A bluegrass song plays on the jukebox. The banjo and fiddle duel it out.
A biker named Spanky waits his turn at a pool game and loudly taps out the rhythm of a washboard beat on his pool stick along with the song. He’s pretty damn good at it too.
The bar owner, an old Southerner who’s been sitting quietly on a stool, looks up and smiles, admiring his skill.
“Best jukebox in town!” Spanky yells to him. “You don’t find jukeboxes like this anymore.”
They’re at Red’s Park-Inn bar, an old, country-western dive in southwest Detroit. It could easily be in rural Tennessee. Hoods of race cars adorn the wood-paneled walls, and signs near liquor bottles say things like “Lord, if I can’t be skinny make my friends look fat.” The owner’s picture is embedded in a slab of polished wood someone made into a rustic clock and nailed above the bar. Not one but two placards warn players not to gamble on pool.
Outside, it’s a rough Detroit neighborhood. Inside, though, it’s a guarded slice of country life.
Almost everyone who hangs out here came to Detroit from Appalachia years ago, settling in this little pocket of the city. It’s an enclave that’s still inhabited by folks from Southern hills and mountains.
“Mostly country people come here. Appalachian,” says Sue Davis, 70, who owns the place with her husband Chuck, 74, called “Red” for his long-faded hair color. They live in the apartment above the bar. “A lot of Southern people come in here.”
The music, they say here, is the big draw. “Everybody comes for the jukebox,” bartender Pat Kaiser notes with pride. It has selections from Ernest Tubbs, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Flatt and Scruggs, Boxcar Willie — bluegrass, honky-tonk and old hillbilly songs that almost everyone in the bar knows the words to. Ask anyone in here about this place, and the first thing they mention is that jukebox.
Spanky buys a round for the drinkers seated on the barstools. It’s a friendly tradition here; you come in for a couple beers and wind up having six because everyone buys everyone else drinks without asking if they want one. Someone yells out to him. “Yessir?” the beefy biker replies politely. “Thanks for the drinks,” he’s told. “Yessir,” Spanky repeats. Call his name and he answers the same way. Tell him it’s his turn at pool and it’s the same thing.
The people here are miles and years from home, but country manners still hold sway.
When World War II ended and the auto factories stopped making tanks and started making cars again, Appalachians fleeing life in the coal mines poured into town along what became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.”
They showed up in droves, seeking work and settling together in older Detroit neighborhoods or in growing suburbs such as Taylor and Hazel Park, which sometimes still gets called “Hazeltucky” — a nickname that’s no compliment.
The new arrivals were looked down upon, often considered backward. Their homes were called eyesores. Landlords sometimes refused to rent to them, fearful that dozens more would follow into the neighborhood. A survey conducted by Wayne State University in 1951 asked Detroiters to identify “undesirable people” in the city. “Poor Southern whites” and “hillbillies” were in a near tie with “criminals and gangsters” at the top of the list, well ahead of “transients,” “Negroes” and “drifters.”
When people look down on you for how you look and talk, you stay with your own. So the new arrivals stuck together and formed tight-knit groups. Their neighborhoods were so insular that many of their children, born and raised in Detroit, still speak with accents nearly as thick as those of their parents.
It’s the same twang you hear behind the counter at Telway Diner, on the stools at Alice’s Bar, and at the tables in George’s Famous Coney Island, where eastern Kentucky inflections can be heard all night. This swath of the city, along parts of Michigan Avenue, has long had an Appalachian flavor, kept alive all these years by the migrants’ clannishness.
That protectiveness prevails at the bar. “We screen everybody that comes in here,” says Kaiser, 54. The door is kept locked. When someone presses the buzzer, the bartender peeks out through a one-way window before releasing the lock. “If they look suspicious I won’t open the door to ‘em,” Sue says. It keeps the regulars safe and the outsiders out.
But lately there are fewer regulars and more strangers around here. The neighborhood’s changed; new arrivals have taken the place of the Southerners and filled their old blocks. “People just died off or moved back South,” Sue says. “We’ve had a lot of people pass away.”
Years ago, this part of southwestern Detroit was a Polish neighborhood. Then came the Appalachians. Now it’s Latinos pouring in, another wave coming here from somewhere to the south, just like those before them, looking for something better.
For many people, Detroit remains — despite how far it’s fallen — a better place than where they come from.
Chuck Davis was once one of them. As a young man he moved north, worked hard, saved his earnings and soon owned his own used-car lot and a country-western bar just a short way down the road from each other.
He met Sue in Sunday school in a small church in a small Tennessee town. For their first date, he drove her over the Kentucky border for a milkshake and a burger. She was a coal miner’s daughter; her dad died from black lung at 42. It was the kind of fate folks there were fleeing from.
“People don’t know long time ago how people grew up and stuff down there,” Sue says. After serving overseas, Chuck returned and took her to Detroit.
He got the bar in 1971, and put his nickname on the sign, put the music he liked on the jukebox, and put the drinks he liked behind the bar. It wasn’t hard getting drinkers into a country joint back then.
“We’d be open at 7 in the morning and they’d be in the parking lot waiting for us,” she says. In those days, the neighborhood was full of auto parts makers and little factories. The night shift would leave work and fill the local bars with hillbillies as the sun came up.
Then the area declined, bartenders started getting robbed, and the buzzer was added to the door. Everyone grew older and the crowds thinned out. Now the bar’s down to several dozen friends who’ve weathered the stay up here, and like-minded people who come for the music and the company and the down-home culture.
“They just like the friendly people like us, I guess,” Sue says.
It’s noon on Saturday. The ladies stroll one by one into the bar for their Avon party.
“I’ll put the catalogs right over thar,” one says in a coarse twang. They’re two hours early. But Avon is mostly an excuse for friends to spend a day together anyway, so the time doesn’t matter.
“I don’t even drink,” says Cleopatra Winkler, a regular. “I just drink water. Just come here to be sociable.”
The people here were drawn together by roots and traditions and lingering ties to home. It’s a rare night when those in the bar don’t know everyone who walks in the door.
“Everybody here’s connected somewhere,” the 75-year-old Winkler says.
Over time, Red’s had gone from a rough-and-tumble watering hole to a home base. It’s this group’s community center. They have their Halloween party here, and the Christmas party, and the parties for all the birthdays. On Friday nights, their husbands and boyfriends join them here, playing pool and listening to country music in the smoky air, like they’d be doing back where they came from.
“People here are all so very nice,” Winkler says “It’s like a country home.”
This article originally appeared in the Metro Times.