When I moved to Los Angeles in 1980, I worked just down the street from the Columbia Drug Store on the southeast corner of Sunset and Gower in Hollywood. With a soda fountain that served up good burgers, fries and malts, it stood next to a room where giant jars of pancake makeup sat on the counters for the actors and artists that still came in from the Hills and Valley to shop. On the walls were giant black and white photos from earlier and more prosperous times, the early thirties and up through the fifties, when Gower Gulch was alive and well with four film studios within walking distance that cranked out westerns by the wagon-ful. I remember looking at all these cowboys leaning against the walls of the buildings, smoking, talking, laughing and waiting to be found, to be discovered.
Like migrant workers who today hang out each morning in front of Home Depot looking for a day job, young men from all over America made their way out west to California. And if they didn't want to work in the fields near Bakersfield or Modesto, or if they had dreams of being a star, they rented cheap little rooms in Hollywood and each morning put on their cowboy costumes, walked over to Sunset and Gower, and waited. Legend has it that the term "drug store cowboy" came from all these guys hanging inside and outside of the Columbia, and folks like John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were from the neighborhood. A B-movie was released in 1950 called The Kid from Gower Gulch starring Spade Cooley. In the film, singer Red Murrell sings a song called "Gower Gulch is Home Sweet Home". And in an old Warner Bros. cartoon, Porky Pig sings a song called "The Flower of Gower Gulch".
Today there is an expensive restaurant where the Columbia Drug Store once stood, and across the street is a strip center with places to get coffee, sandwiches, Japanese and Thai food, and to buy stuff. The developers who built it in 1976 said that to "preserve the history" of the corner, they designed the shopping center to look like an "old western street". Do you know what it really looks like? A movie set or some sort of Disney version of Americana that stands in contrast to the hookers, pimps, drug dealers, low riders and gang bangers who cruise at night...and the dreamers who still are drawn to this place called Hollywood.
Rod Melancon is a good looking kid who three years ago at almost-nineteen years of age came here from Louisiana to seek his fame. The often-featured No Depression writer Terry Roland has written about the kid here on this site a few times, so I'll just cut and paste the backstory: "He came to L.A. to pursue a career in acting but changed his mind three years ago on a Christmas visit to his family home. It was during the holidays that he gave his grandfather a life-changing gift. A Hank Williams disc. When he saw his grandfather's tears as he listened to the timeless music, Rod knew he wanted to write songs that could bring the same feeling to others. Ironically and perhaps not coincidentally, his parents gave him an acoustic guitar that same Christmas. As Rod himself said, 'that was the moment in the movie of my life when I knew what I was called to do.' He came back to L.A. and began to learn guitar and write songs. The songs flowed out of him with a passion he'd never known before."
Terry has put his fingers in the pie, helping Rod take an EP he recorded called My Family Name and adding some tracks to make it a full album that will be released on June 5th. Getting veteran session singer and Chris Hillman's partner Herb Pedersen, who has probably sang on more hit records than Elvis Presley, to add his vocals along with Rod's for Richie Furay's "Kind Woman" was an excellent choice. While the album is pretty much straight ahead country, this track becomes the bridge to all those Depression-era drug store cowboys and the old days of the sixties in Laurel Canyon . Slowed down just a bit from the Buffalo Springfield's version, it's worth the price of admission. The album features some great musicians including Chad Watson – Bass, Mandolin, Gut String, and Keys; Vern Monnett – Lead Guitar; Don Heffington – Drums; Richard Barron - Accordion; Dean Parks – Steel Guitar and Matt Cartsonis – Mandolin. And Chad and Richard produced it at Sonoro Records in Los Feliz.
You might probably wonder, as I have, why the kid is here and not in Nashville. Rod told Terry, "When you say country music these days, people think about what is coming out of Nashville. What’s coming out of Nashville, at least from my knowledge of country music, is not country music. I used to get really upset about the things they would put out there. Like a close minded person talking about politics, it’s like, who wants to listen to that? Just because you take an 80’s ballad song writing formula and in production put a fiddle behind it, that doesn’t make it a country song."
So he kicks around the scene that has sprouted up around the Grand Ole Echo shows, and plays places like Taix, Hotel Cafe, The Mint and Coffee Gallery. Playing country music in Los Angeles, hoping for a break and probably learning more and more every day. Getting stronger in his playing and writing; and making friends and new fans along the way. Like the old days, leaning up against the [virtual] side of the studio wall on Sunset Boulevard and waiting for a man to drive up and yell "Hey kid...want to be a cowboy today?".
Rod Melancom and the ghosts of Gower Gulch have much in common.
Whether it's Nashville or Brooklyn or Echo Park, I think Rod calls it about right: "The common-man blues...the bar band...the "less is more" concept. I think [thats] important when it comes to country music. I feel like that’s where the best country music comes from, because it’s not this over-produced thing. It’s just a roots’ sound. That’s what I always thought country music was." Me too.
Kind Woman by Rod Melancon with Herb Pedersen