Photo by Jocelyn Knight
Courtesy of Rancho Nicasio
Photo by James Cacciatore
Courtesy of Pablo Cruise
Twenty-five years ago this summer, Bob Brown, then manager of Huey Lewis and the News, picked up the Marin Independent Journal one Friday morning, turned to the entertainment section and was instantly intrigued by the headline on my column: “For sale: Marin town.”
My little scooplet, which ran at the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend in 1998, was about an old West Marin roadhouse, Rancho Nicasio, that was going on the market for $1.4 million.
“For that,” I wrote, “you get Rancho Nicasio, the Nicasio post office and general store, the fire department, a cottage and 5 acres — just about everything in the picturesque West Marin village.”
Brown already had a fond memory of the rustic bar and restaurant, which had presented live music on a limited basis in the past. Lewis and his band had played one of their earliest and most important gigs there, opening for Van Morrison when they were still calling themselves Huey Lewis and American Express.
A transplanted New Yorker who had done well for himself as a wunderkind stock trader before scoring big in the music business, Brown put down the paper that fateful morning, jumped in his car and made the 25-minute drive to Rancho Nicasio from his home in Novato.
Built in 1941, the low-slung hacienda with its Spanish-style red-tile roof needed more than a little work. But Brown could see that it still had its authentic country charm with its red brick fireplace in the dining room and deer, elk and bear heads mounted on its redwood-paneled walls. With rambling lawns and shady grounds, it’s nestled in the Nicasio Valley against a panorama of golden, oak-studded hills. Brown was immediately smitten.
“I went there in the morning and the Realtor came and met me,” he remembers. “It hadn’t been listed yet. All I had was the article you wrote. I said, ‘Don’t put it on the market. I’ll take it.’”
At that point, he and I had known each other since the mid-1970s, when he was managing the yacht rock band Pablo Cruise (“Love Will Find a Way,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Don’t Want to Live Without It”). We both remember him calling me after he bought the place, telling me: “I don’t know if I should thank you or hate you. We’ll find out together.”
Luckily for me, for him and the Marin music community in general, he and his wife, the Texas blues singer Angela Strehli, have built Rancho Nicasio into a popular destination for live roots music, classic American food, weddings and special events. They literally put Nicasio on the map.
“Nobody even knew where Nicasio was then,” Brown recalls. “They didn’t even have signs to Nicasio on the roads. We had to call public works to put signs up because people were getting lost, calling us from Olema, saying, ‘Where are you guys?’”
Brown had experience in the nightclub business, opening and operating Slim’s in San Francisco with Boz Scaggs. But he’d never owned a restaurant before. That gap was quickly and conveniently filled by his son, Max, a budding young chef who was working at the Mountain Home Inn in Mount Tamalpais at the time.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do this, but check it out because I think it’ll be fun,” Brown recalls. “He was 25 then and now he’s 50. He’s spent half his life here.”
The first show
Brown remembers his first show with a cover charge — the Christmas Jug Band in December 1998.
“I charged $3 because I was afraid to charge $5,” he says. “I felt lucky that they were willing to play here. We turned the house, sold out two shows and we were born.”
Since then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of musicians have played there, from local performers to national touring acts. For me, there have been countless memorable nights at Rancho — the blues piano pioneer Pinetop Perkins, the roughneck country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, the neo-classical Kronos Quartet and many others.
Brown and family will be celebrating their silver anniversary with a season of outdoor barbecues on the lawn that opens this Memorial Day weekend with Pablo Cruise on Sunday and a sold-out show on Monday by Los Lobos. (The full barbecue schedule is at ranchonicasio.com/music.htm)
The centerpiece of the season is a three-day set of shows over the Fourth of July weekend (July 2 through 4) with the Flatlanders, a Texas trio of singer-songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. They’ve been performing together on and off since 1972 and last played Rancho Nicasio in 2009. Over the years, they’ve gotten together so rarely that a 1990 compilation album is titled “More a Legend Than a Band.” Their only other gig this year was the New Orleans Jazz Festival. This is their only West Coast appearance. Gilmore and Ely are from Lubbock, Texas, Strehli’s hometown and the birthplace of Buddy Holly. She has known them both since they were all teenagers, so this will be something of a Lubbock reunion.
