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VOL. 44 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2020

New generation revives Music Row’s Bobby’s Idle Hour

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Randall Griffith, who played keyboards for Dixiana in the 1980s, and Jan Greene, son of Grand Ole Opry legend Jack Greene, are handling renovation of the new Bobby’s Idle Hour space.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Long, brown hair framing her face, the young woman’s smile and green eyes shine as she stands by the stage at Bobby’s Idle Hour.

I ask Carolyn Lethgo to look a few weeks into the future as we try to stay out of the way of the workmen who are lovingly attempting to transport the spirit of the legendary bar – murdered by progress and closed more than a year ago – into this uncommon one-story building that increasingly is being dwarfed by the towering glass and steel of the new Music Row. Or “Condo Row” as a disenchanted “Outlaw” musician pal dubbed it before he died.

“I see me, I’m standing behind the bar, serving beer,” she says, looking into the future from our spot in front of the raw-wood beginnings of the triangular stage and across to the unfinished area where beer will be consumed, stories told, smiles and guitars swapped: Where the old tavern’s well-worn and welcoming wooden bar will support elbows and cold beer after its transplant to 9 Music Square South.

“If I’m not behind the bar, then Josh (Distad, her business partner in this dream venture/adventure) will be,” she says, forecasting the not-too-distant future inside this structure, while standing on the concrete floor that will be ground and polished, shiny and bare, before the new Bobby’s Idle Hour opens this spring.

This obviously wise and lovely woman “sees” herself in that near future here: Wandering around, talking to and serving customers inside the bar, or out on the back patio, which also will have a stage and where a shipping container, one side removed surgically, will serve as shelter for drinkers and smokers. Even on mystical Music Row sometimes a hard rain’s gonna fall, so this out-of-the box thinking to prepare shelter will be welcomed, indeed.

“People will be knocking back cold ones after work. Or on the way to work. And a guitar is being passed around as songwriters sing what they are working on,” says Carolyn, rich eyes traveling the future in the near-naked room where the 2-by-4 framing has only just begun.

“I hope it is going to be the one spot where people will come to see what Music Row was like,” she says, focusing faraway eyes onto the work that’s going on around us as we stand in front of the raised stage that on this day is piled with paint cans, power tools, putty guns, wire and other implements of construction.

“Maybe they’ll see what Music Row will be,” she adds, hope flashing in her eyes as she gives me a tour of her future, the saloon of her dreams and the good life that will accompany it.

Maybe, we agree, Bobby’s Idle Hour’s success in this new location will reawaken the ghosts, encouraging others to invest in retail or entertainment venues … before it’s too late and the old avenues of music become anonymous narrow passageways through canyons of soulless steel and glass, condos and businesses housing people who think Jimmy Dean is a guy who sells mediocre sausage and Little Jimmy Dickens is the kid in “A Christmas Carol.” “And what in the hell,” they may ask, “is a Ferlin Husky?”

I find myself in the company of this gentle Brentwood-raised woman who long-ago gave up her MTSU schooling – she was going to be a photographer – in order to make money and find true happiness.

“I’m a dropout and proud of it,” she says, face lighting with great good humor. “School wasn’t for me. I ended up getting a bartending job and working on Broadway.”

She didn’t need a degree to work at the bars. She easily met all the cosmetic qualifications. And she discovered she could make good money by working hard and late, while smiling.

“I love it,” she says, of her current work at Alan Jackson’s Good Time Bar on Lower Broadway. “It’s just so fun for me. All my friends are down there. Something’s always going on, always meeting new people and telling people about Nashville.

“I like to show people what Nashville’s really like,” she continues, adding that AJ’s is, in her mind, the best bar in the lively Lower Broad stretch of Music City, a neon strip where conventioneers drink too much beer and purchase too many pairs of cowboy boots, while drunks beat each other up at the Third Avenue intersection, at least according to police reports.

She brags of AJ’s, the bar, and AJ, the man. “Alan (‘Chattahoochee,’ ‘Where Were You [When the World Stopped Turning]’ and ‘Don’t Rock the Jukebox’) has the only place on Broadway where only country music can be played. Now with all the new places opening in the last few years, none of them play country music anymore,” she says.

