I saw something the other day that I hadn’t seen in years: a jukebox.
I don’t mean one that plays CDs. I mean a real, honest-to-God jukebox that plays 45 rpm records.
We were out in the country, about 30 miles south of Nashville, and we stopped for lunch at this mom-and-pop place by the highway. I knew there was a real jukebox in the room as soon as I walked in and heard Alan Jackson singing “Little Bitty.” I knew because the sound was grungy and a little bleary, like the band had been out partying too late the night before.
Old jukeboxes sound that way because of bad speakers and because of the records themselves. I know guys who swear vinyl sounds better than digital, but I don’t think anyone would defend the 45.
I bought a lot of singles as a kid, and I was a disc jockey back in high school, and I don’t think there was a lot of quality control at the record plant. You’d pull a 45 out of the shuck and it might be warped, or the hole in the middle might be a little off-center, so even new records sounded wobbly.
On top of that, a vinyl record dies a little every time you play it. When the needle rides along the groove, it wears the music away. The music starts to fade. The sound isn’t as crisp. The highs and lows give way to a murky middle.
That’s the sound I heard when we walked in the restaurant.
“Look at this!” I said.
The jukebox had a window, and I wanted the kids to see how it worked, how pressing A-6 makes the mechanical arm slide down a rail until it finds the record you want then grabs it and holds it upright against the turntable. My kids, who’ve grown up with iPods and Pandora, couldn’t have cared less.
We were the only ones there besides the owner, so I played whatever I wanted — the jukebox was stocked mostly with country records, so I played some Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson — and I flashed back to high school and the peer pressure that goes along with playing a jukebox.
When you play a song on a jukebox, you’re telling everyone within earshot who you are.
Every song is a statement, and there is nothing worse than pressing the wrong buttons and playing Barry Manilow instead of the Boss.
Pandora and Spotify share your playlists with your friends online. Jukeboxes did that in real life, one quarter at a time.