Idle Hour abides as Music Row 'progress' marches on

Friday, October 16, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 42

Mark Twain holds out cash as sprightly bar mistress Gena Brown (aka “Miss Flat Rock”) puts another longneck into his beer cozy.

“This is the third beer I’ve had in about five years,” Twain says. It’s also the third one he’s had on this bright afternoon when he huddles among songwriters, dreamers, schemers and a semi-reformed drifter in the dimly welcoming confines of Bobby’s Idle Hour.

“I’m an explosives engineer,” says Twain, 51, who – when challenged – produces a driver’s license reading “Mark Twain Clemens.”

“I’m from Hannibal, Missouri, of course,” he adds, sliding the license back into its billfold pocket and returning to his beer, later explaining he’s not kin to the guy who created Huck Finn.

“I’m down here today because I came to see my lawyer, just down the street. I’m doing a job down in Spring Hill, and I wanted to make sure everything was OK,” in the contract for the labor, explaining it’s his job to “design the blast pattern and the charge amount for excavation purpose.”

Twain is sharing the bar with Pete Muncie, 59, a remodeling carpenter, truck driver, construction-worker and singer-songwriter. He’s a lot of miles and years from his roots in the mountains of Kentucky.

“I’m sort of a drifter,” says Pete, who proffers cash to Gena and taps on the empty long neck. “My father couldn’t believe that I’d stay here for 22 years now.” He’s talking about Nashville, but he’s also a 22-year veteran of the Idle Hour.

A singer-songwriter still waiting for a hit or a cold beer, he lives with a friend over on 17th Avenue South, a part of which has been historically bastardized into Music Square West. There, of course, are Music squares East, North and South in this neighborhood where bulldozers are both plentiful and plenty busy.

That’s when I ask about the yellow parrot, a memory of my own invincible honky-tonk hero days, when cigarettes and beery breath filled the Idle Hour in its original location a half-block up 16th.

“I’ve heard of that yellow parrot,” Pete says. “Never saw him, though. Heard tales.”

I always figured the cigarette smoke would kill the parrot. Not even bar owner, Lizard Thom Case – he describes himself as “good-looking for my age,” but won’t share that number – remembers that bird.

He strokes his long beard that gives him a resemblance to Santa Claus, after he lets himself go when the holidays are over, or perhaps ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

“Never heard of the parrot,” Lizard says, noting he bought the joint from Dianne Herald, widow of Bobby, the namesake of the Idle Hour.

More than three decades ago, Bobby – eventually a throat cancer casualty – bought that original Idle Hour from Cotton Lomax, Pete explains.

It isn’t until another visit, when Dianne drops in, that I learn the veracity of that sweet bird of my youth.

There really was a bar bird, a white cockatiel named Jill – “some thought it was yellow because of all the cigarette smoke,” Dianne says. “She was in a cage hanging over the jukebox” at the Idle Hour’s former location.

“Jill lived 17 years, but I took the bird home after it was here just two years,” she recalls. It wasn’t the smoke-stained feathers that worried her: The almost razor-sharp edges of the torn beer cans bar patrons used to sneak Jill sips of beer scared Dianne into taking the bird home.

Bobby’s portrait hangs over the cash register, proudly occupying a space on the four walls cluttered with Music City memorabilia, autographed dollar bills and signed photographs, mostly from the almost famous, who have sought their comfort here.

“Faron Young’s cigar smoke and Kris Kristofferson’s cigarette smoke traveled from the old place down here on those pictures,” explains Lizard, nodding toward the countless yellowed photos.

The old Idle Hour pretty much hosted all of what Texas outlaw Billy Joe Shaver termed “lovable losers and no account boozers,” dreamers drawn to Music Row, hoping magic would rub off from the few who “made it.”

Kristofferson, Chris Gantry, Funky Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan (who really can help, by the way) and late humanist preacher Will Campbell all lived within a few blocks of this stretch back when it really was a Hollywood-like magnet for the breed of humanity Kris described variously as poets, pickers, prophets and preachers.

Billy Ray Reynolds, Bare, Waylon, Captain Midnight (radio outlaw Roger Schutt, who Kinky Friedman called “the patron saint of sleepless nights”) and perhaps even Shel Silverstein would spend late nights throwing knives into a door in lubricated target practice.

