Sunday, July 26, 2009

Marshside Mama's: Slipping Away to the Real World

Marshside Mama's is calling to us.
After three days at the Daufuskie Island Resort, we’re getting a little restless. It’s a fantastic resort – great food, cool sports bar, tennis and golf and biking and water sports – everything a civilized tourist enjoys. But the 5,000-acre island is only accessible by ferry, and after touring the Gullah cultural sites and the school where Pat Conroy taught, we’ve developed a hankering for a different taste of South Carolina culture. So we hijack some golf carts and slip away from the resort for an unauthorized field trip.
So we make our way to Marshside Mama’s (no Web site: 843-785-4755), the only place open after dark. It’s part café, part general store, part bar and all honky tonk. There are some typical redneck décor touches – Christmas lights around the room, bras stapled over the bar -- plus cold drafts, a wooden dance floor, live music and tasty Southern food (not cuisine – home cookin’).
But there are also some unusual touches -- like several families with small children enjoying dinner a few paces from the barflies and the band. The crowd includes blue collar locals, fisherman, and a good number of people like us, who’ve slipped away from the upscale resort to check out how the seamy side of island life. Out back, fires burn in sand pits close to the beach. The restrooms are in a separate old concrete building; the folks in my group put off a visit as long as they can, and they scurry back as quickly as they finish their business.
The band is one of the regulars: Southern Breeze, mixing country, blues and rock. They came over from the mainland, but they wrap up their show at 10:00 so they can catch the last ferry home. We decide to head out soon after the band does, but it’s obvious that the regulars will keep drinking and dancing to the recorded music for hours to come.
After all, what else is there to do on Daufuskie?

Tootsie's: Classic Lady Doesn't Show Her Age

People may be drawn to Tootsie’s by history – after all, this is where Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline used to slip over from the Grand Ole Opry across the alley for whiskey between shows. But don’t think Toosie’s is a living museum: it’s still one of the best bar scenes in Nashville.
“The World Famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge” ( remains the queen of Broadway. She’s surrounded by other clubs on Honky Tonk Row: The Stage, Legends, Second Fiddle and plenty more. But Tootsie’s has outlasted them all. Like the Ryman Auditorium behind her and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop across the street, Tootsie’s was country when country wasn’t cool. Tootsie Bess, the former owner, is long gone but her nightclub still carries on.
The walls are lined with autographed photos of the many stars who’ve played (on-stage and off). Willie Nelson got his first songwriting gig after he performed at Tootsie’s. Legend has it that Roger Miller wrote “Dang Me” here. Movies like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” were filmed here. The list goes on – even after the Opry moved from the Ryman to Opryland Park, Tootsie’s keeps drawing crowds and making history.
While history may set Tootsie’s apart, people don’t just flock here for the memories – and much of the crowd is college-age. There are two small stages, with the front venue catering more to a country crowd and the larger, upstairs rear stage typically featuring rock. If you really want to check out the walls and the old wooden bar and the rest of the décor, go before 6:00 – it’s standing room only when the sun gets low, and a long wait to get in after dark. And definitely come early if you’re claustrophobic – it’s awful cozy when the lights get low. But if you can endure being elbow-to-elbow with rowdy strangers, you’ll have a ball – especially when the waitresses dance on the bar.
Tootsie’s may be a classic, but she never shows her age.

Flora-Bama: 'Last Great American Roadhouse'

Local legend has it that after Hurricane Ivan partially destroyed the Flora-Bama in September 2004, folks found bras scattered along the beach for more than 20 miles. That’s right, brassieres: there used to be hundreds of them tacked up over many of the 20 bars, one of the many hallmarks that make the Flora-Bama a truly classic destination.
Flora-Bama Lounge & Package ( is a beachside nightclub and live music venue that straddles the Florida and Alabama state line. The mailing address is Pensacola, but it’s really closer to Orange Beach, Alabama. The original Flora-Bama was built around 1964. The ‘Bama reopened soon afterwards and patrons immediately returned. Renovations have continued slowly but the Flora-Bama has remained open, and the bra collection is being rebuilt as well.
Holidays like the Fourth of July always draw huge crowds and weekend-long parties. But the real not-to-be missed signature event is the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss in April. Yep, competitors line up for the change to toss fresh fish from the Florida side into Alabama. They held the 25th toss in 2009, and the winners’ names and distances are posted on the Web site.
Superlatives come easily here. The Flora-Bama bills itself as the “last great American roadhouse.” Bikers, celebrities and just-plain-folks pack the watering hole, including the NFL’s Manning Brothers and Kid Rock. There’s music seven nights a week, as many as five bands can perform at the same time on the weekend. Jimmy Buffett – who grew up along the Alabama coast – wrote “Bama Breeze” about the Flora-Bama and similar memorable spots along the coast. From redneck cultural landmark to internationally known tacky décor, the Flora-Bama is a must-see.

