A Fond Farewell to the Hi-Tone

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I didn’t have a college bar, as the home of Frances Willard (founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Evanston, Illinois, was infamously low on watering holes. And since I was Mormon during my college years anyway (long story), I didn’t have much need of one.

When I moved to Memphis a year out of school, my social options felt even more limited. I was working from home and didn’t know more than a few people in town. I knew Memphis was renowned for its music, but the idea of going to clubs was a little daunting, especially since my frame of reference was Chicago’s rather d-baggy Division Street (I may not have had a college bar, but that’s where my older sister’s was).

Eventually, however, being home alone all day was more than even the most introverted Midwesterner (remember me?) could stand. On a whim, I decided to go see some guy I’d read some pretty glowing things about in the Flyer. He was playing at the Hi-Tone Cafe which, from what I could tell, was an impressively booked venue that brought in a lot of great national musicians. I was prepared to be intimidated by the space and the crowd.

It was probably raining that night, based on the fact that it rained every single time Cory Branan played the Hi-Tone. He was in a misleadingly philanthropic mood, but it wasn’t the Gummi tongues and feet he handed out to the audience that made me feel welcome. The room was a little rough and grimy, but the atmosphere was homey. Well, if your home had a beat-down pool table and a bathroom unfit for company. Still, it was friendly, warm, and completely unlike what I’d been expecting. The team-like definition of club felt far more applicable.

Since that night, I’ve spent more evenings than I can remember at the Hi-Tone. When I was laid off from the corporate world, I started booking shows for some local musicians and actually made hanging out there a part-time job. I bought my first beer there (never mind that I was 29). I saw everyone from Viva L’American Death Ray to Michelle Shocked play. For the better part of a decade, it was the college bar I never had.

Of course, even delayed adolescents have to grow up sometime, and by the time my second child was born, I found it pretty tricky to get out for an evening, let alone stay awake until an 11 p.m. show. The bar’s late band starts were so notorious that just hearing “they’re playing at the Hi-Tone” made me sleepy. And so I set the place aside in the pre-PTA corner of my mind, along with my Mini Cooper and babydoll T-shirts.

When I heard the Hi-Tone was fixing to close (the Southernism particularly appropriate for the bar’s four-month wind-down), the sliding door of that memory storage unit was yanked open again. Although closing bars people love seems to be popular around here, I really never expected a place as venerable as the Hi-Tone to fall victim to the usual small club disasters. Sure, the air conditioning was always busted and there were only four people at the Tuesday shows, but Elvis Costello played there, for Pete’s sake! As a recovering small business owner, I know I can’t fault the guys for throwing in the towel. Still, I’ve spent the last few months hoping someone would be reckless and passionate enough to pick the towel back up and mop the bar down with it.

Since it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, I guess I should say my good-byes. I went to the Hi-Tone this past Friday to see Shovels & Rope, a South Carolina twosome (both musically and matrimonially) making their third trip to Memphis. Last time here, they played to an echoing tip jar, but on this trip, the room was packed with joyful sing-alongers. The energy was incredible as the band played their hearts and lungs out, with singer/drummer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst once exclaiming, “I can’t feel my legs!” Although they weren’t locals, it felt like every song they played was somehow about Memphis. And for that night, they were.

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There are a couple more shows I hope to make before the Hi-Tone closes for good at the end of the month, and even while I look forward to them, I know there will be sadness in the mix. It was easier leaving my Hi-Tone nights behind when I knew I could still go visit them sometimes. And it was exciting to see new, strange names pop up on the marquee every week. So much of Memphis’ music is already part of history, it seems a damn shame to lose a venue that proudly celebrated what was coming next.

I’ve never attended any of my college reunions, but if in 10 years someone puts on a Hi-Tone reunion (a la last year’s Antenna Club gathering), that’s a ticket I would buy. The Hi-Tone isn’t a Rhodes bar or a U of M bar, or even an MCA bar (despite the parking overlap). It’s a bar for everyone who studies the musicology of Memphis. Although we may lose our college bar, may none of us ever graduate.

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