Published in Atlantica No. 5. 2006. Written by Sara Blask
Outside Reykjavík, life in Iceland is a little more country than rock n’ roll.
The maroon paisley lining of Hallbjörn Hjartarson’s signature black cowboy hat, size seven and one-eighth inches, is splitting at the seams. A white label sewn just above the inner lining reveals that this ten-gallon – his favorite of five – is “Made in USA.” It’s not a Stetson, but it’s something you might see President Bush wearing while he’s clearing brush in Crawford.
Hallbjörn, 71, is Iceland’s own celebrity cowboy and Skagaströnd, a tired fishing town in northwest Iceland, is his unlikely home on the range. The cod-laden waters of Húnaflói Bay and snow-capped peaks of the Westfjords fill the picture windows of the boxy, red house on Hólanesvegur he’s owned for 40 years.
Directly across the street from his double-chimneyed waterfront crib is a nondescript building that doubles as both the post office and the town’s bank branch. And diagonally across from Hallbjörn’s front door, at, say, two o’clock, is Kántrýbaer, his venerated possession, his darling, his sanctuary for country and all things western.
Kántrýbaer is the bar-cum-restaurant-cum-saloon that Hallbjörn founded in 1983 when Skagaströnd was an unlabeled dot on the map with a then-population of 400. The original building, which once served as the town’s general store, burned down in 1997 and was rebuilt the following year in its present iteration, as a log cabin made from 180 tons of pine imported from Loja, Finland.
Today, the building looks like a mix between a pre-fab house and a Boy Scout lodge. Red and white checkered curtains hang from its windows, and coat hooks lining the entrance have been fashioned out of fake painted horseshoes. A plastic replica of a Native American wearing a red and white feather headdress hangs on the wall above one of the wooden booths.
Kántrýbaer is why people come to this little town located 20 minutes from the Ring Road. It has made its way into various guidebooks over the years, including Lonely Planet, which writes that a “meal or a beer here is a must.”
“Hallbjörn has played a very important role in Skagaströnd,” says Adolf H. Berndsen, chairman of the town’s council, an Allison Krauss track playing in the eatery’s background. “He has put this town on the map.”
You’ll see more rental cars in its parking lot than the typical steroid-infused local trucks. And even the menu attempts to stay in theme – think “country” burgers, chicken nuggets, steak sandwiches, and for dessert, apple or pecan pie á la mode. There’s one small French diversion on the menu: “Bon Apatite” [sic].
Though no official figures exist, it is estimated that 12,000 people visited Iceland’s Capital of Country in 2000, the biggest year for the not-exactly-annual Country Festival. (2002 was the last year it was held.) Gunnar Halldórsson, Hallbjörn’s son-in-law, who also serves as Kántrýbaer’s chef and manager, and in this case, translator, estimates that he serves, on average, 150 guests on a Friday or a Saturday night during the height of summer.
Surprisingly – or not – Hallbjörn has only been to America once – to Nashville in 1988 to record his sixth studio album, Kántrý 6 in Nashville. He made it to Graceland, but never west of the big, wide Mississippi. His visions of the Old West came to him the old-fashioned way: voyeuristically, through his blue eyes and country ears.
“John Wayne!” he says, his white, pencil-thin moustache curling, helping to pronounce his smirk. “I saw all this stuff in the old westerns I would show in the cinema.” Hallbjörn owned the local movie theater in Skagaströnd for 15 years. He could cram 50 people in at once. The building still stands, but like the town’s streets pockmarked with holes, begs for repair.
Hallbjörn fell in love with country music without even knowing what it was. He grew up in a house not far from where Kántrýbaer stands, an abode near the sea where he was the youngest of 16. In 1939, the year he was born, the town’s population was 200; his family accounted for nearly 15 percent of it. One of his older brothers, Hjörtur, played Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves records ad infinitum.
“The music turned something in me,” Hallbjörn says. “There was something in me that related to it. Then I moved to Keflavík and my passion just kept developing.”
