Scrolling through Instagram earlier this week, I noticed a post from Jason Isbell’s account that momentarily stopped my thumb from sliding down my screen: Isbell’s seminal album, Southeastern, was turning ten years old.
There are countless clichés about the passing of time and how it speeds up the older we get, but every so often, those clichés reach out of that fourth dimension and slap us across the face just to make sure we know they are, in fact, true.
Time keeps on ticking away.
The sands of time fall faster at the bottom of the hourglass.
Time waits for no man.
Surely, Southeastern couldn’t be ten years old. There’s no way I’m about to be 44. Where did the last decade go?
There are a few markers of time that I’ve used as anchors to do my best not to be swept away by this invisible river whose current seems to grow stronger every year: Aaron Rodgers, Jason Isbell, and multiple tattoos, to name a few. Isbell and Rodgers being the most prevalent.
Two weeks ago, I watched Aaron Rodgers slowly and sadly take two steps toward the sideline after being sacked, shake his head, and knowingly ease his body down on the turf. His Achilles ruptured, an unfamiliar green on his jersey, and his season finished. The ticking in my ear growing louder as I watched.
When I saw Isbell’s post about Southeastern, the ticking amplified. It wasn’t all panic on my end, though. It also gave me a chance to reflect. For whatever reason, when I placed the record on my turntable later that day, the music conjured some hazy, smoke-filled memories of a place I had visited often in the last decade.
For all the growth Downtown Jackson has seen during the last year or two, one place may not get the attention it deserves. It’s been tucked away on the northern end of the square, adjacent to the Birmingham Building, for almost twenty years. It’s seen its fair share of challenges and obstacles and come out on the other side of all of them. It’s a bar with church pews – a hazy sanctuary open to everyone; the smoke creating imperfect halos if seen from just the right angle through eyes heavy with a good buzz—a holy place.
Ten years ago, on most Friday afternoons – after the carpool lines had dissipated – some fellow educators and I would caravan downtown to the Downtown Tavern. We liked that early afternoon crowd; the older crowd was the quiet crowd, and we could sit against the wall across from the bar and talk and drink as the light faded through the windows – rays cutting lines through the fog of smoke.
We’d sit on the long pew until it was dark, until someone manned the door and started collecting cover charges for that night’s band. From 3:00 in the afternoon to about 9:00 or later, we’d watch the crowd change from the after-work, middle-aged crew to the Friday night bangers ready for a big weekend. Over time, the faces became familiar, like clockwork. An organic group began to form, and you knew who you would see when you walked in, depending on the hour of the evening. It was comforting and familiar; most importantly, it was inclusive.
Molly Parker owned the Tavern back then, and she and I would talk when she was tending bar. She knew about my daughter in Texas and my travels back and forth. She knew my friends from school and would welcome us every Friday afternoon. She would ask about them if I was there by myself.
Molly Parker eventually became Molly Parker Smith, sold the business and moved out of state. Time marches on, but the Tavern stayed.
With any transition, there were questions and some concerns. Those were quickly answered when Walt and Michelle James purchased it and continued to keep the familial vibe that had always made 208 N. Liberty Street so unique.
A new routine emerged for me as I crept toward 40. I couldn’t drink whiskey for seven hours straight on a Friday night anymore, so I’d bring a book on a weekday afternoon and sit and read and sip a bourbon (neat) while I read. Sometimes, after I’d officiated a basketball game out of town, I’d drop by the Tavern for a shot of Jack and a chaser of Bud.
One Tuesday night, after a game in Adamsville, I stopped at the bar. Grayson Knowlton was pouring drinks, and Wendy Graham and Dylan Evans were sitting at the bar. They were the only ones there. I bellied up and ordered my usual. We talked and drank for about 45 minutes, and then Grayson closed the curtains to the front windows, signaling closing time. But we stayed, the four of us. I found myself looking toward the windows where I would watch the light pour through on those Friday afternoons, but on that particular night, the curtains were drawn, and the Tavern felt completely different. It was insulated and intimate, and I realized that the people I was with that night – while not close friends – were friends I had met at this holy place. I knew each of them in different contexts, but the common denominator was this bar.
I have countless stories like the one above, stories that are personal and familiar – like a dream that you don’t want to leave when you wake up.
Walt and Michelle eventually sold the Tavern, then COVID hit, and the bar was closed for over a year. When it re-opened, however, there was a new energy to it, an energy infused by new owner Melanie Lupino.
Melanie has poured a lot of drinks for me over the years. She tended bar at the Tavern before she owned it, and the vibe she emanates is undeniable. That vibe now imbibes the Tavern as a reflection of its owner. Like all of us, the bar has aged and evolved.
Since the Tavern re-opened two years ago, I’ve only been once or twice. Time has kept its steady pace, and that forward trajectory has brought many changes for me. My daughter moved to Tennessee and lives with me full time; I’m well into my forties now, and alcohol doesn’t agree with my body as much as it used to. It’s not that I’ve outgrown the Tavern; it’s just that I don’t have as much time to make space for it as I used to have. But some nights, I miss it terribly.
A few days ago, I got word that the Tavern was in danger of closing. Like the Isbell album and Aaron Rodgers’ right arm, I realized that this place was also a time anchor for me – something that has been consistent and important during the last decade. I’m not the only person who connects to the bar in that way. There are so many others who have their own stories and memories of time spent there on lazy afternoons or boisterous Friday nights. They’ve made friends, met future spouses, and probably had too much to drink a time or two.
Downtown Jackson has seen a recent resurgence, but what can make Jackson and downtown truly special is the diversity of its establishments. We need the yin and the yang that Hub City Brewery and the Downtown Tavern provide. We need a smoke-filled bar with loud music and high ceilings where people can sit and talk or dance a weekend night away with a live band. We need a tavern in Jackson; we need THE Tavern in Jackson.
On Saturday night, September 30, the Tavern is hosting a big bash – 20 dollar cover. Let’s do what we need to do to keep a special place alive. This is a church for some people; this is a holy place. That’s not sacrilege; it’s truth.
I’ve changed a lot in the last decade, mainly for the better. The Tavern, too, has gone through different iterations of itself but has still served the purpose it always has – being a place for people to connect, a community accepting of everyone, the best version of a secular church.
There’s a song on that Isbell album that was released ten years ago that still resonates with me when I think of what the Tavern has meant to all of us. These lines have nothing to do with how the drinks taste but everything to do with the space for connection this bar has always provided its patrons. When Isbell sings the chorus – a chorus that slightly evolves throughout the song – I always picture The Tavern.
And the piss they call tequila, even Waylon wouldn’t drink
Well, I’d rather sip this Listerine I packed
But I swear we’ve never seen a better place to sit and think
God bless the busted ship that brings us back.
The tequila doesn’t taste like piss at The Tavern, and I’d never choose Listerine over bourbon, but the drinks don’t make a bar great; the people do. God bless this busted ship that always brings us back. Let’s keep it afloat.