The last honky-tonk
A look at Southern Comfort's history and the regulars who have made it a divey draw for decades
The last honky-tonk
A look at Southern Comfort’s history and the regulars who have made it a divey draw for decades
Story by Miranda Hawkins and Johnathon Kelso
Photos by Johnathon Kelso
On the outskirts of Southeast Atlanta, past the Starlight Drive-In on Moreland Avenue after the city lights have dimmed, sits Southern Comfort, arguably the last local honky-tonk. Southern Comfort had a rough reputation in its early years.
"It was a hardcore, roughneck bar," says Patricia Moran, aka Dee Dee, who started off performing as a gospel singer at the bar before becoming lead singer for house band Southern Gold. "Southern Comfort was too rough before George Jones owned it. I took two of the bouncers to the hospital. One from a stab wound and the other from catching an automobile jack upside the head in the parking lot."
Jones, who bought the converted NAPA Auto Parts warehouse from Talmadge Dixon in 1989, was determined to change that.
"I already knew the troublemakers from my band playing here. If a troublemaker came in, I'd say, 'I need to buy you a drink,'" Jones says. "I'd reintroduce myself ... My wife and I are the new owners, not the operators. We got a lot of money tied up in this place. It's no longer going to be a redneck rat-hole. It's going to be a nice restaurant. We don't go taking the country out of it, but we're gonna have great shows, good food, good folks, and we're not going to put up with no trouble. If you can keep your trouble out of here, we'd appreciate your business. If you can't — you start trouble one time — you'd be barred for life.'"
In recent years Southern Comfort has become popular with a younger Atlanta crowd thanks to friendly regulars, performances by local bands such as the Black Lips, and Sunday night karaoke, dubbed "Sinful Sundays."
After more than three decades, the bar announced its closure in November. A decrease in business over the past three years was forcing Jones, who'd tried to sell the place a number of times over the years, to walk away from his longtime haunt. Following a few weeks of uncertainty, news came that the bar would remain open. Jones had leased the space to Johnny Adams, former owner of Covington sports bar Mickey, and his partner Josh Golghrt for two years. On Jan. 15, Southern Comfort officially reopened, albeit without Southern Gold. (Members say the band has no plans to disband.)
SoCo Patron, December 2011
In 2011, Johnathon Kelso began photographing Southern Comfort for an exhibition with arts organization Dashboard:
"My relationship with the bar goes back seven years. My initial run in with Southern Comfort was pure happenstance. I pulled off into the SoCo parking lot on a whim while out photographing in Clayton County. I took a stranger's portrait, and we got to talking. I told the man my birthday was the following day and he promised that if I came back he'd have me a cake ready and that I'd have a damn good time. I of course went back and sure enough there was a birthday cake there for me and certainly a damn good time.
George F. Jones, the owner of the bar, has given to charity within his community for decades. One might not notice it at first, but upon entering the bar, there is a whole wall dedicated to honors and awards that Mr. Jones has received on behalf of his generosity. He and his staff have held countless benefit concerts and fundraisers for folks who have been down on hard times, who couldn't pay their bills, or bury their loved ones. Southern Comfort has done well in creating community, and a wonderfully diverse community at that.
Truckers, local folk, and hipsters alike can come in and feel welcomed by all. On weeknights, the house band, Southern Gold, played the great country classics and even George Jones originals like 'Sit down, Shut up, and drink.' The live act alone was reason enough to get you out of the house after a long day at the office or post breakup with your significant other. Patricia Moran (Dee Dee to most) has a voice that could certainly sooth what ailed you, if the beer hadn't done so already.
Southern Comfort, with all its joys and wonders, seemed a permanent fixture for me and countless others in the Atlanta community. So when Creative Loafing released an article stating that the bar had fallen on hard times and was closing shop, I was a bit confused. After contacting Mr. Jones, I was allowed access for one last glance before the SoCo doors were shut indefinitely. I spent the day hearing old stories from employees and friends of the bar, making new portraits, and reminiscing about the good ol' times. The updated series now includes these new works, as well as unseen images that didn't make the initial cut. When the bar reopened Jan. 15, I returned once again to capture the celebration."
“I’ve owned this place 26 years. I’ve never had a drink in here.”
— GEORGE JONES, OWNER
Wall of Legends, December 2015
Tuesday Night Karaoke, December 2011::
"Janie, the waitress, her mother Kathy is a karaoke staple. And every time she sings, she sings ‘Satin Sheets,’ which is an old country standard. And she sings that for me because my mom used to sing that to me as a lullaby. Kathy will be like, ‘This one goes out to you and your mamma.’ And she’ll sing ‘Satin Sheets.’ And it always touches my heart.”
— DANIEL BASS
He started visiting SoCo on Sunday nights but then became a Tuesday night regular. He had a name plaque on one of the Southern Comfort tables until it was stolen.
“I was raised by bouncers, club owners and musicians. My babysitters were the piano players.”
— MICHAEL MORAN, Dee Dee's son
He has been going to SoCo since he was 7 or 8 years old. He joined his mother hosting karaoke Sunday nights about 15 years ago.
“At first it was a novelty. The spectacle was fine for a little while. But for me, we started having these really great connections. And it was like, damn. These folks are sweet. They’re genuine. They’re honest. They’re really willing to connect with strangers. It felt like an opportunity to make a home. It became my favorite bar.”
— DANIEL BASS
“I was actually playing at Charlie’s one night and I came in on a break. And back then you could hardly get into the club. You had to push your way through. This particular night I was standing close to the dance floor and I saw these two ladies start to fight and then there was this wave of people that were moving across the dance floor. It looked like the Tasmanian devil in the cartoons, you know? Everyone’s kind of going around in circles. It looked like something out of a movie. Almost at once, one of the guitar players in the band said, ‘OK boys, let’s hit it.’ And they started playing a hoedown. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. Everyone stopped and realized how funny it was and then broke into laughter."
— ERNIE GREGORY, current drummer of Southern Gold
A West Virginia transplant who moved to Atlanta in 1973, he started going to SoCo in 1992. He played in a house band at Charlie's, a club across the street, and would come to SoCo on his breaks. He joined Southern Gold six years ago.
J.J. Taking out the Trash, December 2011
Misty, December 2015; Jack Dupree, 2016::
"It’s a place where you can come and be yourself. There’s no pretensions. You can come and scream and raise some hell and the band is always kicking up good tunes."
— ERNIE GREGORY
"I was scared of those people."
— DEE DEE reminiscing about the first years at SoCo
Southern Comfort Onlooker, 2016
Older Couple, 2016::
“There have been dozens of mostly female people that I have seen that came in that were either having problems with drugs or having problems with alcohol or whatever. Employees would either take them in the back and make a sandwich for them or make them coffee or give them a couple of bucks to help them out.”
— ERNIE GREGORY
Southern Comfort Regular, 2016; Vietnam Veteran, 2016
Tommy Lee, 2016; Truck Driver, December 2011::
“George said we’re like brothers. We argue, but we’re like brothers. We love each other.”
— TOMMY LEE, host of Sinful Sundays karaoke
Pool Game Winnings, December 2011; Untitled, December 2011; I Love This Bar - Jack Dupree, December 2011
Michael Moran, December 2015; Tammy Southall, SoCo Volunteer, December 2015
No Wendy's Parking, December 2011
Southern Comfort Sign, Drive Safely, 2016