The Observer, like a lot of folks, is drawn to the real places: barbecue joints and honky-tonks, seedy truck stops and greasy little diners where the waitresses and clerks still call you “Hun,” used bookstores that have been there since Faulkner was still drinking mint juleps, bait shops hung with dusty-eyed bass pulled up from the deep when Eisenhower was in the White House. Though The Observer once longed to ditch this backwater for places with more zing and neon as a pup, we see now that we’re lucky Arkansas moves a little slower than everyplace else. One result of that slower pace is that we’re also slower than everywhere else to move on to the spankin’ new and flashy, less likely to fire up the bulldozers and more likely to let good enough be good enough. That has allowed a lot of our real places to survive.
In Little Rock, one of our favorite real places is the White Water Tavern, the dive-iest of dive bars, situated right proper near the railroad tracks on Seventh Street. We don’t get in there as often as we should anymore, The Observer having drunk our bicarbonate of soda and retired to Dreamland by the time White Water gets really cranked up most nights. But we still love that joint. To any of the plasticized “influencers” who make a living off looking chic, or fly, or fleek, or whatever the kids are calling cool these days, White Water would surely look like something that washed up out of the river, to be hazarded only as shelter in a hailstorm. To The Observer, though, White Water looks like Southern music, in its entirety, coalesced into physical form and manifested beside the railroad tracks. It’s world-class real, and an Arkansas treasure.
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Matt White is the co-owner of White Water, keeping the lamp lit so the next generation can experience real once they get tired of $9 drinks and watching drunk sorority sisters in heels fall down. In addition to being one of the priests who tends the temple, he’s a hell of a writer, and takes to Dr. Zuckerberg’s Electric Book of Countenances much too rarely to share some beautiful moment he experienced at the bar. He posted the following story earlier this week, and The Observer thought it was so lovely that we talked him into letting us publish it below. It, too, is world-class real. Enjoy:
“Ramblin’ Jack Elliott walked into the White Water early Saturday evening wearing a worn rancher’s jacket and cowboy hat, guitar strapped across his back, ready to play the first show of a two-night stand. Warm, kind, and intrigued at 87 years of age, Jack took a look around and said: ‘What a cool place. Good vibes.’ I’m always halfway worried what an artist is going to think when they walk into this crazy looking bar. Jack appeared to feel at home. ‘You know, I’ve never been to this town before, except for the time I jumped off a freight train and hopped into a pickup truck,’ he said. He’d later tell the full story of being thrown around the cab of said stranger’s truck on a death trip through winding Ozark highways.
“Saturday was very cold. There were rumors of sleet. Jack sang ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ A train howled through the rain and the entire building shook a little. As we walked outside at the conclusion of the night, Jack turned slightly and said with a genuine sense of wonder: ‘What a great adventure. This is the first time I’ve been held over to play two nights in a row.’ When I gently protested that there’s no way this could be true, he laughed and said, ‘Well, I played for six nights in a row at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, opening for Lightnin’ Hopkins. But I missed the first night because I was checking on a ranch in West Texas. I thought there’s no way they’re going to miss me.’
“We were standing in the rain and it was time to say goodbye.
“On Sunday I sat in stunned disbelief as Jack sang ‘Pretty Boy Floyd.’ It was surreal to hear his voice and these timeless songs from a disappearing America I love. In affectionate regard to Woody Guthrie, Jack said: ‘He had some fine ways of playing of which I never could quite learn.’
“Before he departed back into the night, I opened the front door one more time and saw the soft form of Jack’s cowboy hat in the interior lights of the car. He looked up, flashed a huge smile, and gave a big thumbs up. The man seemed happy, heading out for the next adventure.”