South Jersey has long been a stronghold of cowboy culture, especially the Pine Barrens, one of New Jersey's first settled regions, says Joan Williams. She and her husband, Chip, publish Country Music News, a Lumberton magazine dedicated to the local club and dance scene.
Before highways connected Pineys to the rest of New Jersey, "this hearty group of fishermen and clam diggers were cut off, and so they became self- sufficient," adds Elaine Everett, who organizes concerts at the Pineland Cultural Society every Saturday night. "Part of that was entertaining themselves, and they started to write songs about their occupations and about their lives.
"People don't think of South Jersey as having country music, because we're not in the country. But there are a lot of remote areas in South Jersey," Everett says.
South Jersey has always been a blue-collar working and farming community, and that's what country music is about, Williams says. "The values of country-western culture are God, family, community and helping each other. Being a cowboy represents freedom, personal choice, the pioneering spirit. Country music is the music of the people."
"Country covers the hard times," when nobody had nothing," says Clay Huneycutt, 46, a self-proclaimed cowboy who grew up in Greensboro, N.C.
The songs alternate between silly and suicidal. "Sometimes the music can be depressing," Williams admits. "In the suicide sets, the dog dies, the wife leaves, and the car breaks down."
On the other hand, cowpokes poke fun at themselves almost as often as others poke fun at them. "Country music has a great sense of humor. People present themselves in a stereotypical way, making fun of others who have such a narrow perception," she says.
The subject matter is progressive. "Thirty years ago, it was 'My man did me wrong. I'm gonna drink myself into oblivion.' Now it's strong-willed women kicking the guy out because she can make it on her own," says Pam Anefson, manager of Club Maverick.
The last big wave of country music came in the early '80s, when John Travolta's Urban Cowboy movie gave it unprecedented mainstream exposure. ''That lasted two, three years," says Williams. Country came back with a bang five years ago, when line-dancing caught the national fancy.
When most people think of country dancing, they imagine square dancers, do- si-doing. But square dancing has ebbed in favor of line-dancing, which people without partners can participate in. Most of the local clubs offer free lessons a few nights a week.
Today, the music is secondary to the dancing, says Chip Williams. "In the past, songwriters were recognized. Today, people can't tell you the words to a song; they can only tell you that they can do a tush-push to it."
The solo dancing has opened up a whole new social life to many of South Jersey's closet country lovers. "You can have a good time with your friends and not have to worry about picking someone up," says Anefson.
Country bars aren't typical meat markets. "People communicate. They talk to you," says Sharon Vincent, a Mount Holly executive secretary who cruises the country scene.
Fragile egos can survive here, in the sea of ruffled skirts and gold teeth, amid the doctors and lawyers and such who gather. "At other clubs, people look you up and down and say: 'Maybe I'll dance with you.' Here, everyone dances with everyone," says Richard Gordon, 54, a Medford Lakes physical therapist who teaches his patients and their families to two-step.
"Ours is an older crowd, that can't relate to rap, and they get tired of oldies" says Anefson. They're also an early crowd. "They go out early and come home early, because they're working class."
"I used to do ballroom, disco and rock dancing," says Dennis M. Lynch, 54, a Haddonfield Realtor. "But I find country much more uplifting. It's more like a family situation, not a club atmosphere."
Indeed, for the most part, country fans don't seem to be big drinkers. "If you get a buzz, you can't do the dances," explains Anefson. "They are very intricate."
Ethel Cintron, a Palmyra bookkeeper, has brought her husband of 33 years to Club Maverick, his first-ever visit to a country bar. "I usually listen to rock, but at those clubs there are just a bunch of coeds and yuppies. No one like us."
Julio Cintron, glancing around at the cowhide chairs and saloon-style setting, is pleased. "I'm going to learn how to be a two-steppin' fool,"
grins the construction worker. The couple bought cowboy hats, but left them in the car, planning to case the joint first to see the gear everyone else was sporting.
As far as clothing is concerned, many country fans are just weekend cowboys. "Everybody's buying boots and hats and jeans, because they all want to look the part. But during the week, they work in law offices, and they don't have a southern drawl," says Chip Williams.
Barbara Bickford owns Cowtown Cowboy Outfitters in Woodstown, one of a dozen western-wear stores in South Jersey. "Most of my customers are dancers, horse showers, people who farm and drive trucks, and motorcycle riders." She travels to Dallas and Denver three times a year to keep up with the latest hat, boot and fringe fashions.
At Club Maverick, Tim Robertson, 25, is the only black in sight - a function, clubgoers say, of the fact that there aren't many black country
artists. Robertson is also one of the few real cowboys in South Jersey. He packs a pickup and rides bulls in rodeos.
"Being a cowboy . . . you can't wear it like a coat," he says. "It's a lot of little things. We don't bother nobody, nobody bothers us."