Published: Jan. 18, 1991

A LONG, long time ago in San Jose -- 10 years at least -- where the fruit stands used to line the stretch of Monterey Highway called Blood Alley, there was an amusement park. Years before the grim juggernaut of development rolled over the surrounding orchards, Frontier Village was an ersatz Wild West town replete with rides, arcade games and fake cowboys. The park was the province of children -- most of whom would grow up to let their cowboy dreams give way to thoughts of condos and computers. And for those little buckaroos who didn't let go . . . there is the Saddle Rack.

Imagine a Frontier Village for grown-ups -- a massive theme park with fake cowboys, a smattering of real cowboys, arcade games, country bands and mechanical bronco rides -- where distinctly adult pleasures such as free-flowing whiskey and hundreds of attractive members of the opposite sex have supplanted the childish joys of cotton candy and carousels.

Close your eyes and transport yourself to a separate reality where a cowgirl can still find a good man who dances a mean Texas two-step. A place where a cowboy can stand on a chair and call hogs for the sheer joy of it. A honky-tonk so large it has its own neighborhoods. A place where admission is free and the music never stops. Then, maybe, you'll be prepared for a Friday night at the biggest, longest-running party in the South Bay.

There are country bars, and country nightclubs, and then there is the Saddle Rack -- a strapping 14-year-old giant that dwarfs all other nightclubs in the region, country or not. On an average weekend night 2,000 to 2,500 people will pass through the Auzerais Avenue club. Some are looking for the simple comforts of a drink or a dance in the company of people who still make their fun the old-fashioned way. Others are silicon cowpokes looking for an escape from the vein-popping pressure and mind-numbing sterility of days spent jockeying a little green dot around a computer screen. And some are here to forget old loves and find new ones. In an age where mainstream rock clubs have gone soft on a diet of fey, disco-fied dandyism and machine-made pop pabulum, the Saddle Rack is one of the last bastions of real, two-fisted, red-blooded, hard-core honky-tonkin'.

It starts jumping
on a Friday night

By 10 p.m. on a recent Friday, the sprawling parking lot off Meridian Avenue is almost full, and a steady stream of patrons is flowing through the front doors like cattle through a chute. Twelve years after the film "Urban Cowboy" sent throngs of wanna-be wranglers shopping for pointy-toed boots, the mystique lives on in places such as this.

While many of the customers are indistinguishable from your garden-variety lounge lizard, about half the crowd dresses the part: Resistol hats with brims as big around as laundry baskets (felt hats, with thin bands, no straw and hold the feathers, please), Wrangler jeans, pressed cowboy shirts with pearl buttons. A virtual Marlboro Country fashion parade, complete with a couple of gaunt twentysomething men in long riding coats who could have stepped right off the set of "Heaven's Gate."

Unlike virtually all rock clubs, there is no line at the front door. With the Rack's core audience being somewhat older than average (25 to 35) and no cover charge to collect, few people are stopped at the door. Just inside, behind the shoulder-high barricade that separates the club proper from the door, is manager Andy Buchanan, who's been running the Saddle Rack so long many patrons probably assume he came with the building. At other doors, bouncers (or "social directors" in Saddle Rack parlance) have to stand on raised platforms to survey the action in the stockyard-size club. But Buchanan, a 40ish guy with the square jib and polite, no-nonsense demeanor of a Marine, is tall enough to eyeball the entire scene. If Buchanan wore a cowboy hat instead of his usual baseball cap, he'd probably be tall enough to be listed on topographic maps.

At 28,000 square feet, the club boasts of being the largest nightclub in California, bar none. The room is so large -- six bars, four dance floors, two bandstands -- it's often impossible to see through the darkness and the smoke and the sea of tall hats from one end of the club to the other. If indoor NASCAR racing ever caught on, this would be the first facility.

