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VOL. 42 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 31, 2018

Stars' bars transform Lower Broadway

Luke, A.J., Blake, Dierks, others serve tourists an idyllic vision of Music City

By Tim Ghianni

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Luke Bryan wants you to bite his sushi. Really. The progenitor of the bro-country movement invites all comers to his Lower Broadway bar and restaurant – Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Bar – to see what he has to offer that may be different from the delicacies and/or bar food fans and diners can find at the more than half-dozen country star-fronted restaurants that have mushroomed on Lower Broadway.

“We each have a unique opportunity to bring in our own fans to Nashville and into the downtown area,” says Bryan, speaking about his own restaurant and honky-tonk, as well as those of Alan Jackson, Jason Aldean, John Rich, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton.

“We all benefit from each other and add to the culture, the city’s vibe,” Bryan adds.

Though this story is about those current country music stars and their establishments that have chowed down on the Lower Broad skyline, there are some other joints that should be mentioned as preface. For example, even the long-gone Possum, George Jones, who died five years ago, is represented at The George Jones, a museum and restaurant on Second Avenue.

Pop singer-songwriting brothers Gavin and Joey DeGraw offer up a more eclectic (read: non-honky-tonk) brew of music at their Nashville Underground. Soon, they will even have a bowling alley on the upper levels.

And, if you regard the late Nudie Cohn, best-known for “inventing” the glitzy, rhinestone-studded clothing for the stars, then Nudie’s Honky Tonk, operated by Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline museum founder Bill Miller, is also a place to visit, rhinestone clothing not required.

That’s not even mentioning the former country songwriter and self-crowned king of the Parrothead Nation, Jimmy Buffett, who counts his money stacks while tourists are wasting away again in Margaritaville, his restaurant and food purveyor. That establishment opened in 2010, a bit ahead of the explosion of country-star-fronted ventures explored here.

It’s a far cry from the 1970s when the late, great John Hartford offered up a Lower Broadway obituary in his song “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore,” that detailed what happened after the Grand Ole Opry moved out of the neighborhood.

In addition to the closing of that restaurant, a comfort-food place where the likes of Roger Miller could be found enjoying coffee and cigarettes in the wee hours, many country bars and other storefronts were boarded up. Pigeons and their droppings outnumbered pedestrians, and it was so desolate that the prostitutes and peep show proprietors likely felt melancholy and lonesome.

Stars' bars

Country stars’ bars and restaurants on Lower Broad:

  • AJ’s Good Time Bar, 421 Broadway
  • Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar, 311 Broadway
  • John Rich’s Redneck Riviera, 208 Broadway
  • Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, 400 Broadway
  • FGL House, 120 Third Avenue South
  • Ole Red, 300 Broadway
  • Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink, 301 Broadway

Well, before going back into the discussion of the country stars’ establishments it should be noted that while no one indeed eats or can eat at that long-vanished Lower Broadway-area diner, soon the tourists and fans who once again crowd the revitalized honky-tonk district will be able to eat at Kid Rock’s Big-Ass Honky-Tonk and Rock and Roll Steakhouse. It’s a name that likely will just roll off the tongues of congregants at First Baptist Church as they depart services just uphill from the honky-tonk district.

That new celebrity-fronted venture – Mr. Rock is teamed with long-time Lower Broadway standard-bearer Steve Smith and his best buddy Al Ross – is set to open in September and will be just the latest installment in celebrity owned (usually with partners) clubs and restaurants up and down the neon strip and spilling out onto the feeder streets.

Lower Broadway has come a long way since the days Hartford sang about. The rebirth was first fueled by new or refurbished classic honky-tonks over the last few years. But in the last two years or so, and particularly in the last few months, the country bars presided over by country stars have changed the game.

“I couldn’t imagine it (the honky-tonk district punctuated by all the celebrity taverns) being as big as it is now,” says Smith, whose first venture into the area had him confronting the same basic things Hartford described in his classic song.

“I bought Tootsies in 1992,” he says of his history in the world-acclaimed honky-tonk favored in the deep, dark past by Waylon and Willie and the boys -- guys like Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Shel Silverstein, Bobby Bare, Captain Midnight (legendary radio personality) and John R. Cash.

Hattie “Tootsie” Bess let them run a tab, sleep on the roof if necessary and kept them in line with a knitting needle. Heck, the boys even had their own man of the cloth in the Rev. Will Campbell.

While it wasn’t a palace back in the early 1970s when the soon-to-be dubbed “Outlaws” and their pals hung out there writing songs about loving and drinking and dying and Bobby McGee, it was definitely alive and filled with laughter and various flavors of smoke.

It was on some sort of proverbial life-support when Smith – at a friend’s urging – began investigating the prospect of buying that purple-fronted bar.

Blake Shelton marked his territory on Lower Broadway in June with the opening of Ole Red at 300 Broadway. He adding a third location in Gatlinburg in the spring.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I started going down there at nights,” Smith recalls. “There were a bunch of homeless people hung out. Might be 10-12 tourists. They only had a 200-watt lightbulb hanging into the room.