In 1957, Hallbjörn packed a suitcase and moved to Keflavík Naval Air Station, which after 55 years under American operation, closed this September. He spent three years at Keflavík, two of which he lived on the base, where he worked various odd jobs, including cooking, cleaning, and manual labor. As he worked, he listened to the music that had migrated via ships, planes, and word of mouth from America, the lingering drawls of America’s then country western stars, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens, among others.
He moved from Keflavík to Reykjavík in 1960, where he worked in the reception of Hótel Vík by day and sang with bands off and on by night while he looked after his brother who “was always so drunk.” Hallbjörn migrated back to Skagaströnd in 1963, where he assumed the town’s unofficial title of social chairman. For the next three years he put together bands with which he toured – and entertained – most of North Iceland. By age 40, he produced his first album, Hallbjörn Sings His Own Songs (translated), the first of 10, and in 1983, Hallbjörn Hjartarson’s Kántrýbaer was born.
Walk up Kántrýbaer’s winding flight of stairs and you find yourself so immersed in Hallbjörn memorabilia that it feels like underwater asphyxiation. Enclosed in glass cases on the walls are two of his most outrageous, and perhaps cheesiest, costumes, including a white leather jacket with fringe and another jacket made of dark blue velvet and silver sequins. Hanging from the wall’s wooden panels are black and white photographs of Hallbjörn as a kid, and framed album posters of him in his pet cowboy hat. Grey hair has replaced what was once a long, dark mane.
Also on the second floor of Kántrýbaer is Hallbjörn’s studio, where he can be found nearly 60 hours a week sitting in a leather office chair surrounded by more than 1,600 CDs and 500 records. His radio station, which he started 14 years ago and plays on frequencies 96.7, 102.1, and 107.0, can be heard from Blönduós to Akureyri and even across the sound to some coastal areas of the Westfjords. Almost every track on every disc is labeled with one, two or three dots. The tracks labeled with three dots are “very good,” those with one are “not so good.” Dwight Yoakum gets three dots consistently.
“I never prepare for my shifts,” Hallbjörn says. “The music just comes as I go along. I try to play different music, but there are six or seven tracks I play every day.” Which includes “Country Town,” one of his own, that he plays every time he begins a shift.
“But I hate playing my own music,” he adds.
His studio is his ashram, his place of worship, his coveted four walls that face the sea and give him comfort. Hallbjörn’s chair is on rollers so that he has quick, nimble access to his equipment, which includes three CD players, two mini-discs, double tape deck, two burners, a record player and a mixer, all of which he paid for himself. He also has a phone for call-ins and requests – not that there are many, usually ten to 15 a week. “There used to be a lot more,” he says. The number of listeners who tune in is unclear. “Some won’t admit they listen,” Hallbjörn says.
While in some ways a country music scene makes sense in Iceland – a country where sheep graze freely and riding horses is a historical tradition – it’s a dying subculture here. There’s only one country station in Iceland, Hallbjörn’s, since “no other radio station has been willing to show country music proper respect,” he says. And while some Icelandic bands will occasionally play some country riffs, there are no real country bands.
The epicenter of this niche is small – and its heralded leader is slowing, largely due to a severe car accident in 1985. Winters, he admits, are especially rough for him. Kántrýbaer is closed for three months in winter, and the town is empty. “But I survive,” he says. “It’s music that carries me through the season.”
Hallbjörn has said things over the years, both on the air, on his website, www.kantry.is, and in previous interviews, that have been critical of the local government. Which in a town of only 550 people is bound to agitate a few nerves. But he continues to make himself heard because he wants to keep bringing good to the community.
“Some people have difficulty understanding my ideas. If I want to do something, I do it, no matter what people think. I almost never open my mouth without making someone angry, but in my old age I’ve been a bit more careful.”
“There’s an old saying, ‘No one is a prophet in his own land,’” Hallbjörn continues, as he fades into a new track on the air. “I think that applies to me.”