Sideways view of a bar with guy with guitar on stage lighting is very red

I’m something of a musical tourist. Once a year or so some friends and I travel to some American city famous for its music – New Orleans, Bakersfield or whatever – and spend a long weekend. This year was two nights in Memphis, with a stop at Graceland and a return trip through Nashville. It had been around eight years since I had been to either city, and I was looking forward to Beale Street and Broadway again.

So you know, when we travel to party we have no interest in finding the spot where the locals go to hear the “real thing,” nor do we avoid the “touristy” places because we are tourists. For more authentic travel advice, ask a hipster – you won’t have to look hard to find one.

Nights on Beale Street in Memphis were about what I remember, or don’t remember. Tons of little blues clubs, slightly-warm draft beer in huge cups, and the best dry-rub ribs this side of heaven. I was a little spoiled from the last time I was there, when I saw a band called the Juke Joint All-Stars play three hours of Hendrix and blow the roof off the place. The Juke Joint is still there, but the All-Stars were not, replaced by a more Robert Cray-ish act (you know, that antiseptic shit they play on NPR’s Blue Collar). I like to think the All-Stars were taking a vacation somewhere nice. We did see a whole bunch of fine guitar players, though, and re-took the Graceland tour.

I did have the unfortunate experience of wandering into some place called “Silky O’Sullivans,” an “Irish Pub” on Beale which I had formerly avoided because I was too busy eating barbeque four times a day and swimming in cheap beer. It was apparently established as a refuge for frat guys who realized too late that Beale Street is not Bourbon Street and are in desperate need of a dueling piano bar and cover bands playing “Sex Machine” and “Play that Funky Music.” Whiter than a Journey box set, it fucking sucks and should be avoided.

Each night there we fought our way back to the Holiday Inn through some sort of outside dance party playing bad hip hop from the last decade, e.g. Usher’s “Yeah!” and DJ Caspar’s “The Cha Cha Slide.”

On to Nashville – my 8-year-old memory of which was 30 bars with no cover on each side of the street, each one with a drummer’s ass in the front window and a band blasting loud pop country, frequently with a pedal steel. The songs were awful, but the bands smoked and the worst guitar player there would have been one of the best back home. Combined with Nashville hot chicken, a tin of Copenhagen, and 23 or so PBR’s, the music could almost waft you into a dreamland where Toby Keith offers nuanced foreign policy advice and Zac Brown is not illiterate.

Our first stop was Bootleggers Tavern, which had a three piece in the window that was called (I shit you not) Elio and the Hank Sinatra Band. They were joined on guitar by Montgomery Gentry’s Jimmy Matejek (learned this from the doorman and confirmed on the internets). The band was good, and Matejek was just sick. They didn’t exactly play pop country – they did some nice originals and a parade of tunes by the Band, Little Feat and the Allman Brothers.

We then saw a string band at what I think was the Tequila Cowboy. All female, with the exception of a rather trollish mandolin player who had the mandolin player beard which is apparently required by their union. The upright bass player/lead singer boasted of being blind wasted, and I think she might have been telling the truth. They were great, and better yet they did not play Wagon Wheel. While we were there anyway.

Beyond that, not so much. We crossed the street and checked out The Stage, a bar I principally remembered for being foul smelling. It smelled better – maybe they passed a smoking ban – but the band wasn’t playing pop country – instead they played “Sex Machine” and “Play that Funky Music.”

Is there maybe some way that “Sex Machine” can be retired? Some sort of universal cover band agreement like the NHL did with Gretzky’s Number 99? Yes yes, I know, it’s James Brown. It’s also the churlishly stupid theme song of drunk uncles and dumb assholes everywhere.

We were in the rather disturbing position of being unable to find pop country in Nashville. The closest we got was a band on the lower level of Tin Roof half-heartedly soundchecking to Brooks ‘n Dunn’s “Brand New Man” while the DJ the next level up blasted “Yeah!” and “The Cha Cha Slide.”

There was also a dueling piano bar down the street.
Maybe I’m getting paranoid, but the world does seem to be getting a little homogenized.

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