AN URBAN cowboy bellies up to the bar at Quincy's, a place named after the manager's dog, and tilts his Stetson hat up one finger above his eyebrow. A shot of tequila fills his glass only long enough for him to reach for it, lick the salt from the back of his hand and slug it down. He bites the lemon, shakes his head and lets fly with his Saturday-night cry: "yee-hah!"

Quincy's, an Arlington saloon where tunes like "Big Balls in Cowtown" bounce off chubby green Perrier bottles, is part of the area's vibrant country & western scene, where Washington's penchant for namedropping brings Jack Daniel's or George Dickel to the bar.

The Nation's Capital lacks a genuine cow palace, like Gilley's in Houston, where customers ride a piston-driven bucking bronco and spit Red Man tobacco juice on the floor while music in the background tells of cryin', dyin' and lyin'.

But there are plently of saloons, honky-tonks and nightclubs, like Bladensburg's Crossroads, where customers wear triple-X beaver-skin hats with pheasant-feather bands, lizardskin Dan Post boots and flared jeans designed by Levi Strauss & Co., not Vanderbilt or Gucci. This is the stamping around of the sideburned-but-sophisticated, where tequila can hit your mind as hard as inflation hits your wallet.

Behind a thin skin of fashion, private clubs and politics, people MZQ in thier cars while listening to Willie Nelson's whiskey-coated throat sing: "Sometimes it's heaven and sometimes it's hell, and sometimes I don't even know."

This is where America's first totally country-and-western radio station was started, by Connie B. Gay in 1946; since then, the faithful have multiplied. They fall short of a majority among the urbanities, but -- like Republicans -- they are certainly out there.

Outside the Crossroads, a tan van with a CB antenna carries a bumpersticker that says something about the Ayatollah Khomeini that's more suited to a traffic jam than to a family newspaper.Inside, a U-shaped bar serves as a whiskey stand and a gathering point for C&W's singles scene. Two men near the door stare each other up and down for about two minutes before one of them decides he came to drink and dance, not to fight.A hulking doorman returns to his post after the confrontation subsides. Meanwhile, the Baxter Brothers and The Country One, the house band, never miss a key.

Elvis' "Fools Rush In" fills the floor with dancers, young and old.

Sitting at her table in the upper portion of the split-level nightclub and crabhouse, Kathi, 20, from Seabrook, explains her reluctance to come here; "I heard there were a lot of rednecks. But it seems all right." A redneck, she adds, "is someone with a chip on thier shoulder."

The Baxter Brothers turn from a rock tune to a "crossover" song by Kenny Rogers, and then more rock 'n' roll. Country music is like cigaretts -- some brands you like, some you don't -- so the band offers a variety. Then another country song starts an arm-in-arm square-dance procession around the floor. On stage, the stars on the Baxters' pantlegs twinkle in the stage lights.

Kathi's friend, Terri, of New Carrollton, says most of the people at the Crossroads "work with their hands. I think you could say this is mostly a blue-collar place, but all kinds come in here."

FRED, A stocky man, wears years of driving big rigs as lines etched in his brow. A beerdrinker, fisherman and professional driver, he's also one of thousands of Americans who find their fredom on the highways: people like the Billy Joe Shaver tune that claims, "If my feet could fit a railroad track, I would have been a train."

He lost his 18-wheeler, the one in the picture he yanks out of his wallet like a proud father showing off his children, to prices at the gas pump. "Hell, yes, it drove me out of business," he snaps about fuel costs. "A man can't pay $2,000 for gas when he's only taking in $1,000." His big smile falls off his face. Fred grips his beer, sips and puts it back on the bar of the Star-Lite, one of several C&W digs that line U.S. 1 in suburban Virginia. "There is everyone in here from construction workers to bankers," he says.

"This is the best bar in town," the doorman adds. "We haven't had any license trouble or a fight in nine months."

Between beers, Fred recollects stopping off on the "flipside" of a Florida run."A lot of guys down there offer you fast money to haul a few tons of marijuana back up. But I never did it -- some guy might end up selling it to my kids. I had enough trouble with that stuff when I took my belt to my daughter for fooling with it. I went to court for child abuse, but the judge let me off."

A pause, then: "There's one thing you've got to say about country music: It always tells a good story." He seems to fit inside a Bill Callerty tune: "At a time when the world seems to be spinning hopelessly out of control, there's deceivers and believers and old in-beweeners. . . . It's the same old song. It's right and it's wrong. And livin's just something I do."

