Country music's most important West Coast club, the Palomino in North Hollywood has seen a lot of performers in its 20 years--from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard to Jerry Lee Lewis and Ernest Tubb--but it no doubt has seen few evenings as spirited as the one in which Linda Ronstadt made her Palomino debut.
In direct contrast to the conservative stereotype of the girl country singer, Miss Ronstadt raced on stage the other night wearing a tight red sweater, sequined blue jean hot pants and asked the waitress to bring a supply of tequila for her and the band.
The regular Palomino customers seemed, simply, overwhelmed as she began her country-rock stylings. But it wasn't so much the music--at first--that caught the audiences attention. It was she. Tammy Wynette may sing "Stand By Your Man" with unbeatable intensity, but she's never looked like Miss Ronstadt.
But after the novelty of her dress and manner (more what you'd expect to
find at the Whisky than a country club, if we're going to place any faith in
stereotypes at all) wore off, the audience seemed to get right into her
versions of songs written or made famous by Hank Williams ("Lovesick
Blues"), Merle Haggard ("Silver Wings"), Waylon Jennings ("Only Mama That'll
Walk The Line"), and Jerry Lee Lewis ("Break My Mind"), among others.
Even though Miss Ronstadt was new to many at the Palomino (where she set a new attendance record for girl singers), she is no stranger to country music. She heard a lot of it around her native Tucson and she has been singing country-oriented songs in rock clubs and concert halls for several years now.
Though she did appear on country music's Grand Ole Opry (a guest number with Earl Scruggs), the Palomino date was her first important country club appearance. It's something she has long wanted to try, but admitted she was a little apprehensive about it.
"I was really nervous about tonight," she said after the first show. "I
didn't know how a country audience would accept me. So many of the girl
country singers are so polished that I was afraid they might think I was
unprofessional or something because I'm so loose on stage."
Though there is no indication Miss Ronstadt is going to shift her career emphasis away from the rock field, her showing at the Palomino indicates she probably would find a large and certainly enthusiastic audience in the country market. For the Palomino Club is one of the nation's most important tests for country performers. It hasn't been voted the No. 1 night club six years in a row by the West Coast-based Academy of Country and Western Music for nothing.
Originally a rather tough beer bar, the Palomino was leased in 1952 by brothers Bill and Tom Thomas, who had come to Los Angeles from Indiana to open a club. They picked the Palomino because the rent was low. They figured they'd operate the club for a year, get a feel for the area, and then move on to something else. But the owner had an automobile accident, needed money and offered them the place for a good price. So they bought the building and property.
As country music has grown over the years, the club also has grown--both in class (new carpeting, sound system, etc.) and in size. The club's big break was in 1959, when the nearby Riverside Rancho, a major country music showcase, closed and the top country stars, formerly booked by the Rancho, became available for the Palomino club.
Besides being an important showcase for country talent, the Palomino is a hangout for country entertainers. During the past month, Merle Haggard and Jerry Lee Lewis both dropped by the club and got up on stage to do a few songs. Business has improved, the Thomases say, each year, and they are thinking of expanding the room again (it now seats 400). By the time they have the expansion finished, Miss Ronstadt may be ready to try to break her own attendance mark. She'll be an odds-on favorite to do it.