A few years ago, Nick and I visited Nashville for the first time, for a long weekend.
On Sunday night, we put on our country best and went out to the honky tonks downtown. It was a good night to go out, because both of us hate crowds, and on Sundays the bars are more chill and stocked mostly with locals enjoying cold beer and good music.
We walked up and down Broadway, popping into different honky tonks (never a cover charge!) and staying for a song or two. The music, across the board, was fantastic. My love for banjos and steel guitars borders on a sexual fetish, so I was in heaven.
Once we got to a honky tonk called Layla’s, we loved the vibe and the music so much we decided to hang out there for the remainder of the night. We danced to a rockabilly band playing chunky, gleeful renditions of “Ring of Fire” and “White Lightning.” I drank 3 cowgirl cosmos, which were strong enough that by 2 in, I started telling Nick that if he were a baby horse, I would gladly sell him to the fair for a bargain price. And no, I don’t know what that means either.
The whole experience was so ridiculously, genuinely, undeniably fun — more fun than we’d had in a long time. There was nothing pretentious or ironic about it. And being from Portland, the world capital of irony and pretense (no offense PDX I love you!), that was such a refreshing change. I’m pretty sure it was there in that honky tonk, balancing on a couple of decrepit bar stools, dropping $5 bills in the mayo tub tip jar, that we first looked at each other and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to move here?”
Six months later, we sold all our stuff, packed up my Jetta, and did just that.
I still love Layla’s, but today my favorite Nashville honky tonk isn’t even on Broadway — it’s 15 minutes from downtown, across the street from the Grand Ole Opry and a sprawling outlet mall, next door to the Willie Nelson Museum and a place called Cooter’s. I’ve very purposefully decided to never find out exactly what Cooter’s is. I feel the same way about Cooter’s that I feel about God: even if its existence could be proven and defined, I’d rather not know. I want to revel in the mystery, all the awe-inspiring possibilities.
Anyway, my favorite honky tonk is called The Nashville Palace, and I love it so much that every time I go there I get a little emotional about it. Especially if I have a few drinks. Then I’m suddenly not just trying to sell Nick to the fair but repeating, over and over, “I just love this place so much. I’m so happy. I’m so happy here!”
On any given night, the majority of the clientele ranges in age from around 50-85.
Every Friday and Saturday night, an elderly couple drive an hour from their rural town to tear up the dance floor here. They slowly twirl and two-step to Loretta Lynn covers and Buck Owens ballads, the woman’s hair perfectly sculpted into a foot-high beehive that doesn’t move no matter how enthusiastically she dances. When they pass your table on the way back to theirs, they will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Why aren’t you dancing?” When you finally do go out and dance, they will clap for you.
If you order a coke, the waitress will say, “We have RC Cola,” and you’ll say, “Even better.”
There’s a wall of shelves filled with old cowboy boots of every size, shape, and color. On the top shelf is a bedazzled jacket. If you ask about it, the bartender will tell you, “Dolly Parton left that jacket here,” and then you’ll say, “Like, in the lost and found? Shouldn’t we return it?” and the bartender will laugh and say, “No, she left it here on purpose. So we could put it on the shelf.”
There’s always a guy sipping whiskey at the bar in a big white cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a big black cowboy hat. And a guy sitting next to him in a denim vest with an American flag decal sewn onto the back.
The servers and bartenders will call you honey, baby, sweetie, love, darlin’, or some combination of all of the above.
Randy Travis was a dishwasher here before he became a country star, and they have a plaque on the wall to prove it.
Their vodka lemonade will get you real tipsy, real quick.
So will all their other drinks.
You won’t hear modern country hits here. You’ll hear classic country and western swing, played by women in frilly apron dresses and men with bolo ties who have played backup for the biggest country stars of the past century. Sometimes the band will start playing the opening riffs to a crowd pleaser like “Sweet Home Alabama,” and then they’ll stop and say, “Wait, we don’t play that kind of music here,” and laugh as the crowd boos. Then they’ll play Merle Haggard instead.
They have the best fried pickles and grilled cheese sandwich you’ll ever eat.
When the bass player comes around with the tip jar, she’ll ask you where you’re from, and how you like the music, and how often you come here, and if you have any kids, and if you’d like to go see her son’s band play.
The table nearest the stage has a sign taped to it that says, “Reserved for Burt and Carol.”
On the way to the bathroom, you’ll pass life-size cardboard cutouts of Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson, and depending how many vodka lemonades you had, you might try to hug them.
There is a 70% chance someone will call you a “purdy little thing,” no matter your gender, age, or how purdy you actually look.
The entire dessert menu is as follows: “Moon pies…$1.”
When you get up to leave, the band will nod and smile at you and the bartender will say, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” and you’ll say, “Oh, I will. I most definitely will.”