West Knoxville's Cotton Eyed Joe Still the Home of Line Dancing

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: Dance

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this fourth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different forms of dance in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

"Lord we're having a good time..."

The first strands of Alan Jackson's peppy tune peel off and the dancers move onto the floor, entering below the widescreen television broadcasting the Nebraska-Vandy game. The first three are already in a line, perfectly staggered a yard apart each, looking like night-clubbing Beatles crossing Abbey Road.

For this, and all the line dances on the wide, burnished floor this Thursday night at Cotton Eyed Joe, it's the same. No eye contact, heads held high—if they're singing along, you can't hear it. A song equals a specific dance that entails certain steps, and everyone on the floor does it the same way.

Everyone. The woman in hipster glasses, over-the-knee stockings, mini-jeans skirt, with legs up to there, and intricate tattoo on her upper arm. The man in a powder blue sleeveless nylon shirt beside her, with white athletic shoes and nice biceps. And the older gent with bolo tie and the tiny woman with short hair and bright-red long pants, in front of the woman with shoulder-length white-blonde hair and silver hoop earrings.

"Been working all week..." A.J. belts, and they slide, turn, thrust, with Stockings giving it a sexy pelvic tip; Bolo Tie missing half a beat and righting himself; no one laughs.

Club Dance stopped airing in 1999; most of the big line-dance songs are a decade old. Still, dozens of people are here to line dance already and it's just a few minutes past 7 p.m. Maybe 40 more are drinking Bud and Miller Lite from what looks like giant plastic measuring cups poured into little translucent disposables; sitting at barrel-based tables facing the dance floor.

The DJ talks from the front end of a Mack truck rigged for his equipment. He's William "Bubba" Jones, and he teaches line dancing on Sundays, deejays some other nights. He's a big guy, with artificially lightened hair and a little hoop earring, and a giant black T-shirt with some silver printing on it; he doesn't even know what it says, just liked the way it looks.

It's no coincidence he got his nickname and started dancing in 1993, the same year Shenandoah came out with the video and song "If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)," complete with the video of an overalled Bubba picking up steps. "Gunner from WIVK just put two and two together; that Bubba was a heavier set guy, too, and that's been my name ever since."

This Bubba lost 150 pounds dancing, though he allows as some of it has snuck back onto his frame. He says that at Cotton Eyed Joe, line dancing is "just as popular as it ever was. We fill the floors on the weekends, and have a decent crowd most all the time." The most popular songs include Lou Bega's 1999 "Tricky Tricky" with it's super fast slide moves ("I am what I am/So damn") and a newer one, 2009's "Cha Cha Slide" ("Cha cha now y'all/Last time to get funky") from DJ Casper; Bubba's teaching that one on Sundays.

The opening chords from Bubba's next selection still earn a few laughs before the whole place picks up the pace. Everyone's in two lines, no touching, "five, six, seven, eight, to the right, to the left, back it up..."

It sounds like hip hop, but the expressions don't change, or the outfits—only the movements. What is that song?

"Booty Call," a young woman in brown cords declares soberly. She's dancing by herself next to a table where a white-haired woman sits quietly, drinking water.

This is only a surprise to those who don't frequent the Cotton Eyed Joe, Silver Hoop Earrings explains later. "A lot of people have the wrong impression," she says, "think we're pure country. But the club has a little of everything. A lot of women come in to have their bachelorette parties here, they have a real good time."

She's Debby Whitson, and she's in a picture on the wall of the line-dance group Bubba used to have, near the sign that says Dale Earnhardt Drive and a banner advertising the Boots and Boxers contest. "We used to do parades and contests, all that," she says.

That fell through a few years back, not, says Whitson, because line dancing got any less popular—the group couldn't keep up with days jobs and schedule conflicts. She still comes here several nights a week. "My friend from Sweetwater, her husband made her a CD with an hour's worth of the most popular songs. On Tuesdays, they let us come here from 6-7 and dance before the others get started."

She sits out the first part of the free dance lessons—it's for couples. On the floor, Jim, in jeans and a loose gray T-shirt, is pairing people who would never meet outside the bar, like Stockings and a whippet thin mustachioed man with a shiny belt and Gregg Allman-type black leather brimmed hat.

Jim's's instructing partner is Lisa, who's wearing sandals, painted toenails, khakis, and a knit top. He's miked, using phrases like "six count sugar push" and tossing off easy lines like, "Ladies, stay in a straight line, he'll get out of the way!"

He and Lisa demonstrate, and they're fluid. Her hips tip side to side as she treads a perfectly straight line, he somehow keeps his shoulders square and still darts his eyes left and right to see if the couples are catching it.

Meanwhile, freshly showered college-aged kids cluster in the corner, near what's surely Knoxville's only dedicated beer pong table. "We don't line dance; we like to come here on Thursdays ‘cause the beer is free," says one baby face with short brown hair and tucked in T-shirt. "‘Course, I still had to pay $3 and she got in free; they should do something about that!"

Bubba's started up some more in between-lesson music, and it does all the emoting. "You say I'm a rapper. I say no," throws out Cupid in the 2007 "Cupid Shuffle."

The line dancers are straight-faced, working together, a beautiful formation, a toe-tapping flock of birds—but no leader. One time in the "Cupid Shuffle," it's as if the viewer is riding a slow bus past them, as they stand in place, so even are their movements, so disciplined their spacing as they dance. "Now kick now kick now come on baby kick."

Lisa teaches the group line dance class, by herself. She's got a sweet voice, and most everyone can follow along, though these dancers study their feet, and her feet. "Rock, step, hitch," she croons. Then, "now I don't care how you buck your hips" and "half turn, sailor shuffle."

It's about 8:30 now, getting more crowded. A desultory couple of tables watches a young lady take a try at an Urban Cowboy-vintage mechanical bull. She bucks, makes a heartfelt but slightly rude remark about a sore part of her anatomy, then goes again, faster.

In the booth, Bubba bides his time. "We do the national anthem, every night, we're the only club I know that does," he says. "After the lesson, we'll do that, and then everyone comes out because we do our club song, the Cotton Eyed Joe. People will always love that."

By then it will be nine. "And I'm off," he says. "At nine I get to dance."