My Honky Tonk Roots

On a ski trip in North Carolina, our group of travel writers were getting acquainted, discussing what we write about and projects in progress. When I mentioned that I’m developing a book on honky tonks, a guy who writes hiking books said, “No, you’re too sophisticated for something like that. Dives and country music – that’s not you.”
I didn’t argue with him because I can understand his position. In my previous career, spent 20-plus years in corporate IT at conservative insurance companies. I’d pretty well washed all the telltale signs of my country background away to fit in – learned to talk proper English, dress like a Yuppie, play the games to climb the ladder. But just because I don’t look or talk or act like I was raised on a farm, that doesn’t mean I don’t have country roots.
And the attraction to honky tonks – that’s probably mainly due to my dad. He was raised on a farm by a strict church deacon, but once he was old enough to head for the bright lights and barrooms and honky tonk angels of the big city, he was gone.
Sure, he tried to put on a good front. He sold insurance door-to-door, raised a family and mostly put forth a respectable front. But there was a part of his heart that always longed for the nightlife. He learned to play a little backup guitar when we lived in Florida so he could sit in with the band on Friday nights. In Tennessee, he took a weekend job tending bar at a place called the High Chaparral – a rowdy place between two small cities where he hung out regardless of whether he was working. Most of his life was a sad country song – stuck between the life the world wanted him to lead and the yearnings he had just to kick up his heels and have fun.
He’s gone now – 30 years of cigarettes cut his days short – but sometimes I feel his presence when I’m walking along Broadway in Nashville or checking out the Christmas lights over the bar in some new honky tonk I’ve discovered off the beaten path.
I may still pass for a corporate suit, but I’m still a country boy at heart – and I inherited his honky tonk genes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Perfect Divorce -- Honky Tonk Style

A petite brunette in jeans and cowboy hat is cursing into her cell phone outside the Rockin' Ranch’ in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is alternately begging and bullying someone to take her home. Finally she explains tearfully why she needs a ride home: “I’m too fucked up to go to Grandma’s.”
“We’ve come to the right place,” I tell the others in my group as we pile out of the van. The Rockin’ Ranch ( is all I had hoped for – a slice of the redneck south just a few steps from the ocean.
As we down our first bucket of longnecks, I notice the brunette we’d seen outside. She is on the far side of the dance floor at a table talking quietly to a taller blonde far from the crowded main bar.
When my party begins to break up, I pull a Miller Lite from the stainless steel bucket and headed over. I introduced myself in my usual way – “Hi, I’m writing a book on honky tonks. Could I talk to you for a couple of minutes?” Then I offered them a beer.
The brunette says her name is Summer and this is her best friend, Crystal. (In these places, a girl’s best friend is the one who holds her hair out of the way while she’s throwing up in the toilet. I figure Crystal has been called into service on numerous occasions.)
Summer points to the ice water in front of her and says, “No more for me.” I start to pull back the beer, but Summer says, “My brother will be here soon; he’ll drink it.” She takes the bottler, then adds, “He usually drinks two.”
I return to my table for a second longneck, and then head back. Crystal sizes me up suspiciously as she hovers protectively by Summer. They quietly watch the handful of two-steppin’ dancers glide across the wooden floor to the twangy beat until I come back with another beer.
I quickly discover they are regulars, and they know everyone by name. Summer had too much to drink early in the evening, so now she’s waiting for her brother to pick her up.
I ask how often they come to the Rockin’ Ranch and Summer said, “Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night.” She doesn’t like to come on Tuesdays and Thursdays; those are “salsa nights” and “the Mexicans are here,” he explains. Also, the other three nights, her ex-husband goes to a hip-hop club in Daytona Beach.
“Why do you need a schedule?” I wonder aloud.
She shrugs and replied matter-of-factly, “We’ve got young kids at home; someone has to be there at night.”
As her brother arrives and I head back to my table, I realize she’s probably found what so many others are seeking: a perfect divorce.

The Late, Great Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House

Last spring I visited Milan, Ohio, a town best known as the birthplace of Thomas Edison. Milan is a few miles south of Lake Erie and was a boomtown during the early 19th Century. Private investors and the state government poured stacks of money into building a canal from Milan to the lake, creating a regional port that connected New York City to Cleveland and the Ohio region. For 15 years, Milan was among the busiest ports on the Great Lakes. But by the 1850s, it was all over – railroads took away Milan’s strategic advantages, and within a few years, Milan returned to being the sleepy village it is today.

While I was touring Milan, I kept thinking of the all-but-deceased Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House at Church Street Station in downtown Orlando. You may remember the Cheyenne from the early days of The Nashville Network – back when it was a country version of MTV, rather than the generic “TNN” cable provider it is today. The Cheyenne was the set for the “Church Street Station” program, drawing top name performers for televised concerts. The Cheyenne was a linchpin in the Church Street Station development, which provided nightlife to attract the adults visiting Disneyworld and Universal Studios.

