The Dirtiest Dive Bars in the Music Triangle

How to keep it real on a road trip from New Orleans to Nashville.

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

By: Joe Sills

A beer-soaked trail traces a line between New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville. It starts in Louisiana, in the cradle of jazz, following desolate Mississippi highways north towards the home of the blues in Memphis, before swinging east towards the self-dubbed Music City of Nashville. The trail is littered with legends like the ghosts of Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. 

Millions trek through America’s music triangle every year en route to Bourbon Street, Graceland and Music Row. But few travelers visit the dirty, local dive bars where the ghosts of music’s past mingle with haunting figures of its present. 

Away from the pulsing neon lights of Bourbon, Beale and Broadway, these bars offer refuge to local musicians, lesser-known legends and low-priced bar tabs. They are the dirtiest dive bars in the music triangle, and they’re worth the price of a hotel and an Uber ride for travelers searching for a true glimpse into the towns that helped birth jazz, blues, rock and country music.

New Orleans

Photo by: Allison Hart

Allison Hart

Vaughan’s Lounge: The splintered shack glued to the corner of Dauphine and Lesseps is home to some of the most notable, low-key nightlife in New Orleans. Jazz icon Kermit Ruffins played his trumpet at this Bywater-area bar every Thursday for two decades before finally taking a breather in 2013. Still, the party goes on. Vaughan’s still hosts live music every Thursday night, and usually doles out complimentary beans and rice.

Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge: A nondescript sign reading simply “bar” hangs beneath a dingy, green wreath at this watering hole on the edge of Uptown. Inside, the cozy confines of Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge are illuminated by a myriad of red holiday lights and low-burning bulbs. At $2 a pop, the beers don’t get much cheaper, and with a closing time of 7 a.m., you can soak in the scene all night long.

The Club Ms. Mae’s: This cash-only, Crescent City mainstay is open 24 hours a day. Ms. Mae’s is home to some of the cheapest drinks in town, a mythical jukebox and a handful of arcade games. Ms. Mae’s wraparound balcony on the corner of Magazine and Napoleon dares guests to take a 24-hour challenge, where they must drink one drink every hour for an entire day to win—or risk being slapped onto the wall of shame.

Clarksdale, Mississippi 

Red’s: Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club garners most of the tourist traffic in Clarksdale; but Red’s is the realest bar on the block in the small, Mississippi town between New Orleans and Memphis. It was here that blues pioneer Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul at the Devil’s Crossroads. And modern travelers looking for an authentic dose of Johnson’s Delta Blues can find it here at Red’s, where you can pull up a well-worn chair and soak in the sounds, or sit in on a set if you’ve got the chops. 

Memphis

Photo by: Joe Sills

Joe Sills

Wild Bill’s: A man with a gun will greet you at the entrance of Wild Bill’s. You’ll hand him a cash cover—usually $10— and walk into a concrete concert hall crammed into the remains of a crumbling strip mall. Inside, rows of tables encourage travelers to mingle with locals, share 40-ounce beers out of plastic cups, and dance the night away to a house band that shifts between soul covers and original blues and soul music. If you’re friendly, they’ll sometimes hand you a tambourine or cowbell—and we all need more cowbell.

Earnestine and Hazel’s: Visitors come to Earnestine and Hazel’s for the ghosts and stay for the cheap drinks, booze-soaking soul burgers, live music and world-class jukebox. Earnestine’s is famed for its upstairs, which served as a brothel until the early 1990s, just before the drafty brick building was converted into a bar. Patrons can order a drink downstairs under the relics of Memphis’ old Club Paradise, before wandering upstairs to lounge in the same rooms where musicians like Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones would reportedly pass the time with their former tenants. 

Printer’s Alley: Not to be confused with downtown Nashville’s Printer’s Alley, the Memphis version—a tiny, blue bar hidden in the shadow of an old municipal football stadium—is a go-to for late night munchies when almost every other bar in town is closed. At Printer’s Alley, the party doesn’t stop until after sunrise, as this Midtown Memphis staple serves food and drink until 7 a.m. It’s the perfect place to greet a new day with bleary eyes, a boatload of friends and a full belly.

Nashville

Photo by: Adrian Berryhill

Adrian Berryhill

Springwater Supper Club: Springwater claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar in Tennessee. Today, over a century after the bar started serving patrons of the 1897 World’s Fair, Springwater Supper Club hosts local rock and comedy shows until 3 a.m. It’s one of the few Nashville bars where you’re more likely to bump into a rock star than a country music icon. And, like many of the diviest bars on this list, Springwater is cash only. A short walk outside will put you under the shadow of Nashville’s Parthenon, in the very remnants of that World’s Fair.

Mickey’s Tavern: Far from the brimming streets of Broadway, Mickey’s Tavern in East Nashville offers an escape from crowded corridors cowboy hats. The nondescript block building on Gallatin Pike dishes out a stellar array of high-quality cocktails at happy-hour prices. Entertainment at Mickey’s is left to dart boards, a pool table, a jukebox and your own conversation. But, with famously attentive bartenders and community tables, conversations at Mickey’s are enough to fill a full night.

The Villager Tavern: The yellowed, smoke-stained walls of this Hillsboro Village stalwart should tell you all you need to know about the Villager: This place is the definition of dive. Darts are the name of the game here, and you’ll want to take in a few games as you soak up pitchers of cheap beer under the glow of walls lined with portraits of patrons past. The Villager is well-known for its birthday bonus: a free dog bowl of beer on your birthday.

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