Lexington Rock City

The band Taillight Years on stage at Cosmic Charlie's in Lexington, Kentucky.
The band Taillight Years on stage at Cosmic Charlie's in Lexington, Kentucky.Photograph by Katie Van Syckle

Despite being tucked into the heart of Kentucky bluegrass country, Lexington boasts an eclectic music scene that thrives in sweaty punk bars and Irish pubs as well as local barbecue joints. The city that straddled the Civil War – birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (also Muhammad Ali and George Clooney) – has long been populated by freethinkers and rebels. Today’s music scene reflects that tradition: Iconoclastic, independent local rockers shout and purr into microphones all over town.

Near the University of Kentucky campus, the graffitied, black box bar Cosmic Charlie’s attracts a mix of pastel-wearing college kids and tatted-out metal heads. “You’re going to get a good show,” guarantees local musician Logan Hollis, referring to both the people and the music. “The majority of Lexington goes there. You’ve got everything.” A few doors down, Lynagh’s is more Irish bar than club, but features live local acts each weekend. “I love seeing a reggae band there,” Hollis says.

Downtown, Al’s Sidecar is a dive catering to the metal and punk fans. Beer is the only drink offered and cash is the only payment accepted. Bands start late and crowds keep chugging into the early morning. “It’s like you’re in somebody’s living room that a band is playing in,” says Hollis. Down nearby, bustling North Limestone Street, the Green Lantern is a low-lit and low-key joint that has been jamming for more than 60 years. It caters to the mohawked while still offering a wide selection of bluegrass, doom metal, and indie rock.

Redmons’ brings the feel of a country whiskey bar to Main Street – think low pressed-tin ceilings and neon signage – and is a popular stop with the college crowd. It’s also where rising country stars Sundy Best cut their teeth. Just outside the umbrella of New Circle Road, the slat-board-decorated Austin City Saloon, where CMT fixture John Michael Montgomery got his start, is a Lexington fixture for touring country acts, line dancing, and mechanical bull riding.

On Mondays, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour tapes folk and acoustic sets in front of a live audience at the Lyric Theater, broadcasting the tunes to 400 radio stations in 32 countries. And every Thursday from April to October the city of Lexington hosts Thursday Night Live with outdoor concerts highlighting regional talent. The concerts are unpredictable but predictably compelling.

Still looking for authentic bluegrass? Head to Willie’s Locally Known for ribs, burnt ends, West Sixth IPA, and the best pickin’ around. Lexington may defy expectations, but it lives up to them as well.

More information: With its excellent whiskeys and great golf courses, Lexington makes a great weekend escape for music lovers and non-music lovers alike. Most visitors fly in via Atlanta, Charlotte, or Chicago.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!