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From booking bands to pouring beer

Sheila Groves-Tracey, the new owner of Twin Oaks Tavern in Penngrove, pours a drink for a customer.

(Conner Jay / The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.

When Sheila Groves-Tracey took over the Penngrove roadhouse known for the past 89 years as the Twin Oaks Tavern, she set out to do something she'd never mastered in her several decades of booking bands in nightclubs, festivals and theaters: “I wanted to start by working behind the bar,” she said.

There was only one problem: “I had no idea how to even pour a beer. You should have seen me the first week,” she said. “I'm a wine drinker. On the rocks? What does that mean?”

Regulars, don't worry — she's getting the hang of it, along with balancing the books, keeping track of inventory, re-staining walls several inches thick with grime and learning all the regulars' nicknames.

It's a far cry from her most recent day job of booking talent, from Beck to Merle Haggard, at the Uptown Theatre in Napa and bringing in even bigger bands (Kings of Leon, Black Keys, Zac Brown) for the 2013 BottleRock festival in Napa.

Forsaking a career that many rising promoters only dream of, Groves-Tracey is downsizing and returning home to take over a country tavern that time forgot. In an age of ultra-lounges and hookah bars, the Twin Oaks is a dusty outpost along Old Redwood Highway, not far from a saddle shop, where you can get Bud on tap and a hearty meal — all under the gaze of a jackalope on the wall.

For Groves-Tracey, the timing was perfect. She'd accomplished everything she'd set out to do at the Uptown Theatre. And with BottleRock organizers mired in financial troubles, still owing millions of dollars in debt (including $50,000 to Groves-Tracy), she had no bridges to burn.

“I have to say I kind of thought I was done with new challenges,” she says with a laugh. “I was looking for a way to slow my life down, and this seemed like a way to do that and make it more simple and not have to deal with that level of entertainment and the worry of booking bands that cost so much and the risk of loss.”

When word got out that she would be taking over from previous owner Lynn Hartman, who had run the tavern for nearly 15 years, it was big news at the bar.

“At first, people were wondering what was going to happen with the place, but once they heard that she (Sheila) knew the history here and respected that and was going to try to bring in more people at night, they were alright with it,” says Maria Neff, a regular and the real estate agent who landed the deal for Groves-Tracey to take over.

Back in the 1980s and '90s, when country music and cowboys were king in the area, the bar was packed every weekend with boots and big-belt-buckle line-dancing.

“It used to be all the old-timers, but they're all gone now,” says bartender Dorothy Drew, who has poured drinks at the Twin Oaks for more than 25 years. “So we've got to get a younger crowd in here.”

Known for her burgers and steak sandwiches, Hartman will stay on to cook lunches during the week. And Rasta Dwight, who once ran a popular barbecue pit in Cotati, will cook at night.

One of the first renovations Groves-Tracy made was to move the band stage from the back corner, out of view of the bar, and into a corner where it overlooks the main room. Booking local talent, she's starting with mostly country, bluegrass and Americana bands. Tuesdays will be a blues jam with Levi Lloyd and Friends. KRSH DJ Bill Bowker is down for a monthly blues karaoke night on Wednesdays. Friday and Saturdays in December are filled with local bands like JimBo Trout and the Fish People, Kevin Russell and the Rustlers and the Vivants.

“I want this to be a place where talented musicians can hone their craft and feel like they can experiment before they go on to play bigger venues,” says Groves-Tracey, who once booked the Mystic Theatre and before that New George's in San Rafael.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, as a handful of regulars chat over beers at the bar, Groves-Tracey looks around at the decor and says, “If only these walls could talk.”

Built in 1924, the building has been owned by the Bottarini family since 1938, when it was a bar on the left side and their house and living quarters on the right (the area that is now pool tables and the kitchen). They would later rent the building to other bar owners, who operated it as the Twin Oaks when the family started Bottarini and Sons milk trucking business in the late 1940s.

Cleaning up the bar before he went to school each day, George Bottarini Jr., 80, remembers growing up in a bedroom “piled high with whiskey cases.” He thinks the bar got its name from a pair of oak trees that once stood out as a landmark across the highway from the bar, but he's not sure.

“You have to remember back then there was no highway (Highway 101). This was a main attraction,” he says. “Crowds would be running up the road to Guerneville and then on their way back down they'd get backed up from the red light in Petaluma clear up into Penngrove.”

A beer was around 15 cents, he remembers, and whiskey was “two bits” or a quarter. The local watering hole was frequented by mostly chicken farmers and cattle ranchers.

“Back then, if the sheriff was running for re-election, he'd come in and buy a drink for the boys and let them know what he was doing. That's just the way it was.”

When he first spoke with Groves-Tracey about her taking over the bar and renting the building from him, “I told her you gotta remember something, this is a man's bar, it's a local bar,” he said.

“She's planning on doing all this stuff on the computer or whatever. I don't understand all of that stuff. It's a new world out there today compared to the '30s and '40s and '50s.”

At one point, while Groves-Tracey continued her tour of the newly renovated bar, the front door opened and a dog waddled in wearing an orange handkerchief.

“Hi, Dixie,” she said with a nod and picked up the conversation where she left off.

Legend has it that one day a horse got loose from a nearby stable only to be found by its owner many hours later — inside the bar.

“We're thinking about putting in a hitching post around the side,” she said.

While renovating the tavern, she had to throw out a few museum pieces, like the poster on the wall of dogs playing poker and a massive, over-saturated pickle in a jar hanging from the ceiling, which she called “the cowboy version of a ship in a bottle.”

But some traditions she didn't dare touch.

“Every Fourth of July there's a wet T-shirt contest in the parking lot,” she says.

For proof, there's a handful of circa-1982 snapshots glued to posterboards beside the fireplace in the corner.

“We don't dare change that,” she says. “Too many people would get upset.”

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@beckmediaproductions.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.

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