The first time I heard about the legendary Saloon in Natchez I knew I had to see it. Who wouldn’t want to go to one of the oldest bars in a Mississippi River steamboat town? Luckily, my friend Claire is from Natchez and an excellent tour guide.
Natchez Under the Hill 1931 courtesy of Lanny Raper
Early settlers from the north would float goods down the Mississippi River to be sold in Natchez or New Orleans. Better prices were often offered in New Orleans, however, Natchez was the beginning of the Natchez Trace, which most all settlers would travel to go home. Therefore many boats loaded with goods were sold in Natchez rather than continuing to New Orleans.
Natchez was a resort of sorts for these river men, and Natchez Under the Hill was their playground. Under the Hill was essentially another town all together- it existed primarily to serve the river men coming into town to sell goods and or relax before continuing on to New Orleans or return north. When they arrived, they knew their journey was almost over, and they often indulged in one “last fling” before entering the wilderness of the River. Drinking, gambling, and women were readily available to indulge them. Natchez Under the Hill area had a “rough and tumble” time during the flatboat days with thousands of people passing through each year, and the numbers increased with the arrival of steamboats.
The building that now houses the Saloon has experienced a great deal of history. The exact date of construction is unknown due to a courthouse fire, but it was most likely built in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Historic research shows the Saloon has been used as a brothel, warehouse, general store, and bar.
The majority of Under the Hill establishments are long gone…the Saloon remains. It has that old school, hole in the wall, dive bar quality that I love. Lots of wood, dim lighting, loud music, and a haze of cigarette smoke (could do without the smoke but doubt that will change)…when you walk in you get all sorts of stares from the natives (a good handful look rode hard and put up wet). If you’ve ever been to St. Simons Island, GA and gone to Murphy’s Tavern…picture that except right on the river.
Today, the Saloon is a favorite watering hole of just about everyone of age in town. According to my friend, its the cool hangout for the late 20s and early 30s crowd these days, so naturally we hung out there all weekend. Most resort towns claim to have a big party scene, my hometown included, but going out in Natchez is no joke…the bars don’t close…at all. The age old motto work hard, play harder could not be more true in Natchez. Mojo Mud a band from Oxford, Mississippi provided a fun soundtrack both nights, playing everything from classic rock to Widespread Panic.
After making our way through the front room, we ventured to the back rooms. The foosball room is first with a foosball table of course, then behind it is the dart room, and then to the right is the jungle room (my favorite). The Saloon is full of Natchez memorabilia too making each room like a little gallery, full of old photos of days gone by.
The most popular or infamous stories about the Saloon surround the current owner, JD or John David. He is quite a character. Just reaching over the bar, JD is the face of the Saloon each night with one other bartender, sporting a bright green bowler hat… I couldn’t help but think of him as a mischievous leprechaun trying to get everyone drunk.
JD at the Saloon photo courtesy Todd Lambert
Before we got to the Saloon, everyone we were with kept saying, I wonder if JD will do “House of the Rising Sun?” I replied, “He does karaoke?” Everyone just smiled and kind of laughed. Obviously I wasn’t in on the joke, so they filled me in. They explained that every now and then, the Saloon owner JD, gets on the bar to sing this Doors classic. What starts as a “normal” karaoke performance, quickly turns into a bizarre strip down sing-a-long. He is the only one stripping (the female bartender assists him) but the crowd eats it up. On Saturday night, he decided to do his thing….it was very interesting. The entire bar was squeezed into the front room taking photos and videos of the occasion, JD stood on a stool by the band and performed his theme song, and his assistant bartender helped take his shirt off. I’m sure if you looked up JD Natchez Saloon on youtube you could find at least a few videos.
It was the perfect ending to my weekend of excess in Natchez. The next day after a big pancake breakfast, courtesy of Claire’s mom and sister, I began my long journey back to Georgia on the Natchez Trace.