The Bar That Time Forgot 

The Dusty Road may be Nashville’s last honest-to-goodness honky-tonk

The Dusty Road may be Nashville’s last honest-to-goodness honky-tonk

It’s past 7 p.m. at The Dusty Road, time for veteran nightclub owner Norma Bogle to crank up the volume on the jukebox in her First Avenue South establishment. As Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” starts to drown out Bonanza on the television, a lurching customer yells, “Thank you, Mommy!”

“Watch it,” she responds, “or I’ll turn it back down!” The gentleman, a regular, flops down at a table and smiles. The Dusty Road is a tough bar, but the owner, who’s been known to bounce grandkids on her knee one minute and bounce an unruly bruiser out the door the next, is a cranky but affectionate disciplinarian.

With the rise of the downtown entertainment district in the early ’90s and the subsequent demise of such legendary joints as The Turf and Skull’s Rainbow Room, The Dusty Road is one of the last of a particular type of Nashville honky-tonk. Though it’s only a few blocks south of Lower Broad, this neon-lit cinderblock bunker is characteristic of what was the norm on that strip not more than 15 years ago: a dark, musty, sad, yet welcoming watering hole where country legends and wannabes, regular folks and the down-and-out, can all be guaranteed cold beer and smoky anonymity.

A half-dozen or so other clubs currently thriving on Lower Broadway—including Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Roberts Western World and Jim and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn—are also bearers of this lineage. Since Gaylordization, however, these clubs have been granted a sort of Country Music Hall of Fame seal of approval, a subtle sanitization and self-conscious “funkiness” that didn’t exist on old Lower Broad. What distinguishes Norma’s Dusty Road these days is the completely unselfconscious nature of its melancholy.

Aesthetically, the bar is classic. Its walls boast one of the greatest collections of black-and-white country music promotional photographs anywhere. Faded shots of The Carter Family, Faron Young, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce and Ray Price are mixed indiscriminately with unknowns such as Max Powell and the Nitelifers and contemporary favorites like Alan Jackson and Joe Diffie. Above the bar is a 5-foot-tall painting of an astonishingly well-endowed topless woman, her thumbs tucked seductively inside partially zipped low-rise jeans. Local singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, once a Dusty Road regular himself, has dubbed the work “the greatest barroom nude ever.”

Norma is somewhat coy about her acquisition of the painting. “That’s a secret!” she scolds, allowing only that “the girl was painted by a guy in New York.” (The artist’s name, Gill, and the date, 1967, are inscribed in the lower right corner.) Directly underneath the nude blonde, in the same barn-wood-style frame, is a much smaller print of a baby in exactly the same pose. Whether this remarkable juxtaposition was planned or mere coincidence is, again, not a matter Norma wishes to discuss. “Somebody brought me [the baby print] out of Progressive Farmer magazine, and I found the frame,” is all she’ll say.

Born and raised outside of McMinnville, Tenn., Norma Bogle followed an ex-husband, “who will remain nameless,” to Nashville in 1960. She went on to operate several bars in the Middle Tennessee area, eventually taking over The Dusty Road from its former owner, bass player Bobby Green. Green’s image is still a big part of the tavern—a life-size silhouette of him with his instrument graces one of the walls, as does a 1970 photo showing Green completely surrounded by members of a Vanderbilt sorority. One of the smiling girls holds a hand-lettered poster that reads “SEX.”

By the time Norma took possession of The Dusty Road in 1978, the tavern already had a long history. It’s the oldest licensed beer bar in Nashville, having served “the coldest in town” since 1938 (the year Norma was born, coincidentally). After fire destroyed the original location on Woodland Street in 1993, Norma reopened in what used to be Malone’s Restaurant, a diner that received mixed reviews at best. “I’ve been here almost eight years now, and I’m still trying to live that down,” she jokes.

The authentic feel of The Dusty Road has not escaped the attention of Nashville’s film and video community, and the bar has been the setting for several music videos, most notably Ray Charles’ “3/4 Time” and Alan Jackson’s “www.memories.” A sign painted on the old Woodland Street location advertised “Coldest Beer in Town - Jam Sessions Nightly - Instruments Provided - Truckers Welcome,” and over the years many of the music industry’s grittier personalities have found themselves drawn to the tavern’s tiny stage. Country outlaw David Allan Coe played his first Nashville gigs there, Norma remembers, “although he probably wouldn’t admit it now.... He slept out back in an old car, and he owed just about everybody in the place.”

There was the night U2 dropped in a few years back. The Irish band had been in town working with producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, and McLaughlin, who’d been hanging out in the studio, said, “Let’s go to The Dusty Road!” “Yeah, Pat came in here with a bunch of ’em,” Norma recalls, “and that drummer [Larry Mullen Jr.] got behind the drums and was beatin’ the hell out of ’em.... I couldn’t hear nothin’ else, so I went up there and threw him off the stage. My kids like to kill me when I told ’em about it the next day. ‘U2 who?’ I said. I’m still not sure who they are.”

In another lifetime, Norma Bogle might have been running a high-class establishment; after all, she’s a hardworking, engaging, responsible businesswoman. As it is, she tirelessly cashes payroll checks and serves Pabst Blue Ribbon in frosty highball glasses to day laborers, wayward musicians and failing college students. There’s no denying the air of hopelessness in the place. Norma’s also had some health issues of late. Two bouts with pneumonia require that she keep oxygen tanks behind the bar alongside the cold kegs of beer. “All the previous owners have died of either throat or lung cancer,” she admits philosophically, “so it doesn’t look good for me, does it?” Recent attempts to hold the bar’s annual “Old Timers’ Reunion” have been scrapped, she says, because “people started dying off.”

Of course, it’s this sense of mortality and decay that distinguishes The Dusty Road—what makes it a real joint and not a museum piece. “She wants a classy place,” notes McLaughlin, “but instead she’s got the greatest honky-tonk ever.” Melancholy it may be, but The Dusty Road is also an entertaining, welcoming place. Credit for this is due entirely to Norma Bogle, with her heartfelt commentary, no-nonsense attitude and willingness to lend an ear. It’s no wonder that a customer, down-and-out or otherwise, might want to call her “mommy.” States McLaughlin, “I never saw any trouble there.... People are on their best behavior, and she’s responsible for that. She’s so beautiful, an attractive person, but you can’t pigeonhole her. She’s all business, and she’s just great.”

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