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Hey Bartender!     

Under-the-Hill Saloon is alive with characters, and that's the way J.D. Montgomery likes it.

"This is a character town, and the people here are what make this a character bar," J.D. says, slowly twirling a $4 Churchill LaJolla D'Nicaragua cigar in a glass laced with cognac.

"I see a lot of people, and all the characters end up 'around here' about 12 o'clock midnight, when the little bit of character in everybody comes out."

"Around here" is the infamous Under-the-Hill section of Natchez along Silver Street,where bawdy riverboat captains, saloon women and rough gamblers created a colorful reputation for the oldest port on the Mississippi River.

A seat in one of the oversized rocking chairs that frame the tall front doors of the saloon offers one of the most relaxed views of a Mississippi River sunset found anywhere in Natchez. The bar also serves a fine Bloody Mary and an interesting selection of live late-night music.

Several other bars and nightclubs in Natchez offer similar fare. What can make one different from the others is the bartender.

"No matter where they go, people see a bartender. Welllll," J.D. drawls, extending the word with a long drag on his cigar, "sometimes the bartenders look at people, and that's what makes it interesting. Anybody can mix a drink. The best thing about being a bartender is meeting strangers and making them friends; meeting the person behind the drink."

{{Sidebar: As of 2002 J.D. has been tending bar at the saloon for about 21 years and says he'll tend bar somewhere the rest of his life. He's even started writing a book that describes Natchez Under-the-Hill-Saloon through the sober eyes of a bartender.}}

J.D. thrives on his uniqueness and that of this city. He's the first to brag about the less-than-puritan side of the city's image, as well as his own.

"There are two Natchez's in one," he says. "The real Natchez, with the antebellum homes, and Natchez Under-the-Hill, which is a different state of mind. I think it's the most interesting part of Natchez.

"Whether we lived 100 years ago or we live 200 years longer, it's still going to exist."

J.D. says he is more than a bartender, although he balks at the standard reference to bartenders as psychiatrists, experienced in listening to troubled customers. He gives people credit for having personalities worth remembering.

"We are above that. Everyone is a character, but it takes a good bartender to bring that part of them out. It's trying to be a person's friend, being a genuine person."

At Under-the-Hill Saloon, everyone is equal in J.D.'s eyes. A movie star like Ralph Waite, former patriarch of "The Wanltons” and star of the series "The Mississippi," is equal in stature to the late Joe Remondet of Walter Street and the late Bill Bailey, honorary mayor of Natchez Under-the-Hill.

"In this bar - I know you won't believe what I'm saying - in this bar, people act the same. It's the atmosphere that brings a person down to being comfortable with themselves."

At a statuesque 4-foot-11 1/2 inches, which translates into 5-foot-3 behind the bar where a built-up platform allows him to see over the bar rail - J.D. cavorts before the customers.

"I'm a little crazy behind this bar. When you let yourself go to a certain extent, that lets them let go and relax and makes them a better person."

By day, J.D. submits himself to his own southern dream at Tara, his homestead off Lower Woodville road. He tends to an organic garden and cooks for his wife and daughter.

When he buttons up that pinstriped shirt, straightens the black bow tie and combs the graying moustache, J.D. dons a new character. His eyes twinkle and a Cheshire grin comes alive, disappearing briefly during short bursts of energetic laughter.

"I'm really an interior decorator. I've always been a gypsy in my life. I was raised in the greatest family in the world, but I could never go back to the mediocrity of life and people again."

As J.D. can attest, not everyone can be a character.

"I can spot a character when they hit that door. They are the nonconformists, the individuals, the most unconventional person you've ever met.

"There are three kinds of people in this world: the amateur, the professional and a few masters of the art. If you have it in your heart to be the greatest truck driver in the world, you can accomplish that goal.

"Some people are insecure and don't have the intestinal fortitude to break away and say, 'I'm going to do what I want to do, go where I want to go, and see what I want to see.' For them, it takes meeting someone with strength. Some people need pushing, you know?"

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