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Lexington and Central Kentucky are loaded with unique watering holes for every taste and interest. In Bar Exam, Matt Wickstrom introduces us to the best known bars and bars you should know in The Bluegrass.
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Austin City Saloon keeps steady beat through the years and changes
With a crack of pool balls, the clinks of glasses, steady laughter and a cool rush of local music, Austin City Saloon has become a honky-tonk staple in Lexington. Nestled in an alcove off New Circle Road, the metal barn-style roof and wooden pillars break up the asphalt and welcome guests inside.
Walking inside the saloon, guests are greeted by one long wooden bar prepped and ready for the night. On the wall behind it is a stage for live music, and snuggled in between is a well-worn wooden dance floor. Tables mingle on the left of the dance floor, as the wooden floor turns to basic concrete. Stationed on the back wall is a smaller second bar, a pair of pool tables and even a gift shop.
First opened in 1981, the country bar has switched hands five times but retained the same vibe.
“If you enjoy live music and a place where you can have a good time that feels more like home than a business, then this is the place for you,” current owner Austin Brashear said.
Brashear and his business partner, Josh Brock, have only been in charge of Austin City Saloon for a little over a year, but both have been part of the venue’s family, having been bouncers before the switch to management.
Two long-time visitors, John Batkis and Jason Gaddis, have been coming to the salon for more than eight years, shooting pool every Friday and Saturday night.
“It’s just a fun place to hang out, to dance and shoot pool,” said Batkis, who has been coming to Austin City for the last 20 years. He even has a reserved name slate at his table. “But the main reason is to dance.”
Since its creation, Austin City Saloon has revolved around the music.
“Good, live music. Something that has a pretty good tempo and movement to it so people can get up and dance, and interact with each other,” Brashear said of the country-Southern rock sound the venue brings in. “We have a lot of local faces.”
Brashear said it was one of those local faces that put Austin City Saloon on the map.
Nicholasville’s John Michael Montgomery — “I Love the Way You Love Me” and “Be My Baby Tonight” — started performing at the saloon in the late 1980s before getting signed to Atlantic Records. Montgomery returned to the saloon to record a live music video for his single, “Beer and Bones,” from his 1992 album, “Life’s a Dance.”
His brother, Eddie Montgomery, also played at the saloon with friend Troy Gentry, before the pair formed country duo Montgomery Gentry.
“Local people came and played here and actually made it to the top,” Brashear said. “It made people curious.”
Beginning in December 2015, the Austin City Saloon Hall of Fame has been honoring local people who have made a major contribution to the saloon’s history and the local music scene. The first person recognized was Greg Austin, who the bar was named after, followed by Olive Hill native George Molton of the 90 Proof Band, who has written music for John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry.
“There will be more honored in the future,” Brashear said. “But it is going to remain a very exclusive club that takes a moment to honor those who have made it possible for our business to continue on strong.”
Avery Crabtree will be the next musician honored during a ceremony and concert the weekend of May 19. Austin City Saloon also brings in national tours; some past visitors include Luke Bryan, Toby Keith and Jason Aldean.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a saloon without a well-stocked bar. The saloon has two full bars and welcomes outside food. Each bar is stocked with favorites like Miller Light, Budweiser and Angry Orchard, with the locally brewed Country Boy and Blue Stallion on tap along with a pirate-worthy supply of liquor ready for shots and mixers.
A shot of Fire Ball Cinnamon Whiskey is a first-timer favorite, Brashear said, but the saloon has a secret concoction that calls to the locals.
“It’s called the Austin City Shot,” Brashear said. “You can drink it with people and celebrate and it won’t burn the house down. What’s in it? Now, that’s a secret.”
Although known for the friendly service, live music and all-around good time, Austin City Saloon prides itself being a one-of-a-kind Lexington staple.
“There is a lot of history here,” said co-owner Josh Brock, who has worked in the saloon for 15 years. “When you walk in, you know you’re not walking into some cookie-cutter bar.”