In 1939, Frank Segalini came to the United States from a small village in northern Italy in search of the American Dream. Settling in Boston, he opened an Italian restaurant in the years that followed near Stuart and Carver streets in Park Square. By the late fifties, the restaurant had run its course and Segalini was looking for another business to invest in and potentially re-purpose the site where his restaurant was located. A friend convinced him to turn the place into a music venue, but not just any venue, this would be an outlet for Country and Western and Bluegrass music. At the time, the only club of its kind in the city and perhaps the predecessor to New York’s CBGB’s (initially envisioned as a Country and Bluegrass club where Punk music wound up taking center stage.) For Segalini’s new place the name resulted naturally- he had to name this new venue the “Hillbilly Ranch.”
The “Ranch” was not only unique for the live music it brought to the city but also for its radical appearance. Smack dab in Park Square it was hard to miss the towering stockade fence that surrounded the club or the huge “Hillbilly Ranch” sign complete with tree log lettering. The illuminated Schlitz signs in the windows and Budweiser placard on the roof made it unmistakable. Inside, the rustic décor included wagon wheel light fixtures and wood paneled walls. Segalini brought the biggest names in Country and Bluegrass to the club, with everyone from the Lilly Brothers to local favorites John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys, Chuck McDermott, and Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys were all regular performers. With no shortage of national acts as well: The Bayou Boys, Sleepy LaBeef, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter and Dick Curless also played the Ranch- it was also the type of place where on any given night a visiting musician could stop by and join the band on stage. The club had a mixed clientele, often including Navy sailors and overflow patrons from the city’s Combat Zone, blending in with couples and local musicians. Amidst all the crowd diversity, and considering Boston was not exactly a hotbed for the genre, the club packed people in eager to hear the five nightly sets of Country and Bluegrass they struggled to hear anywhere else. The venue played a significant role in reinforcing the importance of Country and Western music and its place in New England’s musical heritage.
The Hillbilly Ranch closed its doors in 1980, removing an irreplaceable piece of Boston folklore and musical history. Frank Segalini passed away in 1992 at age 84 shortly after suffering a stroke-a true visionary with a passion for the music and a willingness to take a chance on it.
Like so many other neighborhoods in the city, Park Square has radically changed. State buildings, parking garages, and high-end dining establishments, have replaced tiny restaurants, bars, and the old bus terminal. Walking through the Square these days it is nearly impossible to envision and place the Ranch where it stood on Eliot Street…A heaping slice of the country framed within the urban backdrop of the city.
(by Mark Turner)