AT LORTON'S Hillbilly Heaven, co-owner Mary Ruth Dixon says club's clientele "is from somewhere else. Nobody in Washington lives here. We get a lot of Marines and Army people," she adds. "The customers are mostly young, but we get a few in here who are so old they can barely walk."

On weekends, second-line Nashville acts fill the club. The entertainment room, next to the bar, is dark despite wall-length mirrors, red lights and red tablecloths. A song by Mel T-T-Tillis (who says he l-l-laughs all the way to the b-b-bank when people make fun of his impediment) precedes a joke by Oscar Shields, the lead singer with the Shiloh Playboys: "When I was a kid, my momma had to tie a pork chop around my neck so the dog would play with me."

Although the economy is in a repression, Dixon says, her business is going strong; with a pinball machine richocheting in the background, she adds: "People are coming out to get away from their troubles."

Pete -- a guitarist who has played with the National Symphony, Aaron Copland (whose works, he says, often reflect a C&W influence) and Leonard Bernstein -- hopes she's right. But his dates with the great are infrequent: bHe earns his living as a sessions musician and with his new western swing band, The Front Porch Swing. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys formed the first western swing band, in Waco in 1933, when America was deep in the Depression. "People were definitely looking for happy music, and swings is definitely happy music. Maybe folks will like Front Porch Swing," he says. dOne of his fellow band members, Mike Auldridge -- arguably the world's finest player on the dobro, a modified guitar that's cradled the way a beer man at the stadium holds his tray of suds -- normally plays with the Seldom Scene at Arlington's Birchmere, which preserves Washington's reputation as the capital of country music's cousin bluegrass. The Seldom Scene packs the house every Wednesday night. A recent visit found two men who came from Houston, to hear the band, they said. Auldridge, in his carefully pressed jeans, blown-dry hair and $250 hand-made-in-Texas boots, also plays for Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris -- when they call.

Most of the people who hear him play at clubs and festivals in the area, he says, are transplants who came here to work for the government or its related industries, and listen to C&W as a means of capturing a slice of their previous lives.

"THIS IS MUSIC about real people out there with real problems," says Bob Hughes, production manager and country-music buff at WPIK, one of three C&W radio stations in the area. "We just don't couch it in sophisticated lines, and therein lies the refreshing appeal."

Take a Willie Nelson song from "Phases & Stages," warbling through the throes of a woman leaving a man:

On a bloody mary morning, baby left me without warning, sometime in the night. I'm just a country boy who is learning that the pitfalls of the city are extremely real. All the nightlife and parites, temptation and deceit are the order of the day. . .

Less poetic are Johnny Cash's gravel-voiced song how he was "flushed from the bathroom of your heart," or another tune that says, "She broke my heart so I broke her goddamned jaw."

To some, country music follows a strong blue-collar line, a contention that WPIK's Bob Hughes, for one, calls "partly a myth: A Madison Avenue type can cheat on his wife as easy a blue-collar man," he says.

Much of today's C&W music has "left the barn and come uptown," he adds. "Unlike the diamond in the rough, it's definitely been polished."

Connie B. Gay, a McLean resident and retired county-music magnate, knew this music when it had a poor-boy image, or was "a church-basement collection-plate special. I've known it from the 'terlit" to the top," he says.

When he and Frank Blair (who found fame on The Today Show) started WARL, "Hitler had mixed everybody up," Gay says. "He put a Michigan boy beside an Arkansas boy" in World War II, and the USO brought them the music of Roy Acuff and the jokes of Grandpa Jones. So behind a slogan of "There's gold in them there hillbillies," Gay, of Lizard Lick, North Carolina, made a fortune, turning, "Grandpa Jones into Dow-Jones."

Performers such as Jimmy Dean, Patsy Cline and Roy Clark got their start on the now-defunct WARL, while Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys worked with Gay for $35 a night on television. Gay put on Constitution Hall's first C&W show, in the 1940s, and triggered a local country explosion. During the next two decades, Clark, Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris and the likes paid their dues at such bars as the old Shamrock on M Street; today, the inner-city country bars are few, with clubs such as The Cellar Door and Desperados occasionally featuring C&W artists.

The country movement in Washington "was an event waiting to happen," says Gay, "but if it had to depend on just the people from Washington, it never would have gotten off the ground." At ease on his favorite chair in his mansion, in jeans and bare feet, he adds: "It's these people from West Virginia, Arkansas and Texas who keep it going, even today."