Knoxville was a very different place in the 1950s. Clinton High School became one of the first school’s in Tennessee that was required to desegregate only to be destroyed by a series of bombs not long after. Depot Avenue was bustling with folks jumping aboard the passenger trains to travel across the country. Happy Holler was abloom with nightlife and just up Central Street was a popular watering hole that to this day still exists.
Now that spot is called Melody Bar. Many things have changed in Knoxville and at the bar, but the overall vibe as a place where its patrons meet with their extended “family” still remains.
The Bunch family has owned Melody Bar for more than 25 years. In January, longtime bar purveyor Bill Bunch passed away at age 75, and the business went to his son Stefan. Stefan deeply contemplated the fate of the bar but in the end, he couldn’t walk away from its legacy. Bill had previously owned The Twilight Lounge on Fifth Avenue
I have to be honest. I was afraid to go to Melody Bar. Mostly for all the ignorant stereotypical reasons anyone might be afraid to go there. I had driven by the place time and again and its location in an industrial part of town coupled with its relatively plain exterior led me to believe it was probably not a place a long-haired fellow like myself would fit in.
On the outside the bar has five three by three foot windows surrounded by a section painted orange likely in tribute to the Vols. To the right is an exterior door you would find on a house that has no window on the door, just a peep hole. The only thing about the building that says “bar” is the marquee style sign supported by a metal a-frame that simply says “Melody Bar” in plain letters on a red background.
I entered the bar and got a quick look from everyone in the place as soon as the door closed. It wasn’t the “record needle scratches while music grinds to a halt” staredown you see in some movies, but more of a “Is that Bob’s kid?” kind of look since I likely resembled a long-haired version of one of the patron’s offspring. Yeah, I look like a lot of white people.
I squeezed through the small crowd that had packed into the main bar area and made my way to the side of the bar where I was greeted with a smile by bartender Wendy Sweet. In this situation I always feel the awkwardness diminish when I reveal the nature of my visit to those around me. On this occasion I practically announced it loudly because I was getting the stink eye from a large fellow sitting at the bar not far away.
Just then a scruffy man who appeared to be a descendant of Sam Elliott said to me, “I love you.” We made eye contact and he paused briefly and said “I love everyone in here. That’s what kind of place this is; we are a family.” I smiled and he told me his name was Donald Standrich. After a bit of conversation I was told that Don had been hit by a train and I could look it up if I wanted.
The bar had several tables lined up along the windows and a few dart boards that occasionally caused a collision of myself and the line of dart players. I moved out of the way and slightly behind the bar where I took a closer look around. The carpet had been through years of indoor smoking so it was faded and dark. The room was filled with smoke.
The bar served only beer out of a refrigerator and a few traditional beverage coolers. I met owner Stefan and we stepped out to the back patio to talk as it was too loud to do so in the bar. He told me the bar wasn’t legally permitted to have live music even though the patio area would be perfect for it in the summer time. We casually conversed about his father passing and what he meant to the loyal patrons, some of whom had been coming the bar for the better part of three decades.
I could see the conflict and pain in his eyes from his recent loss, which I could understand as I have lost my own father just three years ago. At the same time I could feel he cared for the people in his establishment.
I got to meet some of the extended “family” that exists at Melody Bar, and it let me know the place isn’t as scary as my original perception led me to believe. I judged a book by its cover and I was wrong. The people in this bar care, and they will warm up to you if you give them a chance.
2917 N Central St
Knoxville, TN 37917-5118
Phone (865) 525-4428
Web Site: None
Hours: 7 Days a Week 9am-Close (varies)
Smoking Indoors: Yes
Age: 21 and Up
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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