In the Shadow of the Old West, an Unlikely Music Venue

Back in the ‘40s, when Westerns were still de rigueur, Roy Rogers and a couple of investors got together to bankroll the construction of Pioneertown, Calif. The actor-occupied village/set played home to John Ford’s Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean as well as Gene Autry’s eponymous television show, among others.

It looks like it was dropped, fully formed, in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town is a 4-mile drive down a windy mountain road into uneventful Yucca Valley, Calif.

Yet, people flock here regularly. Some come for the honky-tonk weekends, or to visit one of the oldest bowling alleys in America. Others come for the music.

In this world created by the movies, there’s one place that has created an identity of its own – Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

A quick walk on crunchy desert sand leads people from the wooden buildings to one of the most famed attractions in the area. Built the same time the rest of the Hollywood town was constructed, the biker bar/mesquite grillin’ restaurant/ live music venue gained fame with the masses thanks to Travel Channel personality Anthony Bourdain stopping in to try its ribs. (Side note: He loved them.) But, it was popular in the Southwest far before Bourdain’s publicity.

“The location is beautiful in Pioneertown,” says Robyn Celia, co-owner of Pappy & Harriet’s. “It’s so amazing to be able to sit outside and be surrounded by mountains and the big, blue sky. It just feels free, and I think that’s what draws people out here. It’s a very ‘come as you are’ kind of place. You have to roll with it and let go, and you’ll have the best time.”

The venue is as unpretentious as it gets. No one wears heels. Makeup is minimal. Bodies are covered. It’s as far from a Las Vegas bar as you can get. It’s a different crowd than the weekend visitors to the Hollywood thoroughfare next door. Here, patrons range from music lovers, Marines making the 30-minute drive from the nearby 29 Palms base, and residents from Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and other points beyond. Even celebs make the journey to Pioneertown to appreciate some incognito (or, at least, less cognito) time, including Academy Award winners Helen Mirren and Oliver Stone, as well as Ryan Gosling, Michael C. Hall and others.

On the night I stop in, there’s a table of Marines and then friends and fans of a band based in Joshua Tree –Tim Easton and the Joshua Tree Army. The three-person ensemble takes the stage, then mingles with the crowd.

“That’s the cool thing about here,” explains Celia, over a drink in her office. “There is no green room. The musicians have to hang out with everyone.”

Celia and her partner, Linda Krantz, have established Pappy & Harriet’s as one of the most unusual live music destinations in the region. The two bought the outlet on a whim–packing up and moving from New York City.  

With shows five nights a week, it’s changed a lot since she bought it eight years ago.

“Before we took it over, [Pappy & Harriet’s] had the same country cover band playing four nights a week,” explains Celia, who thought if she and Krantz treated the musicians really well, the word would spread. 

“It’s kind of like, if you build it they will come,” she says of the bands that have made the trip to the high desert. And, the list of who has come is impressive. Since she took over the helms, everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Leon Russell to Gillian Welch graced the stage. The first outdoor show outside under the desert stars was Lucinda Williams. Even electroclash provacateur Peaches has made a stop at Pioneertown to perform at the venue. One night, Robert Plant even swung by to pump out nine songs to a surprised crowd.

Celia operates Pappy & Harriet’s with the same attitude of the other folk with businesses in Pioneertown–the place isn’t for everyone. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Based on the consistent success she’s had, the people coming definitely do get it.

Getting there: Driving, Pioneertown is about 228 miles from Las Vegas. Depending on how much of a speed demon the driver is, expect to take about 3.5 hours. Head south on Interstate 15 to Barstow, then turn left on California state Route 247/Old Woman Road. Continue on 247 until Pipes Canyon Road and turn right. Turn left onto Pioneertown Road.

Stay: Pioneertown Inn, a quaint 17-room motel, is next to all of the action. Or, head down to Yucca Valley, where an assortment of hotels, motels and inns are available.