“I got a flashlight and started looking at the wall (where countless, cigarette-smoke-yellowed autographed-pictures of country stars still hang). I thought ‘this should be turned into a museum’ and that’s what got my attention,” Smith says, of his thoughts when pondering buying Tootsies Orchid Lounge.

“They were catching water coming from the roof in 50-gallon garbage cans and selling canned beer for $1.50.”

With a bit of “inside knowledge” he decided it was worth buying and reclaiming, first re-elevating it to shades of its past glory, then, in years since, turning Hattie Bess’ old joint into the multi-storied honky-tonk prototype for the new kids on the block (or blocks, really), like Aldean, Jackson and Shelton.

“I’d already heard that the Hard Rock was coming and Planet Hollywood (with its accompanying meteoric demise) was coming. I knew the Arena was coming,” adds Smith, who envisioned that those establishments could provide enough foot traffic to make an investment down there worthy, indeed.

As the owner, he spent the early days at Tootsies as the janitor, doorman and handyman while wife Leah was the bartender 18 hours a day. His only previous bar experience had been teaming with his brother at a disco in Brooklyn, hardly a slice of honky-tonk heaven.

When Smith arrived on Lower Broad, other than Robert’s Western World, Ernest Tubb Record Shop (which has surprised eulogists by riding out the bad times until the happy days are here again) and perhaps a couple of pickled-egg-and-beer country joints, the strip was filled with boarded up buildings, many of which have sprung back to life (or have been bulldozed) to make room for the new stars’ honky-tonks and their cousins, as well as souvenir stores and boot shops.

Butch Spyridon, president/CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, also was one of the early believers that the area would have a rebirth. And he embraces the celebrity-owned/partnered clubs.

Jimmy Buffett has Margaritaville on Lower Broadway, and his SoBro hotel is scheduled to open next year.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I’m a fan of more neon, so I think that enhances the vibrancy,” Spyridon says. “I think as long as the artists periodically show up at their bars, it’s a good thing. If they never show up, then it (the mystique) will wear off.

“If you keep the mystique of ‘you never know who you are going to see in Nashville,’ if you think Alan, Blake or Dierks are going to be down there, it keeps the mystique.

“From what I’ve heard, they all have made appearances,” he continues. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, two or three times a year, and you keep the magic and the mystique growing.”

Backtrack four-plus decades to the Hartford song. It’s pretty much the same Lower Broad scene that Smith described when recalling those late-night visits to Tootsie’s.

Back in the 1970s, Hartford, a great fiddler, songwriter and performer, describes in “Linebaugh’s” the occurrences after the bright lights of the “entertainment district” began to shut down, the seeming death blow dealt by the 1974 departure of the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman to Opryland.

Well, Hartford didn’t live long enough to see that desolate strip he sang about become Nashville’s neon-lit “welcome mat,” the pop-culture snapshot of the city, accompanied by the rehab of the Ryman into a world-class music hall and winter-time home of the Opry.

An increasing number of entrepreneurs have turned Lower Broadway and its feeder streets into the city’s own version of the French Quarter and Beale Street. The locals don’t go down there much, unless it’s to catch doses of music, beer and ribs before a Predators hockey game and then fleeing across the river to Five Points or south on Eighth Avenue to places like Oak Hill or Crieve Hall.

The relative lack of locals doesn’t matter much, as increasing numbers of hotels and other restaurants have sprung up, enveloping what is in polite terms called “The District,” but, in reality, is a wide-open honky-tonk district, filled even on a Tuesday afternoon with tourists from around the world seeking to catch a dose of country magic. They stop at the bars of the stars for food – from typical bar fare to fairly “fine” dining – and drink. Maybe they might just see Jason or Alan or Luke.

“I think it’s nice because they are putting money back into their roots,” says Gale, from St. Louis, who asks his last name not be published.

Tourists flood the streets of downtown Nashville on a recent summer night near Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row at 4th & Broadway.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Terry from Edmonton, Alberta, also “lacks” a last name when saying he and his wife, who like to come to Nashville once a year, came this year primarily to visit the new stars’ bars. “We like it,” he says, adding that they still were early in their quest, but “Luke’s place was nice.”

“One-Eared Willie” – “I lost my left ear in a logging accident. As long as I was working, I was OK with it. If I’d been playing, I’d have been mad,” he says – says he is here because of the stars, their bars and, of course, to sample Nashville in general.

“We’re going to the Opry tonight to see them celebrate Trace Adkins’ 15 years as a member,” he continues. “And this weekend we’re going to see Keith Urban at Bridgestone.”

Old “One Ear” actually is a retired long-haul trucker and logger named William Grover who is here with his wife Jennifer.

“This is the first time here for me as a tourist,” he explains. “I’d been through here when I was doing long-haul.” He didn’t have time or, back then, reason to stop on Lower Broad.

