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Don Paul knows that audiences at the Trail Dust Steak House will not tolerate "bullshit." So whenever he and his mates in the Clayton Paul Band take the stage at their favorite venue, they make some minor changes to their repertoire. They might, for example, play a modified version of the classic "Cotton-Eyed Joe": When they play the song at most venues, it features a racy little chorus wherein the players and fans alike chime in with the bovine-themed expletive, a moment of bawdy fun in a genre known for its wholesomeness. At the Trail Dust, however, the tune gets a cleaning up.
"We go, 'Bullshipper' instead of 'Bullshit' when we play the song," Paul says, noting that the Bullshipper is a fifty-ounce steak on the house's meat-soaked menu.
Such is the kind of compromise that Paul and a small number of other country musicians are happy to make in exchange for the steadiest work in Denver. Every night of the week, the Trail Dust's two locations offer live entertainment from local players, who strum, pick and pluck for family audiences that come to dine, drink and dance. Beef -- as well as a hearty serving of Western kitsch -- may be the primary draw, but the Trail Dust's reputation as a music venue is part of what packs 'em in night after night.
9101 Benton Street, Westminster, 303-427-1446
"I've been playing around town for a long time," says Jeff Golden, a music vet whose band, Whirlwind, is currently in the Trail Dust's three-band rotation. "It's about the only steady gig going. It's the only six-nighter left in this town."
"It's the only gig in town," adds Monty Bradberry of Bandit, an act in the Trail Dust's year-round rotation.
For more than three decades, the twin Trail Dusts -- two of the company's seven; the other five are in Texas -- have served as the most consistent country venues in the area, providing entertainment for hungry audiences and work for gig-starved artists. The Trail Dust's Westminster branch has hosted nightly acts since 1976; the Englewood location began booking bands a couple years later, stopping only for a few months to close for repairs following a fire on Mother's Day 1999. Today, Trail Dust gigs are the last bastions of stability for many country artists, who scramble to claim their piece of a shrinking live-music market. Despite Denver reputation as a cowtown, it isn't easy finding places to perform cowboy music.
The steadiness of the Trail Dust gigs isn't their only attraction, however. Logistically, they are dream gigs. Players avoid the load-in/load-out hassles that are an inevitable part of one- and two-night engagements. They also enjoy leisurely hours, starting at 7 p.m. on weeknights and finishing at 11 p.m. On weekends, the bands wrap up by midnight.
"The other nice thing about it is it's a clean place, not some smoky barroom atmosphere," adds Paul. "You don't get up the next morning and feel like you've been in a bar all night."
Perks aside, though, a Trail Dust gig is also a demanding one. Two bands do six nights a week at each Trail Dust location, with a third band filling in on each band's night off. After a few weeks, the bands rotate, with the off-night act becoming a six-nighter. The groups flip-flop in this fashion for twelve months, developing a kind of dependable work routine most musicians never see.
"It keeps the bands gainfully employed," says Jeff Frelinger, who books music for both Trail Dust locations. The company's commitment to hosting live music, he notes, also pays dividends for the house. "We get large tour groups of 100 to 300 people coming in because we have the entertainment," Frelinger says. All Trail Dust patrons, he says, "get a meal, the ambience of a live country-Western band and a little flavor of the Wild West. We want to offer our customers more of an entertainment value and more value for the dining-out dollar." Frelinger says his company also wants customers to sit a spell: Bands help his restaurant hold customers for ninety minutes or more.
At the Trail Dust's Westminster location, customers file in while Bandit's Bradberry and his mates prepare for another night of work. While the musicians fiddle with their equipment, diners focus on grilled slabs of steer, entrees featuring such handles as "The Cowboy" and "The Cowgirl." The waitstaff, who sport their own nicknames, including "Dallas," "Trouble" and "Annie Oakley," cheerfully keep the meat and potatoes coming.
When the band begins the night with a genuine version of "Route 66," some dinner patrons slip from behind checkered tablecloths and herd up on the dance floor. To one side of the band, a giant TV screen broadcasts videos of new country artists, glossy acts far removed from the working-class music coming from Bradberry and his peers. After only a few minutes, the dance floor teems with a dozen dancers executing tandem boot-scooting moves. Two toddlers twirl with their parents, heeding a sign above the floor that reminds patrons that "all children under twelve must be holding hands with an adult on the dance floor."
For the next 45 minutes, the band moves through low-volume renditions of more material, providing fuel for the dancers and a soundtrack for the growing crowd of diners. "Don't Rock the Jukebox," "Travelin' My Life Away" and other country cuts segue into non-country numbers, including Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" and the crowd-pleasing "Mustang Sally." At one point in the set, two teen girls waltz together with apparent glee, while a man wearing a day's worth of work grime spins his beaming preschool daughter on his arm.