Touring East Tennessee’s Dive Bars With Jim Dykes

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The first bar that Jim Dykes introduced me to was a dark, dusty dive on Gay Street, about a block away from the newspaper building. It was called Lockett’s, and according to the sign in the window, it offered more than cold beer. The place was in the business of “novelties.”

And there were numerous things inside that fit that description. The bartender, to start with—he looked as if he had never been exposed to daylight. He didn’t say much, either, but he didn’t have to. There was a parrot, named Polly, that did most of the talking, though the bird had a decidedly limited vocabulary.

But when Dykes was present, there wasn’t much opportunity for a parrot, or anyone else, to talk.

My first encounter with Dykes came when I started reading some of his work in the News-Sentinel. He was covering the courts and I had recently been promoted from copy boy to state-desk reporter at the Journal. That meant that sometimes we would be writing about the same case.

I quickly noticed that Dykes’ work was most interesting when the case he was covering tended toward the scandalous. Like most successful journalists of the time, he was quick to recognize the quirks and twists that define the best stories. And he had the chops to deliver the tale in the most compelling way. He could present lurid details in an understated, matter-of-fact way that avoided sensationalism.

Plus, he had a reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-living character, the kind of reporter immortalized in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s great Broadway play, The Front Page.

Though we were sometimes competing, Dykes and I became good friends, having a beer at various spots around town and, later, all over East Tennessee. Though he could fit in at the swankiest gathering, I quickly learned that Dykes had more than a passing interest in places like Lockett’s. One favorite was Opal’s Tap Room on Chapman Highway, a sad spot whose owner tried to keep up with the times by featuring go-go dancers.

Dykes believed the effort was commendable and deserved our support, so we periodically stopped in to check out the entertainment. We finally gave up—every night we visited there was only one dancer, and it was always the same girl. Good reporters that we were, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to interview her. Our first discovery was that her name was not Opal. “Well,” Dykes told her, “you’re still a jewel.”

And then there were the roadhouses: bars that were out in the country.

Once, when he and I were driving a back road in the mountains east of Tellico Plains, he pointed out the weeded-up remains of such a spot, long since abandoned. “I got in one of the worst fights of my life in there,” he said. Of course, I asked what it was about. “I was in no shape to care,” he said, adding only that there “were lots of broken beer bottles.”

Another time we had just crossed back into Tennessee from Kentucky, up in Scott County, when we came upon a cinder-block building with a big sign that said “First beer in Tennessee.”

“Pull in here,” he said, so I did. Then, before he got out of the car, he paused, looking the place over. “You had better go in and get a six-pack to go. If I remember correctly, I’m not welcome here.”

Though his notoriety seemed to cover most of southern Appalachia, Dykes was most famous in the joints closer to his Blount County home, including the string of nightspots that ran up what was then state Highway 73, on the stretch from Maryville toward Townsend and the mountains.

One night, exploring the area, we went into one of those spots that met most of our criteria: the gravel parking lot featured several pickup trucks and there was a tasteful neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. (“Tasteful” meaning that it was non-blinking.) But when we entered, everything stopped. As non-regulars, we found that we were the center of attention. The bartender, especially, kept looking our way. Dykes was unperturbed and we found an empty table.

A waitress took our order and things seemed to get back to normal—pool game resuming, jukebox playing. But when our beers were delivered, the server wasted no time in letting us know that we should hit the highway.

“I don’t guess you all want another one,” she said, staring hard at Dykes. We took her hint and made our way out after downing our Blue Ribbon.

Of course there were other places where Dykes was welcome. One was the Duck Inn in Alcoa. Long after he had left the News-Sentinel, long after Lockett’s had closed, Dykes began writing a column for the Journal called Without a Paddle, where he frequently made fun of his fellow East Tennesseans, especially those who were involved in politics.

It proved popular with the Duck Inn regulars, and they would tell him how he nailed this congressman or that councilman. Once, he and I stopped for a hamburger and beer a couple of days after a scathingly sarcastic takedown of Lamar Alexander. Two regulars stopped by our table and told Dykes how much they agreed with his support of the Maryville native son.

He looked at them, then at me, and said, “I was being sarcastic.” They apparently didn’t understand what he meant, chuckling before taking their leave.

“Sarcasm, I guess, is wasted in Blount County,” Dykes said. “Readers like these make me appreciate Lockett’s. At least the parrot had a clear understanding of what East Tennessee politics is all about.”

Chris Wohlwend
Contributing Writer

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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