“It really turns this into a special occasion,” says Gilmore, 78, from his home in Spicewood, Texas, a small community in the hill country outside Austin that is also the home of Willie Nelson.
The shows are billed as “the Last Rodeo” because all three of the Flatlanders are in their 70s and, well, this may be the last time their Bay Area fans will see them together.
“This has been really good for all of us,” Gilmore says. “Our old connection has never gone away. We just weren’t around each other very much, but it’s never been because of friction. We’re like family.”
Family comes up a lot when talking to Brown about the old roadhouse he brought back to life a quarter century ago. Ask him to recall his most memorable shows and he brings up an inspiring episode when musicians came together to help each other through a tragic time. In August 2005, the New Orleans band the Subdudes were primed to play Rancho Nicasio for the first time when Hurricane Katrina hit, forcing them to cancel.
Mississippi singer-songwriter Paul Thorn and his band were scheduled to play the following day. Brown asked if they would not only be willing to fill in for the stricken band, but to also make it a benefit to help them replace the instruments and equipment they lost in the storm.
“We said we’d do it because we still had our stuff and they lost all theirs,” Thorn remembers, speaking from Tupelo, Mississippi. “Everybody stepped up and threw in some extra money and gave it to them. With little things like that you find out who your friends are. It couldn’t fix everything, but it fixed a few things.”
The show ended up raising more than $10,000, more than the Subdudes would have made if they had played the show.
“It blew us away, man,” says band member Tim Cook. “We had never met Bob Brown or Paul Thorn personally and had never been to Rancho Nicasio, and yet we got an envelope with all this money from them from a gig in our honor. It came at an unbelievable time.”
The Subdudes would go on to perform at the Rancho many times after that. Thorn performs on June 18.
While many other restaurants, bars and music venues struggled or were forced to close during the pandemic, Rancho Nicasio, with its expansive decks and outdoor dining areas, sailed through it.
“We’re away from the rest of the world. It’s like time stands still here,” Brown says. “We thrived during COVID. We actually built our business because of COVID. We were so remote that more and more people wanted to get away from everybody and came out to our place. We had people come from Southern Marin who used to say that it’s too far away to go get a burger. All of a sudden, they couldn’t get away far enough and they discovered us after 20 something years. And they kept coming.”
At 77, Brown has been gradually stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the business, passing on more and more of the responsibilities to his son, including booking all of the indoor shows.
“I’ll keep my hand in it as much as needed,” Brown says. “I have no intention of ever selling the property. I bought the place when I was 52 and I knew I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life on the road with a rock band and wanted to make sure that I had something to do when I got older. The creative part for me is still having a love affair with this old roadhouse.”
Contact Paul Liberatore at [email protected]
BBQ on the Lawn schedule
• May 28 — Pablo Cruise
• May 29 — Los Lobos (Sold out)
• June 4 — Sun Kings
• June 11 — Fleetwood Macramé
• June 18 — Paul Thorn Band
• June 25 — Elvin Bishop and his Big Fun Trio and Angela Strehli Band
• July 2 through 4 — The Flatlanders
• July 8 and 9 — Jackie Greene
• July 16 — The Illeagles
• July 22 and 23 — Asleep at the Wheel
• July 30 — Zydeco Cajun Fest with Zydeco Flames and Tom Rigney and Flambeau
• Aug. 6 — Hot Buttered Rum
• Aug. 20 — Soul Ska
• Aug. 27 — Pete Floyd
• Sept. 3 — Wonder Bread 5
• Sept. 4 — Sons of Champlin
• Sept. 10 — Petty Theft
• Sept. 17 — Billie Holiday Project with Stella Heath and the Ray Charles Project
• Sept. 24 — Tommy Castro and the Painkillers
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