RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1982, Fred Wilburn took over a tiny, beach-inspired bar a few miles outside of downtown Raleigh, N.C. He had been working for the state and didn’t like it, so this was a welcome career change. His new place shared space in a strip mall with a law practice, a doctor’s office and a saddle shop.
Five or six years later, Wilburn added a country room to the place, which came to be known as the Longbranch Saloon. He put in a big wooden dance floor. That seemed to go over pretty well with his customers, and besides, he has always liked country music. So he started booking talent out of Nashville, a lot of people you probably hadn’t heard of.
Not yet anyway.
Early on, Garth Brooks played there. Wilburn wasn’t too familiar with the up-and-coming singer, but he may have been the only one. In advance of the show, parts of nearby Wake Forest Road were blocked off to keep the surprising crush of traffic under control. Wilburn says he almost fell out of his chair when he saw Brooks performing “Friends in Low Places” in Central Park just a few years later.
“I’ve got to give it to him, he really started us off on country,” Wilburn says. “He was awesome! He’s the best entertainer I’ve ever seen. We just happened to luck out and get him. We only got him one time because he went straight to the top. It was wonderful. That guy put us on the track to getting other big stars. I guess everybody’s played here.”
Pretty close. In the 1990s, new country artists regularly played dance clubs such as the Longbranch, and almost every city had such a venue. An abundance of artists with hit singles and platinum albums made it easy to fill an entertainment calendar. Before selling 35 million albums, Tim McGraw played the Longbranch. Wilburn remembers when Rascal Flatts pulled up in a car and a truck full of equipment. Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and Brad Paisley have shown up for an after-party when their tours roll through.
Shelle McCollum, the club’s office manager, says Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were always packed because there was no competition.
“Now everybody is in the music industry,” she says. “Because country music is so popular, everybody’s bringing in country stars. In any particular weekend, you could have something at RBC [the local arena] or the local Harley-Davidson [museum] or a festival in town. Country music is just everywhere. It’s been a little bit harder to have our good nights like we used to.”
Harder, but not impossible. In the last few years, the Longbranch has hosted on-the-rise artists like Jason Aldean, Keith Anderson, Rodney Atkins, Billy Currington, Josh Gracin, Craig Morgan, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Blake Shelton, Trent Tomlinson, Josh Turner and many more. To celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary in June, Wilburn booked Jason Michael Carroll, a North Carolina native who paid several years’ worth of dues there. Earlier this year, his RCA debut entered the Billboard country album chart at No. 1, thanks to the hit ballad, “Alyssa Lies.”
“I remember the hype of the Longbranch being the place to play around Raleigh and finally getting the opportunity to go up there,” says Carroll, who is only a few years older than the club. “You walk up that ramp and when the curtain opens — they’ve done a lot of work to it where they actually have a curtain on the front of the stage that opens up now — you get to see that crowd and that huge dance floor.”
Prior to a recent remodel, banners hung from the walls listing the artists who have played there, and Carroll used to admire them when he performed. “It’s like, ‘Holy crap! Look at these guys who have played here! I’m on the same stage where Garth Brooks played!’ It’s been amazing. Longbranch is one of my favorite venues, and part of it’s because it’s right there at home, too.”
By taking over the complete 30,000-square-foot building, the Longbranch has broadened its property as well as its clientele. The adjacent Top 40 dance room offers a male revue on Friday nights. One of the back rooms has kept the beach theme. In the country area, you can ride a mechanical bull. You can play pool. You can get your boots shined. You can buy a cold beer in every corner of the room. You can stand before a karaoke screen and sing “The Gambler” at the top of your lungs. Or you can sit on a platform in the middle of the room and enjoy some of the most captivating people-watching you’ll ever encounter. And it goes without saying, you can dance — two-step, waltz, line dance, etc.
“We’re still the big guys in that area, as far as dance floors,” McCollum says. “Nobody has dance floors like we do. Nobody has the dance scene like we do, and we’re proud of that.”
Carroll remembers playing as a house band when the bar would be empty.
“Eventually we started getting more and more people, and then it got to the point where before we got signed, we would pack out the country side, which holds 2,500 people on its own,” he says. “We were the only house band that Fred’s ever had that sold them out of beer one night.”
Asked about the club’s longevity, Wilburn credits the country artists who have made the Longbranch a mainstay of Raleigh night life.
“We’re hanging in there, and we try to get the best artists we can,” he says. “See, a lot of people don’t want to spend the money to get the big artists — and you’ve got to have them. You’ve got to have the hot artists coming out to keep it going. We’ve been very lucky. They always want to come back, and they’ll give me a hell of a deal. When the really big artists come in and play for us, it’s wonderful. They’ll do that, remembering where they got started.”
The Longbranch Saloon is located at 600 Creekside Drive in Raleigh.