ATHENS — Walking inside the Smiling Skull Saloon is an experience in itself. Unlike other local venues that cater to the 20,000-plus Ohio University student populous, the Skull’s charm lies within the hearts of blue-collar Athenians.
The Skull’s atmosphere is reminiscent of a 1960s spaghetti western film, a time when actors John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were at the helm of the movie industry. With its biker-themed design, predictably-placed skull figures and series of decorative license plates, the bar draws in a unique crowd.
Yohannes Berhane, a senior student at Ohio University, says the Skull — located at 108 W. Union St. — isfitting for a more mature audience, which he feels differs from other bars along the corners of West Union and Court Street.
“I feel like [the Skull] is so far away. That in itself attracts a different crowd. But I think it just attracts a certain group of people, like an older crowd, and then there’s just a lot of mature people that hang out there.”
The crowd that typically fills the Skull is reflective of the artists and bands that perform there, as well as some of its other events throughout the week.
Nick Hacker, a second-year student at Ohio University, said throughout his time growing up in Athens, the Skull has always been a place filled with unique characters — who many students refer to as “townies.” Their presence, mixed with the city’s local talent, creates a pocket of diverse music in Athens.
“The Skull is really diverse because they will bring in different artists with different genres,” said Hacker. “I love that the scene is diverse with its music. The more diverse the music, the more diverse the people which, in a way, brings us as a community together.”
The Skull is also a popular destination for aspiring musicians. Every weekend they perform atop the bar’s small platform stage, between its wooden pillars and underneath its piercing bright, red-tinted lights. Though the crowds are relatively small, musicians gravitate toward the venue in hopes of expanding their sound.
“The opportunities are huge,” said Hacker. “For performers, it gives them an easy outlet to get their names out and to possibly start a career.”
For businesses like the Skull, Berhane says, supporting local music also benefits the venues as well. As they continue to provide opportunities for local talents, it draws in more supporters of local music and encourages people to spend their nights at unfamiliar venues.
“I’d say keep welcoming in performers and keep up the vibe that Athens has in the community. Just make people that aren’t comfortable with certain music comfortable and I think naturally it [the crowds] will keep expanding.”
For the Skull, welcoming new artists could push more OU students and younger crowds to attend the bar’s live performances, especially with the expansion of the saloon’s promotion. In turn, amplifying the local music scene as a whole, which Hacker feels is largely missing in Athens.
“If the marketing and advertising gets better, I could see a boom in the expansion of these local staples and performers,” said Hacker. “Overall, the music scene is beautiful but it just needs to be advertised more.”