by Eric Ginsburg
I almost turned around when I reached the door and realized that Willie’s Honky Tonk is the kind of place where you need a membership key. A fenced patio obscures the heavy-duty black door from the street in this semi-industrial part of Winston-Salem’s fringe, and it wasn’t until I stood in front of it that I read the large “Members only” sign painted near the pronounced lock on the windowless door. But before I could turn around, I heard a woman’s voice inside say, “There’s somebody outside.”
So I knocked.
After a pause, a middle-aged woman with long, brown hair cracked the door. I awkwardly explained that I’d happened upon this place — a standalone building that looks older than the city itself — and wanted to grab a beer. The skepticism and confusion on her face made it clear that this was not the sort of thing regular people attempted.
Willie’s is members only, she said, but when I gently prodded about the text on the door offering membership, she backed down a little. If a member would sign me in, I could stay, she said, or I could fill out paperwork and pay a fee to join. This far along, I decided I better plunge in.
Before I did, a friend who I’d convinced to come along showed up, and though this further raised the woman’s suspicions, we were somewhat begrudgingly granted admittance.
After being signed in as guests by another, more jovial woman wearing a Wake Forest sweatshirt, we took up seats as the bar, and ordered.
I arrived at Willie’s Honky Tonk with a couple expectations. Based on the name of the place, the country music playing, NASCAR decorations and four different pieces of Confederate paraphernalia didn’t surprise me. Nor did the biker gear, given that a mini motorcycle adorned the top of an outdated sign outside advertising a Super Bowl party, though the presence of decals promoting Indian and Harley bikes took me slightly off guard.
But more than anything, I expected the portrait of the South that little Yankee kids conjure in their minds — a dimly lit room where the smoky air is as thick as the accents, where people don’t take too kindly to outsiders. Willie’s Honky Tonk, even from the parking lot, felt like being transported to a rundown town in 1950s Alabama, or at least the mental association I’d created for it.
I don’t scare easily, but I knew I’d be out of my element and would likely feel uncomfortable, so I enlisted the help of a friend who we’ll call Mark, a bearded white guy 10 years my senior who is native to this city and is an expert at dodging questions. Which is a good thing, because the inquiries rolled in from our host quickly, beginning with, “What do you do?”
There were four people in the bar as we entered: a man chain-smoking at a small circular table by the door, the bartender who let us in, our host in the hoodie and a likely centenarian playing touch-screen games on one of the monitors lined up near the front. Despite the country music drifting from the speakers, Willie’s wasn’t the place for a personal conversation.
I managed to say almost nothing until we separated ourselves by moving over to a pool table, but our host hardly revealed more. Mark asked a few questions, out of curiosity and to shift the attention to the venue itself, but didn’t get very far.
How long has this place been around? Since maybe ’89. Who’s Willie? We’re all Willie.
A sign advertised snacks and pizza, but we were told Willie’s doesn’t have food. A partially filled popcorn machine stood on the far end of the bar, but we all politely ignored it. A plaque on the bar in front of Mark said his seat belonged to a different woman, and though she wasn’t present, we moved anyway.
From one of the two pool tables, I had a better vantage point of the room. A small triangular stage, less than half a foot off the ground, occupied a front corner, complete with amps and a chair waiting, presumably, for a honky tonker. I hadn’t realized that Willie’s does have one window, next to the door allowing patrons to see anyone approaching while obscuring a view inside.
A long mirror, signed maybe 100 times, lay on a side table with balloons from a recent birthday party. T-shirts and a jacket promoting Willie’s and a biker club hung from a rack, and a wooden chopper stood back towards the bathrooms. A crooning country ballad playing said something about coming from the coalmines, and the low ceilings, lack of natural light and human smokestack inside made Willie’s feel like an underground shaft, too.
I overlooked several signs reading “Support 81” until Mark pointed them out, and we wondered quietly to ourselves what it could be. Two quick games of pool and one beer later, we reached for our jackets.
Thanking our host for the hospitality, I asked — trying to make it sound like a casual afterthought — if Support 81 was some sort of racing club, gesturing towards the NASCAR artwork.
“Some’n like that,” the woman said.
Enough said. We were leaving anyway, but Mark and I acknowledged later that we each had the distinct feeling that we’d overstayed our welcome. If we’d ever been welcomed in the first place. They’d tolerated us, briefly, and we agreed we wouldn’t push our luck by coming back.
Not that we particularly wanted to, especially after we did a little research and realized Support 81 is a term for Hells Angels affiliates.
Feds hit Hells Angels in South Carolina with a racketeering conspiracy indictment a few years ago that also charged members and associates with armed robbery, dealing guns and drugs, arson and money laundering. Sixteen people went down.
Maybe that’s why our host was tight-lipped; she might’ve thought we were cops.