Tom Engel, a buff and brawny about-to-graduate UA student, hoisted Stephanie Johnson into his arms and swung the petite UA senior around his back.

With a sweeping motion, he flipped her over and landed her on her feet as Tim McGraw's hick-hopping "Truck Yeah" blasted in surround sound.

In the industrial-chic loft of The Wreck, a country bar that opened 10 months ago on North Fourth Avenue, Angie Knerl and Sarah Hale navigated unknown waters: swing dancing. With unapologetic clumsiness, the grad students in the University of Arizona's School of Natural Resources whipped each other back and forth and shouted "Whoa!" when the song ended.

It was their first time at The Wreck, a bar that is more spring break than urban cowboy, but the pair looked comfortably at home. Hale said she was a bit disappointed that there was no mechanical bull. She seemed brave enough last Thursday to give one a ride.

They could play pool at the table with a cluster of players in the corner. But Knerl was quick to note: "My pool skills are invisible."

"But they've got chalk," she added with satisfaction, nodding in the direction of a chalkboard covering most of a wall with a piece of chalk dangling from a string. "I drew a flower."

With $1 drink specials on Thursdays and its proximity to the UA - it shares space with Maloney's Tavern - The Wreck has quickly established itself among Tucson's country bars as the college hangout.

It will get some company when Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill opens at the Tucson Mall late this month.

Toby Keith's - the country superstar isn't the owner, although he has three of of his own in his native Oklahoma - is coming into a city that has a long and solid tradition of country music bars. That includes The Maverick, one of the state's most enduring honky-tonks, which over the past 50 years has hosted concerts by everyone from Ernest Tubb and Willie Nelson to Blake Shelton.

Country music and Tucson are a natural fit, said Fernando Campa, the entertainment coordinator for Desert Diamond Casino.

"Country shows are very popular," he said last Thursday as Kevin Sterner and Strait Country, a local country band that specializes in George Strait covers, played to more than 300 people in the south-side casino's Monsoon Nightclub.

They are booked to play the club one Thursday a month through February and they draw a decidedly older crowd.

Last Thursday, Susan and Dennis Sonefelt, a retired Houston couple spending their first winter in Tucson, couldn't find a seat, so they leaned against a wall next to the emergency exit.

"He sounds great," Susan Sonefelt said as Sterner, in a soulful baritone that matched Strait's style, sang the superstar's No. 1 hit "I Hate Everything."

Sonefelt is a huge Strait fan. She plans to catch the country singer in his final tour in March when he pulls into the vast Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

But until then, she said she will likely return to the Monsoon Nightclub to catch Sterner's impressive take on the artist.

"He sounds like George," she said as Sterner broke into "The Fireman." "I would come to see this again."

Back at The Wreck, DJ Lulu Munsen and a tall, lanky man joined Engel and his rotating trio of dance partners in the center of the floor. Munsen's dance partner easily spun and flipped her around to the driving Carrie Underwood hit "Last Name."

When the song ended, Munsen pulled her dark hair back and went to work spinning a soundtrack of songs straight from Nashville's hit parade - from Willie Nelson and George Strait, to Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert and The Band Perry.

She takes requests from patrons who visit her corrugated metal DJ booth outfitted with four cup holders and a sign: Bras 4 Booze.

She also is the person whom patrons see if they want to hop on the bar, take off their bra and dance for a shot.

As for that bra, toss it up there with the dozens of others of different sizes and colors that hang from a clothesline stretching the length of the bar.

The bra dances date back to the club's opening in February, said manager Machalla Harper, who has worked for Maloney's since 2007.

"Our motto is sexy Southern fun and with the encouragement of our staff to have a good time - I think that's what people love," Harper said. "You can dance around and have fun and act like an idiot and no one is going to say anything."

Johnson, the die-hard country music fan who was getting twisted about by Engel, recalled getting up on that bar one night.

But the military science major, who will enter the Navy after she graduates next May, said she didn't take off her bra. Instead, she did a dead-hang pull-up from a metal pipe.

"I come to this bar all the time," Johnson said. "I love it because everyone who works here is down to earth, and I love the music and I love to dance."

Just then, Knerl and Hale discovered a tire swing hanging next to the bar. There are lots of interesting things tucked onto the bare brick walls and hanging from the ceilings at The Wreck, including a guitar suspended by its strap and a Barbie doll tied to a bra.

With little prompting, Hale hopped on the swing and Knerl pushed her. The pair couldn't stop laughing.

It was no mechanical bull, but it would do.

"We're having too good of a time, too good of a time," a breathless Knerl proclaimed.

Going country

Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill is expected to open at the Tucson Mall by year's end. The club joins a long tradition of country bars in Tucson that includes:

The Maverick Live Country Club

• 6622 E. Tanque Verde Road; 298-0430.

