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Red Hog Saloon

When the jukebox is an art form

"Hey, don't play no sad songs, okay? They make Bob cry," says a six-foot blond guy in camo pants and a T-shirt that says, "Billing's Transmissions" on the back. I'm at the Red Hog Saloon (10312 Hempstead Road, 713-290-1666). Bob, or at least who I assume is Bob, is a short, pudgy guy playing video poker a couple of feet away who nods at me. "Yeah, don't play nothing sad."

"I think I already did," I stammer.

"What?" demands Bob.

"Marvin Gaye. 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine.' Sorry," I tell him.

"Oh, that's not sad," says the blond. "We mean sad like Hank Williams. The daddy, not junior."

"And for sure as hell not that Hank III. That kid's a screamer."

"Y'all leave the new customer alone," a barmaid hollers at the tall blond. I look over and see her suck down a Jello shot.

This is the Red Hog. Tucked way back from Hempstead Road, it sits across the parking lot from a gentlemen's club. While the club is all neon and bouncers, the Red Hog looks like the kind of bar that holds barbecues on Saturday afternoons and raises money for kids' baseball uniforms. It's a regular neighborhood hangout, just with bikers, truckers and titty dancers from across the way, and tonight, a redheaded Scotsman intent on schooling me on the finer points of Texas jukeboxes. Simon, despite my warnings that I've seen some good ones, has insisted for the last two months that the Red Hog jukebox is one of the best in the city. But Simon, a photographer, is from Glasgow, and I figure he doesn't know much about American music.

"Hey, I need another Corona!" says a potbellied trucker who has been playing "Find the differences in the naked picture" with his girlfriend on a video machine at the end of the bar.

"What? You need another cabrona?" the bartender laughs. Just then a train goes by, blowing its horn. "Hey, it's Train Happy Hour! Everybody gets a beer for a $1, woo hoo!" says the girlfriend.

"Ah, you a cabrona,too. I told you I ain't doing that no more," says the bartender.

Everybody laughs, and Simon and I get back to the business of juke music. At first glance, the jukebox is not bad. There's George Jones, Willie Nelson (with his crew cut and braids both), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Reed and the aforementioned Marvin Gaye. Good. Good. I see the Eagles, Gene Watson, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Buffett. Eh, the Eagles and Jimmy Buffett bring things down a peg. (Good jukeboxes have songs that you can sing sober or drunk; you have to be at least a little wasted to sing Buffett) There's Hank, Sr. and Jr., though no sight of the screamer Hank III. LeAnn Rimes, Little Richard and Bob Marley.

"I don't know, Simon. I mean it's pretty good but it's not great, great, super best in the city like you've been going on. Look, here's Tim McGraw. Yeah, they have Aretha Franklin, but Tim McGraw, he does that 'Live Like You Were Dying' song. That is not great."

We start to walk away, when Bob blocks our way. "What did you play?" he demands.

"Ah, some Aretha Franklin," Simon says.

"And some Little Richard. Nothing sad, promise," I offer as backup.

"Well, all right then," Bob dismisses us. We start walking to our table and Bob follows us. Simon, who's pretty scrappy, pushes me in front of him, so that he's between me and Bob. The three of us make a little parade, and we march back to our table. Since our table is near the men's bathroom, I'm hoping Bob has to pee and is not looking for a fight. I sit down. Simon, unsure of what Bob is up to, keeps standing. He's next to an ironworks art piece, a hog's head made of chains and gears and other bits of iron tools.

"Hey, you know where we got that?" Bob says, pointing to the hog's head.

"No," counters Simon, still suspicious.

"The guy who owns this place, Jackie, his grandpa owned a farm. Jackie grew up there, and then when the bust hit in the '80s, he went broke. Bank foreclosed. Took everything. But Jackie managed to get some of the tools out of the barn before everything got hauled away. Losing the farm was too much for the old man; he had a heart attack and died. So now Jackie, he's got no grandpa and no farm. He took the bits and made that hog's head. It's all he's got left of his grandpa," Bob finishes, satisfied with himself.

"Is that a true story?" I ask, already knowing the answer.

"Hell, no," Bob cracks up.

"So you told us this story because..." I say, not wanting to add "you're drunk off your butt."

"Something to do," he shrugs. "Now, move," he tells Simon. "I gotta go pee."

 
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