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.