This is the granddaddy of Tucson's country nightclubs, where golf shorts and baseball caps are just as welcomed as pressed Wranglers and cowboy hats. The house bands - The Jack Bishop Band on Tuesdays through Thursdays, and Flipside on Fridays and Saturdays - play nightly, and occasionally you'll find a Nashville artist on the marquee. There also are nightly line-dancing and two-step classes (for a fee) and specials including reverse happy hour on Fridays when domestic draft beers are a buck from 8 p.m. to close.

• Hours: 5 p.m. to close Tuesdays through Saturdays.

The Wreck

• 213 N. Fourth Ave., in the same building as Maloney's Tavern; 388-9355.

This is where bikinis and flip-flops find company with college jerseys and jeans. You rarely see a cowboy hat, although the boots are accessories for both the Daisy Dukes set and jeans-wearing jocks who turn country dancing into an endurance challenge. The Nashville soundtrack includes songs from the 1990s to today from the usual suspects - Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean and everyone in between - mixed with a few classic country hits from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

• Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Outlaw Saloon

• 1302 W. Roger Road; 888-3910 or

By day, the Outlaw is a neighborhood bar. At night, it turns into a bustling honky-tonk, picking up where the former C Note Lounge country bar left off when that business closed a couple of summers ago. Owner Gary Kilbourne opened Outlaw Saloon in February, offering karaoke in the back bar on weekends and live music in the front. The Jack Bishop Band, Greg Spivey Band, Robert Merino Band and Wild Ride make up the rotating lineup.

• Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

River's Edge

• 4635 N. Flowing Wells Road, 887-9027.

This self-professed dive bar for years was devoted to country music with local bands to complement the jukebox and karaoke. A country band still plays on Friday nights, but that stops in January when the bar goes fully rock.

• Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Coming soon

• Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill at Tucson Mall, 4500 N. Oracle Road;

Part of a growing national chain, this behemoth restaurant turns into a bustling nightclub at night that features music from its namesake country superstar along with other top country artists.

Keith started the concept with three restaurants in his native Oklahoma, then sold the rights to franchise to Mesa-based Boomtown Entertainment.

The nearly 17,000-square-foot venue in Tucson will host live bands and Nashville stars. We could expect to see the sort of talent coming to the Mesa club: Montgomery Gentry plays there Friday; Josh Thompson is on deck Saturday; and Lee Brice will be there Dec. 14.

Going, going, gone

• For 23 years, Cactus Moon dished up pop-country boot-scootin' from its 12,000-square-foot nightclub at 5470 E. Broadway. It closed in late July after falling behind in rent payments, according to its landlord. The couple who owned the nightclub, Virginia and Gary Graham, opened Cactus Moon Sports Bar and Country Dancing at Promenade at Casa Grande off Interstate 10 in October. They also own Denim & Diamonds and Cactus Moon Sports Grill in Mesa.

Tucson's George Strait

Country superstar George Strait is taking his final road tour next year. Tucson's not on the short list of cities he will visit - neither is Phoenix at this point - but we have the next best thing: Kevin Sterner and Strait Country, a band that so closely mirrors Strait vocally and swagger-wise you'd swear it was George up on the stage. Sterner also pays tribute to a number of classic country stars, including Keith Whitley, Conway Twitty, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Charlie Pride.

During rodeo weekend, Feb. 22-24, Sterner and the band will play two nights at Desert Diamond Casino's Monsoon Nightclub on the Nogales Highway; Kix Brooks, half of the former platinum-selling duo Brooks & Dunn, will play the headlining show Feb. 23 at Desert Diamond Casino's Diamond Entertainment Center, 1100 W. Pima Mine Road.

Here are some places where you can catch Sterner in action. Check websites, where available, for details:

• Desert Diamond Casino Monsoon Nightclub, 7350 S. Nogales Highway ( Dec. 20, Jan. 17 and Feb. 21 and 22.

• Tucson Estates, 5900 W. Western Way Circle: Jan. 13 and March 20.

• Voyager RV Park, 8701 S. Kolb Road: Feb. 6.

• Heritage Highlands, 4949 W. Heritage Club Blvd.: Feb. 15.

• Gaslight Theatre, 7010 E. Broadway, ( Feb. 18 and March 25.

Big country at the fox

Fox Tucson Theatre is muscling into the Tucson country music market. The historic venue already has several country shows booked for early 2013.

• Singer-songwriter Clint Black on Jan. 16; $29-$76.

• Bakersfield-esque crooner Dwight Yoakum on Feb. 7. Prices not released, but tickets go on sale Wednesday.

• Vocal powerhouse Wynonna with The Big Noise on Feb. 15. $35 to $89.

• Actor-singer Jeff Bridges April 17. Ticket information pending.

Buy tickets at

For more information, call 624-1515.