Culture  Country kitsch

The Wheel Club experience

Somewhere, they call this music timeless, though you might call it old-fashioned. Follow the creaky wooden steps out from the wailing cold and into the Wheel Club, and find yourself anywhere but just off of Sherbrooke.

Founded in 1966 by musician Bob Fuller, The Wheel Club is a bar and dart club with a bluegrass pedigree. I went down Monday for Hillbilly night, which is free to the public. Filled with a mix of wayfaring visitors and salty but hospitable regulars, the club is more family reunion than raucous rodeo. With no cover (regulars pay $25 a year for membership), Monday nights are a pleasant free-for-all, where guests find their place among the checkered tablecloths and plaid-shirted silver-haired country folk toting steel-strings at the open mic.

I found my place in a corner, halfway to the back along the wood-paneled walls, that lead to a long rickety oak bar. Beside me at the folding table was a man, his body slung like an empty sack of potatoes, whose balding profile found solace in the swoon of a harmonica. As a couple of cowboys caroused and played some country tunes out on the low stage, a lone woman in green danced with herself. She would continue dancing alone frantically into the night.

The stage is sprinkled with seventies country kitsch, lanterns, paper Easter bunnies, and Christmas lights, and the guitar players beat out weary tunes, stiff as boards. Wagon wheels lean against the stage and pictures of old timers hang upon the wall like old wallpaper. The songs are old, too; the club regulates that all tunes played must be written before 1965.

A squeaky wheel might get the grease, but quiet or not, no one is alone here.

After the band chugged through a Jimmy Rogers waltz, a man leans over me to look into the other room. Two old men in Western dress from head to toe play pool beside an open guitar case. The announcer asks the audience how an old friend is recuperating, and tells another guest, “Oh that’s a nice country shirt you got!” A guest fiddle player steps up to the stage, laughing and making mistakes. A wrinkly man in a Canadiens jersey from the seventies hobbles over with an overflowing paper plate, grunts, and says, “How bout a nice black licorice?” I oblige. Like a family reunion, this is one big, laid back, social jam session.

Can you crash someone else’s family reunion? My four years in Canada, marked by a series of strikes and never-ending red-tape-ribbon-cutting ceremonies, are a part of me now, irreversible. You learn to like a country like you learn to love a family, learn to love yourself. The little faults are ugly or they’re beauty marks. Call them what you will, they happened and the past is here to stay.

As I work my way back out onto the street, an old man in spurs and a cowboy hat leans against the door, breathing into a cigarette. The strong and silent type.