 when a vexed burglar doused the resistant ATM machine with gasoline and set it ablaze. Scott Stoughton, the current Social Chairman of the newly rebuilt Eagle County lodge, says it was once a haven for trappers, traders, miners and cowboys. “Before the fire, since the early days, it was a little hotel, a brothel, a trading post and later a speakeasy during Prohibition. It rebounded with rafting and music throughout the 1980s and ’90s for bikers, rafters, fisherman and hippies. It was rocking until the fire.” Its grand reopening last month (June 2011) included concerts and music on the newly rebuilt stages.

McManus observed that there weren’t really any rules for roadhouses and honky-tonks unless patrons went past the unwritten allowable, and you could get away with even more after midnight. “These were venues where the people living out in the rural mountain areas could meet, listen to live bands, drink and not worry about the laws and the rules. On most occasions, you could find a crap game or two going on in the bar.” Music that was played in more-isolated honky-tonks tended to be good-time country bands. “I talked to somebody who played rock-and-roll in a country bar and every time they played that type of song it would rain beer bottles. They had been hired by mistake because of a misunderstood name the band had. But if you’re musically inappropriate in a place like this, the audience will let you know physically that you’re in the wrong place. I have played behind a caged stage to protect bands from flying burgers and beer bottles.”

McManus feels the death of honky-tonks is because of several reasons, “One reason is the DUI, but that’s one of the reasons they had their own cabins. Secondly, country music — true country music — has lost most of its venues and there are less country bands regionally. People aren’t going out as much anymore, either. I remember the honky-tonks’ hardwood floor with sawdust, a lot of dancing and drinking and you wouldn’t dare ask for a martini because it was a shot-and-beer place … American beers, thank you. And you better not talk to any pretty girls unless you know who their boyfriend is or was because he may still be there and it doesn’t matter if he ain’t seeing her anymore — you ain’t.” McManus describes the basic difference between a roadhouse honky-tonk and a dive as, “The number of Harleys out front. If it’s a honky-tonk, there would be pickup trucks in the parking lot. If you see one SUV, move on … it’s been turned.”

Although true mountain roadhouses and honky-tonks have either transformed or disappeared into the setting sun, saloons with their odoriferous air of fermentation, dance floors and music are still alive and well at high-altitude locales and worth much exploration … which surely means a future Mountain Music story of its own.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in a tiny cottage with a ginormous cat on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact dbelloise@gmail.com

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