pappy-and-harriets

Music and Magic in the Mojave

You ain’t lived till you’ve rocked, ribbed, and raged at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.

Maggie Downs Arts & Entertainment

pappy-and-harriets
The only game in Pioneertown: Pappy & Harriet's.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY FREDRIK BRODÉN

First someone handed me a tambourine.

Then Johnny Hickman, guitarist for the rock band Cracker, handed me a bottle of whiskey. I don’t remember the brand, but I swear it was the kind of liquor you see in cartoons — a jug, simply marked “XXX” — which I passed along to someone else after a healthy swig.

We were just outside Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a honky-tonk in the High Desert, perched at the edge of a dusty town that was originally constructed to be an Old West movie set. This was the annual Cracker Campout, two days of music with the band, their musician friends, and fans pitching tents.

A mess of people sat in the dirt, some cross-legged, some leaning against each other like a teetering pile of kindling. They held guitars and bongos, harmonicas and concertinas. One guy had a trombone. A couple were members of Cracker, a group I’ve loved since high school.

All at once, they began to play. Scratch that. We began to play.

Our song rose into the night sky, the moon chasing us down, the air dry and warm. And the stars? Some places are awarded Michelin stars, but Pappy & Harriet’s has something even better — desert stars, a zillion of them studding the sky every night.

That moment was something you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was some kind of magic.

One thing you come to learn about Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is that people speak about it in reverent, almost spiritual terms. “Magic” is a word used often, as are “sacred” and “enchanted.”

The distinction that needs to be made here is that magic often involves sleight-of-hand or some form of trickery. Pappy & Harriet’s, however, is hyper-real. It’s authentic. There are no tricks here — just a bar, some knotty beams, and glass bottles.

A gallery of concert fliers, posters, and framed black-and-white photographs hang on the walls right up to the ceiling, featuring everyone from cowboy movie stars to Shelby Lynne and The Donnas. Thousands of bands have performed under this roof, these mounted deer antlers, and the lazy ceiling fan. To paraphrase a well-known saying, if these walls could sing … well, it would be one hell of a tune.

The kitchen serves up the best bowl of smoky, spicy chili you’ll ever order, and the mesquite grill out back is covered with fat steaks and slabs of ribs. The wooden floor is uneven, but it works just fine for dancing.

And the people? They hail from all walks of life, forming a gumbo of a crowd. Cowboys and bikers, old-timers and artists, musicians just passing through, locals seeking a bit of conversation. I once held the bathroom door for someone and only later realized it was Academy Award winner Helen Mirren.

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“So many people think they’re lost when they are going up there, and then it turns out they’re not lost at all.” Robyn Celia

It makes some sense, then, seeing as how Pappy & Harriet’s fuels people, that this place began as a gas station.

Signal Gas Station was located at the corner of two unpaved roads. It’s just off Mane Street, an outdoor set erected in the 1940s and made to look like an 1870s frontier town for the purpose of shooting cowboy films. Some 50 films and several TV shows — starring such luminaries as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Leo Carrillo — were filmed among the false-front buildings. Eventually the film boom went bust, and the Western town became more of a ghost town.

Then, in 1972, Frances Aleba transformed the gas station into a bar. She removed the fuel tanks and gas pumps and renamed it The Cantina.

Aleba had been an X-ray technician who suffered health issues as a result of radiation exposure, says her daughter Mary Gaffney, but the desert climate and pace suited her. After relocating her family from Newport Beach to the High Desert in the 1970s, Aleba put all her effort into this new business. The Cantina rocked and rolled immediately.

“From the day she opened the doors, bikers started coming in the door,” Gaffney says. “The desert makes for a nice ride, and bikers wanted a family place to hang out, too.”

The beer-and-burrito joint thrived. As the years passed, Gaffney’s sister Harriet Allen often said she wanted to buy the place whenever their mother retired.
“I think Harriet always had a vision for the place,” Gaffney says.

In 1980, Harriet, along with her husband, Claude, known by friends as “Pappy,” did just that. The couple purchased The Cantina and changed the sign out front to Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. They expanded the venue, added a kitchen, and played sets of music — Pappy could often be found at the piano, his one-eyed pet raven by his side, while Harriet sang.

“Even if I wasn’t married to Pappy, I’d be his fan,” Harriet told the Hi-Desert Star newspaper in 1992.

The venue as it stands now is a testament to Pappy’s handiwork: The circles above the bar are formed by two fat wine barrels. The glass bottles embedded in the walls glow churchlike when the sun shines through. A heart with initials is hidden on the back patio, a secret Valentine for Harriet. Pappy built it all.

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Early ads for the Palace boasted line dancing on Wednesday nights, spaghetti dinners for $3.95, and sleepin’ in “down-home comfort” at the nearby motel with no phones or TV. The ads also crow about Harriet’s culinary prowess: “You ain’t et till ya’ve had Harriet’s down-home cookin’ at the famous ‘Pioneertown Palace,’ smack dab in the middle of the magnificent Sawtooth Mountains.”

