THE BLUES’ BIGGEST FAN
Zac Brown Band guitarist Coy Bowles waxes poetic about Northside Tavern, his favorite ATL music venue
To many, Walt Disney World is the happiest place on earth, but for Coy Bowles, the Decatur-based guitarist for the Zac Brown Band, that distinction belongs to Northside Tavern. The Westside dive bar with a rough exterior may seem like an eyesore to a younger wave of Atlantans, but to blues lovers, it’s an Atlanta institution.
Bowles was a Northside Tavern regular before becoming a touring musician in a famous country music band or a published children’s book author (his latest, Behind the Little Red Door, comes out in May). He started going in 2000 when he was 19 years old. His friend caught wind of his budding interest in the blues genre and said, “Man, we gotta take you Northside Tavern.” After negotiating with the cop posted out front, Bowles convinced the officer to let him stand outside and peer in. “The door opens up, and it’s a young Sean Costello [legendary Atlanta guitar player], and my universe just exploded,” Bowles says. “I thought people would be sitting around drinking, but they were twirling around, going bananas and dancing. Pretty girls, ugly guys, the whole nine.” After five minutes, the cop shut the door and told Bowles to scram, but those five minutes were all Northside Tavern needed to spark something in him. When he moved back to Atlanta a few years later, he lived up the street so he could go every day.
Now that he tours the country and has two young children, Bowles doesn’t make it to the Tavern as often as he used to, but it will forever hold a special place in his heart. We chatted with Bowles to find out what makes Northside Tavern so special and what it means to the city.
How has the area surrounding Northside Tavern changed since you started going? How do you think it will impact Northside Tavern?
Ten years ago, it was the kind of place you stayed inside, and when you had to leave, you could hang out at the front door, but you weren’t going to hang in the parking lot and see what mischief happened. Ultimately, I think [the changing area is] good for Northside Tavern. If that area were to keep getting more and more crime-ridden, it could’ve affected it in a negative way. You have to worry about the Chicago thing, though. Chicago was known for blues and hot dogs, but the blues joints couldn’t make enough money to keep up with the cost of living. They shut the blues joints down, and now you just have hot dogs.
What makes Northside Tavern special?
First, it has seven nights of music, and it never fails that the quality of music is really amazing. There’s a leave-your-attitude-and-BS-at-the- door-and-bring-your-personality vibe. There’s a lot of Georgia Tech kids, a lot of 25- to 35-year-old couples coming in to dance, and then you have guys that just got out of jail or might be riding through on a bike down to Florida.
Are you personally connected to the owners?
I became good friends with Ellyn Webb, who recently passed away. Her brother, Tommy, now runs the joint. I had good communication with her before she got too sick. I would check in on her because I was on the road and not going there as much as I used to. I would ask her how things were going, if she needed help with anything. I told her, “If anything ever happens to this place, make sure you give me a call, and I’ll try to pull every string possible to keep it alive.” Atlanta without Northside Tavern is a music scene without a heart or soul.
How is Northside doing since Ellyn’s passing?
It’s doing well. [Tommy] is doing small things to repair it and put a new stage in. The changes aren’t dramatic; you may only notice if you go frequently. He’s cleaning it up, but not to the point where it’s losing its edge.
How does Northside compare to bars you see around the country?
I haven’t been anywhere that compares to it even slightly, except in Chicago where there’s a place called Kingston Mines. They’re like kissing cousins or something. They have a similar approach with blues based music seven nights a week.
Have any big names come through Northside Tavern?
I used to host a jam on Tuesday nights, and as jams go, there are good days and bad days. One of the days was really slow, and this younger guy was begging to play a jazzy tune, so I was like, “Sure, man, go ahead.” I’m in there playing, and this young guy is up there in the wrong key, and every 14th note is majorly wrong, but we just go with it. Dave Matthews walks in and sits right in front of us. He made about 30 faces, like a dog listening to a record player, and he got up and walked out. We ended the song, and I remember thinking, “There was my chance.”
What’s the best act you’ve seen there?
I think Northside Tavern wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for Mudcat (Danny Dudeck). He talked to Ellyn and said, “Let’s get the music scene happening here again. I’ll take care of it.” He really turned it into what it is. He put in a lot of time and energy and found the right players to play, and he’s been playing there for God knows how long every Wednesday night. He’s a character: He can play and sing blues like no one else, and he’s guaranteed to have a good time. He’s been doing it for a long time and isn’t jaded at all.
What’s your go-to drink?
Forever it was Jack and Coke. But then I realized there was a thing called “health” and that that Jack and Coke is the worst thing for you. So now I go for a Mexican beer or PBR. There’s a giant painting of PBR on the side of the building, so it kind of comes with the territory.
Which nights are the best for first-timers?
Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Mudcat plays on Wednesdays, and he’s the centerpiece. The place really blossoms on the weekends, though. If you roll in there at 10:30 p.m. on a weekend, and you’ve already had a couple, then you’re going to fit right in. It’s a place to let your hair down, too. If you’re not a great dancer, you can dance like no one’s watching, and no one will care.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen go down there?
Well, there’s a pole right next to the stage, and it’s just a support beam, but it’s notorious for attracting drunk girls who want to relive their stripper days. I’ve seen some hammered girls try to do some routines, and it’s an epic fail. Another time, the crew from “Stomp” came in and started beating on stuff without telling people who they were. It was a flash mob before flash mobs existed. Twenty people come in and start beating on stuff with the band, and the whole time you’re like, “Am I tripping, or did this just happen?”
What does Northside Tavern mean to Atlanta?
I really think that as a city, and people who live in a city, we have to be protective of these kinds of places and their weirdness and creative energy. To some people, they look like a scar on a city— especially in [Northside Tavern’s] spot where it’s worth X amount of dollars and can make infinite amounts of money if it turned into [something] else. But the fact that it has blues and people who come in from all over the world and leave there thinking, “God, man, Atlanta just has this thing to it, you know?” To me, that’s how you experience the city. Going to some fancy restaurant that could be anywhere else doesn’t add that vibe. But having a place that has an edge and its own breathing life and eco-system within it is what makes cities what they are.
STORY: Lia Picard
Photo: Courtesy Coy Bowles