Almost 25 years ago, I picked the wrong jukebox song (“Why Would You Eat Your Grits Anyplace Else?”) at a Little Rock Waffle House. The waitress stared me down menacingly and said, “I’ve been here 11 years. See that cook? He’s been here 13 years. Never. Play. That. Song. Again.” I chuckled, but she wasn’t kidding. I love everything about a jukebox. The surprise of stumbling upon one. The ritual of paying and choosing. Even saying the word “jukebox” is a delight; the word is one of those rare compounds that reveals its own definition. Somewhere between the j and the x is the slyly whispered promise: “Pssst … here’s a box that’ll make you dance, kids. Feed it money.”
Jukeboxes pulsate with both potential and peril, and their rarity in 2017 gives them an air of times past; kids today don’t know the accidental joy of exploring a total stranger’s musical collection, of entering an unfamiliar diner or bar and flip-flipping through the choices. They don’t know the flirty gamble of giving a new date one of your crisp American dollars and asking her to pick something out as an early taste test to see whether or not she’s your particular brand of hot sauce.
Little Rock has several magical jukeboxes that are snapshots of a spot’s personality. The Sims Barbecue location at 2405 Broadway Ave. boasts an older Rowe AMI Starlight model, packed with classic blues, soul and R&B favorites. (For those of us who frequented the long-gone Sims location at 33rd and Arch, this is the exact same machine we knew and loved.) A waitress tells me that the most-played artists are Johnnie Taylor, B.B. King and Luther Vandross, but she finds herself most frequently playing a “Blues Is Alright” compilation to keep things fresh. Bonus: While the jukebox was pay-activated at the old location, all selections are free here on Broadway.
Over my plate of chicken, beans and potato salad, I spend the silence in between tracks listening to what Sims is like without the music. The barbecue is still delicious. The waitresses are still friendly. But without Z.Z. Hill or Bobby Bland growling in the background, this place would be missing an ingredient nearly as essential as the brown sugar in the Sims sauce.
Over at the White Water Tavern (2500 W. Seventh St.), the jukebox offerings lean more toward Americana, alt-country and classic punk. Live music is in the DNA of the late-night scene here, as is loyalty, and the stickered-up Rowe AMI Encore machine boasts a fantastic collection of bands that have played at WWT over the years, plus a healthy helping of those who have influenced them. You’ll find local acts like Kevin Kerby and The Moving Front sharing space with the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Buddy Guy and The Pogues. True to its dive bar roots, a wrinkled dollar bill and a press of the jukebox’s “POPULAR” button cues up a double shot of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (“Blue Collar”) and Thin Lizzy (“Jailbreak”).
When asked about her favorite choices, happy hour bartender Marianne Taylor wastes no time. “Amy Garland, Amy’s husband’s band The Salty Dogs, Billy Joe Shaver, Al Green. … I play some Lucinda Williams for sure.” It’s a perfect answer for a White Water Tavern denizen, and variations abound. The regulars are true fans and the playlist reflects that.
Proprietor Matt White leans toward choices like Jimbo Mathus, R.L. Burnside and Nina Simone. “Jukeboxes are romantic,” he said, “and getting harder and harder to find. I personally chose and helped to load every record in the box. We are honestly long overdue for some updates, always want to reflect a broad overview of the music that we love, particularly the greats rooted out of the American South. I love having great records from local artists and touring acts that play here as well.”
As for replacing his 10-year-old Encore? White isn’t having any of that. “We’ve gotten countless offers to have an internet jukebox installed, but I guarantee you that will never happen as long as I’m around. Muddy Waters forever; Nickelback never.”
The tiny Lassis Inn (518 E. 27th St.) is a Little Rock institution known chiefly for a few things: irresistible fried fish, tiny tables, a fantastic jukebox and — maddeningly — the NO DANCING signs on its dining room walls. Frankly, it’s like they’re setting us up for failure. The menu is just one page: fish steaks, catfish filets, big bone buffalo and sides — but the jukebox has always been a flat-out hot list for soul and blues. You want Charlie Wilson? Got it. Feeling a little heartsick? Cue up some B.B. King. Did somebody do somebody wrong? Tyrone Davis has you covered.
But wait a minute. What’s this? The Lassis Inn jukebox has gone digital?
Yep. Parked right there in the Lassis dining room, there’s a shiny new TouchTunes model, just smirking and acting like it owns the place. What gives? Owner Elihue Washington Jr. misses the old jukebox, which had to be replaced due to electrical problems, but says the new system is catching on. According to Washington, “Friday and Saturday evening crowds use the jukebox the most. It’s not uncommon for someone to drop $20 in the box, sit down, have some drinks and laughs with their friends.”
The new box is leased by Lassis and connected to the internet with thousands of songs available to patrons, but even with the entire world at our fingertips, Johnnie Taylor’s “Just Because” still reigns here.
Washington pops in a few credits, and soon the small dining room is filled with the sweet intonations of Albert King’s “I’ll Play The Blues For You.” Even from an internet jukebox, King’s promises spill over and mix into the aroma of catfish and okra, and, yep, all is still right with this tiny corner of our world.
Changes do come, sure enough. For real music heads, modern times are incredible. We can hop onto a computer and listen to radio stations from around the world. We can order up almost any song, almost anytime. If we hear a song, a phone app can “listen” and tell me what song I’m hearing. If I want to interact with my favorite artist, I can use social media and stand a decent shot of having an actual conversation with her. Whether internet jukeboxes are an inevitable solution or just the 2017 version of those short-lived televisions that had slots for both DVD and VHS, here’s hoping that I can always happily discover a glowing box in a tavern’s darkened corner where, for the cost of a few bucks, share some coded secrets with everyone in the room who might be paying attention. Communicating is hard enough, folks. Don’t make me do it without sending out some impassioned lyrics as air cover.
David Cook also contributed to this article.