Like a storybook ending
I’m lost in your charms
I’d waltz across Texas with you
Couples in their thirties, forties, and even eighties spin in slow, counterclockwise circles on a wooden dancefloor ringed by serving tables and framed paintings of Indian — the countrymen, not the Native American — deities. As Art Peterson, ponytailed leader of house band the Polka Cowboys, croons the Ernest Tubb classic “Waltz Across Texas,” the soft-focus spin continues, recalling an era when California really was the last outpost of both the West and Western swing music, a time when ballroom dances ruled the roost.
Ex-Angeleno Peterson, 61, remembers those days — sneaking into Los Angeles theaters, hiding out until the evening shows began, and then mixing with the adults as stars like Spade Cooley knocked out the tunes. Now the Polka Cowboys specialize in music like that: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Snow, and others, all kept alive via a monthly Friday night gig in a little corner of Contra Costa County.
Plus, there’s the Indian food and pizza.
Yes, El Sobrante’s Pizza Company and Punjab Palace has garnered quite a reputation as a local music hall, which Saab Kang and his family discovered when they bought the joint five years ago. “The Pizza Company is 45 years old, and they always had live jazz on Wednesdays,” notes Saab, a Toronto immigrant. When the Kangs reopened the eatery, customers led the movement to bring back Dixieland jazz, and now several other genres vie for attention here on San Pablo Dam Road.
So while your Western swing (and zydeco, and New Orleans jazz) satisfies the auditory sensibilities, the Kang clan goes straight for your belly, serving up platters of Indian sweets and yummy curries. You can also get unique cross-cultural dishes such as tandoori chicken pizza (after all, they might as well maximize that oven space).
One of the best dancers out there is Clarence Dugan, 86. While his wife passed away in 2001, Clarence fills his dance card almost every night of the week, and glides effortlessly through songs he remembers from their first trip up the Billboard charts. “I started dancin’ when I was seventeen,” says the man from Manhattan (Kansas, y’all). “I saw Bob Wills, Minnie Pearl, Harry James. I can dance ’em all — polka, schottische, swing.” Clarence, who retired three years ago from his furniture-finishing job, leaves me in his dust as he searches out another partner. “These guys are good every time I see ’em,” he notes of the Cowboys.
Back in February, even Clarence had to cede seniority. Regular Cowboys (Cowpersons?) drummer Patty DeVea couldn’t make it, so Peterson enlisted the services of Johnny Cuviello, 89, on the skins. You all remember Johnny — he played with Bob Wills in ’46 and ’47, and became a minor celebrity with the novelty hit “Texas Drummer Boy.”
Like a flower bending in the breeze
Bend with me, sway with ease
When we dance you have a way with me
Stay with me, sway with me
“It’s a chance to step into a fantasy world,” says Julia O’Connell of Berkeley, a fortyish lass who grew up contra-dancing in New England. “I’m in a daydream out there when I dance.” As she finishes this thought, a twentysomething woman spins by, Grateful Dead style, completing the scene.
The Polka Cowboys — also featuring “Fiddle Ray” Landsberg and Steven Strauss on bass — ease into their repertoire like the old hands they are, friends for nearly a quarter-century. “I wouldn’t play if it wasn’t fun,” says Landsberg, who references jazzers like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong as musical inspiration. “I’ve known Art and Steven going on 25 years. They’re good people, and we all like the same kind of music.”
Dinah, is there anyone finer
In the state of Carolina?
If there is and you know her
Show her to me
Oh, Dinah, should you wander to China
I would hop an ocean liner
Just to be with Dinah Lee
Remember when the Blues Brothers get to Bob’s Country Bunker and ask what kind of music they have, and the bartender responds, “Oh, we got both kinds, country and Western”? That accurately describes the Polka Cowboys’ range. One of Peterson’s recent favorite tunes is former Bob Wills vocalist Tommy Duncan’s “Beneath a Neon Star in a Honky-Tonk”; Tommy also sang “Who Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear).”
To Peterson, it’s a step back in time to the Los Angeles of his boyhood, when creeks and bobcats were far more prevalent than freeways, and Town Hall Party was on TV every week, featuring artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford. Inspired, he started raiding movie theaters. “We’re trying to recapture and bring up to date a lot of what was goin’ on back then,” he says now of his Cowboys. He recalls how the big acts would tour California, playing ballroom dances that drew crowds of two or three thousand. They played a variety of dance music, too, so despite their polkacentric moniker, the Cowboys also do waltzes, two-steps, and a whole lot more.
Everything about Peterson cries out “vintage,” from his white cowboy hat to his latest “new” car. Out back of the pizzeria, he loads up a ’71 Mercury Comet (with a 250 straight six), which he has dubbed “The Green Machine.” He chucks the accordion and guitar in the trunk, and we’re off toward Highway 80 and the lonesome sundown.
After a career including stints as a taxi driver, night watchman, teacher, bowling alley pin chaser (he actually bowled a sanctioned 300 game once), sewer plant engineer, carpenter, Those Darn Accordions member, and Woody Guthrie imitator, Peterson finally has the chance, as bandleader, to call the shots and bask in the glory that results — 150 friends showed up for his birthday party at the Pizza Company in January. He is the original good guy in the white hat.
“It’s pretty nice,” the mellow Polka Cowboy says. “Now I get to play the songs I like.”