Lower Broad is, of course, a great place to hear first- and second-rate covers of “country” weepers about tequila sunrises, cheeseburgers in paradise and brown-eyed girls. Not everyone’s gone country or even knows what that means.

Anyway, Carolyn plans to continue working for AJ’s even after her own bar is open. At first, she’ll tell her Idle Hour customers to go to AJ’s if they are seeking real country among the forest of neon signs, buskers and wobbly legged bachelorette partiers, aka “Pedal Tavern Girls,” as my great friend Bill Lloyd immortalized them in good-humored song.

Eventually, Carolyn would like to be well-enough established here at Bobby’s Idle Hour’s new home that she’ll be able to tell her AJ clientele that there’s a thriving dive bar (as she and Josh lovingly call it) where they can get a real taste of Music Row.

“We’re trying to at least boil it (Bobby’s legend) down and make a place that will never change and will be here a long time, hang on to what it used to be,’’ she says.

“This bar is going to be my life. When the bar closed in January (of 2019), there’s been a huge hole. There are places people have scattered to, but there’s not the essential place for the people that always came to Bobby’s.”

She scans the room and vows that what she and Josh are creating will be that “essential gathering spot.”

The new Idle Hour is maybe a block from the old one, now a reprobate building, empty and lonesome more than a year after Thom “Lizard” Case’s lease ran out and landlords told him they were going to develop the narrow lot. Probably be a glistening condo complex of some sort as historic Music Row’s heritage is bulldozed into memory, we expected.

It likely still will happen, but cigarette butts, designer coffee cup discards and scattered refuse now front that older Idle Hour, where junk mail from a year’s neglect spills from the mailbox a few feet from the hand-lettered “Closed” sign on the front door.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do there,” says Lizard of his old bar. “I think they just didn’t want us to be there anymore.”

I appreciate what Lizard accomplished and, even more, what Carolyn and Josh are doing by trying to bring something precious back to life.

Soon there will be few of us who remember when music studios, large and small, filled the cottages and ground-scrapers (skyscrapers came later), back when Waylon and Willie and the boys, Kristofferson, Billy Ray Reynolds and Captain Midnight nursed beers at The Tally-Ho Tavern and in warm weather carried them out back to sing and whoop around the picnic tables. It was the Music Row I fell in love with upon my 1972 arrival here. (No, I didn’t sing, though I vaguely remember whooping a time or two.)

Maybe Faron would drop by. Or Cash. And they’d all decide it was a good idea to cross 16th Avenue South and grab a beer, guitar or a pool cue at Bobby’s Idle Hour. Heck, they might even have a few words with Jill, the white cockatiel (turned yellow by the cigarette smoke wafting into her cage above the jukebox) and hope that Funky Donnie Fritts and the always helpful Billy Swan would show up. Shaver. Webb. Little Jim. ET. Hell, maybe even Dylan if he was in town. Ray Charles? Perhaps.

Bobby Bare, under-acknowledged “Outlaw” ringleader and one of my favorite people in the world, may even have sauntered in, if it wasn’t past his bedtime. Bare loved his friends and liked his sleep. Still does.

That was long before the corporate takeover began and the soul-sucking condo flocks sprung up, beginning the transition to Desolation Row. Hell, it was only months ago that Chet Atkins’ old office and Ray Stevens’ “Ahab the Arab” complex – within eyeshot of the new Idle Hour – were scraped from that once-soulful soil.

Saving the soul of Music Row may be the byproduct of the mission of Carolyn, 30, and her singer-songwriter business partner and acclaimed barkeeper pal Josh, also 30. Their new Idle Hour is being lovingly birthed by contractors and craftsmen toiling at 9 Music Square South, in the middle of a one-block street that used to be Grand Avenue, which it becomes again on the other sides of 16th and 17th (aka Music Squares East and West).

Anyway, the 1,200-square-foot building, labeled “funky” by both the business partners, used to contain post office boxes, so guitar-toting couch surfers, lovable losers and no-account boozers would have what seemed like a legitimate music-business address for royalty checks and collection notices.

