Words: Katie Lambert | Photos: Mary Kelly Clary
When Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers played Smith's Olde Bar, the power went out. In the middle of summer. In Atlanta. 300 people. No air conditioning, no lights, no computers to run credit cards for beers and bourbon. The bartender scrambled to place candles along the stage while managers ran to their cars to search for extension cords. The power was out, but the band kept playing, lit by cell phones, flashlights, lighters, and candles, while the crowd sang along. And then Smith's cleaned out Kroger's freeze pop inventory.
You come as you are to a dive bar.
The décor is framed day-of posters and band stickers. The floors are sticky. The liquor selection runs from cheap whiskey to less-cheap whiskey. There's not a lot of room for bullshit, unless it's of the storytelling variety… in which case, pull up a chair, friend.
Smith's Olde Bar has the feel of a dive bar without the stink. You can let your hair down but you can trust that (most of) the bathroom stalls have doors. The barbecue, wings and catfish are killer.
What sets Smith's apart from many of Atlanta's other dives is its music pedigree. David Bowie has graced that stage. So have Sean Lennon, Janelle Monae, Kings of Leon, Big Boi, Leon Russell, Juliette Lewis and the Licks, Bush, Todd Nance of Widespread Panic, John Mayer, Bjork with The Sugarcubes, B.o.B.
This place is full of stories. Bruce Springsteen and legendary producer Brendan O'Brien slipped in to see Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman, play while they were working on a record in town. Vanessa Carlton's piano broke here. (They bought her a new one.) And one band is banned after an unfortunate incident that should have involved a toilet but regrettably did not.
The patch of property was Atlanta's first strip mall.
When it opened, Model T's idled outside the hardware store. The space that's now Smith's was once home to Gene and Gabe's, a long-running dinner theater and cabaret hosting the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Rock Hudson in the audience.
Beverly Taylor, the woman who owned this land, passed away this year at the age of 97, and developers are eyeing this corner at the busy intersection of Piedmont and Monroe.
Dan Nolen, co-owner of Smith's (and Birmingham's The Nick) went to court to fight the Taylor children for the right to negotiate the opportunity of a lease with the new owners. He won that battle, but the future of Smith's is still murky. "Smith's has been a third of my life," says Dan. "I'll fight like hell, and I'll be glad I did. I want to maintain the character and integrity of what we have."
And if this is the end? "I had fun, made a little money, moved some careers along. It's been worth it," Dan resolves.
We sat down with some of Smith's employees and a few bands to raise a glass and reminisce.
"The first time I saw the space, it was Gene & Gabe's, a dinner theater. Mike [Reeves, Nolen's business partner] was dating an actress in the play. Then that went out of business, and the next place went out of business. When we did our walk-through, the power was off and the space looked like Pompeii — cigarettes half-smoked and left behind. Most everybody said it would never work. That's when you know you need to do it."
Dan Nolen, co-owner
"I probably spent way more money at the bar than I ever made playing shows there. There was one time that I used to work the door, collecting money and checking IDs, and then I would turn around and play sold-out shows there whenever we would play in town under whatever band name I was going by at the time. It's a place that always made me feel welcome and feel at home because I never fit in quite anywhere or with any particular scene. They didn't judge me for my crazy clothes or my makeup that I would wear back when I dressed probably more like my sister than a man. I think there are some places that are timeless and Smith's was one of those. It was our Cheers."
Butch Walker, musician
"It's the biggest intimate spot. 300 people fit, but when there are 300 people there, it seems small even when it’s packed full of people. You're right there on top of the artist and you can feel the energy coursing through the crowd."
Brittany Burdett, assistant talent buyer, bartender, Smith's employee for 12 years
"I can't tell you how many times I've stood on the side of that stage and watched some of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. Like on the last night of [fundraiser] 500 Songs for Kids — it's 3 in the morning and Butch Walker and 30 people are singing onstage together."
Sean McPherson, door guy turned sound guy turned principal talent buyer, Smith's employee for 10 years
"When I think of Smith's, I think of hot summer nights, rowdy drunk crowds and a great staff. We cut our teeth there and it was a huge milestone for us the first time we sold it out. It will always be a special spot for TWG. Thanks Dan Nolen for giving us a shot."
Jason Morrow, musician, The Whiskey Gentry
"You really can't call yourself a 90's musician unless you've walked out of the front door of Smith's Olde Bar with the sun coming up."
Edwin McCain, musician
"Our crowd is really chill and laid back, and we have people from all walks of life. We have an occasional asshole now and then. And then we have a good time showing them that we don’t tolerate assholes in our bar."
"What can I say, I've had a lot of great shows there. I'm not going to miss the upstairs load-in. I think every band will agree with that. I love the curtain, I love the history of it, I know Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith all played on that stage in that bar at one time, back in the 50s when it was a steak joint. At least that's the history that I've been told… I'll be sad to see it go [if it does], but I'm sure it will rise up again somewhere else in the city. It's not the really the club that makes the club. It's the people that make a club."
Kevin Kinney, musician, Drivin' N Cryin'
"When I moved to Atlanta in 2005, Smith's was one of THE places to play. My band at the time, Winston Audio, were turned down the first few times we tried to get a show there. When we finally had a shiny new record, they finally said yes, and it was a big moment for us. We handed out flyers, harassed friends, and bribed family members to try and get a crowd there so it wouldn't be the last time. If you've played at Smith's or seen a show there, you know about the curtain. Every band sets up and sound checks behind a curtain, mysteriously, and is then revealed to the audience when 'all systems are go.' So we set up, got our guitars to approximate Kurt Cobain's the best we could, but had no idea what type of crowd was waiting behind the curtain. The snare was cracking, the vocals were checkin', and we were READY to be revealed. The sound man asks through the monitors if we're ready, we are, and the curtain starts to pull back to reveal... our singers' parents and no more than 5 friends, all at least a healthy 10-15 yards from the stage. I imagine everyone in the bands' stomachs dropped like mine, but I know for a fact that our drummers' did, because he messed up the stick click into the first song. We false-started the set and I can't give you many details after that, other than the type of shoes I was wearing: black Vans, because thats where my eyes were fixated for the rest of the night." Daniel Gleason, musician, Grouplove
"Smith's is always a reliable venue with a reliable roster. Some of the best-themed backstage graffiti. I'm happy that 'Poopway Handle Band' is among the likes of 'Diarrhethra Franklin.'" Josh Erwin, musician, Parkway Handle Band