Admitting to a love of country music was once enough to relegate you to the realm of social outcast, leaving you to nurse your ‘achy breaky heart’ in solitude. But talk to those acquainted with the real roots of country music – and the genius of guitar slingers Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Jr. – and you’ll discover a culture and musical movement with influences that stem far beyond its genre. Jason Scott unexpectedly picked up his penchant for country music in the electronic-music mecca of Ibiza and has since his combined his love of Americana with his passion for well-executed drinking dens. Alongside mate Anton Forte, Jason opened the unabashedly country-fied Shady Pines Saloon in Sydney (named Gourmet Traveller’s Bar of the Year in 2011). And he has recently returned to bring a similar country aesthetic to his hometown, opening Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall with local bar-and-restaurant ace, Jamie Webb.
I grew up in Brisbane … in Daisy Hill. My childhood dream was to live in New York – or to be a spy or a race-car driver.
I did an economics degree … because I thought that would help me to become a stockbroker, which would then allow me to move to New York. But I soon realised that I didn’t really want to work in an office all day, so maybe I should just travel to New York anyway.
I ended up living in New York for two years … working in bars and restaurants. I loved living there and I didn’t really imagine that it could have been as good as it was – I knew it was going to be amazing but it was so much more than that.
I loved that feeling … that anything could happen in New York, like you were at the centre of the world – well, the English-speaking world at least. There was this kind of natural energy and everyone moved there to do something. No one was really stuck there or just hanging out doing nothing. As soon as you don’t do anything, you run out of money and you need to leave the city. You could be reasonably poor living in New York but you have to at least be trying to get by. I also found it really friendly because it’s basically a city of people from all different places around the world. Not many people grew up in New York, so they knew what it was like to be different. Other people say New York is ruthless, but I found it easy to meet people and make friends.
I was away overseas … for seven years in total. I spent a year in Canada, two years in London, a year in Ibiza – which was a really long year – and then two years in New York and a year in Amsterdam.
When I came back to Australia … I knew I didn’t want to live in Brisbane, so I thought about opening a bar in Melbourne because there’s such a good bar scene there. But then one weekend I was on a trip to Sydney and realised that not only was the weather better there than in Melbourne, but it had one of the worst bar scenes in the world. There was a huge gap between what people wanted and what they were able to get. So I decided to move to Sydney.
Anton and I met … while working at The Victoria Room down here in Sydney and we just got on really well. We would get drunk a lot together and lament about how bad Sydney bars were and thought that we could do better. We helped open Oxford Art Factory – where I was manager and he was assistant manager – and that went really well, so we thought we could probably give it a go ourselves and open our own bar together.
I first discovered country music … when I was working in an Indian family restaurant in San Antonio in Ibiza. I’d put on music while I was setting up the bar each day before the customers came in and, because I always heard so much electronic music all the time in Ibiza, I just wanted to hear something organic. When the owner’s ex-wife had moved out, she’d left two country albums in the CD player. I wasn’t a country music fan, but I stuck them on – one was a country classics compilation and the other was a Kenny Rogers album … his first album not his ballads! A few months later I realised that I really liked it. So I did a bit of research and found that country music was going through a bit of a resurgence and had quite a dynamic scene.
The reason why Shady Pines Saloon has been so successful … is partly because it’s very different from anything else that’s around. But also I think it’s got a lot to do with the atmosphere and the positivity and the fact that it’s so obviously themed in one way so it gives people something to talk about.
We do a lot of things to make sure it doesn’t turn into a really cool bar … because you always get bad service at a cool bar. So we look for that daggy suburban couple who are having their one night out a month and try to introduce them to the hip kids sitting next to them – and all of a sudden they’ll start talking and having fun. You don’t find that in other places.
The thing that most people don’t know about country music … is that if you choose the right track, it can be really up tempo. Everyone kind of expects it to be depressing, but most of the songs are actually about meeting people and getting drunk and having fun. So if the playlist is made up of all the up-tempo stuff, even if you’ve never heard it before, it makes you feel good.
On the playlist at Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall at the moment … is Lefty Frizzell – an old fifties rockabilly country singer whom the bar is named after – some Merle Haggard and heaps of Johnny Cash. You have to ease people into it!
Success to me … is when you’re happy in what you’re doing, and I think we’re very successful in that respect because we’re very happy with what we’re doing.
The thing I’m most proud of … is going really hard on a theme, like with the Americana at Shady Pines Saloon, and following through on it and not compromising it too much – opening the kind of bar that we wanted to open and that was perfect for us. Anton was actually the one who suggested using country music for Shady Pines, because I used to play it for him all the time. He told me that he didn’t like my country music at all, but since no one was going to copy us, and no one loved it as much as I did, we should go with it.
I’m inspired by … Anthony Bourdain, because he tells it like it is. And I’m also inspired by one of my old bosses in New York who taught me how you can manage a big group of people but still be nice to everyone and be treated with respect.
If Anton and I travel overseas together … we always try to see as many bars as possible. I think last time we were in New York, we averaged about 25 bars a day – just for a quick drink or a look-in. We get really inspired by getting drunk in bars and trying to figure out what it is that makes us have a good time in them and how to apply that.
I find peace … on an aeroplane, just reading with my phone off.
The one thing I always tell my staff … is that if you treat people how you’d like to be treated, then it flows on. It’s difficult to always choose positive energy, but if you can, it works.