Air Devil’s Inn on a Saturday Night: On Dive Bars and Bar Bands
By Beth Newberry
Photos by Jeremy Brooks and Darrell Mankin
Air Devil’s Inn is most alive on a summer night when the humidity is high, and the heat makes your clothes feel a little closer to your skin, a little heavier on your body. Air Devil’s Inn, or ADI to the regulars, is the first bar I found when I moved to Louisville. My friend Ben introduced me to the bar with this endorsement: “I can get drunk on ten dollars and still have money for two games of pinball.”
Claiming to be the oldest bar in Louisville, ADI is located across the road from Louisville’s first airport, Bowman Field. The bar was a hangout for pilots on layover and it is their namesake. Flyers would cross the road for a couple of hours on the ground and grab a stiff bourbon or an Old Milwaukee. Those air devils are no longer regulars since a newer airport was built thirty years ago on the other side of town. The regulars changed from pilots to bikers, making the Inn a little bit of a rougher place, at least by reputation. While there are a couple of Harleys in the lot on any given night, the regulars now are a wide cross-section of white people—roots rock enthusiasts, divorcées on the make, and blue-collar workers getting off of second shift.
Inside the wooden door, on a weekend night, awaits a bouncer to collect a cover. The person working the door is never on the bar’s payroll, but most likely a member of the band playing that night, a friend of the band, or even an ADI regular. The only requirement for working the door is the ability to drink, smoke and count money at the same time. Most nights it’s Paul.
On this particular night, Paul works the door wearing a version of his uniform: cigarette, offensive t-shirt, jeans, white running shoes. His shirt reads, “Support local music, sleep with a musician.” I make eye contact with him and think, “Oh, God, don’t let him hit on me.” Other t-shirts in his collection say things like “I Put Out on the First Date” and “Lord of the Cockring.” Paul, in his late thirties, has the kind of tan that comes from a tanning bed. He looks almost orange. He sports a hairstyle he works hard to achieve. Part mullet with some Farah Fawcett-esque feathering on the sides. The final result is a Carol Brady-inspired coif. It gives a feminine edge to his otherwise burly physique.
“It’ll be five bucks,” he tells me. When he speaks, I hear the two-pack-a-day habit on his voice. It’s not so much a haggard voice that smoking causes, but the deep corroding of the lungs that brings a constant cough with every light-up.
In the dim glow of the bar, model airplanes hang from the stained ceiling tiles. The support columns in the bar have old framed photos of pilots and newspaper articles about the bar from the ‘50s. It’s a Saturday night at ten o’clock and members of that evening’s band, Dallas Alice, stand around the bar with a few regulars and a few fans.
Alan and Gina work the bar most weekend nights. Alan always wears a red, laundry-faded Hawaiian shirt. He’s in his forties, or maybe his fifties. Who can tell in the backlighting of a Bass Ale sign? He seems to have a kind spirit and is always friendly. When the bar is slower, usually on a weeknight, he will quiz folks on politics or language trivia because he speaks five languages. Originally from Scotland, his accent has faded since he came to the U.S. in his teens. One night I was there and told him I was going to go home and write and he gave me pen and paper. “Only give it back to me after you write a good story on it,” he said.
While Alan is efficient and kind in his service, Gina acts as if she would prefer no one come to the bar. If customers have to be there she would rather they speak to her as little as possible. I try to be pleasant and decisive and have cash ready when I go to the bar. She doesn’t want to be messed with, and really she frightens me a little. A woman can wait fifteen minutes at the bar to order, no matter how empty the bar is in an evening. I don’t even try to catch her eye as she’s taking other orders down the bar. I lean in slightly and look interested in ordering, hold my money out to show I’m ready—there is no room for messing around. I wait patiently, trying not to appear anxious, put out or friendly. Nothing will get you ignored more quickly than actually trying to get her attention. As I wait, I practice my order in my head. She finally slows down as she walks by and points to my money.
“Bourbon and ginger ale, please,” I say. She keeps walking and gathers beer bottles filling the order of the man to my right who came to the bar after me. It doesn’t matter who got there first, or how long I’ve been waiting, it’s Gina’s call. She comes back, a bit exasperated. It’s more of a general statement about people coming to the bar than about me.
“What was it?” she asks again as she sets down four beers for the man in a North Face vest and polo shirt.
“Bourbon and ginger,” I repeat. “A tall one,” I add. I realize it’s best to order a double, you know planning ahead, because I don’t know if I will be able to get another drink later on, depending on Gina’s mood. She nods as the man tries to hand her a credit card.
“Oh, no. Cash only,” she says as she points to the woman behind the customer who has taken her Rolling Rock. “Give me back that beer until you settle up.” The man fumbles for enough cash, as he seems thrown by the rules of the dive: Cash only. No tabs. After he settles up, Gina hands me my drink, charging me fifty cents more than Alan would for the same drink, $3 instead of $2.50 which strikes me as criminal.
