From lowkey blues gigs to all-out country bars, the city cowboy community has carved a space for itself in London.
In North London, just up the hill from Archway tube station, the faint smell of barbeque cooking on the grill wafts through the late April afternoon air.
A man with a beard in jeans, brown leather boots, and some sort of vintage Western tee opens the door to his bar early on the grounds that I am “either the writer he has been emailing or someone just really eager to get their hands on a glass of whisky.”
From the outside, The Dukes Head in Highgate has the facade of any old London pub — red brick in a row of similarly styled buildings. But its interior has completely materialised the spirit of the American outlaw.
Pictures of country and blues music legends are framed next to bull skulls and old cigarette advertisements. The dim lights and unconventional décor make time and place inside the bar feel only relative. Theo, the owner of the Duke’s Head, walks over to the bar top, where rows of whisky stack three shelves high and Pabst Blue Ribbon beers sit chilled in the fridge.
“That lantern hanging above your head right there (a blue vintage Pabst Blue Ribbon lantern only slightly larger than a standard beer can) cost me over 100 pounds just to get it shipped over here from the USA, just to get it in the country,” says Theo.
“The collectibles that people from the States look at as Americana junk are gold dust for me and my bar. Everything I have collected plays a part in the authenticity of the atmosphere that we are trying to create here.”
Theo and his brother started their journey to open the Duke’s Head just before the COVID pandemic started. Theo’s brother had a biker rock bar just down the road, whose closure lent a hand in gathering all the Americana memorabilia that now hangs inside the Duke’s Head. They opened their doors officially just around a year-and-a-half ago.
“We are the only honky tonk in London, and I think people can feel intimidated by that label, honky tonk. They don’t know what it means. But we don’t want people to feel intimidated coming in here or not knowing all the music or musicians we’re playing,” says Theo. For him, running the Dukes of Highgate is about creating a community around a mutual love for classic blues and Americana music.
Theo talked a lot about authenticity and community as we sat with Waylon Jennings softly singing something about women and Luckenbach, Texas, in the background. Authenticity is a tricky and often confusing identity for an Americana country and blues bar trying to make a profit in London.
“It takes a lot of guts to dress a certain way or openly like things that make you stand out, but we want those people to feel comfortable at our bar,” says Theo. How do you get the guy wearing dark leather fringe and a cowboy hat on the tube to make it up to north London for a pint?
Music, it seems, is the thread that ties this community together.
“We know that Londoners have their pub days — Sundays are roast days, and Mondays and Tuesdays you have your pub quizzes. So we want to draw in a community that knows what we have and when we have it,” says Theo. “Wednesday is live music and wings, and the music continues through the weekend. Plus, on Sundays, we try to have a little bit of a focus on Bluegrass.”
On one of the weekends that I make it up to the Duke’s Head, Sheyna Gee, a country singer (self-proclaimed as in the category of ‘y’all-ternative’) from Nashville, Tennessee, is in town for a gig. As she waits for a friend to bring her a guitar, she tells how she has played at the Duke’s Head three times now, that nowhere else in London has quite the same enthusiasm for Americana music that this place does.
“It is part of why I keep coming back. Looking into an intimate crowd of regulars, clapping along to country music, you just don’t always find that in the UK,” she says.
Tim Gerard, another London-based blues musician, walks in with a shiny blue guitar for Gee to borrow for the night. Though they are just meeting for the first time, they chat endearingly about the many friends they share through playing here. Gee belts powerful originals about heartbreak and past relationships between Dolly Parton and Tina Turner covers, pausing only briefly but with enough time for the crowd of locals to clap their praise.
Finding the right musicians to play is just as important in establishing persona as their carefully curated trucker hats and metal signs. Many of the artists who have played at the Duke’s Head come by word of mouth through other musicians in similar styles, and of course, “we have a dream list of great artists who blow through town that we’d love to have squeeze us in,” says Theo.
But, “You can’t just say you are a country artist now. You know? It is more than that, it’s a feeling. It is a lifestyle,” he says. “It is not just another slow song labeled as ‘Americana,’ it just doesn’t work like that.”
Over in the heart of Soho, at 20 Kingsley Street, a small crowd of people stands outside to smoke their cigarettes and sip their pints as the muffled sound of a guitar being picked taps out of the door behind them. Above their lively chatter reads the simple black sign, ‘Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues Bar.’
Close to seven, the crowd starts to make their way back indoors. Dom Glynn, a blues singer from Birmingham, UK, is the seven o’clock performer this Friday night. People squeeze into the wooden booths and tables facing the small stage at the end of the bar, and the chatter slowly winds to a stop as Glynn taps to check the mic.
Suddenly, the sound of his song brings to life the neon signs and Willie Nelson posters that hang on the walls around him. Boots tap and heads nod as Glynn sings, “Don’t ya cry no more; we’ve got money in the draw.” (lyric from the single Money in the Drawer by Dom Glynn).
Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blue Bar “is the heart of the blues scene in London,” says Glynn, who currently has a residency at the bar where he plays every week. “It’s in such a cool location, right in the centre of things, not hidden away some hour out of town.” Ain’t Nothing But has held its domain on Kingsley Street since opening in 1993, promising live music and blues to its on-goers seven days a week.
Much like maintaining the cowboy spirit of Theo’s bar, a bit of an identity crisis comes with being a blues and Americana singer in London. In conversation with Glynn, it was important to address what is meant by blues and Americana, and it seems the definition is always arguably changing. Americana music is best described as a mixture of everything from blues and rock and roll to folk, bluegrass, and country.
The genre sprung from the southern USA, with blues music emerging from African American culture. Then it grew internationally and into the UK, most predominately around the 1940s with the eruption of the World Wars. “London got the blues, and I don’t think that’s ever gone away, or it ever will,” says Glynn.
Recognising the roots and influences of the Americana genre while also ignoring the labels of specific music categories is how Glynn settles into his sound. “Hank Williams is what I mean by country music; he is the one I try to write music like,” says Glynn.
Although he notes that no one can write music quite like Hank Williams. “What I like about blues music is the guitar playing, and what I like about country music is the songwriting. For me, it is trying to find a mixture of that, the musicianship of the blues and the more narrative and literal songwriting focus you get with country,” says Glynn.
Listening to different music and to many of his favourite artists, like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Rory Gallagher, is like hunting for ingredients and inspiration rather than prescribing a certain image.
Although there is undeniably a following in London for the kind of music that Glynn plays, he jokes that he is, “probably never going to buy a cowboy hat, though. I think it’d be a bit silly me, a British guy, in a cowboy hat.”
“I don’t know what the deal is with cowboys; people across different cultures love them. I think there is a coolness associated with the cowboy that becomes a vibe people latch onto,” says singer-songwriter Esme White.
Originally from New York City and living in London for around seven years now, White found her way back to creating music just over a year ago. Though she does not categorise herself as a country or blues singer, a folky twang is present in her music. She sings about gatecrashing the pearly gates of heaven and talks about the dream-like sequences of songs for her upcoming album, full of characters yearning for better places. “I just love the storytelling and narrative aspect of songwriting, and I do think that is a big thing about country music that influenced me,” says White.
White often plays gigs on nights with Glynn. “I have definitely started to see some of the same faces following,” she says. “There is a certain Saturday crowd, then a crowd for Sunday afternoons. Older women that I have grown to know, and a lot of young people too. It’s just lovely. It’s just lovely. It feels like food for my spirit in a way because you’re flexing your creativity in a space with similar-minded people.”
Whether you have completely embraced the lifestyle, cowboy boots and all, or just enjoy a good beer with the music, once inside the London Americana scene, the magnitude of its community unfolds around you.
The musicians who play the gigs and the fans there to enjoy the bar entangle in the same scene, blowing from bar to venue like tumbleweed. At the blues bar that Friday, I stand between a couple visiting from Germany and a group of guys who claim they are friends with the singer. By the time two songs pass, they have each shared plans to return. We cheer for it, and the guitar strums on.
“It’s kind of creates like this centre or network that everything revolves around. Almost like a spider web of people that comes out of it. Your professional connections become your friends too,” says White.
“Meeting all these people is a spiral effect. I just want to go out to more and more of these gigs and keep writing more and more,” she says. “It’s nice and a bit surprising how nurturing this kind of community is in London. I think it’s rare.”
Back at the Duke’s Head, the time on the clock reads close to four — almost time to open for the night. “We thought at first that an outlaw country bar would be really hard to pull off because people aren’t going to get it over here,” says Theo.
“I think the only thing we are missing now to be a perfect honky tonk is a jukebox,” he says as he gazes over to the Dolly Parton loveseat nook, claiming that is where the jukebox would go if it wasn’t already the perfect Dolly corner.
The drinks are near the bottoms of their glasses, and Theo speaks of the best day they have had at the Duke’s Head he can remember. “We all came back here after our Barrelhouse takeover at the end of the Country-2-Country festival. And we just had a day where the boys did a big cookout, and we had all the bands over that had played that weekend at the concert. It was a whole day of music, food going in and out, doors open, and a sunny day. It was just perfect,” he says with a smile.
Those kinds of days, gathering and singing, embody the sense of community that bars like the Duke’s Head and Ain’t Nothin But are creating in London. A place to simply drink good beer while listening to a story being told over the rhythms of an acoustic guitar.
London, for me, has always been known and defined by a level of chicness and style, as well as being an epicentre for art and culture. A city with a place for everyone.
Still, I found myself surprised as I fell down the Americana rabbit hole. In the land of wellies and afternoon tea, space is saved for the spirit of the American outlaw in glasses of whisky, cowboy boots, and live music in dimly lit pubs.
“Take a picture of this; you and your friends should come by,” says Theo, pointing to a poster as I am walking towards the door. It is an advertisement for two country singers playing at the Duke’s Head in a couple of weekends.
“They are great, you have to see them,” says Theo, “and I think the night before we’ve got Dom Glynn and Esme White coming around here to play.”
Featured image by Olivia Wolfe.