Inside Nashville’s Dueling Karaoke Scenes

In a city that is changing rapidly, a vibrant karaoke scene—both glitzy and gritty, complete with Ed Hardy ensembles, scrunchie-wearing divas and Bud tallboys—is helping keep Nashville's music culture alive.

There’s a piece of wisdom offered up to Nashville visitors hitting the bar scene: don’t sing karaoke.

The story goes that in the dark recesses of every Music City bar, a ringer is just waiting to blow your heartfelt version of Alabama’s “Roll On (18 Wheeler)” out of the water with perfect Mariah Carey pitch and the showmanship of a young Conway Twitty. They will trill up and down the scale. They will place a finger in their ear with the faux urgency of a stadium-touring diva. Unless you want to have your ego crushed, sitting it out is for your own good.

In a town that’s a magnet for aspiring singers and musicians hoping to hit it big, two of the city’s bars—Fran’s Eastside Tavern and Lonnie’s Western Room—have long provided a platform for the rest of us to seize a piece of the spotlight. Karaoke bars create an unlikely egalitarian utopia, democratizing stardom and using music as a means to forge an automatic bond in a room full of beer-sipping strangers—if only momentarily.

This is particularly true in Nashville, where Southern hospitality intersects with a population of country music’s biggest stars. From Kris Kristofferson leading jam sessions in neighborhood dives to Garth Brooks belting power ballads at The Bluebird Café, the city’s notables have showed up to open mics throughout the years. Music is the lifeblood of the city, and the karaoke joints around town help to keep the tradition pumping.

Printer’s Alley—a storied, tourist-heavy backstreet in Nashville—is a hotbed of karaoke, roping in onlookers with a hypnotic combination of historic-building stock and row upon row of bars with a strictly country twang. Compared to some of these neighboring establishments, Lonnie’s Western Room holds a lot of promise. The gray cobblestone exterior and the bar’s international reputation as a celebrity haunt (Jimmy Fallon and Paul McCartney, among others, have visited) draw eager visitors ducking in from off the blinking neon of the Broadway corridor.

Entering Lonnie’s on a Friday night feels like walking into a low-budget sequel to Coyote Ugly with heavily lip-glossed waitresses circling patrons with a tip bucket in lieu of boot stomping, bar-top dance routines. There’s an alarming amount of Ed Hardy. Bottles of Miller Lite are served at a breakneck pace. The overpowering mushroom cloud of Axe body spray wafting from the men’s restroom would make even a middle school boy blush. Bachelorette parties full of 20-somethings in clumpy mascara and pancaked makeup teeter around like Weeble Wobbles on seven-inch Steve Madden heels. (By the end of the evening, I am handing tissues to several members of a girl gaggle after a particularly sloppy and volatile rendition of “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood.)

In an age when people spend exorbitant amounts of time crafting image and persona, the chance for a glimpse into an individual’s unvarnished, unedited personality is rare. A good karaoke bar, like Fran’s, provides the opportunity to drop all pretenses and, with a little liquid courage, show off the parts of oneself so often hidden from public view.

One of Lonnie’s most curious features is an officially sanctioned “Karaoke Jockey” who serves as a kind of ring-master-meets-auctioneer throughout the evening, herding singers on stage for their moment in the spotlight. The “KJ” on this evening—who could easily pass for an extra in the Christina Aguilera “Dirrty” music video—wields her power with a heavy hand, barging on stage at any opportunity to hit dog-whistle level high notes and taunting those not singing.

“There’s a two-drink minimum to be in here!” She reminds the bar patrons like clockwork between performances, her vocal fry reverberating in every corner of the wood-paneled room.

After several hours of watching, it’s my turn for songbird glory. I move slowly toward the stage—which is fenced in by a waist-high wall of stacked beer boxes and sits beneath the looming presence of a cow skull painting—grab the mic, and situate myself. (Full disclosure: I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. However, when in a position where singing is something of a social contract, I fall back on my deep knowledge of fellow Kentuckian Loretta Lynn’s musical stylings.)

