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.
The crowd is eclectic, too, running the gamut from natural man to Western dressy to suit and tie to whatever it is that musicians wear. Old-timer regulars continue to preside at the ends of the bar, drinking draft beer and muttering those things about which old men mutter. They are content to leave the bar's closer confines to the youth. Pro athletes are a common sight at the Handlebar-J, as are country-music luminaries. Framed, autographed photographs of Asleep at the Wheel, the Judds, George Strait, and Buck Owens hang by the bar.
"Lyle Lovett, of course, comes by when he's around," Ray smiles, "and Vince Gill played with the band here when he was in town. He did a version of `Bartender's Blues' that just killed us all."
Ray Herndon, however, is one barkeep who'd be hard-pressed lately to bellow much blues. After a stint touring in Lyle Lovett's Large Band, he made still another move, one he hopes will push him over the top. Herndon joined bassist-vocalist Terry McBride and drummer Billy Thomas to form McBride and the Ride. This project, now in its second year, keeps Ray excited.
"We built it from scratch," he enthuses, "and we've come a long way in a short time. Still, we've got to keep getting our name out there. Hopefully, people will start remembering." Their debut effort Burnin' Up the Road thus far has met with mixed success. Two singles, "Felicia" and "Every Step of the Way," never really caught fire. The third try, however, may truly be the charm. "Can I Count on You" is scaling the charts like a bullet, and the accompanying video is finding a regular rotation on country-music cable stations. McBride and the Ride's label, MCA, plans to re-sign the band, and the group will head for the studios to record a new album in late summer or early fall. In the meantime, a fourth track from the band's inaugural try, "Same Old Star," will give it a go as a single.
"We feel really close to it, man. That album is in the black even without a hit, with reorders from lots of record stores." He anxiously leans forward. The Handlebar-J is already packed on this early Friday evening. A group is sampling from a generous buffet and keeping the bartenders busy. "Then you get that right song and . . . there you go. We're looking for charted success."
That success might very well lead to Ray's departure from the Herndon Brothers Band and the Handlebar-J. Already, the group (Ray, Ron, Duane Wriston, Pat Maule, and Dennis Shoup) shrinks to four when Ray is on the road with McBride and the Ride, or in the studio with Lyle Lovett. In fact, McBride and the Ride is about to commence a tour as opening act for the Judds.
"Man, I love the Handlebar so much, it's hard to leave. But I know the guys here keep it going. I hope I get my foot in the door so that it helps everybody. I know it's already helped this place a lot."
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"There I was, seven years old and playing guitar with my dad's band."
They performed at a festival in Luxembourg. And it was there that Ray Herndon met Lyle Lovett.
Farm implements and other country-fried gewgaws litter the wood-panelled walls.
"Vince Gill did a version of `Bartender's Blues' that just killed us all.