Old friends Lizard, Pete Muncie and former owner Dianne Herald discuss Idle Hour history as “just call me Josh” – a singer-songwriter – tends bar. The 20 brands of beer and malt beverages – from Bud Lignt to Sam Adams – range in price from $2.50 to $4. No hard stuff for sale here, but you can buy chips and the like to accompany the brew. Lizard also says he’s looking for someone who can sell him a jar or two of pickled eggs to serve the clientele.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

And/or they’d play pinball. Proud to say most of these guys are (or, in increasing numbers and advancing years, “were” my friends.)

Most of that history is gone, and the rest threatened as swanky condos and glistening office buildings take over the stretch of town that was known for flamboyance, like the guitar-shaped swimming pool Webb Pierce had installed here to placate his elegant Curtiswood Lane neighbors.

Those folks – like Ray Stevens and perhaps Ronnie Milsap and Cousin Minnie – had tired of all the tourists who would visit Webb’s fine Oak Hill estate to look at the original guitar-shaped pool by his house and perhaps buy autographed copies of “In the Jailhouse Now.”

The Music Row pool, obscured by time and building, still exists near Owen Bradley Park, right by the “Nudica” statue. “When I give directions I tell people to go to the naked people and take a right,” Lizard says. That pool now is used only by the people who live in the neighboring condominiums.

The bypassing, blowing up and burying of history is the reason I on this day occupy an Idle Hour bar stool from 1:55 to 3:53 p.m., according to the Corona clock near Bobby Herald’s portrait.

“This is the last tavern on Music Row,” Lizard notes. “I’ve owned the Idle Hour two years, been drinking in here 20. First guy I met here was Pete. And we’re still friends.” He emphasizes that last statement as if it is some sort of miraculous tale of friendship.

Ten years or so ago, this bar was chased down the avenue – from 1010 to 1028 – when Music Row’s politically correct facelift was in its infancy.

“We didn’t know what we were gonna do when they told us to move,” Lizard adds. “We being the Idle Hour family. They gave us 30 days notice to get out of the old bar.

“There’s a three-story high-rise there now. We all stood there and watched as they tore the old bar down. Sad day.”

Bobby departed this historic honky-tonk shortly thereafter – “I was a pall-bearer at his funeral,” Lizard says. Cancer took him just after the move into this space, vacated in the dark of night by a Korean market.

“Owner didn’t know they had moved out of his building,” says Lizard, who won’t explain his nickname. (“I can’t tell you, I’d have to show you.” He declines to do either.)

The Styrofoam giant – a Music Row landmark – and the Idle Hour family moved a few doors down the street. I always thought that giant was a disheveled cowboy. Lizard says he thinks it’s a mechanic. And it’s seen better days. He vows to refurbish that cowboy/mechanic soon.

“I was hand-picked to buy the Idle Hour by Dianne” when she wanted to retire after more than three decades in the bar business, Lizard says.

Dianne remains a regular visitor to this spot where Lizard daily battles to keep the Idle Hour’s life-support system beeping strongly at least for a thousand more days or so.

“I know exactly when we are going to close,” he says, when asked how long he thinks this bar will survive as the It City consumes Nashville’s Hollywood.

“Our lease is three more years,” Lizard says. “They won’t talk to me about extending the lease and they bought the place next door. I am 100 percent sure that will be the end of it.”

Of course, the bar could relocate again. But Lizard’s unsure of his own future.

“If someone bought the place and moved it, I’d be in for that,” he says, quickly hedging his bets by adding “I’m old enough to retire.”

This dim joint is a microcosm of the deadly struggle between past and future taking place as shining glass-and-polished-steel condos and offices snuff the character that made Music Row a song-writing poet and pilgrim’s paradise.

Many of the studios that filled the old Row have moved to Berry Hill, which still has the homey character that used to exist inside what some now call the “Music Square area.”

After a meeting about a freelance writing project, I had decided to come to Music Row, the Idle Hour in particular, to talk about history’s losing battle with progress’ wrecking balls.

As an attorney friend of mine – whose own Music Square West office is now dwarfed by a massive condo development growing behind it – says: It’s almost too late to save this neighborhood.

For now, though, it’s business as usual at the bar owned by Lizard – a songwriter whose own bluegrass tune, “The Rock,” as sung by Terry Baucom “was at the top of the Bluegrass Today charts for nine or 10 weeks.”