The roadhouse developed a reputation as a music venue, and an ever-increasing number of country bands played the bar. As the buzz grew, so did accommodations for RV overnight parking and horse camping. Famous faces began to pop in, and tourists arrived. Pappy’s was officially on the map.

But Gaffney says the best moments didn’t involve celebrities or crowds. Rather, the best thing about the club was that it brought the family together. “We started our day in the morning with a cup of coffee and guitars, sitting around singing,” she recalls. “In the winter, when it was cold, they had a pot-bellied stove, and we’d sit and sing and talk. If there were storms, we would be happy we couldn’t leave.”

So it went for many years. Then Pappy fell from his horse and spent the last several years of his life in fragile health. He died Feb. 27, 1994, following a heart attack. A memorial in the Hi-Desert Star read, “All kinds of country/western bands have played at the club … but none could draw the applause and appreciation that Pappy and Harriet did when they took to the stage with just their guitars and voices.”

Linda Krantz, who was living on the East Coast, first stumbled onto Pappy & Harriet’s in the 1990s, while working as the art director for a movie that was filmed in Pioneertown. She returned to New York and told her friends about the special place she had discovered.

“She always talked about Pappy & Harriet’s,” says Robyn Celia, one of Krantz’s longtime friends. “So we made trips to California. We would come out for one weekend, then another, then we just kept going.”

She says it was magic at first sight.

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For a New Yorker, the desert must have felt like a silent and welcome companion. Pioneertown buildings are earnest and un-modern, but solid. The only real streetlights come courtesy of the high beams on your car. Sometimes it seems there are more horses than people. And the roads are long and meandering, but they’ll always take you where you need to go.

“Any first-timer can tell you, it’s not just the bar, it’s everything that goes along with getting to the bar. Everything. It’s the road you take to get there — that winding, desert road — and then seeing Pioneertown at the end of it,” Celia says. “So many people think they’re lost when they are going up there, and then it turns out they’re not lost at all.”

The friends began spending every New Year’s Eve in Pioneertown, until one year something felt different. That year, the place was under the new ownership of Jay Hauk, a retired airline pilot and family friend.

“There was a guy who bought it for a while,” Gaffney says, “but the community just rebelled. He wanted the staff to wear uniforms and change everything around. It wasn’t right.”

However, Hauk successfully expanded the musical offerings at the Palace, along with manager Jimmy Smith, whetting the High Desert appetite for music under the stars. Outdoor concerts began in 2003, featuring acts like Canned Heat, reggae band Big Mountain, and Eric Burdon & The Animals.

Not long after the ownership changed hands, Celia and Krantz noticed an ad on the website that said Pappy’s was for sale. Though the friends had fantasized about owning the place, they never imagined it could become a reality. Until it did. The two, along with business partner Marco Rivera, cobbled together credit cards to pay for the bar. (Rivera left the business six months later.)

“When I look back, it’s crazy that we did it,” Celia says. “It was so not incredibly thought out.”

But that’s not the whole story. Lucinda Williams had a part in it too.

“So there was this Lucinda Williams album I listened to every time we went to Pioneertown,” Celia says. “We’d fly out from New York on JetBlue, come out on the weekend, hang out at Pappy’s, and talk to the locals, and every time I would listen to this album.”

That was Car Wheels on a Gravel Road — ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 albums of the ’90s.

“I kept thinking, I have to have Lucinda Williams play a show here,” Celia says. “One weekend, I got on her website, wrote an email, and all of a sudden I had a commitment. So it was like, well, we have to buy the place now because we have a show. It’s all Lucinda Williams’ fault, basically.”

A Nov. 15, 2003, ad in the Hi-Desert Star announced the transition.

“Hi-Desert Publishing Co. welcomes Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace to the Morongo Basin! New owners Linda Krantz, Robin (sic) Celia, and Marco Rivera offer dining, a full bar, and music venue focusing on good food, good service, and a diverse musical experience.”

Harriet Allen gave her blessing to the new owners as well. She told The Press-Enterprise in 2005, “They walked in the front door, and I saw something spiritual about them. And I said, ‘You’re it.’ I felt very much they would be the new generation in Pioneertown.”

With Celia in charge of booking bands and Krantz at the helm of just about everything else, their business plan was simple: Don’t change much.

“We realized the only way we’re going to make it is if we organically grow it,” Celia says. “I figured I was going to incorporate some different kinds of music here and there, but anything beyond that was a non-issue.”

A July 2004 article in the Hi-Desert Star lauded the new owners. “What they haven’t done is change the honky-tonk, cowboy flavor of the hometown restaurant and bar into a magnet for city slickers from Los Angeles,” wrote Sara Munro. “What they have done includes bringing in some big names to spice up the show from time to time, building upon a long-standing tradition of country music in an intimate, friendly atmosphere without eroding the down-to-earth feeling.”

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It was a feeling that extended to the musicians who played there.

