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Published in Atlantica No. 5. 2006. Written by Sara Blask
Outside Reykjavik, life in Iceland is a little more country than rock n’ roll.
The maroon paisley lining of Hallbjorn 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 Crawfor
Hallbjorn, 71, is Iceland’s own celebrity cowboy and Skagastrond, a tired fishing town in northwest Iceland, is his unlikely home on the range. The cod-laden waters of Hunafloi Bay and snow-capped peaks of the Westfjords fill the picture windows of the boxy, red house on Holanesvegur he’s owned for
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 Hallbjorn’s front door, at, say, two o’clock, is Kantrybaer, his venerated possession, his darling, his sanctuary for
country and all things western.
Kantrybaer is the bar-cum-restaurant-cum-saloon that Hallbjorn founded in 1983 when Skagastrond 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.
Kantrybaer 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.”
“Hallbjorn has played a very important role in Skagastrond,” 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 a 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 Halldorsson, Hallbjorn’s son-in-law, who also serves as Kantrybaer’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 – Hallbjorn has only been to America once – to Nashville in 1988 to record his sixth studio album, Kantry 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.” Hallbjorn owned the local movie theater in Skagastrond 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.
Hallbjorn fell in love with country music without even knowing what it was. He grew up in a house not far from where Kantrybaer 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, Hjortur, played Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves records ad infinitum.
“The music turned something in me,” Hallbjorn says. “There was something in me that related to it. Then I moved to Keflavik and my passion just kept developing.”
In 1957, Hallbjorn packed a suitcase and moved to Keflavik Naval Air Station, which after 55 years under American operation, closed this September. He spent three years at Keflavik, 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 Keflavik to Reykjavik in 1960, where he worked in the reception of Hotel Vik by