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They're What's for Dinner

Local country music fans cowboy up at the Trail Dust Steak House seven nights a week.
Mark A. Manger

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.

"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.

As gigs go, this one puts its focus squarely on family fun rather than rip-snortin' rocking and reckless abandon. Every set is a dinner set. But the house musicians aren't complaining.

"You go to a straight job and life becomes a little different," Bradberry notes. "Any time you get to play music and you're in the trenches, you're gonna play what the people want to hear." For that reason, some musicians in town don't care for Trail Dust-style gigs. Bradberry, however, doesn't share that sensibility.

"Jimmy Page played guitar on Tom Jones's 'It's Not Unusual,'" he says. "I've found that most of the cats that bitch about it actually can't do it -- they can't pull it off. It's easy to turn your amp up to ten and chew face. But let's see you turn it down to two and do the same thing."

Playing at such restrained volumes means the band's role is clearly defined.

"We're not necessarily background music," Paul says, "but we're not the forefront of the restaurant atmosphere, either. It's a steakhouse, and we understand what the job is all about. We play 100 percent commercial dance music."

If that bothers some musicians, it doesn't faze Paul.

"I kind of let the ego thing go a long time ago," he says. "I'm more interested in playing guitar, and if I can grab a few people each night who come up and say, 'Gosh, you're a fantastic guitar player,' that's makes it for me. The upside of this thing," he adds, "is when we start at six or seven o'clock, there's four or five hundred people [here]. Some of the bars in town, you may not play to one hundred people on a Saturday night. Having the enthusiasm of that crowd means a lot."

Paul has played the Trail Dust on and off for eighteen years, working as a bartender and waiter when he wasn't gigging. He says the enthusiasm behind the music inspires more than just patrons. Live music, he notes, helps the Trail Dust staff keep hustling when faced with the challenge of serving up to 800 meals a night. A good country act, Paul says, "raises the level of motivation out on the floor among the wait and bar staff. It did for me."

These days, one of the prime motivators for Trail Dust players is the guarantee that a gig is waiting almost every night of the week. That feeling of security -- a sensation almost foreign to most musicians -- makes a ride on the Trail Dust gravy train especially satisfying.

"There used to be six-nighters all over this town," says Golden, who, like his peers, also plays other venues around the state when he's not gigging at the Trail Dust. "You could go up and down the street and see five different bands on a Tuesday night. But, hey, things change, you gotta go with it. It's that way everywhere. The nightclubs don't seem to be the high priority for people that they once were."

"A town this size ought to be able to support hundreds of guys," Golden notes, "but it's not doing that right now. And I learned a long time ago to take it where you can get it. I appreciate what the Trail Dust does, and I'm glad to still be at it, to be able to pull it off, whatever it takes."

"I hope to play as long as possible, and this is a way to do it and make a living," Bradberry says. Besides, he notes, the gigs give underage audiences a chance to see real, live musicians at work. They also allow for short salvos of creative stretching for him and his pals, in snippets of jazz tunes and obscurities they use to flesh out their sets for the house. One such fave, he notes, works particularly well on Trail Dust crowds.

"We do a double-timed version of the Flintstones theme," Bradberry says. "You watch these kids that have been out there dancing with their parents, drinking Coca-Colas, all psyched about being at the Trail Dust. They hear it and go nuts: 'The Flintstones!' You can watch 'em blow up, zingin' off the walls. Where else could we get away with that?"


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