Valley Voices

Want to get on a little cotton-eyed Joe? Fresno’s the place for dancin’ and stompin’

All eyes are on Jim Ray’s boots as he leads a Western line dancing class at the Clovis Senior Center in 2011.
All eyes are on Jim Ray’s boots as he leads a Western line dancing class at the Clovis Senior Center in 2011. Fresno Bee file

To enter a Fresno discotheque back in the 1960s and ’70s was to step into a metaphor for urban America. It was as if you had been admitted to the kingdom of a giant jukebox; America’s ultimate adult amusement orgy.

The jukebox or the DJ’s cage in a disco was the futuristic inferno. The place was crowded beyond capacity with a glittering mob of men and women who seemed to have become the unwitting fulfillment of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

Voyeurs stalked the flailing dancers or prowled from wall to wall, cruising the bar, the game room, the lounge, while the red-and-blue strobes, reinforcing the illusion of an inferno, continued to run and dance like lightning.

Not so with the thousands of other Fresno thrill-seekers who gave up the disco scenes and went back to their roots.

Every night of the week they were dancing the cotton-eyed Joe, the Texas two-step and Schottische at Fran’s Covered Wagon, the Cattle Baron, Jim-Bo’s, the Pioneer Club, Jim’s Place and the Broken Bit.

Several of the dancers taught country western dancing at Roeding Park’s Recreation Center, a series of inexpensive, continuing educational classes sponsored by the city.

The boom in country Western dancing rose from the California newcomers’ burgeoning interest in being a Texan. Since it was difficult to find a ranch within Fresno’s city limits, or run a small herd of cattle on an 80-by-100-foot lot, people decided to do the next best thing. So what do cowboys and cowgirls do better than anyone? They raise hell, and they do it by dancin’, stompin’ and drinkin’.

The appealing thing about country Western dancing is that it’s so casual. There’s no dance step that’s wrong, except for cotton-eyed Joe and Schottische, and those are fairly easy to pick up.

County music is always played at a dancable tempo.

As an aficionado of country music whose boots stomped at all Fresno Western-style dance floors in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s an absolute fact that unlike rock ‘n’ roll or even the Big Band music, country music has never outgrown its audience. In other forms of music, as the musicians become more accomplished, they began to play faster and more complicated pieces. This tends to stifle dancing.

When you rise above a certain number of beats per minute, it becomes difficult for the average person to follow the beat. So they just stand and listen. County music has always managed to stay in the range of the ordinary person.

That makes country Western dancing a fairly democratic happening. From club to club, styles vary according to the dancers’ preferences.

Rumor had it that regulars at Fran’s, the king of the Western dance halls in Fresno back in the ’60s and ’70s, could tell what club a dancer frequented the moment he or she stepped on the floor.

And in country dancing, there’s no specific style on how a partner is held. How you grasp one another is far from elegant or sublime. The individual rules when it comes to western dancing. Dancers hang on, over, under and around their partners, and occasionally they dance side by side. It’s all exhilarating.

Fresno’s enthusiasm for country dancing was the breakout market for many country Western artists. Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard are good examples.

The influx of people and the continuing popularity of country music were primary reasons the Gage twins at the Cattle Baron were considered Valley leaders in country swing. Their closing songs each night brought down the house. They were, “Honey, take me out to the corn field, and I’ll kiss you between the ears.” Their encore was “All the oil is in Texas, but the dip-sticks are in Washington, D.C.”

With steaks cooked over mesquite and continuous music for dancing, the Cattle Baron pulled in as many as 400 customers on a weekend night.

The days of the open range may be gone, but in Fresno the cowboy and cowgirl are certainly not forgotten. And neither is bluegrass.

The followers of bluegrass, some say, are more reverent than any country Western devotee.

Each year in early July, the campers, pickups, bikes, RVs and mobile homes start rolling into Clovis for the Independence Holiday festival; some 15,000 strong.

They are the faithful who believe that resurrection morning will be heralded not by Gabriel’s horn but by old Earl Scruggs’ five-string banjo turned loose on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Scruggs, a frequent Clovis-Fresno visitor, became the 2,215th star on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk.

It’s safe to say that bluegrass in Central California is not a threat to baseball as the country’s favorite past time, but it is becoming a passion of more and more middle Americans who have acquired an affinity for fast picking and tenor singing.

Elvin Bell of Fresno is a retired Air Force colonel who served five terms in elected office in Fresno and is the author of 17 books. He has a well-worn T-shirt for winning a dance contest at the Cattle Baron in 1976.