Talking to Old Drunks at the Greatest Honky Tonk in Nashville
RC Cola and Rum at The Nashville Palace
“Are they bothering you, honey?” the bartender asks, nodding her head toward a pair of giggly, white-haired men sitting next to me and my friend Celeste. We’re perched on stools at the raised bar looking down at the stage, and these two elderly Casanovas have been earnestly trying to pick us up for about an hour, mostly by slurring the words “pretty girls!” in our ears at top volume.
I smile at the bartender and shake my head no. They’re on the verge of being annoying, but for now I’m writing them off as part of The Nashville Palace experience. Most of the people here are in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. It’s always like this: silver perms and bolo ties twirling on the dance floor, grandfatherly men greeting me with “Hi, little lady” on the way to the bathroom. A few minutes ago the band took a break from their set to announce that today is their steel guitarist’s birthday: he’s turning 91. “Please tip accordingly,” the singer says, holding up a giant mayo jar stuffed with dollar bills.
The bartender is clearly unconvinced by my answer. She glares at the two men as she wipes down the counter where they just spilled half a beer. “Well, let me know if you change your mind and I’ll take care of ‘em.” It’s a genuine threat wrapped in a warm southern twang. I believe her. The band starts playing a Buck Owens ballad and I order another RC Cola and rum. Celeste laughs and asks for another beer.
We make a toast. “To the best honky tonk in Nashville,” we say, plastic cup clinking against beer bottle.
The Nashville Palace is 10 miles away from the craziness of downtown, across the street from the Grand Ole Opry and a sprawling outlet mall. The thing I love most about it, besides the flirty retiree crowd, is that it’s always busy but never crowded. I used to love going to the honky tonks on Broadway, but as the crowds have gotten bigger and rowdier, my visits became less frequent. I hit my breaking point a couple years ago when a tiara-wearing bachelorette hit me in the head with a blow-up doll while screaming “VIVA NASHVEGGGAAASSSS!”
It’s common knowledge that Nashville has changed a lot, that Nashville is still changing. We’re an “it city,” reaping all the benefits and detriments that accompany that title. Historic brick buildings are coming down. Glass luxury condos are going up. I’ve lived here for three years, which means I’m unquestionably part of “the new Nashville,” but it’s a testament to the insane pace of change here that even I’m nostalgic for “how things used to be.”
The Nashville Palace is where I come to indulge that nostalgia, as unearned as it may be. The bands here play classic country. The tourists are more likely to arrive in RVs than party buses. Dolly Parton’s leather jacket is displayed proudly on the wall. There’s a sign hung in the lobby that says, “Randy Travis: former Palace cook, dishwasher, and now famous star.” There’s a piece of paper taped to a table by the stage that says “Reserved for Burt and Carol.” If you order Pepsi, they give you RC Cola.
Earlier tonight, Celeste and I stopped into the Willie Nelson Museum next door to get our fortunes read by an old Zoltar machine that had been re-accessorized Willie-style, with grey braids and a bandana. My fortune said, “There are more old drunks than old doctors so pour yourself another one.”
The two old drunks next to me are about to get kicked out, but they don’t know it yet. “Pretty girls!” they yell again, but I can barely hear them over the sound of another old man, the one playing the hell out of that steel guitar.