Nashville Pickers

Brothers-in-law turn love of music, memorabilia into ultimate hangout, TV pilot

Friday, June 17, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 24
By Tim Ghianni

“Nashville Cats” and other fans of John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful know “there’s thirteen-hundred fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville.” That number has grown, of course, in the 45 years since that song was a hit.

But there’s another breed of picker – junk pickers – whose ranks also continue to swell in this city filled with antique parlors and where a flea market plays a major role in the debate over the fate of the old fairgrounds.

On Sidco Drive in South Nashville, brothers-in-law Steve Clark and Joe Rhoton are partners in a venture that merges both types of pickers.

Collectibles and tunes mingle inside a storefront that includes everything from remnants of the late Conway Twitty’s “Twitty City” tourist trap to a stuffed semblance of Mr. T to an apron autographed by Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins back in 1985.

Nashville Pickers, which opened Memorial Day, is a place where Clark – the picker and scribbler behind such hits as George Strait’s You Can’t Make a Heart Love Somebody, Ricky Van Shelton’s Living Proof and Doug Stone’s I’d Be Better Off in a Pine Box – can show off the musical skills that have earned him a living, have his friends over for songwriter nights and at the same time sell items from the treasure trove he’s accumulated in his antique and collectibles picking adventures.

Filled with antiques and whatchamacallits of all flavors, this is a picking parlor in both senses of the word.

“We just want it to be a place where people can hang out,” says Rhoton, 48, a Westmoreland cattle farmer and Lawrenceburg movie theater owner in addition to being a Nashville Picker.

He motions toward the worn chairs – a faded red wingback and mismatched dining room chairs plopped just inside the storefront. “They (musical pickers) can play right here or go in the back, where we have a small room.”

To find that small backroom, simply take a left at the 8½-foot-tall fiberglass black bear.

And if the pickers and grinners like their perches, well, they can buy them and take them home. Rhoton and Clark will just bring in some more chairs from their stockpile or go out and pick for more.

And while listening to the musical picking, folks can wander through the confines, prospecting through the colorful clutter for items ranging in price from a quarter to a couple thousand bucks. “Everything’s negotiable,” Clark says.

“There’s something for everyone here,” says Rhoton, waving his arm in a sweeping motion across the racks, walls and floor space filled with furniture, toys, ceramic toothpick holders, chalk house pets and Groucho Marx and Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummies. There’s also a Punch and Judy-style hand-puppet set – stage and characters – around the corner from the front counter.

“And Steve has plenty more at home,” Rhoton says, gently joshing his brother-in-law, Clark, 58, the acclaimed songwriter who wanders estate sales “looking for something cool.”

When he finds it – whether it’s a stash of ancient playing cards and poker chips, a roulette wheel or an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner or telephone – he buys it. And up until now, the fruits of his scavenging were pretty much collecting dust in his Oak Hill home. It wasn’t until the last couple years that he began thinking about having a place to sell the stuff.

While he and his brother-in-law will seek more stock as needed, everything in the store on opening day – the 250-year-old map of France, the plastic astronaut helmet, an almost-beyond-repair elf from the Rock City tourist attraction – spent many months in his home before being hauled to the storefront.

“You ever see that show Hoarders?” Clark jokes. “I wasn’t as bad as on Hoarders, but I’ve still got stuff stacked up in the house.”

“Nah, at least you can walk around in his house,” Rhoton jumps in, and both men – best friends since Clark married Rhoton’s sister, Brenda, 11 years ago – laugh. And there’s more family ties in that Rhoton’s wife, Beth, helps keep things running smoothly at Nashville Pickers.

Clark truly is a picker, no matter which way you define it. In addition to picking for the store’s merchandise, he’s drawing on his pool of Music City pals to get the word out that this is a place to practice, perform or write songs. A music picker’s venue.

“A picker means anyone here in Nashville who writes songs or plays any instrument,” he says, fiddling with his D35 Martin signed by Chet Atkins, Shel Silverstein, Grady Martin, Paul Worley and other chums.

A veteran of Bob Beckham’s old Combine Music songwriting corps – alums include the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Chris Gantry, Billy Swan, Dennis Linde, Johnny MacRae and “Funky” Donnie Fritts – he has toiled with pickers of all stripes in Music City’s trenches.

He’s so serious about both types of picking that he transferred his own songwriting from his home to this storefront.

Folks digging through old cameras and projectors, or looking to see if there’s anyone they recognize in the 1916-17 Vanderbilt Medical School class photo, will be able to listen to him manufacture Nashville’s best-known product while they shop. Or they may just want to pull up a chair and listen to Clark play and sing, either by himself or with company.

