FREMONT -- It took me just a few minutes to realize why The Saddle Rack, the Bay Area's only full-time country music nightclub, has thrived for more than 35 years.

The 18,000-square-foot club is at once spacious and welcoming, and its attractions are polished yet unpretentious, and even a little bawdy. The barn-like country hot spot once was a Fremont hot tub store. It still gets steamy there, but that's because it can hold up to 1,100 people and has four separate bars, a performance stage, a 1,000-square-foot dance floor and a game room.

The club frequently fills to capacity on weekends. That's perhaps not surprising, as country music is enjoying a popular resurgence. Country artists such as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are selling millions at a time when the music industry is otherwise struggling, said Andy Buchanan, The Saddle Rack's co-owner and longtime manager.

"It comes around about every 15 years or so," he said. "In the '90s, you had Garth Brooks and Shania Twain and country was on top then, too."

The Saddle Rack's nearly four decades of success rose above the national musical fashion cycles. It opened in San Jose in the late 1970s, but closed around 2002 when its property was sold to make way for condos. A year later, Buchanan and co-owner Gary Robinson reopened on Boscell Road, amid a row of warehouses near what is now Fremont's Pacific Commons shopping center.

They now own the 4.5-acre property, and Buchanan said he and Robinson won't be slowing down. "It's not just a business for us, we both love country music," he said.


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That explains why music has always been The Saddle Rack's focus. Big stars like Blake Shelton, Alan Jackson and Tanya Tucker have played the 800-square-foot performance stage, when it's not covered by Diablo Road, the club's house band led by local vocalist, Jewels Hanson.

As one might expect from a Silicon Valley location, The Saddle Rack is no roadside juke joint. It's a clean, upscale setting with a polished operation, including a full-time security manager. And it's not cheap, as weekend cover charges range from $10 to $20, depending on the time.

But fun attractions -- such as a mechanical bull and a barber's chair that leans customers back to let them more easily drink shots of alcohol -- remind revelers that they came to let their hair down.

"We've always been a fun place that wants everyone to have a good time," Buchanan said. "As long as people are doing that and not bothering anyone, we're happy."

For a city-slicker like me, visits to The Saddle Rack always take me back to summers spent on my uncle's Oregon hay ranch, an immersion in country-and-western culture. Amid unusually friendly neighbors often wearing Wrangler jeans, conspicuous belt buckles, snakeskin boots and cowboy hats, I learned to like the country music that blared out of nearly every radio. But I never loved it. The downbeat tales of bad luck and blue broken hearts just never spoke to me.

Not that I dislike the genre. Rather, I've always heard it the same way I hear French -- a different language I've never understood but would love to speak fluently one day.

So the Saddle Rack has become a Berlitz course, making country music accessible and fun. And for longtime fans, the spacious, barn-like club is darn near Heaven with a slide guitar.

It's no surprise that the Bay Area's country music fans have become loyal Saddle Rack customers, said Daniel McKeown, a bartender there since 2003.

"The regulars here are like my weekend family," said McKeown, a Milpitas resident. "I don't have to go out and party, I do it here with them."

Out & About is a monthly column that highlights the underrated entertainment scene in the Tri-City and greater Hayward areas.

out & about: The Saddle rack
The country music nightclub is at 42011 Boscell Road, Fremont. It is open 7 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 7 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Details at 510-979-0477 or go to www.saddlerackfremont.com.