In leafing through an old edition of The Athens News (March 1979), I came across a story that stirred some fond – albeit blurry – memories.
The story, headlined "Complications Arise Over Sale of Mary Johnson's Inn" and written by former Athens News Editor Melody Sands, recounted the legal snafus that were blocking the sale of the longtime uptown "townie" bar at 7 W. State St. (the current site of Tony's Tavern).
The story quoted one "longstanding patron" as describing Mary Johnson's as "the only old-timer hillbilly bar" in Athens (though I can think of a few others that were in business at the time).
Whatever the case, there's no doubt about it – Mary Johnson's was unique in uptown Athens, a bona fide s***-kicker bar, with the best classic country jukebox there ever was. It featured the current Outlaw country stuff at the time (Waylon, Willie, Charlie Daniels, etc.), along with all the stars and legends – Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, Faron Young, Gary Stewart (my favorite), Wanda Jackson, Elvis, and on and on.
My friends and I - including still-residing-in-Athens Tom Bennett (furniture/cabinet maker) and Tom Miller (art teacher) - were big fans of hard-country music at the time, having discovered twang through country-rockers such as Gram Parsons, the Burritos, the New Riders, Linda Ronstadt and Commander Cody. At the same time, we were adventurous kids, looking for something different from the samey landscape of college bars in uptown Athens.
Some things I remember distinctly about Mary Johnson's:
• 40-cent Tech beers. Cheap Buckhorns, too.
• A sweet old regular named Flossie who loved to dance with the long-haired, fresh-faced college guys who wandered in (or just my friends and me, since I never saw any other college students enter MJ's).
• Another old guy named Shaky who told some great yarns when you could get him to sit still.
• Some of the most brutal bar fights I've ever witnessed.
• The bar's unconventional hours. It would open at 8 in the morning on some days, and you'd walk past the place, and see the bar lined up with patrons. If I remember correctly, this usually happened at the first of the month, and may have had something to do with government checks. Though I suppose the early-morning clientele also might have been connected to factory/mine shifts in the area.
Shortly after the 1979 article ran, the legal issues got ironed out, and Roman Warmke, Sr., bought the building from the late Mary Johnson's estate. He handed the bar over to his son, Jim, who operated it as Cripple Creek (so named in these un-PC times, as Roman Warmke, Jr. of Athens tells the story, because Jim was in a wheelchair due to a motorcycle accident, and the main guitar player at the bar also was disabled and in a wheelchair).
Other potential buyers of the Mary Johnson's building at the time, according to the Athens News article, included Corky Lillick, then owner of Casa Que Pasa (forerunner of the Casa Cantina, across the street), and local businessman Les Cornwell (who became a prominent businessman and developer in Athens).
Cripple Creek lasted until 1982 when Tony Sylvester purchased the bar and opened Tony's Tavern, a great combination townie-student bar that has developed its own legendary reputation over the decades, and remains an uptown fixture today.
So essentially, Hank Williams and 40-cent beers got replaced by darts and Hot Nuts, an even trade in my book.