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The Country Music Joint That Nearly Saved Calgary

A Bar Named Sue was the coolest bar you’ve never heard of, in a town you’ve never been to.

Calgary was not a cool place for the entirety of my childhood and through my mid-20s. I have it on good authority that it has improved since my departure in 2009, and I assume these two things are unrelated.

Amid all of the chain restaurants and two-story nightclubs rumored to offer free breast enhancements to female employees, one profoundly cool thing did exist: A Bar Named Sue, a tiny live-music venue that hosted mainly country groups. Some were local, but the rest were touring bands for whom one bar can bleed into the next as they traipsed across an unfathomably large country for a pittance. In any case, they all seemed to love the place as much as us regulars. Each night spent there felt like getting away with something, which is really what you want from a bar. And for precisely three years—between its opening in 2005 and when the universe finally realized its mistake and the place shut down in 2008—we got away with so much.

Before I get to the interior of A Bar Named Sue, let’s talk about space. I don’t mean in a large home with a yard, or a nearby park; I mean Canadian space. Alberta is what American movie producers present to you as Wyoming. It’s the landscape of Westerns, and it is unending. It is middle-of-the-country, watch-your-loved-one-drive-away-for-three-days space. To grow up there is to have the bone-deep certainty that there will always be room—that we need not confront each other when avoidance is an option. Suburbs around Calgary do not grow so much as they metastasize.

And while yes, vastness is possibility, it is also a sort of argument against intimacy. You could spend whole, drunken nights out in various Calgary bars and not bump into another human being. This is why walking into the Sue for the first time was such a revelation: It was a very small space, and what they had was used so inefficiently that it felt intentional. The stage took up half of the bar, while the remainder was mainly given over to a few tables made from old whiskey barrels, with the available seating being limited to the bar itself. When Calgary finally banned smoking in bars around 2007, going outside for a cigarette became a delicate dance of avoiding accidentally ending up on stage yourself.

Each time you walked in at 9 p.m. you’d be convinced that the room could hold 20 people, and yet by 1 a.m.—in defiance of the laws of God and physics and the regulatory arm of the city—80 people would be noisily jammed against each other. And each one would become your friend.

The Sue was also, in its way, a steward of the past. Besides being spread out, Calgary, at that time, was flush with oil money and constantly remaking itself. Anything not shiny and new was liable to be torn down and replaced by some glass-encased monument to a present funded by the foreclosure of our planetary future. Calgary was slick like that, in both senses of the word. Things and people had a hard time sticking around, but the city would tempt replacements with the vigor of a used-car salesman.

The one constant is that for 10 days each summer, Calgary hosts the Stampede, which mainly looks like a bunch of fussy executives cosplaying as cowboys while getting shitfaced at noon. The local clubs would bring in pop-country headliners and everyone would dance in their brand-new boots. A whole city pretending to be something it’s not, laundering greed and excess and violence until they were shiny and clean, like our famous white cowboy hats.

The Sue, on the other hand, had no time at all for the “Toby Keith presented by Exxon Mobil” vision of Calgary. It’s where I first heard country music so plaintive and heartbroken and graceful that I stopped being embarrassed about hailing from a city known primarily for a very popular rodeo. It was music you could fall in love to—and I often did, at least for the night.

That’s what you did at the Sue: You briefly fell in love. You were there for the night, at this bar that had no right to exist in a town not yet cool enough to host it. The demand that we live in the moment has always struck me as a bit absurd—not only does it seem impossible, but it renders contingent things inevitable with a good-natured reminder to enjoy them while they last. But the closest I’ve ever come was three times a week for three years, at a bar you’ve never heard of, in a town you’ve never been to, that closed over a decade ago.

This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.

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Brandy Jensen is a Canadian ex-pat who now lives in Brooklyn with her dog.