Story and photo by Dawne Belloise
“Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.”
— Willie Nelson
Back in Black screams to a deafening reverberation across the wooden floor, pumping barflies and hopefuls into a rhythmic raising of glasses to mouths. They stand before the pulsing altar of flashing LEDs and whirling discs feeding alms to the jukebox. Flipping through layers of CDs, they prime the bar atmosphere like fishermen chumming the waters.
Music is the great ambiance enhancer of romance. Next to the introductory salutation of “Can I buy you a drink?” the most viable enticement to engage a conversation is, “I just put $2 in the jukebox … wanna come pick out some songs?” It’s been the standard in bars everywhere from the time oblivious couples glued together in a slow song grind bumped into machines and sent phonograph needles screeching across spinning vinyl.
The term “juke joint” originated from “jook,” the West African word for “wicked” or “disorderly” and was later applied to jukeboxes when pay-for-music phonographs became the rage. Jukeboxes were the perfect answer for supplying music to hard-to-reach mountain towns. Although certainly not a replacement, they’re cheaper than live music, don’t have to be bunked overnight, don’t steal the already limited population of local women and they don’t rack up a bar tab. It will continuously play slow songs or your favorite tune to the point of exasperation.
Phil Beckett, a guitarist who toured the Colorado mountain bars with several bands, remembers playing at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Leadville, where, between sets, the jukebox cranked. “Hearing ‘Jessie’s Girl’ five billion times over and over with no other song in between is unforgettable,” Beckett mused. “No one wanted to say anything for fear of starting a fight. Huge fights would break out with all the miners and not enough girls around.”
Fights take on a spontaneous Western movie animation when choreographed with a little background music — hard rock or Johnny Cash are the ringside choice.
Back at the Silver Dollar Saloon, the local patrons are predominantly construction workers from the mine, who lean toward country music. The bartender will plunk down silly tunes like the “Three Little Fishies,” by the Three Stooges to break the tension between the younger thumpers, who like to play rap, and the rednecks nursing their twangy fix. But Chuck Hughes, guitarist for The Hillbilly Hellcats says, “The Silver Dollar has an internet-based jukebox with seemingly thousands of selections. We get rooms on the second floor when we play there and are awakened each morning at 10 a.m., when we hear, quite clearly, all the bass lines to the songs on the jukebox.”
Forget Joan Jett’s “I love rock ’n roll so put another dime in the jukebox, baby” — you’ll fork out $2 a song for an internet-based box and have to take precious time from tending your barstool to search the wide web for far too much variety. The Silver Dollar Saloon tried to switch back to their more popular and cheaper CD jukebox, but the vendor wouldn’t give it back. The bartender admitted, “They still play it but not quite as often. Sometimes we sit here with no music at all. We have this junky old internet instead of the one we used to have with the good ol’ country tunes. The other jukebox, you could shoot $5 into it and would play over an hour. Before, with just a couple of bucks, we could hit the popular button and it would play the favorites forever. This internet one, you have to search for each and every song you want to play.”
One thing that transcends generations is some of the music that goes into the selections. The tunes the twenty- and thirty-somethings consistently punch are the same songs their moms rocked them to in-utero.
Duane Griffith of Wildwood Music stocks the jukebox at Kochevar’s, the oldest saloon in Crested Butte. “I get requests for certain things,” he says. “‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is still going to be the number-one requested song, and anything Allman Brothers can’t be replaced. There are some staples that just don’t go away. Even though all the bartenders are so sick of these songs, I can’t take them out because it’s being played a million times,” he says of the money-makers. “I just go in count the money, change the music and make sure it’s all working.”
He rotates out about ten percent of the tunes because, “If I take out those favorites, people get mad. Generations may change, but the song remains the same.”
We’re interested to hear any jukebox stories MG’s readers might have. What/where’s your favorite jukebox, and why? What makes for a good jukebox? Anything you can think of. Send your thoughts to email@example.com.