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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Close up the honkytonks

Life is a funny series of events and circumstances which can lead you to the strangest and most wonderful places. Like Nepal, for instance, or Tennessee, where I spent a large part of the summer working for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It was my first extended visit to Dixie and, needless to say, spending a whole summer down there was often a rude shock to my Northern sensibilities.  




To be truthful about it, there are a lot of things about the South that weren't really so bad; nice, even. The Great Smoky Mountains, for example, were wonderful to visit, and I certainly don't expect to find better prices on fireworks than I did in Knoxville. That said, most of the time, I was really bored, because life is just a lot slower down there, and not up to my usual breakneck pace. Most of my music this summer came from a transistor radio, but when it didn't'well, that was a special treat. 




Nashville is Opryland'Music City, USA, home of country music and Broadway Avenue (right around the corner from the Ryman Auditorium, the first home of the Grand Ole Opry) has a plethora of honkytonks, all of which have cover bands at all hours of the day, indulging tourists' requests for a few coins tossed in an empty mayonnaise jar.  




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The first time I visited Nashville, I remember thinking about how depressing it was that incredibly skilled musicians were working solely for tips, but this time around, I didn't particularly mind. Strange. My coworkers and I spent the best nights of the summer on Broadway, letting a few beers turn into a night of serious drinking, lusting after the fiddle player and considering sending the only other Northerners in the bar a couple of Coronas before realizing that they'd already left.  




I have a suspicion that Nashville is the friendliest city in Tennessee only because it's incredibly expensive to enjoy yourself there'at around $3 for a beer and constant passing of the tip jar, it's pricey enough, but woe to the man who approaches a Southern woman without drinks for her and all of her friends. I learned this charming Southern custom the hard way, (repeatedly trying to not do it) and I was reprimanded thoroughly.  




Eventually, we moved out of Nashville to Cookeville, a little interstate town 80 miles to the east, which had me wishing for the nights of emptying my pockets to keep girls' thirsts slaked. Other than the public library, there was only one social/musical venue: an outpost of a chain of country-western bars called Cotton Eyed Joe, which had a maniacal policy about tucking in one's shirt and the goons to enforce it. I don't remember much about the nights we spent there, other than being mystified as to why I was thrown off the dance floor, beer in hand, during Hank Williams Jr.'s \Family Tradition,"" a song glorifying every sort of vice that makes bars popular.  




Cookeville cemented its status in my mind as the most miserable place ever at a Fourth of July concert, where I witnessed the most demonic displays of patriotism I've encountered, culminating with a group sing along of Toby Keith's ""Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,"" a song which simplifies military action in Afghanistan to ""boot in your ass""'apparently a very identifiable sentiment in Cookeville. We left soon after.  




But it was Knoxville that redeemed the whole state. Since I was going into Club 770 withdrawal, we ventured into the Old City to check out a show in a tiny little hole in the wall, with a one-foot high stage and a bunch of couches. Admission was $5 (a good sign), everyone was drinking cans of Pabst (an even better sign), and there were guys who looked like Elliott Smith and girls who looked like Betty Page (they wouldn't talk to us, but it was better than nothing).  




The headliner that night was Rude Street Peters, who were just your average bunch of 27-year-olds until they started jumping up and down and screaming, cursing, smoking and spraying the audience with all manner of substance. They sounded like Southern Culture on the Skids, except way louder and more abrasive. They rocked so hard that we couldn't help but rock ourselves, and rock hard we did. I'm convinced that this club was where slam dancing was invented, because it was executed with so much style and grace. I was in awe, and I when I wasn't in awe, I was getting up from the floor and elbowing someone in the face. An amazing night. So, thank you, Knoxville punk scene, for redeeming your state. And if you ever come to Madison, the first round's on me.

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