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Seattle’s oldest country bar keeps two-stepping

Sylvia's Little Red Hen

Country dancers at Little Red Hen in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, June 6, 2018. (All photos © Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) 

Sylvia's Little Red Hen

Country dancers at Little Red Hen in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, June 6, 2018. (All photos © Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) 

Northeast Seattle is not, and has never been, known for its robust African-American population. Yet for several years in the late 20th century, Roosevelt's Scarlet Tree catered mainly to Black revelers on weekend nights.

By day, The Tree was known for its homemade scones. By night, it featured live R&B, soul, jazz, and funk. The dance floor was packed with an audience that more closely resembled the ethnic makeup of a city like Detroit or St. Louis. It was sweaty and sultry; people drank until they could no longer. Sunday morning wouldn't be easy, brother, but it would be filled with wild memories if such memories weren't blurred by bourbon.

In 2005, The Tree was toasted by a fire. A reboot attempt in a new building a few blocks away failed to take, and then it was gone. But its spirit lives on, however fleetingly, at a nearby establishment one wouldn't normally associate with diversity, especially as Seattle grows whiter than a sour-cream dollop on a baked potato: Sylvia's Little Red Hen.

"That was their community, those two joints," says Bill Joe Huels of The Dusty 45s, a rockabilly band that occasionally play the Hen. "You'd have old-school country and old-school R&B, the purest form of those art forms right there."

It's cliché to refer to a business as one of a kind, but the Hen really is the only honky-tonk in Seattle proper and has been for quite some time. The Hen has been stationed a block from Green Lake since 1968, having endured a prior incarnation on Phinney Ridge under the longtime stewardship of its founders, the Olsby family. (It's remained virtually unchanged under subsequent owners, all of whom were acquainted with the Olsbys.)

On a Sunday night last May, as Mary Ann Anderson taught 10 eager couples how to dance certain country-music steps, a tall Black man nicknamed "Chicken Wing" walked across the floor, somewhat sarcastically — yet endearingly — telling Anderson's pupils that their form is "perfect."

Chicken Wing has a Scarlet Tree ball cap on, and a few days prior to that, he could be found at the onset of happy hour drinking alongside three White women of borderline retirement age, one of whom has worked at Greenwood's famous Baranof diner for decades.

The Kentucky Derby was coming up and bartender Mimi Van Camp had passed around a multi-page printout of thoroughbred statistics. Because she's half-Mexican, Van Camp was torn between celebrating Derby Day with a julep or tequila, since the first Saturday in May this year doubled as Cinco De Mayo.

Van Camp's husband is Kelly Van Camp, who plays in the JerKels, Jerry & the PhilBillys and countless other acts that regularly perform at the Hen.

"He's in more bands than I am, and I'm in like six or seven," says Davanos frontman Jerry Battista.

If the Hen were to close — they rent their space, and unsubstantiated rumors of an imminent demise are constantly aflutter as the neighborhood yups out to the max — Kelly says, "Obviously, we'd probably be the family most affected. But it bugs me that people say the Hen's closing. People hear that, and that sort of kills the confidence in it. It's still going strong, and it will until it isn't."

"Going strong" is an apt description of the aforementioned Sunday night in May. Whereas Scarlet Tree revelers may have licked Saturday's wounds heading into the workweek, the Hen's crowd is looking to put the end in weekend as a service dog naps on a carpet by the bar that's been soaked by a million Bud longnecks.

After Anderson's dance pupils clear the floor, The Wes Jones Band takes the stage, churning out classic country that's straighter than (George) Strait. (Full disclosure: My uncle, a welder-by-day named Jim Donahue, plays drums in this band and like many Hen musicians, has played in many a band that's graced the venue's stage over the years. Objectively speaking, he's also the best drummer and welder in Washington state.)

The thing about the Hen is that its dance floor doesn't really leave a ton of room for dancing, a quirk that pleases "Country Dave" Harmonson, who blames line dancers for "killing" country rooms like the Riverside in Tukwila, which is now a casino. A steel guitar player from Texas who went to high school in Tacoma, Harmonson has been playing in various roots bands — remember Lance Romance? — since coke spoons dominated dubious bathroom stalls. (He's opened for nationally known headliners ranging from Dwight Yoakam to Emmylou Harris.) These days, the 66-year-old sits in with The Country Lips or fronts his own outfits — Country Dave & the Pickin' Crew — that play the Hen regularly.

"In the late-'80s, early-'90s, line dancing caught on in the country rooms," Harmonson explains. "These people would come in and line dance on every song and wouldn't drink. I just fuckin' hated 'em. They didn't give a shit about the band; they only wanted to hear like three songs that they could line dance to, like we were their jukebox.”

"But the Little Red Hen was always a small place with a shitty little dance floor, so the line dancers hated that place," he continues. "The only people who go to the Hen are the ones who are partying, and I think it helps having a place that's kind of small. When you're in a great, big club that's all spread out, it's harder to connect with people. The Hen has a shitty stage, shitty dance floor. They pour stiff drinks, and they party. And that's a classic honky-tonk — it's the real deal."

A man and woman give each other an embrace at the front door of the Little Red Hen in Seattle's Greenlake neighborhood, June 6, 2018.

A man and woman embrace one another at the front door of the Little Red Hen in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, June 6, 2018.

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Seattle’s oldest country bar keeps two-stepping