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All Lined Up
by J. Sesom
Hot Country hotspot Howdy’s features line dancing, live music and more
Big Jack Fowler wanted to own a live music club, a big one, but he had no idea he would re-open Buffalo’s insanely popular country music venue Howdy’s. It wasn’t his plan. He had been working on a deal with his lawyer to buy Club Paradise in Hamburg, a 10,000 capacity club, hotel and banquet facility.
“The Club Paradise deal fell through and at the same time the recently closed Club Infinity became available. We put in an offer and three days later we got the keys and started work,” said Big Jack.
8166 Main St., Williamsville
716 907-1559 | howdysmusic.com
Line dancing classes Thursday and Saturday at 6 p.m. 18+ admission.
Months later, after some major renovations, Howdy’s opened in November 2013. About thirty years ago the location had been a country music club called Doo-Dahs, which in turn became the country music venue How-Dees. When How-Dees closed the club spent almost a decade as the rock/dance venue Club Infinity with a variety of owners. However, through all its changes and different owners there was one thing that never changed, Thursday’s country night line dancing. Thursday night was so consistently popular that no matter how many times the club changed hands no owner would dare mess with Thursday’s country music night.
Big Jack Fowler took it a step further. He returned the club to its former name How-Dees with a different spelling, Howdy’s. He enlarged the stage, put in modern aluminum truss lighting, a new sound system and for a stage backdrop a replica was created of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stage—a red barn with white crossbars. A smaller stage surrounded by table seating and a fireplace was added to the front of the club for acoustic acts. They also built Big Jack’s Bourbon Bar with over 50 of the best Bourbons in the world (most from Kentucky, of course). The new Howdy’s bills itself as “Buffalo’s Original Honky Tonk.” There was going to be no mistaking Howdy’s for anything but a solid country music club. Big Jack also made sure to hang on to legendary line dance instructor Bev Randall, who celebrated her 78th birthday on the stage of Howdy’s last Thursday, June 19th.
“I was here the first night they opened the doors about 25 or 30 years ago,” said Bev. “It was called Doo-Dahs then, and I’ve been here ever since. I started teaching here because I would come every week and dance and the things I did caught on with the other dancers. Everybody would ask me how to do this or that dance and I ended up teaching. Now I’m the grandmother of line dancers.”
Grandmother indeed. We spoke to several young girls who are regulars at the club and they all revere Bev as both a great teacher and an inspiration.
“I just started coming here in February,” said one girl. “It was a new discovery for me and I’ve come here every week since. Bev taught me the dances and now I’m really proud of myself. I come with a bunch of friends and we dance well past midnight.”
“My cousin’s been taking me since I was 13,” said another girl. “I love it! I’ve been dancing since I was a little and I do hip-hop, modern dance and ballet, but I love line dancing the most.”
“I’ve been dancing here for 15 years,” said a patron named Cindy. “and Bev, who I really admire, has been teaching here as long I’ve been dancing.
“I would come down here three nights a week in my 20s when I had no responsibilities and no husband. I actually met my husband here. He introduced himself to me and said ‘would you teach me how to dance?’
I said ‘No. How many times do you think I’ve heard that line?” I walked away didn’t pay him any attention. He just kept coming back and reintroducing himself and here we are two kids and twelve years of marriage later. He still hasn’t learned how to line dance, but he loves watching me dance. A lot people who don’t dance love watching. I know half the people in this bar so I have lots of people to dance with. I come out on Thursday night, it’s my night out, my night away from the kids. It’s my passion and that’s how a lot of these people feel.
“At one time the place closed and a friend of ours was buying it and a team of us dancers came in and pulled up the carpets and cleaned everything for him so that we could get it open again because we all missed it. It’s really a family.”
Cindy isn’t the only one who met their husband there. Eye specialist Dr. Saralyn Notaro Rietz went there to give the dance a try and met Ralph Rietz who gave her some tips he’d picked up while at Viginia Tech grad school. He soon became her dancing partner. They married 14 years ago and still dance together, although they’ve expanded to ballroom dancing and salsa, as well.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lifetime activity; good for the mind and body,” said Notaro Rietz. “Dance is a way for us to keep the music in our lives.”
“I’ve been coming for 15 years, too,” said a woman about the same age as Cindy. “I remember Cindy from when I first started. I love it. I’m addicted to it and I can’t stop doing it. I see the same people every week and I get to know new people, too. It’s good for socializing, good for your brain, good for your muscles and fitness and it’s really good for your soul.”
One fellow said “When I got there at first, I was like ‘I will never, ever do that. It’s ridiculous. Now I can’t live without it.”
When asked if there was any other place to line dance a chorus of voices quickly shouted “No! Not like this place.”
