The Customers of One of Atlanta’s Last Honky Tonks

The Photo Blog
Jan. 25 2014 11:04 AM

The Customers of One of Atlanta’s Last Honky Tonks

9:35 pm Jill & Mildred Jilm & Mildred come every Friday and Saturday to dance to the band. They haven't been able to make it for a while since Mildred broke her hip on the dance floor.
9:35 p.m., Jill & Mildred. Jim and Mildred come every Friday and Saturday to dance to the band. They haven't been able to make it for a while since Mildred broke her hip on the dance floor.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

When photographer Kaylinn Gilstrap walked into the Southern Comfort honky-tonk bar in Atlanta for the first time, she knew she had stumbled upon a photography project. The only catch was how to photograph it.

Billed as one of the last honky-tonk bars in the Atlanta area, the Southern Comfort has been described as a bar with ".wood-paneled walls ... boot-shod regulars, twinkling Christmas lights, and bar bedecked in signage warning of pickpockets and loose women."

Based on that description, shooting documentary-style would seem like the perfect choice. Gilstrap had imagined doing that for her project, but a few obstacles quickly surfaced, including poor lighting and a few too many drunk people. “I didn’t want to be a nuisance, and I didn’t want anyone breaking my equipment,” she said.

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Instead, she set up a makeshift studio consisting of a backdrop and lights on the bar’s raised VIP section, where she hoped to lure some of the customers over to take their portraits. At first she would walk up to people and ask them to drop by, but after spending a few 10-hour shifts that went into the early morning, Gilstrap became part of the bar’s fabric and found some of the regulars and tourists lining up for their portraits.

9:38 pm Marvin & Rain  Marvin, CB handle Silver Fox, has been driving a truck since he was sixteen. Rain, CB handle Reindeer, for about thirty years. When they're not on the road, they're strumming guitars and singing.On Valentine's Day they will celebrate their tenth anniversary.
9:38 p.m., Marvin & Rain. Marvin, CB handle Silver Fox, has been driving a truck since he was 16. Rain, CB handle Reindeer, has been driving for about 30 years. When they're not on the road, they're strumming guitars and singing.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

10:28 David  After the photos, David wanted to make sure his new tattoo in honor of his grandmother wasn't marked by the artist. Unfortunately, next to the flames were two tiny SS bolts left by the neo nazi tattoo artist.
10:28 p.m., David. After the photos, David wanted to make sure his new tattoo in honor of his grandmother wasn't marked by the artist. Next to the flames were two tiny SS bolts left by the neo-Nazi tattoo artist.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

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Left: 10:41 p.m., Tommy With His Grandma, Patricia. Right: 8:25 p.m., Karen With Her Friend, Tammy.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

She spent two years on the project and made some friends along the way, acted as a surrogate shrink, witnessed touching memorials, observed impromptu strip-teases, and was given gifts ranging from a rose to an autographed portrait of a wrestler. 

Gilstrap grew up in a small town in rural Colorado, where she says “drinking was frowned upon and done in the shadows of the parking lot; hands were kept politely on your partner’s waist.” She said: “On one hand [Southern Comfort] reminded me of home, and on the other, it was the exact opposite of how I was raised; I think reminiscing drew me in, and the contrast kept me coming back.”

In her statement about the project, which she titled “Southern Comfort,” Gilstrap wrote about visiting the honky tonk: “You may receive a military salute from security outside or a scowl from Sue working the door. You may smell like you rolled in an ashtray as soon as you step inside and have to yell over the unbelievably loud music. If none of these things deter you, you will be rewarded with some of the best characters the South can offer.”

Left: Paul & Lisa. Paul introduced me to his second and fourth ex-wife, Teresa and then told me he was working on his fifth. He and Lisa were engaged for years but it didn't work out. Right: Bill & Pat. Bill and Pat met over ten years ago at Southern Comfort and they've been a couple on and off since then. The last time I saw Bill they were off but he was confident they would be together soon.
Left: 2:24 a.m., Paul & Lisa. Paul introduced Gilstrap to his second and fourth ex-wife, Teresa, and then told her he was working on his fifth. He and Lisa were engaged for years, but it didn't work out. Right: 12:41 a.m., Bill & Pat. Bill and Pat met more than 10 years ago at Southern Comfort, and they've been a couple on and off since then.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

Left: 8:14 PM Selena with her cousin, Teresa. A lot of people catch up with famly at the lounge. Teresa has been coming to Southern Comfort before it was called Southern Comfort and now she keeps coming to see her girls, Catrina and Misty. Right: 9:30 PM Catrina with her sister, Misty. Catrina and Misty come to dance and spend time with their dad.
Left: 8:14 p.m., Selena With Her Cousin, Teresa. A lot of people catch up with famly at the lounge. Teresa has been coming to Southern Comfort before it was called Southern Comfort, and now she keeps coming to see her girls Catrina and Misty. Right: 9:30 p.m., Catrina With Her Sister, Misty.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

Regulars catch up as a scooter gang invades the bar.
11:22 p.m. Regulars catch up as a motorcycle gang invades the bar.

Kaylinn Gilstrap

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Kaylinn Gilstrap

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.

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