Igniting a music movement in Orange County is no easy feat, but according to frontman Daniel Bonte of Daniel Bonte and The Bona Fide, a movement is exactly what local country music needs. The Indiana-bred singer set to work finding a venue that would serve as a hub for Southern California country artists, and found a home in the stomping grounds of Cal State Fullerton. The singer snagged a Friday night slot at Big's Bar & Grill for his "California Country" series in hopes of exposing a country music scene.
When Bonte approached various Orange County club owners with the idea of billing original country music, he was met with opposition. Venues were communicating heavy interest in cover songs, but little attention was given to new material. Bonte says that in some cases, venue operators wanted complete control of set lists. "I don't mind playing other people's music every once in awhile, as long as we do it our way," Bonte says. "But I'm not gonna have anybody tell me what I can and can't play. That's bullshit and I'm not gonna do it."
The opposition fueled Bonte's search for a stage that would support original country material. After walking into Big's and discovering a bar full of people singing karaoke country tunes, he knew he'd found a potential stronghold. The sight of beer swigging, country sing-a-longs reassured him that a country music community existed in Orange County, or at the very least, maintained a broad spectrum of admirers. After hounding Big's owner Terry Schwichtenberg for weeks, he secured a meeting in hopes of scoring a weekly Tuesday or Wednesday night slot. To Bonte's surprise, Schwichtenberg tapped the series for Friday nights.
"I think this is really going to open people's eyes," says Schwichtenberg, who is a longtime country music fan. "Daniel is on fire for this. He's almost always here supporting and making sure everything's going right. It's nice to see somebody want to make an impact like this."
A handful of venues in Orange County draw substantial country music crowds, however the focus is heavily geared toward line dancing guided by a DJ. InCahoots in Fullerton leads the charge, echoed by several bars that offer weekly "country nights" featuring line dancing or occasional one-off live performances. While these venues don't attract original country artists on a weekly basis, Bonte says they play an important role in the country music community, which he feels is experiencing a growth spurt. Bonte isn't the only Southern California artist to witness a refreshed interest in live country music. Los Angeles based singer Sam Outlaw recently played Big's and shared a common observation. Following his performance Outlaw noted that when he started booking gigs a few years ago, pedal steel guitars and Stetsons were hard to find -but over the last eighteen months he's noticed a substantial influx of country and country related acts.
"Back in the day LA, Bakersfield, they all rivaled Nashville," says Outlaw. "I'm not saying [country music in Southern California] is necessarily going to go back to that, but I also don't care. We're playing more and more shows where all kinds of people come out to have fun with country. People who don't care about trying to be cool, they just want to have a good time whether it's country, bluegrass, or folk. And it feels like I'm seeing it more in Orange County than LA."
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Since its inception in May, the California Country series has attracted everything from neo traditionalists to Johnny Cash inspired alt-country. Bonte credits a core group of his musical contemporaries with making the event possible, and considering California Country nights are booked through the end of the year, their efforts are paying off. "I think everybody has woken up to the fact that if we're going to do this and be heard, we have to be a part of a scene," Bonte says. "I'm gonna be right up there at the front of this revival, raising my hands and yelling Amen."
The California Country series takes place every Friday night at Big's Bar & Grill, 323 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-4950; www.bigsfullerton.com, 9 p.m. 21+. For more on Daniel Bonte and The Bona Fide visit www.facebook.com/DanielBontemusic.