In January, on a Saturday night honky-tonk tour of Orlando with my buddy Loretta Lynn (no, not the singer; a writer who lives in Orlando), we dropped in on the Cheyenne. We’d just left Cowboys ( a few miles away on the Orange Blossom Trail, where a younger crowd of two-steppers and partiers stretched far into the parking lot, hoping to gain entrance. But at the Cheyenne, we found less than 20 people hanging out at the bar, listening to the rock cover band. During their frequent breaks, 1980s music videos like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” drew a couple of dancers to the tiny dance floor. But mostly, people downed their drinks and moved on to the crowded hip-hop bar around the corner.

It was a sad sight. I remember the Cheyenne from the TV shows, and the days when the lines to get inside stretched around the building. The building has a unique feeling: dark black wood and glass on all the walls, heavy wooden chairs and tables, all lending majesty truly reminiscent of a classic opera house. And at almost midnight on a Saturday night, it was virtually deserted. We didn’t even have a drink – it was too depressing to be there, so we moved on to brighter surroundings.

A few weeks later, I was not surprised to read that the Cheyenne was closing down to the public. The owner plans to rent it out for events, but its days as a dance hall and honky tonk and live music venue are pretty much over.

What happened? Like Milan, Ohio, the Cheyenne was bypassed by changing times. The big tourist attractions decided to offer more than children’s entertainment: Downtown Disney and University’s City Place offered nightclubs and adult diversions, keeping their traffic in Kissimmee and the suburbs. Other clubs in Orlando still do well – Cowboys, for example – but the Cheyenne just couldn’t figure out how to draw a crowd anymore.

And now, it’s the latest in the long list of great Southern honky tonks who have gone by the wayside.

Rockin’ Ranch “Just Feels Like Home”

The Rockin’ Ranch ( is one of my favorite spots – a slice of the redneck south just a few steps from the ocean.
Several months ago, I was leading a diverse group of a dozen folks from across the country seeking a real honky tonk. We’re a few miles south of Daytona Beach, and while there are a couple of true Southerners here, our posse includes Michelle, a New Jersey radio personality; two gays from New York City; an African-American local; and a French-Canadian couple. We also had just been to dinner at a nice restaurant, so we were a tad overdressed for honky tonking.
My friend Georgia is the reason we’re here. Georgia lives nearby and passes this place often, “but I’ve been afraid to stop and go inside.” (This is a woman who grew up in rural Alabama and worships NASCAR). “I think this would be a great place for your book.”
We park in what appears to be an old shopping center parking lot. The drive-in marquee sign outside indicates there’s live music tonight at the Rockin’ Ranch, so we head into the one-story concrete building.
Inside, I quickly realize we’ve struck pay dirt. There’s a live band mixing country Top 40 hits with their own compositions, coaxing a core group of line dancers onto the polished hardwood floor. Neon lights over both the bars spell out the establishment’s name, and there’s an electric mix of beach and Western decor. It’s a slow Wednesday night, but there are still at least 50 regulars gathered around the bar or congregating at their own tables.
We order a bucket of longnecks from a waitress who still has most of her teeth and settle in. The Canadians decide they want to play billiards, so they head off to the pool tables. They return a few minutes later, a little confused. “We had to put down a $10 deposit,” one explains. “Apparently there had been a problem with pool cues being broken and balls disappearing.”
After the first beer, I head into the men’s room. There’s a plumber down on his knees in front of a row of urinals, installing new fixtures. A couple of urinals seem to be broken, so I’m assuming it was a rowdy weekend.
Back on the dance floor, the traffic is sparse until the band takes a break. When contemporary dance music starts blasting out of the speakers, a group of maybe eight locals file out and start line dancing. Their leader is a large woman in jeans and a cowboy hat whom we dub “Ponytail Girl” because of the dark brown hair flowing behind her. I’m not sure what type of dance they learned at the free lessons offered earlier that evening, but about every fourth beat, they stomp hard enough to make the floor shake.
A couple of folks in my group – Michelle and Tangela, our local host – decide they want to dance as well, so a few of us start our own line. For reasons I don’t quite understand, we keep lining up at right angles to the Ponytail Girl’s group, so within a few beats, our lines cross and we start bumping into each other. Ponytail Girl is obviously getting irritated, as the stomping gets louder as the song goes along. We finally give up and sit down, leaving Ponytail Girl to mark her territory by stomping a serious of savage blows to the dance floor.
Later I wander around meeting locals. I’d been sent to Ponytail Girl’s table to meet Bobby Lee, whose band plays here on other nights. When I explain we’re from out of town and I’m writing a book on honky tonks, Ponytail Girl said, “Yeah, we knew right away y’all ain’t from around here.”
Bobby Lee tells me he used to work at the Rockin’ Ranch. Even on nights he doesn’t play here, he still hangs around, he says. “This just feels like home to me.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Technnorati Ping


Wild Bill's brings an urban flair to the honky tonk scene

The crowd at most bars and honky tonks tend to reflect their surroundings, and at Wild Bill’s in Duluth, Georgia, is no exception. Located next to Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, just off Interstate 85 north of Atlanta, the partiers tend to be young, urban, well-dressed – more of a hip nightclub crowd than a country bar. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time here – just make sure you dress a little better than you would if you were going to the Floramaba, and do your smoking in the parking lot.

