Laurie Lewis on Paul’s Saloon 1979

Here is a reprint of Laurie’s article, “Where to Go!”, which was first published in the July/August 1979 Bluegrass Breakdown:
Watch Video
Upon walking through the swinging doors of Paul’s Saloon on a Saturday night you are greeted with the sight of a filled-to-capacity crowd in a long room, going about the usual bar pursuits—drinking, smoking, talking—and listening to live bluegrass music. On stage you’re likely to see any of the top working Bay Area bands churning out their particular brand of the stuff while scantily-clad waitresses hurry through the crowd, balancing heavily-laden trays of full and empty glasses. Behind the bar, often as not, you’ll see a big, bearded, sometimes ominous-looking man overseeing the operation. This would be the boss, Paul Lampert.

The crowd itself appears to be a mixture f people—well-dressed groups out on the town, stepping in for a drink before or after dinner, the disco, or the theater; dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass fans there to catch a specific band and wishing everyone would just be a little quieter; Japanese tourists with cameras and tape recorders; the regulars; and almost always someone visiting the big city from “back east” or “down south,” glad to get a little taste f home.
Paul’s Saloon is an anomaly—a bar that has bluegrass music every night of the week in a city proud of its modernity, full of fashion-minded people on the go. Rather like a truck farm in Long Beach. Obviously, judging by its success, there is a need. So how did that happen? I asked Paul Lampert, “Why bluegrass music?” His reply was a brief history of the place.
Paul’s original intention, when he quit his job as a purchasing agent for a bank, was to open a restaurant, which never got off the ground. He went to a festival in Golden Gate Park and saw a jug band and thought, “That’s what I want!” He decided that he wanted to have music (“One thing I generally don’t let be known is that I really like music”), and that it would be acoustic, perhaps because he lives upstairs. Paul didn’t really pursue looking for a band for his bar, though, and it took the persistence of Bob and Ingrid Fowler to get the place rolling. Bob and Ingrid persuaded Paul to try out their band, the Styx River Ferry, on a Wednesday night, when “business was so bad that it couldn’t hurt anything.” At the time, Paul had never heard of bluegrass music, but the price was right, so he tried it. The Fowlers began playing to the neighborhood drunk for $40 a night, and gradually, over three and a half years, built the business up before moving to Nashville. As business picked up, the Styx River Ferry moved to weekends and Paul added other bands, among them the Homestead Act, High Country, and a little later, the Phantoms of the Opry and Rick Shubb’s band, the Hired Hands. Paul believes very strongly that it doesn’t pay to advertise (“I do not now and I never have advertised”), so the business has been built up almost entirely by word-of-mouth, with a few lucky plugs on television and in magazines.
It has been ten years (July 1st is the tenth anniversary), and many bands have come and gone. Currently the weekly lineup is:
MONDAY bluegrass jam led by Gene Tortora and Butch Waller. Bands form spontaneously and play a set. If it’s a slow night, there is usually an informal picking session around the front table.
TUESDAY Old Friends
WEDNESDAY High Country
THURSDAY Done Gone
FRIDAY High Country
SATURDAY bluegrass showcase. This is a rotating band night, and gives bands who don’t play regularly at paul’s a chance to play. Some of the bands that play in this slot are Oakum, Good Ol’ Persons, and Any Old Time String Band.
SUNDAY the Good Ol’ persons
The music is from 9:00 PM to 1:00 AM on weeknights and 9:30 to 1:30 on weekends.
I asked Paul why he didn’t have a cover charge. He said that he’d tried it once on weekend nights in an attempt to get more people to come in on weeknights. Also, by charging a dollar at the door he could pay bands more and also make more himself. ‘It lasted for two months and was miserable, total failure.” Weekend attendance dropped radically and he was deluged with angry letters from long-time patrons. On one occasion, he made good use of a cover charge, enabling him to have J.D. Crowe and the New South. While there’s no cover charge at Paul’s, on busy nights there is a one drink minimum per set.
The stage at Paul’s Saloon is awkwardly located in the narrowest part of the long narrow room, facing the women’s restroom. This has long been a source of controversy. The bands find it hard to relate to the audience and vice versa. Another obstacle to playing and listening both is the sound system. Why isn’t something so basic made a top priority in clubs that owe their livelihood to music? When I asked Paul about any plans he had for upgrading his system, or at any rate repairing the one he has, he answered that he was aware of the problems, but “Everyone needs a list of things they’re going to do…I’m not gong to make ole promises.” So, maybe one of these days the system will be improved, but don’t hold your breath.
The decor at Paul’s is out of character with the music. The walls are hung with photos and prints of scantily-clad women. The wallpaper is the same fuzzy red flocked stuff that you and at Rosebud’s and the Red Vest Pizza Parlor (a bluegrass trend?). Nothing about the place says bluegrass music except for a small sign in the front window and another one over the stage. t has an unfinished appearance about it, as indeed it is: remodeling that was begun five years ago still not completed. Paul does plan to install a new carpet very soon.
Paul’s waitresses and bartenders and among the nicest have worked with and there is n the whole a very good feeling of rapport between the musicians and other employees.
For many years, Paul’s Saloon was the only club in the greater Bay Area where a bluegrass band could get steady work. As such, musicians who played there tended to get very personally involved, and it was the scene of frequent disputes over pay, working conditions, and philosophies of life. That has changed in the past few years, mainly due to the emergence of new places to play, thus relieving the pressure on Paul’s. The atmosphere is generally relaxed and congenial. Paul’s current philosophy is that “one hand washes the other. Be good to the bands, and they’ll be good to you.”
Bands interested in playing at Paul’s can audition on Jam night (Monday) or send a record or tape to Paul. He’s interested in getting new faces to play on Saturday night. It would make a good stop-over for a touring band.
Throughout the years, Paul’s Saloon has played host to some of the most prominent names in bluegrass. Notables who have graced the stage include Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe and the New South (with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Slone), Byron Berline, Doug and Rodney Dillard, Vassar Clements, Bill Monroe (an after-hours jam session), Eddie Adcock, Ben Eldridge, David Grisman, and David Bromberg, along with many others.
I asked Paul if he thought the success of his bar was just a fad. He answered, “Definitely not. To me, there are certain things that are basic fundamentals, and bluegrass music more than other forms reaches inside people. They respond emotionally as well as physically. As more and more people become exposed to it, more and more will like it.” Is bluegrass music, then, a commercially-viable commodity? “If you guys would go back to playing for forty bucks a night, I might make some money.”
Paul’s Saloon is located at 3251 Scott St, between Lombard and Chestnut in San Francisco.