There are a lot of logical reasons why line dancing gets such a grip on people. Beside the basic benefit of moving your body to good music, it’s completely blind to age and the dance floor at Howdy’s is packed with people from 18 years old to 90 years old all enjoying the same thing. There is absolutely no “Ew he’s so old or I hate being around all these kids.” Also, you don’t really need a partner because during the course of a dance you’re likely to change dancing partners several times. And unlike ballroom, salsa and swing dance clubs, which are plagued by the need to have a partner, there’s no need for a male/female balance with line dancing. Most of the time there’s about 75% female majority on the Howdy’s dance floor and, no, it’s not a lesbian bar. Another thing is line dancers rarely make physical contact with each other so a young girl doesn’t need to worry some guy is going to make inappropriate moves on her.
There is also the fact you can line dance to just about anything.
“I would say 90 percent of what’s played at Howdy’s is country,” said Bev Randall.. “Then sometimes we throw in songs that are real popular on the radio because if you like to dance, you like to dance to anything. You could put what we do to any kind of music.”
The 1980 John Travolta film Urban Cowboy really blurred the lines between country music and pop. It also increased interest in country culture and fashion. It’s interesting that John Travolta starred in the two most influential movies for dance, the other being Saturday Night Fever. By the mid 90s Billy Ray Cyrus had catapulted line dancing to such popularity it prompted country music legend Chet Atkins to remark ““The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It’s all that damn line dancing.”
Apparently no one paid much attention to Atkins because by 1999 the Academy Awards show featured a Gap “Khaki Country” ad with line dancers moving to Dwight Yoakam’s version of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
Buffalo might seem like an unlikely place for such fervent country music passions but consider the fact that country music radio station WYRK consistently has the largest listenership of all 32 local radio stations. WYRK frequently partners with Howdy’s on events and this Saturday, June 28th they’re hosting the WYRK Barn Bash with four live bands and a birthday party for Big Jack Fowler. Buffalo is not alone in embracing this country phenomena, line dancing is being practiced all over the world. In France, American military units introduced it and there are now three or four hundred clubs across France where the French gather weekly for line dancing, complete with stetsons, rhinestone-encrusted cowboy shirts and boots.
You don’t have to get all cowboyed up with boots and big buckles to go to Howdy’s and a lot of people don’t, but a lot do and they’re fun to see. They help give the room it’s western ambiance, which is what Big Jack was looking for.
“I wanted to really open the place up and give it that sense of a wide open space, meaning like the John Wayne era, big and open, Little House on the Prairie, the Ponderosa, Texas big. Which is why we blew everything out of the place and just made it the wide-open venue that it is. We got rid of the DJ booth and the production booth, the closet that was up front.”
Big Jack wasn’t always a country western fan.
“I love country music,” said Big Jack, “But I haven’t always. I picked up on it in 1987 when the Marine Corps transferred me from Hawaii to North Carolina, and that’s all they listen to in North Carolina.
“I was born and raised in Chicago and then I went in the Marine Corp for 10 years of active duty and 2 years in the reserves. I was in a Marine combat unit stationed out of Camp Lejuene in North Carolina and we deployed every few months. I’ve probably been to about 32 countries. Then I was selected as an instructor for the Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). I had a couple areas of specialty that I trained—marksmanship, demolition, cold weather training, etc. I also ran infiltration training in California for a while. After that tour ended I was selected by the commanding general to the inspector/instructor staff attached to the Marine Corps Reserve Center on Porter Ave. near the Buffalo Yacht Club. We trained the Marine reservists.
“That’s how I got to Buffalo and I decided to settle here. I took an early out option and that got me four years of school and I got my degree in business management and accounting and went into business. I got involved in live music production, lights, sound, staging, after helping set up live music at Ying’s in Tonawanda. From there I started Big Jack Productions and did sound at clubs and festivals and was production manager at Club Paradise for three years under Jim Mangano and Sue Dubie.
“Once we landed Howdy’s we said we were tired of lugging sound gear all over and wanted to take our expertise and put it into one house. This is my first club and fortunately I’m friends with a lot of other bar owners, like Mike Shear of Rocking Buffalo, who gave me guidance and helped me get some of the equipment, furniture, and such.
“We have a lot of big plans for this place and a lot of big shows coming up in the fall. Danielle Simone Bradbery is coming. She’s a country singer from Cypress, Texas who won Season Four of The Voice, the youngest contestant to win. David Bradley, a very popular country singer, oddly enough, from London, England will be coming back. Trailer Choir is coming in August. We’ll probably have country rapper Cowboy Troy back, he did our New Year’s Eve show.
“Payton Taylor will be back. She was recently recognized as one of the top 3 up-and-coming female acts in country music. And we have several offers out for artists we’re waiting to hear back from.
“And then of course we’ll have local country bands like 90 West, Marshall Dillon Band, The Heritage, West of the Mark, JB Aarron, Underground Stampede, and so on. We’re up to about 20 good local country bands, which is great because country music almost disappeared for a while. Now some of the local bands do really well. The Heritage sold 780 tickets for their CD release party.”
Plans for the live music are good, but no matter what the line dancing will go on, and on.
We asked 78 year old Bev how long she planned to keep dancing.
“I’ll keep doing it until they bury me,” she said laughing, “until they throw dirt on my grave.”
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