AT 8:30 IN THE EVENING, after most happy hours have ended but before most post-work drinkers are sufficiently drunk, shrouded in the darkness of dimmed Edison bulbs, making a circle on the Olympic-size dance floor of Stoney’s Rockin’ Country bar, in a corner of Town Square, cowboy shirts learn to two-step with jean skirts.
I’ll watch them for three hours, they who can dance, they who cannot, all desperately shuffling across the hardwood in hopes of catching the downbeat of the Austin Law band’s Toby Keith cover.
I can’t tell you why I’m here, exactly. Maybe it’s because I secretly want to learn to line dance. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to conjure the same emotions I felt stopping in two-TV-channel towns as a little kid, dredging up flashbacks of listening to outlaw country in Iowa dorm rooms and feeling like I’m the subject of an Explosions in the Sky song. Maybe I’m just here to see two bull riders punch each other in the face. All of those things are, pretty much, true.
But it doesn’t take long to figure out some things don’t line up. All the elements are right — old guys with big mustaches chasing little blondes in littler skirts, poor lighting, more cowboy hats than there are people in most parts of Nevada — but it’s too clean. Too new. I can’t even smell smoke in the air, which is weird for Vegas in general, much less a country bar. What I’m saying is this bar has a gift shop that advertises the hottest country outfits for 20 percent off. And in the history of good country bars, none of them have ever involved retail discounts. Its doorman could have easily checked me into a hotel or a bath house, him sitting at a quaint beige computer station, to his left two massive Game of Thrones-looking wooden doors, to his right, clothing that looks not unlike almost everything you might buy at the Hard Rock Hotel.
I must be early, before the National Finals Rodeo rush. The cowboy hats I see are fashionable, with little aerodynamic utility — at least, that’s what I tell myself, knowing absolutely nothing of the purpose of wearing a cowboy hat while riding a furiously bucking four-legged clown-murderer — the mark of aesthetic cowboys. A couple miles away there are probably still guys named names like Toby and Rodd who still have dogies to git along. And for that I’m a little skeptical.
But there’s something ringing deep in my skull now, and it’s not all the cheap Busch. I’m trying to fight my impulse to enjoy this. My shoulders are trying to keep my head from nodding, sending weird signals to my brain, telling me how much I love dirt fields, bad beer and the sweet smell of tobacco. How much I love that there’s a mechanical bull, that in no way do I find it tacky, that I’m in awe of the chubby blonde who’s riding it reverse cowgirl without holding on, and about 100 times more so when a pro bull rider finally shows up and owns the gear-driven hell out of that electronic cow.
It’s because country music evokes all those things. It doesn’t take a lot of thought. This isn’t fucking Death Cab for Cutie. It’s to the point: “Write my number on your hand.” “City folks got worries / a country boy’s got none.” Country music just wants you to dance. Or cry. Or drink. And because of that, I have to do at least two of those things — and at no point am I required to think about deadlines, interviews or dental bills.
Sure, this place isn’t what Gord Bamford had in mind when he wrote “Blue Collar Palace.” But while this is fake — the smell, the waitresses, the sense of down-homeyness — at least it isn’t phony; in this wild, wild synthesized West, it comes from the heart of someone that understood creating an Applebees with a dance floor would just break all the achy breaky hearts out there, and the last thing anyone needs is a reminder of the materialism and aesthetic sham of our surroundings.
But I never did learn to line dance.