Fear and Loathing in West Knoxville

A short barhopping tour out in West Knoxville


by Kevin Crowe

Maybe he's drunk. The stately, plump man leans over his glass of whiskey, waving his hands wildly in the air. â“Hey! Hey!â” he yells to the young, pretty bartender. â“You can sing this song?â” The band hasn't even set up yet. The bartender, she's all smiles, enjoying the attention before the guitarist steps onstage for a sound check.

Check, one? Check?


I'm in the 410-acre Turkey Creek development, at the Irish Times pub, between Lovell Road and Campbell Station. Barely in Knoxville, right next to the Farragut city line.

With over 1.5 million square feet of retail space, a million feet of office space, and a half-million feet of restaurants and entertainment, it's the biggest single development in Knoxville's history, and it cut through 22 acres of wetland, which continues to be a source of controversy. But it keeps getting bigger, year after year, luring more suburbanites than ever before. They come in droves, looking for a release.

Walking into Irish Times is like walking onto the set of an old spaghetti western.

It's all ersatz, as if it's been designed by a good stage director. Vintage Guinness adsâ" My goodness my Guinness â"decorate the walls. The bar is large and wooden, just like what you'd expect to find in a swanky Dublin pub. Everything is brand spanking new, crafted to feel like vintage décor. Behind the stage there's a nice brick façade, to give the place a homey, perhaps Hibernian look. Above my head, large industrial air ducts run across the ceiling. A thin veneer of Irishness hides the fact that we're still in a strip mall. Maybe it's enough to take us away, even if it's just for a moment. The Guinness, however, is real, served colder than any pint I've ever had. A shamrock is etched into the foam.

Everyone's lost, enjoying the moment. The pints never stop flowing. Voices come together into an indecipherable cloud of nonsense. Finally, the band starts playing. â“Welcome one and all to the Irish Times pub,â” a voice says over the loudspeaker. â“We're the Graceful Failures, and we're going to be your entertainment tonight. If there are things you'd like to hear, please feel free to grab a song list from our tip bucket.â”

Singer Scott Sokoloski's voice is crisp and clear, as he works his way through a few easy-listening tunes without much effort. He holds up his tambourine and says, â“I finally got a new one, had my old tambourine stolen a while back.â” Jean-Louis Lawson smiles, wearing his ballcap backwards, and he keeps playing his acoustic guitar, strumming chords together even   when he's just bantering with the crowd.

These guys aren't here to stroke their own egos; they're here to play, nothing more. Dreams of superstardom aren't bringing them out night after night. Every now and again, a woman screams her approval. That's enough to keep the music playing.

There are no famous people here. It's just a bar, a brief escape from reality. â“What's the matter ladies?â” a barkeep asks in his singsong Irish accent. â“I'm sorry you didn't get a more attractive serverâ. Well, I got to play the hand that God dealt me.â”

"Look out for the vomit,â” a server says when I walk into Bailey's, in the Windsor Square shopping center. â“There's more, over there.â” He points towards a small table next to the window. On the floor there's a dank wad of paper towels.

Pool tables are everywhere. The waitress, wearing a dangerously short plaid skirt, seems to enjoy the attention she gets from random drunks. Barflies tend to come up to her when they order fresh rounds; she must walk less than any server in town.

Nearby, during a beery game of pool, someone misses an easy shot. â“Dammit!â” he roars, holding the cue over his head before he hurls it to the floor and watches it bounce across the room. No one seems to notice, much less care.

â“I'm drunk,â” he says, not as an apology for acting like an idiot, but as an excuse for missing his shot. The games go on.

And the nightlife, so far removed from the energy of downtown Knoxville, has a life all its own. Here, on a Thursday night, the parking lot is packed.

