Artist captures venue’s stars, rich history in mural

Friday, July 22, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 30
By Tim Ghianni

Jimmy Buffett, the Exit/In’s first performer, holds an honored position atop Deese’s mural.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Listening to the music of the artists selected for his Exit/In mural was one way semi-reformed graffiti artist Bryan Deese got in the mood for the stencils he cut for all of the people (and objects) that appear on his massive 45th Anniversary mural.

He didn’t always like what he was listening to, especially when making a 5-foot-tall Jimmy Buffett, who was the first performer at the club.

“I’m not a huge Jimmy Buffett guy,” says Deese, of the singer-songwriter who left Nashville to discover “Margaritaville.”

“But he and Exit/In are intertwined” in that the guy best known for sunny, sometimes funny songs that have earned him a following of “Parrotheads” (aka “Parrot Heads”), people who dress colorfully and pretend for a couple of hours to be living the silly son of a beach’s imaginary lifestyle.

Still, Buffett is important over on Elliston Place, because back in 1971 – when he was a country singer-songwriter – he was the inaugural performer at Nashville’s first real listening room.

It was “before he had the beach-bum persona,” says Deese, noting it was difficult to find “source material” to reference.

“All the pictures I’d see, he’s in this floweredy shirt or something,” says Deese, 43, who has taken his early love of graffiti and street art to a professional level.

(Disclaimer: My partner in writing this package on the Exit/In, Hollie Deese, is the wife of Bryan Deese, so she disassociated herself from this part of the story.)

One could argue that, in real life, Buffett has made the transition from Nashville singer-songwriter to arena-filling tropical troubadour just as the club has made the transition from intimate listening room to a large, open rock ‘n’ roll venue.

Muralist Bryan Deese sits near his work outside Exit/In on Elliston Place.

“I really love how Jimmy Buffett came out on top,” he says, of the 5-foot visage he concocted of the singer.

“He’s kind of, like, winking,” he adds, noting the Buffett face is a perfect symbol of the “loose, laid-back way people hear music” at the Exit/In.

Deese relished the entire project.

“My favorite stuff to do in paint is Nashville’s pop-culture history. This is exactly the stuff I like to paint, the kind of thing I would paint for free.”

That he is able to create eye-catching images like this for a living is a special joy for Deese, who also has painted very public murals of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard around Nashville.

He says there was give-and-take with club management on which artists he would paint, but, “I had complete control, creatively, stylistically” – including doing it in black-and-white, a palette that “tells your brain cells ‘this is history.’”

He didn’t have much trouble listening to the music of the others images, he says, adding he was told to stick to figures from the 1970s and 1980s, the era when the club was establishing its iconic status.

Using the spectrum of faces, from Joe Strummer to Ernest Tubb, Deese was telling his version of the Exit/In’s story with each stencil he cut to guide his painting.

“I look at that rock club with a lot of reverence, a lot of respect. I like the fact they’ve been able to have a venue like that in Nashville so long,” he says, adding he wanted to please the owners, of course, but it also “was about doing something the city could be proud of.”

“It was like, man, this venue has been so important to the city.”