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Feature

The Search for America's Greatest Dive Bar

 

Nestled between a renovated McDonalds and Nashville’s most popular family park is an unlikely location for Nashville’s strongest candidate in the competition for ‘America’s best dive bar’ - The Springwater Supper Club. The name evokes a mental image of a late-night eatery or expensive jazz joint. Whether intended as a tongue-in-cheek jab at Nashville’s growing nouveau-riche population, or the bar has fallen far short of its original expectations, the Springwater Supper Club is neither a club nor a place to get “supper.”

Serving hamburgers and chicken tenders in a barely code-compliant cinderblock hut outside of the bar and selling beer by the can cheaper than the Piggly Wiggly around the corner, the Springwater Supper Club is one of the last true “dives” this far south of the Appalachians.
The smell of cigarette smoke is detectable 20 feet outside of the bar, and on nights with punk rockers in attendance hints of marijuana sneak through the patio fence. Inside, old carpet, mismatched tables and chairs, Budweiser promotional posters from the 1980’s, a browning pool table, and a barely-there sound system and stage make up the decor.

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Covering the walls are cigarette-stained band stickers from local and touring acts of the last 25 years and during a recent visit, the sole bartender of the night regaled my friend and I with stories of bonfires with musician Justin Townes Earle and tour stories from “that one time” he helped his friend’s band open for Chicago’s alt-country stars, Wilco. The stories are set against a backdrop of ceiling fan hum and speaker noise from the bands behind us playing to an empty room. This is a typical night.

But for everything the Springwater isn’t, at it’s core is something intangible - something that’s disappearing hastily throughout the country.

After Nashville’s most famous recording studio, RCA Studio A, was almost knocked to the ground to make room for luxury condominiums, the true cost of development made itself clear. The story is familiar - bars and eateries across the country, true local staples, are closing with regularity to make room for housing, craft breweries, and coffee houses for an increasingly younger population. And the city’s original residents aren’t sure where their city is going.

Located in one of Nashville’s more affluent neighborhoods, surrounded by new construction, the Springwater Supper Club feels like a middle finger to Music-City’s development plans.

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The Supper Club’s regulars include working professionals looking to unwind after a hard day at the office and scruffy Nashville punks scouring for a cheap drink. Attendance is typically low, barely enough to pay the bar-staff, and the morale behind the eyes of many patrons hints at long-winded stories about where life went wrong - the room is generally quiet.

Ask anyone at the dive bar of their town why they choose to drink there over one of the many new watering-holes in the area and the answers will resonate with similarity - This is the bar they remember. This is the bar that’s always been. Unchanged and untouched by the tides of time, inside, the city stands still.

While there’s stiff competition in the race to the bottom for the worst, or “diviest” bar in America, it will always be impossible to find a clear winner. Highways across the country are littered with biker bars and dive bars lost to the times - bars that never got the memo that smoking inside wasn’t cool anymore or that a craft-beer list was a necessary accompaniment to the food. Driving through “Bourbon Country,” Nashville to Lexington, the true emptiness of the country makes itself known. The suburbs of major cities start to fade away and new meaning is given to the term “dive bar.” In many cases, these bars are the only place in town to get a cheap drink. But as the move to expand outwards from congested city-centers increases with pace, even these remote “dives” risk losing their land to something bigger than them.

Bars like the Springwater Supper Club hang around not because they’re brimming with customers, but because they’re the last beacon of a community that’s slowly eroding away. They’re the first and last bars written in their town’s history books and losing them is like losing a landmark. Their beer lists will never make them cool, their carpets will never smell fresh, and their drinkers won’t get any younger, but the stories hidden in the walls of dive bars around the country, stories unavailable anywhere else, are what keep them alive.

But maybe one day they’ll make a nice foundation for a new supper club.