The venue bills itself as America’s largest dance hall and concert hall, and this weekend’s line-up shows its drawing power. On a recent Friday night, $10 got you in the door to see Jake Owen – and you could take home latest CD as well, free of charge. The CD, “Easy Does It,” includes the recent hit, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You.” Owen topped the charts with “Staring With Me” in 2008, his first Number One hit.

The follow evening featured “Big Redneck Weekend”, a Saturday night special event headlined by Colt Ford that blended Southern country and hip-hop to produce a unique sound. Opening for Colt was Trailer Choir, whose video “Off the Hillbilly Hook” was featured in Toby Keith’s “Beer for My Horses” straight-to-DVD film.

The last time I was at Wild Bill’s, Montgomery Gentry was the headliner and the place was packed. Better yet, the opening act was Atlanta’s own Lost Trailers and their breakthrough hit, “Holler Back,” had just hit the Top 10. Fortunately I got there early – once it’s crowded, you don’t have time to explore the unique memorabilia on the walls and the little nuances at the various bars scattered over multiple levels. This is probably the most pristine honky tonk I’ve seen since the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville – a great place for good, clean fun.

To check out the upcoming concert and event schedule, visit

Cowboys Atlanta offers honky tonk atmosphere in the 'burbs

Sometimes those of us in metropolitan Atlanta just want to forget we're living in the urban capital of the South, and let our hair down at a real country joint – to “get in touch with my inner redneck,” as one friend puts it. Remember Miss Kitty’s Dance Hall in Marietta or Hoss ‘n Saddle in Doraville? You can capture that same down-home honky feeling at Cowboys Atlanta – actually located in Kennesaw, a couple of miles west of Town Center Mall and Interstate 75.

Often voted one of Atlanta’s top country music clubs, Cowboys has three levels of seating and bars overlooking the largest two-stepping dance hall in Cobb County. Like many country clubs, Cowboys has free line dance lessons every week. But if you’d rather stay seated, mosey over to the Texas Hold’Em games that are constantly in play at the poker table. Ladies get in free on Thursday nights, and there is live music Wednesdays through Saturdays. Cody Collins, the new lead singer for Lonestar, was “discovered” at Cowboys when he was lead singer for 151, Cowboys’ house band. LeeSa, Tuff and 151 performs four nights a week as well as open for the big touring acts that visit the club.

Cowboys is usually pretty quiet until about 10 p.m. A busy weekend or a big-name act can draw thousands, but there’s plenty of room to spread out and a host of gorgeous bartenders who keep the drinks flowing.

Visit their Web site at to check the upcoming schedule; or on MySpace, it’s

Swallow provides 'Bluebird Cafe' experience in Roswell

Ever wanted to visited Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café – or wish you could return more often? The Swallow at the Hollow in Roswell, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, has the answer – country music’s top singer/songwriters performing their tunes and sharing the stories behind the songs.

The Swallow – located at 1072 Green Street, near the Canton Street-Alpharetta Street intersection -- serves up home cooking and live music five nights a week. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, there is no cover charge as local artists play for dinner patrons beginning at 6:30. But the real “Bluebird” experience comes Friday and Saturday nights as Nashville songwriters put on a two-hour show.

For example, in late February, Don Henry and Craig Carothers performed. Henry won a Grammy for the classic, “Where’s You Been,” and his songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Ray Charles to Conway Twitty to Blake Shelton. Carothers wrote “Little Hercules,” a gold record for Trisha Yearwood, and his songs have been covered by Kathy Mattea and others. Cover charge is typically $15. For reservations, call (678) 352-1975.

While veteran Bluebird visitors know the café can be a little cramped, and the dining choices, shall we saw, limited, neither is the case at the Swallow. There’s plenty of space and a homemade menus that includes barbeque beef and pork, ribs, homemade bread and butter pickles, breads – even chocolate chip banana pudding. You don’t have to eat to attend a show, but it can be convenient to do both.

So, for a unique taste of Nashville in the northern Atlanta suburbs, drop in at the Swallow (, reach into that huge canoe stuffed with beer and pull up a comfortable seat to enjoy country music with a new group of songwriters every weekend.

And, for a taste of the Bluebird, visit