She shakes her head, “Don’t hand me a credit card and think you can take your drinks,” she says under her breath. I’m relieved to know enough to play by the rules. I drop two bucks—almost the price of the drink—into the tip jar in a quick gesture hoping she’ll notice.
Gina has loose, blond curls with dark roots. She wears a wide, red bandana to keep her hair out of her face, and a sleeveless tee, perhaps a beach-vacation souvenir, over a visible sports bra. She tucks the shirt into her cut-off jean shorts that stop above her thighs. I think she wears such short shorts to show her muscular legs, not to garner high tips from the men at the bar, but as a quiet warning that she can kick your ass with her Reebok high tops if you get out of line .
I turn from the bar and look around. I see a couple of the guys from the band Dallas Alice at the end of the bar smoking and a couple on stage doing a sound check. I move to a bar stool at the end of the bar on the edge of the dance floor. Nick, the lead guitarist, is leaning against the bar drinking a bottle of Bud, smoking a cigarette. He arches his eyebrows and lifts his beer to gesture a hello. At forty-five, Nick is the oldest member of the band, while the other fellas are in their twenties or are right around thirty. He always wears a dark suit with a coordinating button-down shirt and bolero tie. He heads to the stage as I settle onto the stool. There are a few tables on the edge of the small dance floor, but since I came to ADI by myself I don’t want to sit right in front of the band.
The five guys in Dallas Alice don’t fancy themselves a band for bikers, truckers or even the lonely old guy at the end of the bar. They see themselves as a bar band, or rather half-ass musicians that would be drinking at Air Devil’s anyway so might as well get up on stage and sing some songs. Sean, the lead singer, has a voice that growls like a stick shift changing gears. The band’s harmonies have an audible twang like empty beer cans rolling around in the bed of a pick-up. Sean writes most of the songs and his lyrics ride the line between country dirt roads and big-city blacktop. He’s from southern Illinois, but he sings songs that could be about the small towns in eastern Kentucky where I grew up. The band’s musical style could play in the background in some of the stories of my life, if I were to make them a movie. They weave together small town roots and the grown-up life of living in a city.
Sean has short blond hair he sweeps back in a miniature pompadour. He’s wearing a short sleeve Steve Earle t-shirt that partially covers his tattoos. Most prominent is one on his forearm with his mother’s name, Georgia, written across the shape of the state, fashioned like a vintage postcard with a peach in the foreground.
He sings the song “Free Coffee.” He begins a Capella, All the fields around my hometown grew lima beans and corn/ Now there ain’t much but weeds and broken dreams/ That grows there any more. The rest of the band kicks in with a harmony, It’s just another small town. Small town slipping away.
The drummer and the guitarists pick up and the stage comes to life. Patrons start to turn from the bar and edge toward the dance floor without actually stepping on to it.
Nick plays a hard-driving interlude on his stratacastor. The younger guys he plays with cede the stage to him. His improvisational style lands somewhere between extended riffing and jamming. He moves the cigarette he is smoking to secure it under the guitar strings just above the neck of the guitar. A small crowd of eight or so people stands and watches attentively with drinks or cigarettes in hand. They sway to the music or bob their heads in time with the music.
I require a live band with enough Red-Bull in its veins to help me paint the town a particular shade of roots rock red. I dig Dallas
Alice because they can balance twang with tattoos, guitar solos with bourbon shots and smart lyrics with foul mouths. The five members are slightly scruffy, occasionally charming, reliably boozy and guaranteed to be smoke-stained. They serve their music neat, no mixers needed. After seeing them play on a few occasions, their music stole my honky-tonk heart. It has become a welcome soundtrack to my evening. I enjoy the people watching, the drinks and the good company of friends always available at ADI. I answer the Dallas Alice altar call about once a month and I get doused in enough twang to keep me away from commercial country music until the next time I cross the threshold at ADI.
At the end of the first song, Gina delivers a tray of bourbon shots to the band. They each take one. Sean turns to the mic, as the applause slows. “We’re Dallas Alice,” he says raising the shot glass for a toast. “Social!” and the band’s members knock their heads back and drink down the brown liquor. Regulars repeat Sean’s call and tip back High Life bottles and glasses of whiskey. A table of young women in low-cut tank tops and tight jeans slam empty glasses on their table after finishing shots of Jaggermeister.
People start to head to the dance floor. I leave my perch and move to a wall plastered with posters for upcoming shows. It’s near the dance floor, but back far enough that I feel comfortable and slightly hidden. I watch the guitar playing and sing softly to myself.
A version of this essay appeared in MOTIF: Writing by Ear—An Anthology of Writings on Music (published by and available from Motes Books). This piece was written about a specific era of nightlife at ADI. And since then the band’s lineup couldv’e changed members, or the members got new tattoos, new wives or new variations of facial hair configurations. And time passed and the bar might have unwillingly adopted a smoking ban or begrudgingly began to accept credit cards. But no matter the changes, the promise of a good night of music always brings me back.