“It’s going to be better than ever,” says Lizard, a friend, a songwriter with a Santa-the-morning-after-Christmas beard who found comfort at the first Bobby’s Idle Hour, which was torn down for a cumbersome condo complex 100 feet or so from the soon-to-be third location of the bar. Bobby’s relocated from 1010 16th Avenue South to 1028 because of progress.

Sometime after that first move, longtime barstool pilot and regular picker Lizard bought it and ran it for five years, until he was told by the landlords it was time to leave.

“Nothing there yet,” he says. “Building still stands empty there. I’d much rather still be having a bar in there.”

He is glad two kind young people picked up the battered guitars, etc., and decided to buy the business and transport the mystique when his old bar was locked up after last call Jan. 12, 2019.

“Terrible amount of work to own a bar, and I’m of retirement age,” says Lizard, who vows to hang out at the new place once Carolyn and Josh get it opened. “I’m basically retired. I’m 72, and I don’t feel young most of the time.

“I’m a songwriter,” he continues. “When I was owner of the Idle Hour, I went from writing 150 songs a year to four or five songs a year.”

Before he took over the Idle Hour, “it was always my hang, even at the first place. We’d have great songwriter rounds. When we moved to the (second) place, I’d sit on the stool and imagine what I’d do if I owned the place.”

Soon he did own it, of course. “It was great,” says this basically gentle soul who was proud to maintain the workingman’s musician HQ vibe that Carolyn and Josh lovingly are transporting into the worn, funky dive on what I still call Grand Avenue.

“To set up a new place takes a lot of time and energy,” he says, of his reason for turning the historic-preservation chores over to younger people. “I decided ‘I’m done.’

“I really was hoping Josh would get it,” says Lizard. “He understands the place and what it is, what it was, what it could be. It’s gonna be great when he gets it open and gets it goin’ his way.”

Josh appreciates Lizard’s affectionate mentoring and, of course, shares it all with Carolyn, his much-needed partner in the venture.

Carolyn Lethgo and partner Josh Distad are re-opening the latest iteration of the famed Music Row watering hole.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“Anytime Josh had a question (about buying the bar and opening it at a new spot), I told him what I thought,” says Lizard, who says he offered the new bar-owners encouragement when they were tangled up in red tape and delayed by the throngs of Metro inspectors with their stacks of permits for sale.

Lizard adds that Carolyn and Josh have the energy to make more history. “It can become one of those places like Brown’s Diner: All the locals know how great it is, but when you are from out of town it’s a surprise: ‘Ah! So, this is the real Nashville.’”

Two men banking on the success of the new Bobby’s Idle Hour are landlords Dane and Del Bryant, sons of immortal songwriting parents Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.

The elder Bryants pretty much created the role of professional “songwriter” in Nashville. Their achievements are celebrated in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and were saluted in a special symphony event last week. The couple’s impact was one of the best stories told in Ken Burns’ “Country Music” TV series, an engaging CliffsNotes version of the evolution of the music form.

Dane Bryant, 72, speaks for himself and for his 71-year-old brother, when he spews out a proud biography of his folks, who wrote “Rocky Top,” “Bye Bye, Love,” “Love Hurts,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Wake Up, Little Susie,” “Take a Message to Mary,” “Country Boy,” “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” and so many more.

“They wrote a myriad of songs,” says Dane, who with his brother owns the former mail-drop building on Music Square South. When Josh and Carolyn – who had picked it out as a possibility while on their many scouting missions around the Row – inquired about buying it as the new home for Bobby’s, the men didn’t want to sell.

They did, however, eagerly agree to lease the building, at least in part because it was going to keep alive the singer-songwriter tradition their parents helped create.

“We leased it to them at a rate that I think works,” says Dane, adding that what he hopes will happen is that Josh and Carolyn “will prosper and be unique to Music Row.”

He explains the bar-owners have shown desire ‘’to be part of the love and affection and openness” of the beloved musical neighborhood of his memories.

“The history of Music Row is being overshadowed by the condos and apartment buildings,” says Dane. “We definitely tried to make it (the lease) a long-enough term deal that they can be there awhile.”

He admits a special affection for what the Idle Hour has meant to his own career in Music Row real estate. “I really enjoyed it, because it would be a place where you could show up at 2 in the morning and have a pool game, a place where sterling songwriters could come in and play music.”

