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VOL. 35 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 16, 2011

Music still packs the house

‘Honky-tonks on Lower Broadway represent our brand and our brand promise'

By Tim Ghianni

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Lower Broadway’s “campus” is expanding, thanks largely to its honky-tonk heritage and the constant, energetic growth of “the student body” that comes here for suds and such.

“As we expand the campus, it’s still authentic, it’s still convenient and it has great value,” says Butch Spyridon, CEO and president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The campus “is bookended by the Ryman and Hatch Show Print,” he says. “The rest fills in and tells a great story.”

The student body, those who are soaking in this history and strains of mandolin, steel and slap bass, come from all over the world to see how this city displays its most famous calling card.

“We crawled into a few bars and sampled the country and western music,” says Terry McShanag of Geelong, Australia.

McShanag, 69, and his wife, Carina, 68, are taking time during their tour of the United States to visit what Spyridon calls “the campus,” the Lower Broad honky-tonk strip, what the CVB sees as the very heart of the city’s tourism.

The exuberant Aussies have visited Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Legends and other joints where music beckons them from their stroll on the strip.

“I think it’s great,” says Carina, allowing that later they’ll likely venture to the Wildhorse and perhaps catch the Don Kelley Band during a night show at Robert’s Western World.

Their next stop is “a bite” at Jack’s where, Terry says, they’ll have their first taste of Southern barbecue. He says he’d heard of this neon strip while planning the trip, “but I really didn’t know what to expect from Nashville” until he set foot on Lower Broad … and smiled.

By the way, other stops on this discovery of the U.S. include Memphis (“I want to shake Elvis’ hand, but I guess that’s not possible.”), New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and the East Coast.

They’ve already spent six nights in Vegas, but Nashville has earned a treasured spot in their memory book.

“People are so great. We just by accident went into the Legends there,” he nods toward the club. “I don’t know who the singer was, but he didn’t have a lot of business and he said ‘Come in! What would you like me to play?’ He did a mixture of Johnny Cash, Elvis and Marty Robbins.”

The genial couple from the town 50 miles from Melbourne step across the fabled stretch as Alan Jackson belts ”Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” from the speakers on the crossing signal.

Lynn and Doug Scafe, from Palo Alto, Calif., were detoured by the hurricanes and bad weather along the East Coast during their cross-country road trip and decided to give Nashville a try, mainly because they were looking for what they found on Lower Broadway: Honky-tonks and musicians who bring to life the rich art form known as country music.

“This seems like a nice friendly town,” Lynne says. “Everyone is happy. There’s a lot of energy.”

“We knew this street existed,” says Doug, a Silicon Valley retiree, adding he’s more into music found in the Bay Area.

“You all your life hear about Nashville and country music and we wanted to see what it was like,” he says.

That the two couples from far-flung places have been drawn by the sounds of three chords and the truth to Lower Broadway is something that would make the city’s top marketer, proud.

“It’s the most critical piece for tourism,” says Spyridon, bragging about the “authentic, unpretentious” nature of Lower Broadway.

“The honky-tonks on Lower Broadway represent our brand and our brand promise,” Spyridon says. “You can’t duplicate it. It’s real. There’s no other city that can do it. They can try, but our No. 1 commitment is this is real.

“And the fact the music is free is of enormous value,” he says of the clubs that require no cover, where musicians live on tip jar offertory and CD sales.

The fact “we can literally say we have live music 365 days a year and it’s free,” has been an important, he adds.

“When business travel slipped (due to the recession and virtual conferencing tools), the leisure business kept us going because of the honky-tonks and businesses in the area,” Spyridon says.

There are no firm statistics of pocketbook impact, but Spyridon says he’s sure the honky-tonks help keep the city’s “tip jars” and tax coffers filled.

Spyridon says innkeepers and restaurateurs have described growth in “their weekend business, special events and getaways. It’s more anecdotal, but what I’ve seen are more spring breakers than I’ve ever seen.”

Spyridon also notes the growth in the “girls’ getaway weekend” visitors.

The Lower Broad strip – with its music, shops, barbecue and brew – also has become a prime locale for bachelor and bachelorette parties, “and there are the guys who come here on sporting outings for the Titans, the Predators or Vandy and they stay to enjoy the honky-tonks.”

Of course, the Predators play in the Bridgestone Arena, a key to the honky-tonk success, at the edge of the campus. And that NHL arena has hosted the likes of Ozzy, Gaga, the Stones and McCartney in addition to the massive country tours.

With the exuberance of a revivalist preacher, Spyridon describes how the honky-tonk district’s success has fueled “expansion of this campus.”

The Music City Center is now visibly rising – resembling either a massive erector set or an enormous dinosaur skeleton – just behind the arena.

That, according to Spyridon, will fuel the desire for more restaurants, more shops, more honky-tonks. Already, he notes, the honky-tonk central campus has spread both uphill and downhill of the neonlit strip where, to paraphrase Waylon, Hank done it his way.

Decades ago, Lower Broadway was a place where peep shows flanked clubs in which a well-oiled Lefty Frizzell or Ernest Tubb might stop in to play a ramble or two after sets at the Ryman, when it was the home of the Opry.

Old five-and-dimers remember it as a wild and reckless place, hardly today’s PG-rated Lower Broad.

But today’s bustle is a world removed from what happened down here in 1974, when the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium out to the suburbs to become anchor tenant to a theme park. Tourists and much of the life of this stretch of town fled to Donelson as well.

Hardly a honky-tonk hero, Liz Thiels, senior vice president for public relations for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – a block off Nashville’s revitalized honky-tonk boulevard – is a long-time music industry observer. She recalls first encountering Lower Broad’s “legend” when she went to eat at Linebaugh’s – the long-closed meat-and-three frequented by Waylon and Willie and the boys.

