Audiophiles can also listen to Steve's recording of this adventure.
Southern Comfort, George Jones, and the Gospel of Guns 'n Roses
by Steve LaBate
South on Moreland past the Starlight Drive-In, just outside the perimeter in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Conley, Ga., stands a honky tonk frozen in amber. Inside, under the soft glow of white christmas lights, the wood-paneled walls reverberate with Merle Haggard’s convict anthem “Mama Tried.” Perched atop a wooden barstool, red, white & blue can of High Life in hand, I glance up over the bar, eyes coming to rest on a sign bearing sage advice: “Trust everyone,” it reads. “Just brand your horses.”
It’s after 1 a.m. at Southern Comfort. Thursday has turned to Friday, but the normally rollicking barroom is deader than roadkill. Still, I only get down a few slugs of beer before one of the half-dozen folks present, John, a sensible fellow with a goatee, sets down on the stool to my right.
“Do you know George Jones?” he says.
I stare blankly at him for a moment, wondering if I heard right.
“Not the George Jones,” he says, picking up on my perplexed look. “George Jones. He plays bass in the house band. And he owns this place. At least he did until last year.”
Back then, John explains, SoCo found itself in a heap of trouble. First, cops busted the joint for paying out on video poker, and before long they were back again, hassling a bartender they suspected was selling weed. “George didn’t need this shit,” says John. “There was just too damn much heat. So George did what he had to do—he sold this place to the A-rabs.”
While Southern Comfort is indeed under new ownership for the first time in years, little if anything has changed. This is not a place made to look like Gilley’s in Urban Cowboy, it’s the genuine article. For decades, the bar’s loyal, hard-drinking clientele—shift workers, bikers, truckers and the occasional mustachioed East Atlanta refugee—has kept the place afloat, returning faithfully for Southern Comfort’s nightly live music, rowdy karaoke, cheap booze, sharp-tongued bartenders and regulars who could’ve stumbled straight from the pages of a Harry Crews novel.
It’s now 2 a.m. John has to be at his warehouse job in three hours. Unfazed, he sips a Budweiser, rambling on about his baby’s mama, who used to dance across the street at Club Blaze. Just as he’s getting to the nitty gritty, an unprovoked torrent of profanity blasts us from the opposite end of the bar, where a spindly, mean-looking son of a bitch with a cascading mullet glares at me over the shoulder of his squat, squinch-faced girlfriend. John and the bartender are suddenly tense. I’m not worried, though, because I know something they don’t. Mullet is hollering the lyrics to Guns N’ Roses kiss-off “Get in the Ring,” and when I yell back the next few lines, I’ve got myself a new best friend.
He squanders nary a second in testifying on behalf of his beleaguered cock-rock heroes. “People laugh at Axl Rose,” he says. “They disrespect him, but he’s the greatest singer ever. Lennon plus McCartney equals Axl Rose. Who’s better? Jim Morrison? Kurt Cobain? Buuuuuullllllshit.”
As I nod along, spitting amens like a good choir member, Mullet’s girlfriend grows restless. “Are you finished yet?” she’d snarl every few minutes, the steam swirling faster and faster behind her irises.
Unrepentant, Mullet never dignified her protests with a response. “Guns N’ Roses were goddamned musical geniuses,” he’d continue, smearing the words, his tongue a bourbon-swollen paintbrush. “Someday people will understand. Axl ain’t gonna be around forever, you know. Someday...”
“I’m ready to leave!” the Little Teapot whistled, finally boiling over. “Are you coming or not?!” Mullet stared at me for a moment, unblinking, silent. “Someday,” he said, “Axl Rose is gonna die.”
And with that, Teapot barreled toward the exit, barroom door slamming behind her like a thunderclap.
“Yessir,” said Mullet, “And when he dies, it’s going to be very... emotional.”
Steve LaBate is a writer, editor, musician and generally goodhearted miscreant living and learning in Atlanta. He was associate editor at Paste from 2003-2010, and is currently working on his first book, 40 Nights of Rock & Roll: A Life-Affirming Death March through the Heart of Rock Music on the Road in America.