â“The interstate bridges the gap between us and the culture of Downtown Knoxville and the University,â” Bob Grimac wrote in the early '80s for West Side Story , a paper that was distributed to West Knox residents to highlight development projects in the area. â“West Knoxville proves a balanced community for all her citizens,â” Grimac continued, â“Two years ago you had to drive six miles to a hamburger stand, if you lived in Cedar Bluffâ 10 miles if you lived in Village Green.â”

A little farther west, in a dimly lit hallway leading towards the kitchen at Bullfeathers, there's a 12-point buck's head mounted on the wall. Next to the buck is a sign that reads, â“I can't feel my legs!â” It's a forgotten piece of kitsch, looming in the shadows.


Here comes the â"

Boom! everyone shouts in unison. Two thirtysomethings are onstage, giving the audience a taste of suburban hardcore rap. The woman, wearing what appears to be casual Friday attire, is spitting the same rhymes that made Public Enemy seem so fierce back in the early '90s. Her partner, a skinny drink of water, stands perfectly still, waiting until it's time to go Boom! once again.

And the crowd eats it up. â“Got to keep you guessing,â” the woman says as she steps off the stage.

â“Oh, yeah, wow,â” says a young prep, his collar popped and his sunglasses resting on his forehead as he heads towards the mike. He begins a flawless rendition of Puddle of Mud's â“She Hates Me.â”

They take karaoke seriously at Bullfeathers. Every Wednesday night $3,000 in prize money is given away to the best of the best, those who can keep singing under the pressure of a karaoke battle royale. This isn't the drunken carwreck brand of singing that we love so much. These performersâ"and they are performersâ"have turned karaoke into a sport.

There isn't a contest tonight, no money will be handed out, but there's no shortage of willing participants. No need to wait for would-be singers to pound a few pitchers before building up enough courage to stand up on the dais with only their voices to protect them. I see musical gladiators, constantly honing their craft, finding better ways to ape someone else's music.

â“Where are my back up girls,â” the emcee asks. Two blondes stand up and follow him to the stage. The music starts and it's â“Summer Nightsâ” from Grease . Over at the bar, a small group of sports fans shout woo-hoos while watching basketball.

But they only cheer in between songs, a favor to their karaoke overlords.

Farther west still, into Farragut proper, there's a quaint little beer hall called Oskie's. It's delightfully blue-collar, filled with old folk in cowboy hats and women in tight jeans.

â“Y'all know that song â‘I'm Going Straight to Hell?'â” a boozehound hollers. The band's a ragtag group of geezers, winos and a few primo musicians. A young kid plays the guitar in a fluid blues-style. He begins Jimi Hendrix's â“Purple Hazeâ” and, when he's soloing, he pulls his axe behind his head, never missing a single note.

The crowd, of course, loves the kid. â“Hey,â” the boozy voice comes again, â“Y'all know that song â‘I'm Going Straight to Hell?'â” He never gets an answer, and the bar chitchat continues. Only the strangest bits of conversation seem to jump out above the rest:

â"I rolled in around 2:30 this morning. That's the earliest I've come home in, uh, five days.


â"Don't have to tell me twice! Today a bunch of builders were complaining about dust. We did five jobs today.

â"I'll probably end up in jail on the way home.

â"If I wanted a trick, I'd pay 20 bucks out on Magnolia!

â"I don't give a damn! Don't go around patting another girl on the ass!

â“Let's have Cameron do a couple of songs,â” the bassist says, â“and then we'll say goodnight.â” They play John Lennon's â“Imagine,â” and the whole bar calms down a bit, quietly drinking their beers.

Imagine all the people

Living for today

They're out here looking for a reprieve, a way to make it all slow down. Thank goodness there's music everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Everywhere people are screaming to get noticed, to connect with other human beings for one peaceful moment. It happens out here every night, just like every pub on the planet. Everyone will come back, looking for another fix, then they'll do it again. Women will yell at their beery tomcat boyfriends. Drunks will continue to act like idiots. And, somewhere in the corner, the music goes on, lulling us into a temporary state of beautiful security. However long that moment may be, only time will tell.


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