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Nestled deep in the Mercedes jungle of north Scottsdale sits a little-bitty ol' piss-ant country place that has not only survived the region's creeping hoity-toityism, but has thrived. And so has one of its favorite sons.
The Handlebar-J and its previous incarnations have held country court at the same location since the early Sixties. In the beginning, it was called Wild Bill's, and the adjective fit well. There were no chichi shops or rush-hour traffic jams surrounding it at the time. In fact, the only other businesses within hollering distance were Drinkwater's Liquor Store, which still remains, and a corner Tastee-Freez that has long since melted into memory.
The name Handlebar-J came along when George and Joanie Lautz bought Wild Bill's in the mid-Sixties. George sported the curlicue mustache, and the "J" came from the first letter of his wife's name. The clientele didn't change much--the same good ol' boys sped in in their pickups and everybody knew everybody else's beeswax.
In 1967, Brick Herndon and his country-western group, the Country Score, became the Handlebar-J's house band. Not long after, Brick's wife Gwen began waitressing. Back then, as now, the Handlebar-J was known for its barbecued ribs, and dinner business was always good. The three Herndon boys also became fixtures in the joint. Rick, Ron, and Ray had all grown up with their father's music, and all could play a lick or two.
"My brothers [Rick and Ron] and I would sit in with Dad, and we loved it," says Ray. He's lanky, longhaired and casually dressed. He laughs easily and often. "There I was, seven years old and playing guitar with my dad's band. Can you imagine?" At the time, Ray and his brothers were already veterans of the business. All had played and tap-danced on a local television variety hour and the boys had even cut a Christmas song for RCA in California.
Along about 1974, the Lautzes got religion and took out the bar. The restaurant alone didn't keep the business up, and it looked like the Handlebar-J had smoked its last rib. But Brick and Gwen Herndon seized the opportunity to realize a longtime dream, and with the help of Gwen's late brother, John Lattimore, they bought the place. That set up a long, multileveled success story.
"I played in the band a little, worked as a busboy, went to school. It was a busy time, but an exciting one," Ray recalls. "Then Dad started getting sick [Brick Herndon died of cancer in 1980], and I wanted to help out the band, so I was playing more and more. After a while, I started doing things outside, too."
Indeed, Ray's reputation as an excellent guitarist and fine singer was beginning to take off. With liquor flowing once again, the fortunes of the Handlebar-J improved. The family worked hard, and the Herndon brothers kept the Country Score strong. A few years after his father's death, Ray was asked to join J. David Sloan's band, the Rogues, at Mr. Lucky's on Grand Avenue. Although it was difficult to leave the family enterprise, the move eventually proved to be the turning point in Ray's career.
"I wasn't getting any further here," he explains. "I wanted to expand my horizons."
Three years into Ray's tenure at Mr. Lucky's, the Rogues were contracted to perform at a festival in, of all places, Luxembourg. And it was there that Ray Herndon met Lyle Lovett.
"There was this big-band Las Vegas-show type thing, our band, and Lyle Lovett. Here was this guy playing guitar all by himself. He was stuck in between us and ended up sort of getting lost in the shuffle. I got to know him, said, `You've got some great stuff.' He looked at me and said, `Yeah . . . but nobody's really listening.'" Despite Lovett's initial reluctance, he let the Rogues back him for part of a monthlong gig.
"After we got back to the states, it wasn't long before we did twenty demos here at Chaton Studios." Ray laughs, shaking his long brown hair. "He took 'em to Nashville and sold 'em."
Soon, Herndon--who has played lead guitar and provided harmonies on each of Lyle Lovett's three albums--decided to expand horizons once again. In 1985, Ray and older brother Ron (who'd joined Ray during his final season at Mr. Lucky's) left J. David's Grand Avenue premises and, with a new band, took over the stage back home at the Handlebar-J.
"The band here was good, but I don't think they were really keeping up with the times. They were kind of old-fashioned," Ray explains. "My mom was real scared. She didn't know what was going to happen 'cause the music was going to be too loud." He pauses, smiling at the memory. "It took about four months for word about the Herndon Brothers Band to get around," he says, eyes widening, "then, WHOOSH! everything took off. Ever since then, knock on wood, it's been going up."
The recent construction of a patio and a modest addition has allowed for more stools and bodies. Yet the Handlebar-J remains a far cry from the dance-palace glitter of other clubs in the Valley. Various farm implements and other assorted country-fried gewgaws still litter the wood-panelled walls, leaving intact that tavern-in-the-town feel of the place. Hats, mostly of the ancient, decrepit cowboy kind, continue to line the rafters. Gwen still works at the bar each day, returning at night to be among her longtime extended family.