You've probably never heard of Bowling Green unless its college basketball team, the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, has broken your bracket, one year or another. The city sits between Louisville and Nashville, and people drive there from all over southern Kentucky to eat, to shop, and, most of all, to drink. That's the first thing to know about Bowling Green: Kentucky's counties still divide themselves into "wet" and "dry" camps, with the dry ones prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Bowling Green's county is one of those—except for the city itself, whose wetness makes it a mixed county. The technical term is "moist."
The second thing to know is that Bowling Green, pop. 60,600, is currently home to one of the best music scenes in the country. It starts with Cage the Elephant, a band that's young, popular, and good—three words that almost never go together in modern rock. (Check out their recent performance on Letterman, which got so rowdy it actually woke Dave up.) The city can also claim Sleeper Agent, a snappy retro rock act that's toured with Weezer and fun., and Morning Teleportation, a spacey jam band that's signed with Isaac Brock's label. Like I said, it's one of America's best music scenes—and that's in large part thanks to Tidball's, one of America's best dive bars: seedy and disreputable like all the great dives, born out of the local culture, attuned to it, and suited to exist nowhere else.
Last year, I visited Bowling Green to write a short book about its music scene. (You can buy it here for $1.99—cheaper than a beer, even at Tidball's.) The locals told me that, for long stretches, the city went without much of a club scene. They had to settle for bars fated to close too soon or, worse, to never be missed—Tenth Street East, the 13th Street Cafe, The Nickel Bag, The Tap Room, The Yellow Hydrant, Gary's, O'Pauley's, and many, many more.
That all changed, for a few raucous years, with Picasso's. In the '70s and early '80s, a bluesy musician named Kenny Lee Smith became Bowling Green's first successful rocker. His band was popular enough to tour with Ted Nugent and ZZ Top. In fact, Kenny Lee drew crowds everywhere except his hometown. So, in 1983, he launched a new bar right off downtown Bowling Green's Fountain Square: Picasso's. "I named it that," he says, "because I wanted to send the message out that it was going to be about art, as opposed to your standard hillbilly bar."
Picasso's did what it had to in order to stay open—the house band, the disco ball, the vigorous promotions. (One ex-regular told me about the Bladder Burst, a night when the entire bar paid a cover, then enjoyed unlimited beer until the first person had to pee. "They had to stop it because so many folks were pissing under the table," my source says.) Still, Kenny Lee cared far more about having a good sound system. He was an artist creating a space for other artists, and Bowling Green surprised him with its response. Several Cage the Elephant parents played shows there. A few local acts—Government Cheese, the Kentucky Headhunters—even enjoyed some national success. But eventually, Picasso's shut down. Kenny Lee's touring career was taking off again, and he knew he couldn't do both jobs. "Running a venue is a young man's game," he says. "It'll wear you down."
For Bowling Green's scene to truly flourish, then, it needed what every music scene needs—a stable and supportive venue, an incubator for native talent. That's exactly what it got when Tidball's opened in 2001. Billy Swayze, who fronts another excellent local band, puts it this way: "Without this place I don't think there would be a local music scene. Because this is where it goes down. This is where everybody shows their cards."
Tidball's sits in a squat brick building, just off Fountain Square. The structure dates to the 19th century, but its charms, while considerable, aren't exactly historic. Walk through the main entrance and you'll see a low ceiling that's darkly and irregularly lit. To your left sits the bar with its simple menu ($5.50 pitchers, $3.50 well drinks) and stacks of red plastic cups. In the back there's another room with some pool tables. To your right slouches the tiny stage.
Everything in Tidball's is tiny and grimy. The corners come with lavish cobwebs; the pool tables have stains I wouldn't wish on a hotel bedspread. That low ceiling turns out to be part of a balcony, but even with it the place holds 250, tops. From the balcony you can look down on the thick chains spanning the brick walls and holding the place together. "I guess that's what they're for," John Tidball says with a shrug. "They're doing something."
Tidball owns and operates the bar with his partner, Brian Jarvis. The friends dress alike—T-shirt, sneakers, cargo shorts—except that Tidball accessorizes with a ball cap, while Jarvis opts for a beard. Their philosophy of bar management seems similarly unfussy. "Bartending school is where you go to flip bottles and learn to make fancy orange slices," Jarvis says. At Tidball's there are no theme nights, and you'll find only a couple of TVs for watching sports. The owners are careful to keep the place up to code, but they're also careful not to go too far past that.
It's been this way since the beginning. "The place isn't in great shape now," Jarvis says, "but it was in terrible shape when we bought it." He and Tidball grew up together in White House, Tenn., but by their 20s they'd migrated to Bowling Green and were working at one of those never-missed bars named Kelly Green's. After the owner sacked his entire staff, just before Christmas, Tidball and Jarvis decided to try for their own spot. "The building took every penny we had," Tidball says. With the help of some friends, they tore out the gruesome carpet and light fixtures, painted the walls, built a bar. And that was pretty much it. For opening night, they brought in a bunch of Tupperware tubs for beer, and on his way to work Tidball stopped at Kroger to buy ice. They were hoping for 100 people. They made it to capacity.