Richard Petty and company may never get to run their rigs in the Rack, but there was a time a few years ago when the club did run live bulls for professional rodeo cowboys every Sunday and Monday night, before the kill-joys at the insurance company took all the fun out of it. In February 1986, a 1,400-pound Brahma decided to take his leave of the premises. The wayward bull made it as far as the Meridian Avenue crossing over Interstate 280 before having a fatal tete-a-tete with an auto.

One of the remarkable aspects of the country-and-western milieu is its role as a great social leveler: On any given night, you'll find everyone from Mustache Petes in their 70s dripping with turquoise jewelry and bolo ties to young button- down techies straight from the office. It's not uncommon to see women in severely cut dress-for-success Ann Taylor business suits swinging out on the dance floor with men in dress-for- distress steel-tipped Justin boots and belt buckles as big as salad plates.

The stereotype of the hard-bitten redneck with a Confederate flag tattooed on his biceps and a couple of missing teeth is grossly overworked -- for every one of those, the Saddle Rack probably hosts three other guys who'd be right at home in any of the mainstream rock joints on First Street. Although the Saddle Rack is notorious for being a tough joint, the San Jose Police Department's records of responses to the club over a 13- month period show only about one non-routine priority call a week. It's hard to say how many of the people sporting $300 ostrich-skin boots and $100 hats ever earned their living running longhorns out 'round Saragosa, but the club's management concedes the percentage of bona fide cowboys is small.

A nightclub owner
from the old school

''We don't really go for the hard, gun-smokin', horse-pucky country scene," says Hank Guenther, the club's sole owner. "Our thing is more country rock. My competition is not from the other country clubs, it's from D.B. Cooper's and places like that." In an industry that eats up venture capital by the bushel and burns out bright, young businesspeople by the busload, Guenther is an original -- one of the last of the old school of nightclub entrepreneurs who got their start in the food-service end of things and built an empire based on the Puritan work ethic.

Today, he looks like a 50ish James Garner gone gray, with a permanently furrowed brow to show for all the long nights -- along with a flashy private plane and an office adorned with photos of him glad-handing everyone from Roy Orbison to James Brown.

Guenther took over the San Jose facility from a failing all- you-can-eat restaurant chain, Sweden House, in 1968. He changed the name to Bit o' Sweden and did well dishing out steam-table fare for years. In 1976, Guenther converted the building into the Saddle Rack.

Fortuitously, Mickey Gilley was the first live act featured in the club. Three years later, "Urban Cowboy," a film based on Gilley's own mammoth Texas club, would set off a stampede of interest in country music. "Gilley and I hit it off from the start -- we're both pilots, ya know -- and he gave me a lot of ideas," says Guenther. He aggressively booked national headline acts at a loss to bring people in. The list of country giants -- everyone from Alabama to Dwight Yoakam -- who have worked the club over the years is staggering.

''After 'Urban Cowboy,' everybody just jumped on the bandwagon. There was a country club opening up every other week. But they didn't last very long," says Guenther. "We've been here as long as we have because we treat this as our business. This is not a playground for me or the employees or the bands. It's a business."

And business is good. Precisely how good Guenther declines to say. (With no cover charge except for national acts, and no food operation, it would be safe to guess the club lives and dies on liquor sales.) These days the national headliners swing through less frequently, and the Saddle Rack concentrates on doing what it does best -- volume business supplying free, local, live music to the largest weekly audience in the region. On Friday and Saturday nights two bands working separate stages keep the music running continuously.

It's how you ride,
not how you land

The mechanical bull -- the only remaining vestige of the wild old days when real bulls roamed the back 40 -- is a cruel device. It's hard to imagine what primal urge would compel more than 100 otherwise-sane people per night to engage in an activity that seems predicated on certain failure: You climb on, get shaken like a pompon on the end of a stick, and fall off. As an allegory for the human condition, this bull stands as testament to the philosophy that the quality of the ride is more important than where one ends up.

There are no special qualifications required to ride the bull, and 90 percent of those do so are novices suddenly seized by the idea it would somehow be fun to violently rearrange the contents of their digestive tract while a thousand spectators watch on giant video screens around the club. The typical ride lasts a couple of minutes.