Josh and Carolyn are reviving something special to his soul and, of course, those of his late parents at the new Bobby’s. “It’s a remembrance of what Music Row used to be. I plan to go down there,” he says.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for Bobby’s,” he continues. “I kind of feel like it’s giving back to the community to keep Bobby’s as a place for some of these songwriters who have come to town and who sleep under Pete Drake’s building, snuggling up to their guitars, waiting for the opportunity to show off for people so they can enjoy the spoils of a middle-class life.”

While Lizard anointed Josh as the guy to carry forward the Quixotic quest to keep Nashville real, the young singer-songwriter and beer-slinger knew he couldn’t do it on his own.

“I knew opening the bar, like financially for me, I wouldn’t be able to do it alone, so I asked a few people, and Carolyn came into the picture and somehow we’re co-owners.”

A native of Northfield, Minnesota, “best known for Jesse James and Malt-O-Meal,” came to Nashville, not with stars in his eyes but with the idea of making a living.

“I honestly moved to Nashville to not necessarily make it big, but the ambition was to be a musician, but once you kinda learn the ins and outs of the business, you get turned off by it, because it’s not as authentic as it seems to be.”

It wasn’t quite what he envisioned when he and two pals – with whom he was “dibble-dabbling with shitty cover bands and taking a liking to playing music” at Utah State in Logan, Utah – moved down here rather than return to his hometown in far west Minnesota.

Josh became involved in the Idle Hour’s future in May 2018, “when the whole teardown stuff was being talked about. Lizard asked me if I wanted to buy the bar if it didn’t stay where it was. We knew it was the end.”

His dreams fueled, Josh did what any potential bar-owner would do: He went to work to save money.

“I realized I had to work as Bobby’s bartender every day. I only had 10 days off from when I decided I wanted to buy the bar until it closed. I had a (cousin’s) wedding four of those days. The other six, I spent at the bar, drinking.”

Carolyn, often with her boyfriend, Christophe Jamar, was a bar regular.

“We had our first date there. He gave me two options: Old Glory, a fancy cocktail bar in Edgehill Village (near where they now live) or Bobby’s Idle Hour for that date. No question to me: I love a good dive bar and that was that.

“And we went back the week after that and the week after that and the week after that,” becoming major parts of the Bobby’s family over the last three or four years. “Bobby’s was always our spot.”

And Josh, the longtime Bobby’s bartender, became their friend and “he confided in us (about his dream to buy the bar) and asked us about it.”

The previous location for Bobby’s Idle Hour remains intact and unused since its closing 13 months ago. This was the second location for the Music Row icon.

It soon became Carolyn’s dream as well. “It didn’t really happen instantly or overnight,” she points out. “There were a lot of changes going on at the bar. And we were talking to Josh a lot of late nights in there.

“It became real after a few months of having to figure out if it was a good idea for us. I don’t think anybody could stand the idea of Bobby’s leaving the Music Row area and not coming back.”

As noted earlier, Josh and Carolyn (and probably Christophe) took frequent strolls down these holy streets, looking for a venue, finally deciding on the “funky” spot at 9 Music Square South.

With help from friends and investors as well as the encouragement of their new landlords (and Lizard), they went as full-steam ahead as government red tape and fees allowed. They had hoped to open last summer, but that was unrealistic.

The new reality is that it’s almost ready to open in mid-spring.

“For me personally, it hasn’t really felt overwhelming,” Carolyn says. “The whole thing has been a unique experience. … I’ve never doubted myself that it’s the right thing. There have been some hard days; it’s part of the process.

“Josh and I are just two bartenders opening a bar. It’s just been us, day-by-day, figuring it out and learning as we go.”

Josh agrees that it has been worth the effort. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be the same thing as Bobby’s has been: A stage, a sound booth, a bar and cheap beer,” he says.

“My hometown has done a lot of stuff to preserve Jesse James stuff, to preserve history,” he notes, adding that same sense of preservation drives him now.

“The other thing is these small, local establishments are continuously being pushed out. Just because they can kick someone out, doesn’t make it right. …

“Money wins, I guess. And that’s not just what happened to Bobby’s Idle Hour. It’s happening all over town. The tragedy and travesty of this city is it’s getting more corporate every day,” says this hard-working young man.

