Country crooner Benny Dean once made up a ballad about life in the bars. One colorful verse, treating a courtroom scene, goes: "Good God, people, what happened here? Y'all tryin' t'start World War III?" Benny just grinned as best he could, And said, "Your Honor, it seems to me, Like just another Saturday night At the Paradise Knife and Gun Club."
Neither The Country Inn of Rockville -- where Dean and his band, The Shades of Blue, perform most weekends -- nor Hillbilly Heaven, a down-home nightspot not far from the Lorton prison, boasts quite the rough-and-tumble renown of the establishment in the song.
Judging by recent visits, both places serve up a friendly spirit, passable food and drink, plus a healthy dollop of Nashville. But each has a character all its own.
The Country Inn's comes largely from Dean, whose gentle baritone has presided there for the last two years, but also from owner Joe Zasso. You'd sooner expect Zasso, a onetime waiter at the Waldorf Astoria who still favors the accent of his native Switzerland, to run a fondue place than a country- western bar. And, in fact, he did.
"I used to call this place La Fondue International and served 16 different kinds," said Zasso, a stocky fellow who lately walks with a limp (from a mishap during some recent fixing-up). "Then, when that movie with John Travolta came out -- 'Saturday Night Fever' -- I put a discotheque in the basement." Two years ago, around the same time that another Travolta movie, "Urban Cowboy," was making the rounds -- though Zasso denies a connection -- he decided to go country. "Now we'll see how this works out," he says.
The Country Inn -- with a $2 cover, drinks from $1.75 to $3 and meals (sandwiches to steak) priced to $8.95 -- attracts a largely local crowd to cozy, dark environs. There's usually a fair number of cowboy hats bobbing on the dance floor, and the decor, owing to imperatives of commerce as well as the owner's taste, runs from garish arcade games to Toulouse-Lautrec.
You'll probably pay more -- $5 for an out-of-town band, though $3 generally, and $9 for such a delicacy as reheated pizza -- at Hillbilly Heaven, but you might decide the atmosphere's worth it. Owner Earl Roy Dixon, a veritable showbiz patriarch -- one daughter, Donna (proclaim leaflets on all the tables), is a bonafide TV star, another, Sherrie, sings and son Roy Jr. has a band -- boasts a club with the feel of the Grand Ol' Opry.
A red sea of tablecloths parted by the dance floor, it gets a polyglot group -- some of whom do Hank Williams impressions at the occasional open mike -- ranging from suburban couples in business garb to chaps with tattoos and leather jackets. "We get everyone from A to Z," says Sherrie Dixon, who plans to follow her famous sister to Hollywood. "There's never a dull moment."
THE COUNTRY INN -- At 290 North Washington Street in Rockville. Benny Dean and The Shades of Blue, Friday and Saturday. 762-8385.
HILLBILLY HEAVEN -- At 10001 Richmond Highway in Lorton. Sherrie Dixon with Kustom Country, Friday and Saturday. 703/339-9687.