Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch… In Memory of the Sundowners
To describe The Ranch as unlike any other place on earth would be misleading, for it was in fact very much like a great many other places: It was a country music bar. Like every country bar, the Double-R Bar (which was its official name, printed like a cattle brand, a circle with two capital Rs underscored by a solid line) was thick with western decor. Its walls were covered with antique guns and tooled-leather maps; a small menagerie’s worth of wall-mounted heads, horns, and hooves; small, semicircular wooden tables covered with more carved and scratched graffiti than a decades-old roadside picnic table, with not so much as a thumbprint of unmarked space; well-worn riding tack; and lots of rough wood finish everywhere you looked. But The Ranch was the absolute favorite haunt of generations of Chicago country music fans for another reason.
It had a unique location, just one short flight of stairs below the busy streets of the downtown Chicago area known as The Loop, near the heart of the city’s financial district. The entrance was a nondescript, street-level doorway on Randolph Street, midway between the old Greyhound station and a dilapidated ’30s-era movie house, by then relegated to showing kung-fu flicks ’round the clock. Thousands of people passed it every day without ever knowing what it was, for there was little more than an old 8×10 once-glossy band photo and some modest hand-painted signage to suggest that an honest-to-god honky-tonk bar thrived at the bottom of those stairs. But one flight down, through a swinging door, and you were among Chicago country music royalty, for The Ranch was the home of Bob Boyd, Curt Delaney, and Don Walls, professionally known as the Sundowners.
The Sundowners. Three country gentlemen in their 50s or 60s (the first time I saw them) in matching western shirts and kerchiefs. An acoustic guitar, a big hollow-body electric, and an electric bass backed their delicate three-part cowboy harmonies. They stood at the far end of the low-ceilinged room before a sparsely decorated wall, flat like a theater backdrop or one of those Opry-inspired, low-budget local-access TV shows. No artifice, no pretension; the real deal. Their stage was a low platform surrounded by a spare wooden railing, the opening at the front bridged by a long piece of masking tape to which patrons stuck dollar bills, tips for the band in exchange for song requests from the crowd.
Invariably a full range of humanity coexisted within the walls of the Double-R: late-toiling businessmen in suits and ties, unreconstituted hillbillies in plaid shirts and pointy-toed boots, college kids, tourists foreign and domestic, curiosity seekers, the occasional celebrity… There was no hierarchy, no cause for anyone to feel anything less than at home; in the kingdom of the Sundowners, all were welcome. That policy applied to the very stage itself: all manner of musicians on tour through Chicago would stop by the Ranch and usually end up joining the band for a song. Stars like Webb Pierce and Wynn Stewart back in the day; later, rock and R&B stars, upstart punks and latter-day converts were given the same encouragement as bona fide country artists. No group was ever more indulgent or generous with their stage than the Sundowners.
And they had an amazingly deep repertoire of songs to share. The band once estimated it had learned some 25,000 songs since forming in the late ’50s. Their clear, strong voices rolled effortlessly up and down the melodies of classic cowboy material from the canons of Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, or the occasional classically styled modern hit by an artist such as George Strait. Their stage patter was loose and conversational, full of references to ex-wives and alcohol, puns on the names of songs — once again, well-worn stuff, and so what if they’d told those same jokes hundreds of times? They charmed the way only congenial elder statesmen can, with material that was slightly corny, gently seen-it-all sarcastic but never mean, and often bust-out funny: “Never hit your grandma with a shovel; it leaves a dull impression on her mind.” They were living, breathing anachronisms, ambassadors from a bygone era, and the desire to live (if only for an evening) in their world was irresistible. It was as easy as walking down that flight of stairs.
One night, emboldened by whiskey & Lone Star chasers, I told Bob Boyd how I worked at a radio station (leaving out that it was just a one-hour, Saturday-morning specialty show on the campus station) and I played their record and they were great and blah, blah, blah. Through it all, he seemed genuinely pleased to hear it — more like incredibly gracious, as I realized later. God knows I wasn’t the first or last sputtering drunk he’d ever indulged that way, but his beneficence was utterly unique to my experience. Flat-out humbling.
There is probably a similar story for each time the Sundowners took the stage; this was the spirit that endeared them to thousands of Chicago fans. A trip to The Ranch was a chance to get loose, to participate in the populist traditions of real country music, and it was the Sundowners’ pleasure to make a gift of it to anyone who came to see them. It made them beloved among local fans and artists alike; it also made them kings among men. Their legacy towers higher than the skyscrapers that sprouted up in every direction around the Double-R Bar. The Chicago country scene is a lot less fun without them, and we will not see their likes again anytime soon.
Real estate speculators evicted The Ranch from its downtown location in the late 1980s. The Sundowners continued to perform locally into the early ’90s, when Don Walls suffered a debilitating stroke. Curt Delaney died in February 1997 from complications related to a stroke. He was 71.