PRAGUE, Czech Republic — It’s a typical Friday night at the Amerika Country Saloon, and its two rooms are packed with die-hard country and western music fans.
Goulash made from buffalo meat is on the menu, and on a small stage next to the bar a band called Horizont is performing songs by Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers and Pete Seeger — in Czech.
The saloon is on a side street near the historic center of the Czech capital, yet a visitor could easily imagine himself in Memphis, Tenn., or Amarillo, Texas. Over the door hangs a pair of crossed Confederate flags, while the walls of the backroom are adorned with the Stars and Stripes and a banner declaring, “The South Shall Rise Again.”
The middle-aged man sitting at the Amerika’s polished pinewood bar completes the illusion. With his shoulder-length hair, frontier-style overcoat, denim jacket and jeans, red bandanna and a buff-colored Stetson hat, Jakub could easily pass for an extra in a Hollywood cowboy film.
“I’ve been dressing up like this for 30 years,” Jakub says. “At the beginning, I did it because it got up the noses of the Communists. Now, I’m just used to it.” Amerika is just one of dozens of similar establishments in and around Prague, and Jakub one of hundreds of “lekarna,” or drugstore cowboys.
The People’s Choice
The Rikatado Saloon features barstools shaped like saddles, and the CI5 Country Saloon boasts an underground pistol range for those who take their six-guns seriously. Country and western — in the broad sense it is defined here — is the most popular music in the Czech Republic, with more than a quarter of all Czechs declaring themselves to be regular listeners.
A 1996 concert by the brothers Jan and Frantisek Nedved, the premier folk and country music act in the Czech Republic, drew more than 80,000 people to Prague’s Strahov soccer stadium, almost as many as came to hear the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd at the same venue.
And the Prague-based Country Radio, the first all-country station in Europe, is the most popular regional radio station in the nation, with an audience of more of 270,000. The music’s popularity derives from the so-called “tramping movement,” a lifestyle unique to the Czech Republic and based on a love of nature, a taste for adventure and an unabashed passion for Americana, especially the twang of a steel guitar and the pick and plunk of a banjo.
Country As Political Statement
“I like the music because it’s American,” says Jakub, a keen tramper since 1965. “We didn’t like the Communists, and the image of America represented freedom for us.” The movement originated in the 1920s, shortly after the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire and the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic.
Reacting to the devastation of World War I and its uncertain aftermath, and influenced by the influx of American music and films, Czechs began to head for the countryside, hiking through the mountains and sitting around campfires and singing. Many of the songs they sang were by American country singers, such as Jimmie Rodgers, and were inspired by their own romanticized vision of the American West.
After the Communists assumed power in 1948, the lifestyle took on political significance, since the authorities were suspicious of anything and anyone extolling Western values. The movement and its music became part of a mass escapism, with Czech families fleeing to their country cottages each weekend to avoid the political pressures of everyday life.
Thus, when the Communist grip on the country’s cultural life loosened briefly in the 1960s, a new influx of Western music, especially rock ‘n’ roll and country and western, found a large and enthusiastic audience.
The new idols were classical country singers such as “Gentleman” Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash. In 1972, Cash performed at two sold-out concerts in Prague, which included a rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” (RealAudio excerpt). When a cordon of policemen prevented spectators from rushing the stage for autographs, he simply signed his name on the lens of a TV camera, broadcasting his signature throughout the country.
“For us, it was incredible,” says Pavel Bezouska, a Country Radio disc jockey and one of 10,000 who saw Cash perform. “It was our first chance to see an American country star in person.” Under Communism, would-be Czech country and western musicians faced almost insurmountable obstacles. Bezouska claims that until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, only one steel guitar existed in the entire country. And Michal Konecny, editor-in-chief of the magazine Folk & Country, tells the story of a Czech musician who made his own banjo based on one pictured in a poster of the folk singer Pete Seeger he had pinned to his wall.
Homegrown country bands had to adopt Czech names there, but ironically, under Communism musicians were able to translate and record American country and western songs without having to pay for their use. That has since changed, with stringent laws now protecting American copyrights and requiring considerable fees for the recording of cover versions. And there’s another problem.
“American songwriters are reluctant to give permission to have their songs translated,” Bezouska says. “And I’m not surprised when I hear some of the translations.” As a result, Czech country and western performers are now forced to write their own tunes and develop their own style. This has not dampened their enthusiasm at all. Vlastimil Jesatko, Horizont’s bass player, says that, while American country is still far better than the Czech, “We’re getting better every day.” He has played country and western for 30 years.
Asked why, he replies, “I’ve got country in my soul. It sends shivers down my spine.”
— Siegfried Mortkowitz