Some musical pickers already have dropped in to work out the kinks in their own songs and, the way he figures it, there will be plenty more who show up to kill time, make music and entertain the clientele.

If the crowd of pickers and shoppers warrants it, the show will move to the back room, where framed playbills advertising The Carter Sisters hang proudly. “Those aren’t for sale,” Clark says. “I just put them there.” (In reality, though, doesn’t everything have a price?)

“Some nights, we may just have guitar pulls in the back room,” Rhoton says.

“Chet (Atkins) was a dear friend, and he used to love having guitar pulls,” Clark says of the pass-the-guitar Nashville tradition. “I’d like to do these like he used to.”

The combination store and informal picking parlor fulfills Clark’s dream by allowing him to combine his two picking passions.

When he first began to try to sell the cymbal-playing monkey, the jewelry and the Nashville music memorabilia he’d scrounged up, he had a booth at one of the Eighth Avenue antique malls.

But he wanted his own space, room and time to meet with the shoppers. By having a storefront where he actually can do his songwriting – his bread-and-butter – he’ll also be able to be around to tell folks about his treasures.

“One of the best things about picking cool stuff and putting it for sale is the look in the eyes of someone who comes in and buys it,” Clark says. “There’s that gleam, because it reminds them of something in the past, something they had or their parents had or their grandparents had. That’s really why people come to places like this. I wanted to be around that all the time.”

“Look at this,” says Rhoton, picking up an unused 57-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. “We’ll figure out how much to sell this for by comparing on-line. But I’ve never seen one this good.”

In a curio cabinet, a stuffed dog – a boomer childhood cartoon favorite – is poised to offer a “Huckleberry Hound Dog Howdy” to his shelf mate, that smarter-than-the-average-bear Yogi.

There also are reminders of the long, well-fed life of Shoney’s Big Boy, including a menu selling a Pepsi-Cola for 14 cents and the famously large burger for 59 cents.

There are autographed items from Jack Benny and his comic foil and friend Rochester (Eddie Anderson.)

“Look at this,” says Clark, leading the way to an old, kid-sized electric car that has been used by Music City royalty.

“It still works. Doesn’t have a battery in it right now. It was Rodney Crowell’s from back when he was married to Rosanne (Cash). I got it at their yard sale.” It’s easy to envision Grandpa Johnny laughing as the kids drove the car across the lawn.

Both men take special joy in bringing torn and frayed fragments of people’s lives back to a state where the items, the toys in particular, can lead a fancy and comfortable life.

“There’s something special about restoring things,” Clark says. “You look at some of the toys. Back then they were made with love. They weren’t like today’s toys. And kids loved them.

“So I really like bringing them back. Someone will ask me why I’d put two hours into restoring something that’s only going to be worth $5, and I tell them it’s because of the love.”

Rhoton’s specialty is working on the electronics to put toys and machinery back in action.

And if anyone wants to buy a vinyl LP, like the autographed copy of Conway’s House on Old Lonesome Road, you can try it on the turntable before you buy it.

“I wrote some cuts for Conway,” adds Clark. “But not on that album.”

Interested in the history of recorded music? An Edison cylinder record machine is in one corner.

“I don’t know if this works,” Rhoton says.

“But it’s cool,” Clark adds.

An antique ceramic electric cigar-lighter, various pictures and statues of Jesus and the stained- glass doors from the old Friday’s on Elliston Place are for sale.

For someone seeking political collectibles, there’s even a walking cane with an inscription proclaiming support for FDR for president in the 1932 election.

“We’re about out of room already,” says Rhoton, who has learned the “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” aspect of his business from his brother-in-law.

“I started to go out with Steve some and really got to like it. I don’t have all kinds of stuff like Steve does, but he’s kept me well supplied with Bibles and things for my home over the years.”

While not a musical picker, Rhoton’s lineage includes Uncle Howard Rhoton, who played electric guitar for Jimmy Dickens and Patsy Cline.

But he’s basically a farmer – 136 acres up in Westmoreland – trying to sell the Crockett Cinema near the Walmart in Lawrenceburg.

“I don’t want to spread myself too thin,” he says. Besides that, he thinks the future looks bright in this combination music hall and antique parlor.

“And if people want it, we’ve got coffee and hot chocolate and water for them,” Rhoton says. “Cookies, too.”

Clark nods and reaches for his Martin. “We just want it to be a fun place people will want to be. They may be stuck in traffic out here on Sidco Drive and want to pull off and come in here and look around. Who knows what they might find here?”

Perhaps that traffic refugee is looking for a model of the Starship Enterprise or a 40-year-old bridal gown, vintage Christmas figures or a carved bamboo Buddha.

Tim Ghianni spent about 3½ decades as a columnist and editor at daily 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.