In the film True Stories, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne plays a documentarian exploring the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, during its 150-year anniversary celebration. Even decked out in a bolo tie and cowboy hat, Byrne — who also directed the film — inserts enough self-reflexive humor and caricature into the picture that his actual New York, art-rock roots are never far beneath the surface.
Now, I like to think of myself as having varied musical tastes. My music collection is all over the place: black metal, house music, experimental noise, classical, jazz, hardcore punk, hip hop, grindcore — the only major genre missing is country.
Yet I've recently learned that Tampa Bay has a really big country music scene, with several wildly popular country bars just a few miles away from me. It's a world that I'd never explored before, so I decided to pull a David Byrne and see what true stories I could dig up right here in town.
It started when I visited The One Night Stand. This downtown St. Pete bar is an unintimidating stepping stone for folks like myself, as it brings in crowds from a wide demographic. Still, there's no question about the genre — a mechanical bull named Mustache is in near-constant operation by the entrance, whiskey barrels stand in place of high-top tables, beer and cocktails are served in Mason jar mugs, and the DJs spin a mix of classic and modern country tunes.
The One Night Stand has solid signature drinks and a premium whiskey selection, but it's also a good for cheap beers and cocktails. Pitchers are $3 on Wednesdays, and drinks are 2-for-1 during the eight-hour long happy hour that starts at noon, seven days a week.
I've heard a lot about The Round Up, a bar and club in Tampa with serious street cred through its affiliation with a major country radio station on "Redneck Fridays," hosted by WQYK 99.5's Steve Austin. Unfortunately, some of the reviews I've read online are unflattering at best, repugnant at worst. (Patrons have accused the bar's employees of everything from hateful comments to flat-out violence.)
Still, I wanted to take a look because the Round Up is one of Tampa's country hotspots, and you can't let a few security folks who misidentified with Road House ruin a good thing for everyone. Unfortunately, some off-color remarks from my bartender only reinforced the negative. On the plus side, the drinks are cheap, and there's a cool Western mural along the wall, depicting a desert panorama populated by cowboys, Native Americans, bobcats and an oasis.
The Waterin' Trough in Clearwater hit a more positive note. This cavernous bar is housed in a building designed to look like a large, red barn, complete with rocking chairs out front. After passing through old-timey saloon doors, you'll immediately notice the huge, 2,500-square-foot dance floor, where line dancing is the name of the game, lessons for which are held four days a week.
The Trough gets slam-packed on weekends, especially on Fridays, featuring a sink-or-swim special. For $10, you get as many drinks as your cowboy hat-wearing bartenders will serve you, and the dance floor is full of line-dancing folks fresh from the evening's lesson. This place has an authentic, honky-tonk vibe that I didn't even know existed around here, and that's easy to like.
Finally, there's the Dallas Bull. The Thursday crowd at this monstrous, 34,000-square-foot, two-story club has to be seen to be believed. It might be the only country bar in the world with valet parking and a line 30-deep on a weekday. Did I mention that there are no fewer than 10 bars inside?
Originally founded in 1979 and moved down the street to its current location in 2006, the Bull is easily the biggest country bar in the area. It's named after the mechanical bull on stage, but the biggest draw is line dancing on Wednesday through Saturday and its concert series, featuring touring acts nearly every weekend. The Dallas Bull is also affiliated with a radio station, U.S.-103.5, and it holds some high-profile events, like this month's official after-party for the Blake Shelton concert.
I didn't end up hooked on country music after this adventure, but I did enjoy my time exploring a culture that was quite foreign to me. I may even be inspired to take a trip back to one or two of these places for a beginner's line-dancing class, something which — to people who know me — must seem stranger than David Byrne as a Texan.
— What's your favorite country bar? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us at @tbtnewspaper with the hashtag #tampabaydrinks.