This year the couple from Everett, Pennsylvania, chose Nashville as their vacation spot, as noted above, at least in part because of the stars’ bars. They also are enamored with the general musical and beverage action down on Lower Broadway, footage of which is seen before every Titans or even Vanderbilt football game broadcast from Nashville. Sure, we’ve got The Parthenon and a world-class symphony hall, but the network guys like to buy into the Lower Broad stereotype.

“With the country singers’ bars, we want to check them out,” says “One-Ear” as he sips a Jack Daniels and ginger ale at the bar in Jason Aldean’s club.

“I think this should be a special drink here,” he says, lifting his glass for a quick sip. “I think they should call it ‘The One-Eared Willie.’” He laughs like a man who is having fun.

“Life is what you make it,” he says, quickly formulating an admittedly politically-correct answer when asked what he thinks of all the stars’ bars: “I can’t sit here (in one of those bars) and say, ‘They’re not great.’”

Jennifer adds that in addition to the stars’ bars “we also want to check out Tootsies and Printer’s Alley some. See some of the old Nashville.”

That comment would be the proverbial “music to the ears” of Spyridon, who – while proud of and pleased with this new celebrity bar trend -- also wants to make sure of the long-term success of the neon lit bars and places that have helped this stretch build up to the point where the stars and their partners feel it is a worthy place to invest.

He says that Tootsies, Robert’s, Layla’s, the Stage and others “have a legacy position in a very positive light. … What we can’t do is forget them. For me and for us, they’re the bedrock (for what’s happening in the tourist stretch).

“When everything else went South, we turned to the honky-tonks on Lower Broad. They were there, they are historic, they are legendary in their own right. … We have to be mindful of their place in the continued growth of our success.”

Matt Harville, general manager of AJ’s Good Time Bar, the first of the new country celeb bars in The District, is a veteran of the Lower Broadway booze biz, having previously worked at The Stage and Second Fiddle.

He loves Lower Broadway and was intrigued by the opportunity to work with Jackson, thinking it might spark something, but having no idea what that might be.

Now all he has to do is step outside to look at the street filled with country stars’ establishments.

“I didn’t imagine it would get to this point,” he notes, happily. “I thought it would be a pretty neat idea for some of these artists to come in and put their names on the bars. It’s good for Nashville. Now it’s a rush for people to find a place to put their names on.”

Probably a good place to mention that while most of the stars have their names prominently used in or at least paired in neon with the name of the bar, Shelton’s “Ole Red” stands alone.

Partly, of course that is because the song “Ol’ Red,” that he recorded as part of his 2001 self-titled debut album, back when he still had shaggy hair and non-Hollywood image, speaks for itself. Fans know Shelton has a fondness for that song about a prison dog and its downfall due to nighttime temptation. The moniker of the club automatically “says” that it’s Blake Shelton’s place.

But the bar is called “Ole Red” and not “Ol’ Red.” And that’s not a typo, according to Megan Newton, who works for Essential Broadcast Media, the company handling the publicity for the bar that partners Gwen Stefani’s boyfriend and “The Voice” star with Ryman Hospitality Properties.

Ole Red, the bar/restaurant, takes a part of its name from the flagship Ryman enterprise … The Grand OLE Opry, Newton says.

Ole Red, she adds, is a “lifestyle brand (that has) a lot to do with Southern hospitality” and our so-called comfort foods, although she notes that the food served at the first establishment in Shelton’s “adopted hometown” of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, has been “elevated” a bit in Nashville.

The company likely can revert to its Tishomingo menu when it opens a third location in Gatlinburg. (One-Eared Willie, who we met above, and his wife Jennifer were planning to hit Ole Red as soon as they left Aldean’s place. “We’re gonna go see ol’ dingbats’ bar,” he says, laughing, when referring to the singer’s antics on “The Voice” talent show. “He’s crazy.”)

While unable to get Shelton – or most of the stars for that matter – to comment for this story (see Alan Jackson’s comments elsewhere in this section), the ever-affable Luke Bryan did take a little time out to answer a few questions about his Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink.

He praises Ohio-based TC Restaurant Group – which also has partnered up with Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line in their establishments and has heavily invested in other businesses down in honky-tonk heaven (or hell, depending on your music and food tastes). Attempts to get comments from TC Group were unsuccessful, but Bryan says “They have been great partners to work with on all aspects of the venue.”

He says it was not a difficult decision to spread his brand in the hospitality industry. “Nashville has been the ‘it’ city for a few years now, and we have more visitors than ever before,” he notes, in an e-mail interview.

“The downtown area is so vibrant and exciting and we wanted to offer our fans a new experience.”

He welcomes his stellar competitors for the star-gazing and star-grazing tourist dollars.

And while the restaurant offers up things like wings and elk burgers, Bryan – as noted at the top of this story – doesn’t hesitate to mention what may be his favorite menu item.

“My family and I have been to the bar, and the sushi is amazing.”

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