NEW YORK -- It's not easy to duplicate the longest-running honky-tonk in New York City. Just ask Mitch Pollack, whose East Side institution, the Rodeo Bar, is the unchallenged holder of that title. Tucked away on a busy but unremarkable stretch of Third Avenue off of 27th Street, the best little roadhouse in the Big Apple has been serving up hard-core country music since 1985.
"I've been asked to open other Rodeos in other cities, but I never wanted to," says Pollack. "It's just about keeping the scene alive, supporting the whole roots vibe that's more prevalent outside of New York and being authentic about everything -- the music, the food, everything."
There's no question that the Rodeo remains faithful to its theme, with a Tex-Mex menu, a bar housed in a former horse trailer and walls lined with cattle heads, beat-up guitars and Texas flags. It's no Lone Star theme park, though.
"The thing is that we're a honky-tonk in New York City," says talent booker Jack Grace, "and it's not a make-believe honky-tonk. It's an actual honky-tonk. To me, it's where people can get away, drink, dance, listen to the music. That's what I think a honky-tonk should be, and it should lack pretension."
It's no small feat maintaining a honky-tonk haven in a city known more for P. Diddy, but Grace, whose own citybilly outfit, the Jack Grace Band, is a local fave and Rodeo regular, asserts that there's a strong audience for country music in New York.
"People love it here," he says. "They're particularly passionate about classic country. The interesting thing is they're all very untainted because they didn't go through [the period] when country music got commercial, so a lot of New Yorkers still have a very classic vision of country."
Pollack bought the club in 1996, but he says there were bands from the beginning. "Joan Osborne used to play here every Monday," he recalls. "Mark [Campbell, the original booker] pretty much started the country swing revival in New York [and] the rockabilly revival. Nobody else was doing that stuff in New York back then, so he kind of built different scenes."
Once things started happening on the home front, the club began attracting touring acts, too. "Word got out that we were musician-friendly, not like the places down in the East Village," Pollack says. "There wasn't really a circuit of places like this. We've had Asleep at the Wheel, Hank III. ...We did the first NY show for the Gourds. ... A lot of guys from Austin have heard about us and like to play here, like Dale Watson. If you go see them in Austin, they play places that look just like this: no stage, no lights, they're just standing on the bar floor and plugging in."
"The Rodeo single-handedly brought Charlie Louvin to New York for the first time in 20 years," adds Grace. "I had the honor of putting a band together for him of local country musicians. When he got here, he was so impressed when he saw what passion the local New York community had for his music. He said it was the best band he'd played with in years."
Pollack says local celebs are enamored of the Rodeo as well, like Norah Jones, who has performed stealth gigs there with one of her country side projects, the Sloppy Joannes. "Norah said this is her favorite venue to sneak in and play in New York City," he affirms. "She loves it here."
New York's country cult heroes are a big part of what makes Rodeo run, too, like Western swing mainstays, Western Caravan. "They really embody what we're all about," Pollack says. "It's magic when they play here, the sound is so clear and so good. They've played here so long, they just know that you actually have to turn it down to sound better. They were one of the first, and they've been loyal to us. I love those guys."
John Vacante, who runs Brooklyn-based country label Kill Buffalo, confirms, "I personally have a long history of late nights at Rodeo Bar. It's where I became a fan of Earl Pickens, who later became Kill Buffalo's first signing."
Unsurprisingly, folks from out West comprise a hefty portion of the club's supporters. "Anyone who's from Texas ... a lot of Hollywood people," confirms Pollack. "We've done parties for Ann Richards, the ex-governor [of Texas], Bob Altman used to come in here, Sam Shepard, a lot of USC alumni. It's kind of a home away from home for those people. It's all word of mouth."
As the club's popularity grows, Pollack and Grace find it crucial to stay focused on what makes Rodeo special. "I think the Rodeo has two different modes," Grace observes. "It has full s--t-kicking kind of mode where everybody goes nuts and the place is mobbed. And then because of the way it's shaped, it can also have 25 people in it and you can have a really great listening experience where a real intimate thing happens. There's a special kind of Rodeo night -- when there's sort of an electricity in this place and it lights up and it feels like anyone could do anything. We all wait for those moments to happen here. The bartenders have a tradition of pounding on [the horse-trailer bar]. It sounds like pounding on a big piece of metal. When things start heating up and they go 'boom, boom, boom,' it's like the battle cry has been made, and the place just fires up. That's the moment in this place I just love."
"Sometimes I'll just sit and watch a band," adds Pollack, "and I'll say to myself, 'I can't believe I own this place, and I'm getting this unbelievable music here.' I consider this like a public [service], sort of like the Statue of Liberty or the Met or something. This is not about me. This is bigger than me. This is like an institution, so I feel more like a caretaker."