Even today, the only thing the bar splurges on is live music. While Jarvis handles the employees and alcohol, Tidball does the bookkeeping and bands. "There weren't that many great local bands before Cage," he says. "I remember thinking early on, 'Let's just get bands that don't run people off.'" Still, he tried to give each act a listen. These were the days of dial-up, and Kenny, who's bartended at Tidball's for a decade, remembers calling his boss and getting a perpetual busy signal: "Shit, Tidball is on MySpace again."
Tidball didn't worry about whether the bands matched his personal taste. "I just tried to think, 'Are they good at what they do?'" he says. His audience asks that same question. "I don't know if it's the town or our crowd," Tidball says, "but even if it's some group they haven't heard before they give them their undivided attention." Most of the regulars, who range from 21 to 71, fit into the core of 150 or so fans that sustains the local scene. "People don't go to Tidball's to socialize," one patron explains. "They go to Tidball's to listen to music."
They've been rewarded with some phenomenal shows. Cage played many of its earliest gigs here. "They always said, 'When we get famous …'" Jarvis recalls, "and we were like, 'Shut up.'" But then Cage would launch into one of their already-insane performances—several people mention the time Matt Shultz, the band's frontman, sang while dangling from those chains above the stage, terrifying anyone sober enough to notice.
Cage still plays Tidball's once or twice a year, but Bowling Green now offers lots of bands. Tidball keeps a giant wall calendar in which he pencils pairings and ideas. "Each month is like a puzzle," he says. "It's getting harder and harder to put together." Still, the local acts appreciate his effort. It was Tidball who first asked Jeremi Simon, the shy singer for Schools, to open for an acoustic artist. "From there I got some confidence and started trying to book shows," he says. "I don't even ask about the money," adds Craig Brown, the Canago frontman who looks uncannily like Brit from Flight of the Conchords. "We trust Jarvis and Tidball."
They've earned that trust through their constancy—12 years and counting, a long time for a bar. More than anything else, it takes that kind of longevity to make a dive bar great, and that same longevity is why Tidball's matters so much to Bowling Green's scene. Jarvis isn't exactly the sentimental type. (He's been known to bartend in a Christian Laettner jersey, just to rile people up.) But he turns quiet when talking about the first show Cage played at Tidball's after they actually did get famous. "Not one person was sitting down," Jarvis says. "But there was no trouble, no drama. I stopped working, just sat back and watched the crowd. There was a real sense of fulfillment that night. I'm not saying Cage made it because of John and I—that's fucking ridiculous. But to see them come back and do this for us, that was heartwarming."
Tidball's also matters because it forces local bands to compete. "Musicians rise to the level that's expected of them," says Kenny Lee Smith, "and people are used to such high quality here." The expectations are so high, in fact, that when I catch a Sleeper Agent show during my visit the band admits that playing Tidball's still makes them nervous.
Sleeper Agent, of course, is winding down the year-plus promotional cycle for Celebrasion, their buzzy Mom + Pop debut. And yet Tony Smith, who splits the vocals with Alex Kandel, points out it wasn't that long ago when the band was broke and living in a wounded old house a few blocks away. (One night, Brad Shultz from Cage stopped by with a bottle of Jameson and announced, "Hard times call for hard liquor." They spent the night getting drunk, listening to Kanye, and watching Happy Feet.) Sleeper Agent may be Bowling Green's second-biggest band, but they still feel the scene's pull. "Emotionally, it's really tough for us," Tony says as he smokes a pre-show cigarette in the parking lot. "It's the hardest show we'll ever do."
Tidball's, for its part, has arranged a first-class homecoming, hiring Jake's Sound to bring in extra monitors and to amp up the PA. There's a huge crowd, including Brad and Lincoln Parish from Cage. "Does anyone here have a beer I can sip?" Tony asks at the show's start, and there are at least a hundred volunteers. You can tell Sleeper Agent is tired, and its six members can barely squeeze on to the stage. Still, the crowd is pulsing and delirious—there's no moshing, just swaying, with everyone singing every whoa-oh-oh. The band's staccato riffs and dueling vocals sound great and ear-mulchingly loud. Tony and Alex have mastered this flirty, brood-y, Rock Star routine where they stare at each other and shimmy closer and closer—right until they dissolve into a pair of dueling smiles. It seems more brother-sister than sex appeal, and here, in the middle of this cramped and sweaty bar, the whole city feels like brothers and sisters tonight.
Excerpted from Home Grown: Cage the Elephant and the Making of a Modern Music Scene, available as a Kindle Single.
Craig Fehrman is a writer who lives in Indiana. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and Slate, among others. His last story for Deadspin was a profile of Bridgeport Bluefish catcher Luis Rodriguez.
Top photo by Nathan Davis/Yellowberri.