“It doesn’t allow people to just be people. I think there’s something about being able to go to a place and just showing up. You’re not peacocking or anything. You sit at the bar and you get a drink. Places like that allow you to be who you are.”

And now, when he’s not busy working hot dog carts or catered functions for Daddy’s Dogs, he’s here, checking on progress, watching his dream become real.

“It looks good,” he says on a cold Saturday afternoon inside the future Bobby’s Idle Hour. “It’s been a long time coming.

“It looks like I imagined it” when he and some drinking buddies (and Carolyn and other friends) had a pizza party at the old Bobby’s a year ago – after it had closed to the public – and they worked together to roll the actual bar, the place of so many elbows and beer-soaked dreams, from the closed joint to its future home.

The fellas overseeing the reconstruction of the old building and its transformation into a place where a guy can just show up and get a beer know this is a special project. In fact, though it is a “job” for them, it’s turned into a labor of love.

“I couldn’t be happier than I am working on a place like this, a legendary place,” says Randall Griffith, one of the general contractors and project managers who also was keyboard man for 1980s country band Dixiana.

“Music and Nashville is in my blood,” adds his colleague in this effort, Jan Greene.

Randall, from Harrison Group LLC, is a musician and prolific music producer who spends much of his time building studios, like his own up in Gallatin and the one he recently finished for the Marshall Tucker Band down in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Jan is the son of late Grand Ole Opry legend Jack Greene, perhaps best known for “There Goes My Everything,” which helped propel him to the 1967 Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year honor. The Jolly Greene Giant – so-called because of his 6-3 height and deep voice – was also known for his duets with Jeannie Seely.

In fact, in addition to seeing him at the Opry, I ran across Jack in person as he was an opener at an “Outlaws” show – headlined by Willie Nelson, but with Waylon, Cash, June, Charlie Daniels Band in the 1970s at Austin Peay’s Winfield Dunn Center in Clarksville. A pretty nice guy, Jack also frequented a short-lived “Little Ole Opry” weekly showcase in a dressed-up warehouse behind the Maddox family’s Pal’s Package Store in Clarksville.

The Jolly Greene Giant’s son Jan also is a picker and singer … especially after a couple of beers, he jokes … in addition to his contracting career with Greene Restorations, from which he helps resurrect historic buildings.

“I been up and down these streets all my life,” recalls Jan, one of five children from the 1955-73 marriage of Jack and Barbara Ann Greene. “I was born into the music business.”

But he never visited Bobby’s in its prior incarnations. “It would have been my kind of bar, which makes this job more enjoyable,” he says. “Hard to believe this (Bobby’s) was the only live music venue on Music Row.”

Both men say folks stop in regularly to check on their progress.

“I had one who said ‘I haven’t had a drink since they shut down,’” says Randall. “Hopefully, he won’t have too much longer to wait.”

The men, longtime friends, are teaming up on this project out of enthusiasm as much as professionalism.

“I jumped at the chance to be a part of it,” Jan says.

They attribute a part of their dedication to the two young people who are their bosses in this project.

“We are so thrilled to see their enthusiasm to take on this project and carry on this legendary place,” Jan says of Josh and Carolyn.

Carolyn, who refers to the two men as “The Dream Team,” stands inside the building, watching the progress as the HVAC system is being installed.

Soon will come the rest of the framing and finishing. And the original Idle Hour bar will be rolled out of the shipping container and set up along the right side of the interior.

“We want it to be Bobby’s for people who loved Bobby’s,” she says. “It’s not a fancy cocktail bar. It’s a dive bar. I just love a good dive bar.”

Carolyn figures the bar will help shape her life forever, and the opportunity came at just the right time.

“I was someone in my late 20s, really confused about life,” she says. “I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.

“I love bartending, but I didn’t want to do that forever, I didn’t want to be 50 and slinging beer behind the bar for tips.

“I wanted something better than that for myself. I wanted to be able to look back on myself and be proud.”

Her green eyes gleam with that pride. “I really can’t wait to see what happens,” she says.

“We’re gonna make it a cool place for everyone to be.”

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