“I first learned about Lower Broad not long after I came to town in 1969,” says Thiels, adding she was taken to Linebaugh’s by David Allan Coe. “He ordered mashed potatoes and it had corn on it,” she says, with a laugh. “And he told me all about Lower Broad.”

The late John Hartford lamented the Opryland-fueled desolation of Lower Broad in his “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore”:

Somewhere in the suburbs the Opry plays tonight,

but the people come around to take the rides.

The park shuts up at bedtime; there’s nowheres else to go.

Nobody eats at Linebaugh’s anymore.

That diner at Fourth and Broad didn’t survive either. But it was the near death of another prime institution that spurred Spyridon into emotional and promotional investment in Lower Broad.

He details his fear back in 1992, when he thought Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a disheveled monument to heartache and broken dreams, might close.

To kill the smoke-filled haunt where Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Bobby Bare, Harlan Howard and Tom T. Hall nursed beers and song ideas would have been disastrous, he adds.

Hattie Bess – aka “Tootsie,” who enforced good behavior with the jab of a hat pin – was long gone and the bar that long ago served as a watering hole for the Opry stars between sets at the Ryman, just across the alley, was in dire straits.

Nelson famously described the journey from the side door of the Ryman to the bar: “It’s 17 steps to Tootsie’s, and 34 steps back.” With the Opry playing in the ‘burbs, no one made that trek.

Spyridon, then a relative newbie at the CVB, “knew” life on Lower Broad was dependent on the bar’s survival. He even floated the idea the CVB would buy and operate it.

“We didn’t really panic, but we went into serious strategy mode. It wasn’t near the draw it is now, but it represented everything that made Nashville what it was,” he recalls.

Fortunately, for the CVB and Spyridon, the bar was purchased and refurbished, providing something of a cornerstone for the rebirth of Lower Broad that became absolutely essential when Opryland closed in 1998.

“When the theme park closed, when that happened, our strategy was that the honky-tonks represent a museum by day and a theme park by night,” Spyridon says.

“We used that idea to educate and to sell the city. The sky wasn’t falling and the world wasn’t ending because of the closing of Opryland. But instead of Nashville being a summer family destination, we have become a year-round adult destination.

“That levitated the importance of the honky-tonks.”

Thiels is enthusiastic about what has transpired on Lower Broad in the years since she watched “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy” eat his mashed potatoes and corn.

“It’s become a lot more of a center for tourists and for some of the folks in this area as a result of the good music they have in those places, day and night,” she says.

“The experience down there, thank God, is pretty authentic. That is a great asset to all of us.”

And of course that includes the Hall of Fame and Museum, which also has played a key role in the revitalization since it moved down from Music Row in 2001. And now the museum is participating in “campus expansion.”

The Music City Center, just across from the Hall of Fame and Museum, is targeted to open in 2013.

The following year, visitors will be able to stroll across the street to visit a vigorously expanded museum as well as an Omni Hotel.

The museum will more than double its size and will be connected to the hotel, with the two sharing a common entrance.

“That connection … will completely activate Fifth Avenue South in that block, from Korean Veterans Boulevard down to Bridgestone (the arena) and the (Walk of Fame) park,” Thiels says, adding “there will be restaurant and retail and outdoor shopping experiences that are going to activate that area.”

Among the additions will be a gallery to display the work that comes from the museum-owned Hatch Show Print.

“What we have with Hatch is a real national treasure,” says Thiels. The actual print shop may or may not remain on Lower Broadway. “That is a question we cannot answer,” she says.

Thiels, like Spyridon, also points to the Ryman as a key in providing life support for the district. Thanks to interest stirred by Emmylou Harris and others, the auditorium – abandoned and neglected after the Opry moved out in ’74 – was restored and reopened in 1994 as one of the country’s great concert venues.

The success of the Ryman literally feeds the honky-tonk district. Not only do concertgoers come down to hear Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello at the old home of the Opry (which now returns each holiday season), they also hit the club district before and afterward.

Some artists have made unpublicized stops in the clubs, like their country brethren of old.

For example, rock legend Neil Young – a frequent visitor to Nashville since recording his classic Harvest album (which includes “Heart of Gold”) – here in 1971 has taken the cramped stage of Tootsie’s late at night.

Such occurrences thrill the city’s top marketer. “There’s the element of you never know if Tony Bennett or Cher or Steve Miller or Kid Rock or somebody will show up somewhere and sing,” Spyridon says.

“It happens more often than people will think,” he says. “That adds to the mystique.”

In addition to the expanded campus, Spyridon notes that three new honky-tonks are in the planning or construction phases.

The future is not the Lower Broad that a despondent Willie Nelson laid down in the middle of almost a half-century ago after a whiskey and beer marathon at Tootsie’s with Harlan Howard, Roger Miller and Hank Cochran.

There apparently wasn’t enough traffic back then to run over him before he was “rescued” by Cochran.

Now it’s a booming street, filled with souvenir shops and all types of music, a mecca for tourists and strolling minstrels and punctuated by musical crossing lights and giant guitar-pick-shaped signs noting where live music is played.

That it has become the tourist destination is the result of “10 years of overnight success,” Spryidon says, pointing out that he and others have constantly been playing the roles of educators to potential clients and to the media. “If you can expose people to it, it sells itself.”

After all, it’s Nashville’s neon theme park.

Tim Ghianni spent almost 3½ decades as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and journalist-in-residence at Lipscomb University, he and his family live in Nashville’s Crieve Hall neighborhood.

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