A giant Styrofoam guitar player has beckoned folks to drop in at the Idle Hour for decades. “I don’t think he’s a cowboy,” Thom “Lizard” Case says. “I think he’s a mechanic or something. And I need to do some work on him. He’s in bad shape.”

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“I’ll make 10s of dollars off that,” he says, a nod to the fact that in bluegrass, a hit is considerably less lucrative than today’s mainstream country yarns about pickup trucks, scantily clad women and, almost always, beer.

Minnie Murphy, whose own performing career, her shot at stardom, ended long ago, is now a songwriter and works across the street at Evergreen Publishing.

“It just didn’t work out,” says this very attractive, 5-foot-3 blonde of the star-glittered dreams that brought her here from Bellingham, Washington.

“I’m old enough to know what I’m doing and young enough to remember how,” she says, declining to reveal her age. She’s a regular here because it’s a good place to hang out with pickers and preachers, she reckons.

Fact is, most of Idle Hour’s denizens are songwriters, tourists or slumming hipsters from across the river.

At my urging, echoed by the others who are here, Minnie asks Gena, 52, to hand her the guitar that hangs on the wall, ready for guitar pulls or some lonesome, ornery or even mean dreamer with a tune in his or her heart.

“This thing is out of tune,” she says as she fiddles with the well-worn Sigma “bar guitar,” a Martin knockoff. Before launching into one of her own songs, “Hillbilly Lifestyle,” she explains she fashioned it first as a “bro-country” anthem but since has turned it into a song for women.

Whatever it is, the song lifts to the ceiling as she tilts back her head, closes her brown eyes and sings about camouflage, cold beer, hot sex. Testosterone still lurks just beneath the estrogen veneer of the song with the chorus: “Get silly, like Willie, light it up, throw it back, don’t you want a piece of that?”

“I think it’s sad that they are tearing down the houses, and songwriters need to go elsewhere,” she explains, in her lively-yet-soft voice when asked what she thinks of the murder of Music Row.

Roy Holdren, 59, who commutes between his home in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Nashville to write songs, shuffles through the front door. “I just found out the video on my song, ‘The Road,’ is going into regular rotation on Zeus TV,” he announces, news that’s saluted by hoisted long necks and soft cheers.

Minnie hands him the bar guitar, which he quickly puts to good use with a rendition of that very song, which was recorded by Maiden Dixie, a young country band he says is fighting to break big. “They’re goin’ after it like they’re killin’ snakes.”

Soon the guitar makes it to Pete, still waiting for one of his songs to be cut, who begins picking out a Buffett-style tune, “Man That’s Cool.”

“I only sing songs I write. I never do covers,” he says. “I’m getting to be one of the old codgers here.”

Then he scans the bar where he often ends his days, without always remembering how.

“It’s like saying goodbye to a small town,” he says of the progress that will consume this old bar, a remnant of the times my pilgrim pal Kristofferson tended bar at the Tally-Ho Tavern, just down the street. A sturdy, modern Curb Records building now occupies that corner where on one Sunday the songwriter and I stood on the sidewalk, swapping lines from “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” which begins: “I took myself down to the Tally-Ho Tavern to buy me a bottle of beer.”

Bobby’s is the last honky-tonk on Music Row. Starbucks and sushi are the future.

“We have tried to make this the center of Music Row, where songwriters drink and play,” says Lizard. “Course, nobody knows we’re here.”

“I like progress,” Mark Twain says, taking a slug from his third beer in five years. He’s quickly cut off by the others who jeer. “That’s ’cause you blow things up for a living” or some such.

Pete, the amiable retired drifter, scans this piece of living history that’s destined for steam shovels.

“This place’ll be gone in three years,” he says, soft voice flavored by melancholy as he scans the room that has been home to his fellow dreamers but also has hosted a Chesney No. 1 party and is where Toby Keith’s tips made the bartender’s day. (“How Do You Like Me Now?” indeed.)

Lizard smiles and looks around at the walls and pillars, wallpapered with autographed dollar bills and the occasional scrap of currency from Indochina or elsewhere that, like Pete, the drifter, somehow found its way to Music Row, specifically this place, officially named “Lizard’s Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern.”

“If anybody ever robbed this place, it would take two days,” says Lizard, staring at the walls of cash.

A wrecking ball will destroy it in moments.