BANGKOK, Thailand -- The search for American country-western music in the Orient begins on Cowboy Alley, a neon strip of girlie bars saturated with Old West cliches. The names say it all. Lucky Star, Apache, Long Gun, Country Roads I and II. Inside, longhorn skulls, branding irons, saddles, lassos and stirrups adorn the walls.
The petite Thai "waitresses" are like Dolly Parton without the bust or rhinestones or Southern accent. They sweat stoically in the tropical heat, parading around in knee-length boots, frilly skirts, embroidered shirts and bolo ties. The frontier look is decidedly unerotic.
The band has not played anything remotely homespun all evening. From some British lager louts, they grudgingly honor yet another request for Pink Floyd.
The elderly keyboardist, suitably blase with an electric guitar resting in his lap for the occasional solo, peeks from under his fake Stetson.
"We used to be a country band," he remarks. "But the foreigners don't like it anymore. So we play what they want."
Cowboy Alley was built for GIs looking for a little home away from home. In the 1960s, when President Johnson declared the United States and Thailand "Pacific brothers" in the fight against communism, there were some 50,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Bangkok -- plus thousands more who were regularly airlifted down from Vietnam's front lines for "rest and recreation." Around the U.S. air bases and port, local country bands sprouted up to service the new market.
As legend has it, Cowboy Alley was baptized when an African-American-Indian from Wyoming founded the first Cowboy Bar here in the mid-1970s. But when the Vietnam War ended and the Americans withdrew, the alley's spaghetti Western decor became little more than a backdrop for global tourists, particularly male, who had their minds on matters other than music.
"Original Cowboy Bar now owned by Switzerland man," shrugs one gum-chewing waitress as if this were not the least bit odd.
A few miles down the road at the Dallas Cowboy Pub, a raucous local crowd sings along to a band thrashing out Thai country -- three-chord guitar spiced with flutes and bongos.
As if to symbolize this hybrid form, a zebra's head mounted above the stage has replaced the longhorn skull. The genre, called Songs for Life, or Phleng Phu-a Chiwit, was coined by Surachai, the lead singer of Caravan, one of Thailand's most famous bands of the 1970s.
Ironically, though the influences on the Songs for Life genre were American -- Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Crosby, Stills and Nash, etc. -- the politics of its founders were anything but. Dubbed "the troubadours of the student movement," Caravan was the musical voice of Bangkok's civil unrest of the mid-1970s. Heavily influenced by Marxist ideology, the movement fought for constitutional reform and criticized the alliance between the oppressive Thai military regime and the U.S. government.
"At that time, we liked American music, but not American politics," reminisces Caravan's guitarist, Mongkong, over palm wine and crabs at the roadside bar he owns north of Bangkok.
After crackdowns against the student movement in 1976 that left hundreds dead, Caravan fled into the Laotian jungle to join the Chinese-sponsored Communist insurgency.
When they returned to Bangkok in the early 1980s, band members released a sound track for a film about vagabondery that blends Thai folk with experimental bluegrass: A fiddle's mournful dirge dances around a chugging harmonica, a soaring flute converses with sparse, bending guitar notes and sluggish bongo rhythms.
In an unlikely fusion, it manages simultaneously to evoke bamboo stalks and freight trains, rice paddies and Southern delta melancholy.
For authentic American country music in Bangkok, come in early evening to the Old Dragon Pub. Part owned by Sunanjit, a novelist and friend of Caravan since the student activist days, the Old Dragon has been lovingly decorated with American memorabilia -- old Coca-Cola and cigarette machines -- and some neat local touches.
The 100-year-old house with cathedral ceilings and ornate wood latticework was disassembled and relocated from a downtown residential area. A counter was salvaged from a Chinese herbal medicine shop. Benches and overhead lights are courtesy of the Thai National Railway. It feels like an elegant Old West saloon.
On stage, Dej, 41, one of Bangkok's few American country purists, performs a word-perfect rendition of the Hank Williams classic "You Win Again." His voice aches and cracks. His eyes are closed. With his wire-rim glasses and long, stringy hair he looks more Beatnik poet than backwoods banjo-picker, and in many ways his turn to country was not homegrown but part of a bohemian's spiritual quest.
"I love the poetry," he says. I love the prayer. I'm Catholic, you know."
Too young to mix with the American soldiers, Dej learned the guitar riffs and licks via radio, tapes and how-to manuals.
When a friend brought back a banjo from the United States, he began to seriously study the old-timers: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and bluegrass and hillbilly legends such as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Roy Acuff.
Lately, it's been a rough ride for the purist bands.
"My whole band, the Old Timers, used to play here, but because of the economic crisis, the bar can no longer afford all of us," Dej says. "Now I just do solo."
According to his strict criteria, only four pure American country bands remain in Bangkok -- his own, the Bangkok Bluegrass Band, Green Valley and Precious Lord. Five years ago there were 10.
It is not only the current economic crisis. The Songs for Life movement, whose Thai lyrics appeal more to locals, has drawn audiences away from the American import. And Bangkok's golden youth, though they relish the retro-chic ambience of pseudo-saloons, have little space in their hearts for banjos and fiddles.
But beneath the fashion victims' borrowed style lies a deep affection for the country genre that speaks to Thailand's agrarian roots. Particularly for the waves of migrants from the rural northeast, lost in a chaotic megalopolis, country music acts as a sedative, a nostalgic reference point. It comforts with clear melodies and resolving chords. It dispenses street wisdom in rhyming couplets.
And for the taxi drivers, bar girls and other hardened creatures of the night, it does not blush from the facts of life. Drunks and cheats, broken dreams, homesickness and heartbreak -- the universal country themes -- find expression here in a multitude of forms, in the most unlikely places: theme bars trapped in strip malls, shopping arcades, in the shadow of five-star hotels.
Says Sunanjit with just a trace of irony: "We are an agricultural country. Even here in Bangkok, we are all urban cowboys."
Pub Date: 5/25/98