“I hate overusing the word ‘magical,’ but from the very first time playing there, it was clear how special and electrifying that place is,” says Jesika von Rabbit, a High Desert native who has performed at Pappy’s numerous times solo as well as with her band Gram Rabbit. (There’s a menu item named in her honor: Nachos von Rabbit.) “The energy in the room is alive with the ghosts of the past — and the present too. I don’t know that there’s anyplace else like it.”

Big names took note as well, including Robert Plant, who played a set at Pappy’s in 2006. “He really liked the place,” Celia shrugs. “He’s been coming to the desert for years, and then one night he noticed Victoria Williams playing at the club, and he was a big fan of hers. That night he asked if he could come back and do a song or two.

“That’s what Pappy & Harriet’s is. It’s not forced. It’s Robert Plant stopping by to play just because he likes it.”

That was also the year the Sawtooth Complex Fire ripped through Pioneertown and Pipes Canyon, burning across 61,700 acres, destroying 50 homes, eight mobile homes, and outbuildings, trailers, trucks, tractors, and railcars. One civilian died, and more than a dozen were injured.

“Outside it looked like Armageddon. We felt so helpless,” Celia says. “I remember looking at this photo of Pappy and saying, ‘Listen, dude. You’ve got to help me out here.’ ”

The sky was a smoldering orange, the ground hot enough to melt shoes. As the blaze chewed through Joshua trees, blackened the mountains, and turned houses into ash, Celia and Krantz left during the mandatory evacuation and waited for word about their business.

“I remember the moment I heard on the radio that Pappy’s was saved. The fire just skipped over the place,” Celia says. “Like magic.”

Years later, 2015’s Lake Fire rained ash on Pioneertown and crept dangerously close to the community. This time the evacuation order was voluntary, but the owners didn’t leave. Krantz and Celia hung a handwritten “closed” sign on the door and kept the place open as a community center, offering food and shelter to residents and ranchers affected by the blaze.

Since taking the reins, Celia and Krantz have managed to maintain the authenticity of the roadhouse, even while Pappy’s has become something of an “it” spot for indie and alt-country bands from all over the globe. Acts that have played the modest stage include Eagles of Death Metal, Queens of the Stone Age, Leon Russell, Vampire Weekend, Sean Lennon, Lorde, The Hives, and Billy Corgan. The Sunday-evening house band, The Thrift Store All Stars, often features beloved singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. Feist, Kesha, and Shooter Jennings have dropped in during open-mic night, in addition to locals who are just finding their musical footing.

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As a performer, von Rabbit says, it’s easy to see why the roadhouse’s popularity has soared — the sound is great, the crowd is inviting, and the Pappy’s alchemy makes it incomparable to any other venue. “It’s the kind of place that could keep you from moving out of town. If I did, I’d always be searching for its replacement,” she says. “I hope I’m playing there until I’m dead.”

In 2012, Billboard named Pappy’s one of the top 10 hidden gems in the country during an annual roundup of clubs. That same year, the producers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — the most profitable music festival in the U.S. — were looking to expand with a series of shows on the side. Pappy & Harriet’s was among the venues selected, turning even more eyes to this dusty corner of the desert.

Chef, adventurer, and TV host Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations at the bar. Counting Crows mentioned the venue in a song. A documentary, The Pioneertown Palace, was released in 2014.

Things hit a crescendo in October 2016, when Sir Paul McCartney played a surprise show for 300 fans, likely one of the tiniest gigs he’s done since The Beatles’ days playing smoky dives in Hamburg, Germany. “A Beatle, in a desert-city bar like this. How?” asked the Los Angeles Times following the show.

“That still blows me away,” Celia says. “I never in a million years would have predicted Paul McCartney.”

Such attention means crowds, of course, during the winter season, on weekends, or when popular bands are on the schedule. Visitors from Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco come out in droves, and they all want a piece.

“Lately everybody is fiendish to get in. They’re champing at the bit to get as much Pappy’s as possible. They’re spellbound,” von Rabbit says. “But Robyn and Linda have never lost the genuine feel. They hold it very sacred and try to keep that in a special glass box that nobody can touch.”

Pappy’s isn’t the only place feeling the strain. As the High Desert continues to rise in cachet, those lonesome desert roads don’t look so empty anymore. Highway 62 is often congested. Real estate prices have skyrocketed. And Joshua Tree National Park set an attendance record in 2017 with 2.8 million visitors, testing the limits of the facility with full campgrounds and hour-long waits at the entrance.

“You can only tell people you’re in the coolest place on earth for so long before they start to believe you,” says Kevin Wong, director of the Desert Institute at the park. “We were maybe too successful.”

But Celia isn’t worried about Pappy & Harriet’s being labeled as too trendy or eventually fading with the hipsters.

“This place is like a vortex,” she says. “I’ve seen it pull people in — but I’ve seen it spit people out, too. If you’re supposed to be here, you are.

“My God, I came out here because I loved a record. It makes no sense.”