Before I could reach the second chorus of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a gang of fraternity boys—letter shirts worn proudly—let their displeasure with my song of choice be known. I end with a particularly off-key, ear-piercing finale for their enjoyment.

Exiting the bar and standing in the shadow of the Ryman Auditorium—home of the Grand Ole Opry—it’s hard to imagine that Hank Williams and Kitty Wells aren’t rolling over in their graves at what passes for country music in Printer’s Alley bars today. Songs fit for front porch beer drinking and lovesick hearts have largely been replaced by shot-taking, guitar-shredding party anthems and odes to the “honky tonk badonkadonks” of women in cheetah-print pants.

Walking away from the corral of dancing neon, Waylon Jennings’s lament echoes out from a bar down the street:

Rhinestone boots and big shiny cars, are you sure Hank done it this way?

If Lonnie’s Western Room is a college bar inside a cowboy hat, Fran’s East Side Tavern is, perhaps, one of the deepest dive bars in the Southeast. The two establishments anchor opposing ends of the Nashville spectrum in a city that is growing and changing rapidly. Lonnie’s flashy power pop atmosphere and epicenter location ensure a constant flow of Top 40-listening country music fans.

Fran’s, on the other hand, is decidedly no frills. It draws a steady stream of both East Nashville old-timers and recent transplants with an appreciation for an old school authenticity that can’t be manufactured. The bar’s melting pot attitude has endured for decades, and will continue to thrive long after Lonnie’s patrons have nursed their final karaoke hangovers and moved back to the suburbs.

A tiny white shack perched precariously on the side of a hill in East Nashville, Fran’s is located directly on the wrong side of the tracks, with freighters passing by no more than 30 yards from the bar’s front door. The building appears to be so off-balance that if a train blew its horn too loudly it might collapse completely.

The interior of the bar is dark, gritty and weathered with an ambiance that’s only a few notches above drinking in the middle of a mechanic’s shop. A fog of cigarette smoke is ever-present and thick enough to slice with a knife. Multicolored Christmas lights dangle haphazardly from the ceiling brushing up against yellowing motorcycle posters taped to cinder block walls. A giant pool table occupies much of the bar’s open space, and several regulars in Dale Earnhardt tribute shirts rack up balls for hours on end. The bar itself makes all drinking decisions simple: there’s only beer, they only take cash and that’s that.

There’s a blurred line between who actually works at Fran’s and who is just taking matters into their own hands, and over the course of the evening I see several people take up a place behind the bar. A man pops some microwave popcorn and shares it with the crowd. A woman pulls a massive bucket of peppermints from behind the counter and serves several beers. Yet another man checks the bar’s bulky white Frigidaire for some mystery ingredient. But one thing is for sure: Fran’s is no one’s first stop of the night.

The karaoke here is a masterpiece. A small folding table holds the most rudimentary of systems. There’s no stage and no gunners looking to impress—only the most unlikely candidates ready to take up a microphone and belt their hearts out. A scrunchie-wearing woman hits her knees in a dramatic flourish while singing “Fancy” by Reba McEntire. A trio of men with an odd combination of wrinkles and face tattoos huddle around a lone mic crooning “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” by Alan Jackson. A stray dog briefly wanders in and out during a performance of “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. A dozen of us do a conga line around the pool table.

In an age when people spend exorbitant amounts of time crafting image and persona, the chance for a glimpse into an individual’s unvarnished, unedited personality is rare. A good karaoke bar, like Fran’s, provides the opportunity to drop all pretenses and, with a little liquid courage, show off the parts of oneself so often hidden from public view.

Not to be dissuaded by my previous hecklers, I decide to give my old standby song another shot after several bottles from our table’s beer bucket. My voice—shaky and cracking—quickly quiets the room’s chatter and din, and faces begin to turn in my direction, smiling in acknowledgment of Loretta’s signature tune.

Raising their Bud tallboys in the air, the crowd sways as I enter into the home stretch of the song, erupting in unison:

Well I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter…