Sure you can make an airtight case that California’s quintessential native sound is The Beach Boys … or The Grateful Dead, or Los Lobos, or Tupac Shakur, or Dave Brubeck, or Green Day. There are almost no wrong answers here.
But for a huge percentage of music lovers up and down the Golden State, the sound of California is a fiddle, a pedal-steel, a shop-worn Gibson, and somebody singing about heartache to the glow of a neon beer sign.
For generations, country-western music and its many variations and styles have planted deep roots in California, particularly in those places far away from Rodeo Drive and Haight-Ashbury. Whether it’s Merle Haggard or Gram Parsons, “Cryin’ Time” or “Rose of Cimarron,” country music — particularly the brand with the distinct influence of the American West — has remained a vital, yet often overlooked, force in California culture.
You don’t have to go any farther to tap into that force than Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz, which every month hosts a special evening called “Western Wednesday,” in which a regional and/or local act headlines a show devoted to the unabashedly crying-in-your-beer style of country music.
The next Western Wednesday happensThanksgiving Eve at Moe’s with Sacramento-based honky-tonker Geoffrey Miller performing with the local all-star band Swell City Opry opening. Then, just two weeks later comes the December version of Western Wednesday, this one featuring star LA-based guitarist Deke Dickerson and his band the Whippersnappers, along with Jerry B. Logan & the Country Squires onDec. 6. Each evening will feature on-site dance lessons. The shows will also likely feature regulars who’ve made the scene for almost a decade.
The headliner at September’s Western Wednesday was the well-regarded Santa Cruz country-western quintet the Carolyn Sills Combo. In what has become a tradition with the event, that group was preceded by an impromptu band made up of locals, including Jamie Coffis of the Coffis Brothers and Moe’s Alley co-owner Brian Ziel, playing covers of well-known country songs. The dance floor was alive with couple’s dancing as the band brought a lilt to “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” the Bob Dylan song made popular by The Byrds.
It was a honky-tonk Santa Cruz-style, with cowboy boots, crisp white shirts and fringed skirts, mixing easily with Santa Cruz Skateboard T-shirts and aloha shirts … and, of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Western Wednesdays began almost 10 years ago at The Crepe Place, started by musician Mischa Gasch. The event was suspended during the pandemic, but resurfaced at Moe’s in early 2022.
“We kinda took the torch and it really was an immediate success,” said Ziel. “The first one we did had about 70 people. And it’s really just gone up from there. We were consistently getting 150 people or more showing up.”
Historically, Santa Cruz has been such a friendly landing spot for other kinds of music that country has often been overlooked. But the Western Wednesdays event has become a touchstone for local fans, and it’s emerged as a hot date on the larger Northern California scene.
Country musician Lane Cunningham leads the dances at Western Wednesday and he helps book the acts that perform on stage. “When we first started it, I was having to reach out to bands to get them to play,” he said. “Lately, though, I haven’t really had to reach out too much. Now bands are hitting me up, saying ‘Man, we heard about Western Wednesday, and we really want to play it.’”
“We have newbies out there dancing,” said Ziel. “And we have veterans out there dancing too, who are just phenomenal. It’s been really great to watch the scene grow. It’s become a destination for some people. The vibe is great. I love watching people come in all dressed up and seeing the new faces come in all the time. It’s really great to see something like that happen in this town.”
Geoffrey Miller, along with the Swell City Opry, play Western Wednesdays at Moe’s Alley, Nov. 22.Tickets are $15, general admission. Showtime is 8 p.m.