In the heart of the club, adjacent to the bull ring is another wicked device best avoided by those with weak stomachs: The Margaritaville barber chair. The mechanics are simple. Patrons recline in an old-fashioned barber chair and bare their tonsils to a woman who expertly pours liquor -- schnapps, tequila and Jack Daniel's -- directly down their gullets. The motivation is less simple. It seems that many of the 100-plus people who avail themselves of this direct-deposit service each night are goaded into doing so by friends in various states of intoxication. It is a rare person indeed who decides on his own -- "Dang! It's been a long time since I got my tonsils washed!"

By 11 p.m. the giant club is jammed to its maximum capacity of 1,200. The Margaritaville bell seems to ring every minute and the cheers of onlookers at tables next to the bull ring are mixed with the strains of "Rocky Top" emanating from the bandstand at the far end of the room. In the back 40, where the real bona fide country people tend to congregate, a fireplug of a man in a fancy blue silk cowboy shirt takes a running start and wallops an arcade punching bag until it slams back into a locked position and bells go off. His two friends rise in unison off their stools and let out a long "sooooooooooeeeeeeeeee." The rate-your-punch machine is just one of many diversions, from electronic darts to video games, scattered in corners around the club. In the steamy crush of bodies, there is no way to navigate except to go with the flow, as people stream through the tight aisles like schools of fish.

In the one reasonably quiet corner is the in-house clothing store where patrons can buy everything from "I (heart) the Saddle Rack" bumper stickers to $65 satin jackets (one of the most popular items). At the beer-only bar next to the store, two women in their late 30s, each decked out in skin-tight jeans and elaborate frilly country blouses, are watching the elbow-to-elbow action on the dance floor with an air of stoic detachment. When a man approaches to ask for a dance, one obliges while the other carefully studies the bubbles in her beer. He spends the next 20 minutes back at the bar chatting with both of them. When he leaves, the beer-watcher shoots her friend an I-told-you-about-him glance and remarks drily, "Sherry told me he let the wife have the house . . ."

The Saddle Rack seems to attract newly single people like a parade attracts politicians. "It's a good place for singles to meet because we don't have the hard pickup scene," Buchanan says. "I don't consider it a meat market."

An eclectic mix
of country music

If outsiders think of country music at all, often they think of nothing but Grand Ole Opry hokum and maudlin weepers in the "my-gal-left-me-for-a-William-and-stuck-me-with-the-bill" genre. Yet seldom is heard a discouraging word out of the bands at the Rack. The emphasis is solidly on rockin' country -- fast, loud and built for dancing. An average night's set lists runs the gamut from covers of Highway 101 and Patty Loveless to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger. Although "disco" is still a dirty word in these parts, a country-rap number that might have elicited a hail of beer bottles in more orthodox country joints is a big hit here.

While the weekends are given over to a lot of non-country dancing, Tuesday and Wednesday nights are the domain of the true believers. Buchanan estimates that of the 500 or 600 people who turn out for the lessons each week, more than a third are beginners. In addition to the dance lessons, the club has a number of contests running constantly to keep weekday attendance from sagging. Currently there's a lip-synch contest and a nine-week series of female vocal competitions.

By 1:15 the traffic on the dance floors has thinned considerably as the final set begins. A whippet-thin young man with immaculately feathered hair comes off the dance floor, lobs his keys at his buddy seated at a nearby table, and says, with a grin as wide as a harvest moon: "Take the truck? Ah got a ride!" His friend gives him a weak thumbs-up and looks away. At 1:45 an eerie quiet settles over the mammoth room. The mechanical whump-clang of the punching bag stops. The bull has bucked its last buckaroo. As the house lights come up, people gather at the hotdog cart out front, rounding up friends for the ride out on the cold, unforgiving frontier beyond the Saddle Rack.

The Saddle Rack
Where: 1310 Auzerais Ave., San Jose, (408) 286-3393
When: 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays. Music starts at 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Cost: No cover charges except for national touring acts.

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