John Prine finds a fan at the snooker table

Friday, August 2, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 31
By Tim Ghianni

Adam Jones, a musician and musical instrument repairman, lines up a shot while playing nine-ball against Jules Ledbetter (left). His best payday at Melrose Billiards might have been a couple of Green Day concert tickets won by defeating MIke Dirnt, Green Day’s bass player, and Jack White.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Trombone player and singer Adam Jones never really appreciated John Prine until he watched him knock the cherries down on the 12-foot snooker table 16 steps below Eighth Avenue.

“I don’t know why, but I’m a musician and a songwriter and I never really was into Prine until after I watched him play,” says Jones, 37, who plays for rock outfit The Levees as well as for Equinox Jazz Orchestra. He also repairs musical instruments to earn his keep.

“Then I decided to listen to his songs and (expletive), that guy’s amazing,” says Jones, who on this hot Nashville afternoon is beginning his daily stint inside Melrose Billiards, a cigarette-smoke-flavored joint where, literally, everybody knows your name. Or they soon will.

It’s about 4 p.m., a time when night-shifters already have left for their jobs and others come in to celebrate the end of the day shift with an ice-cold shot or a beer and a bit of bar food. Or all three. A mixed-gender cluster hovers around the barkeep, swapping tales and perhaps flirting.

Other customers sit at tables, celebrating day’s end with an ice-cold draught.

“I come down here to play because I really like the people,” Jones says, as he sips on the fresh Miller Lite he purchased after racking the balls up for another game of eight-ball.

“I usually start by playing against myself and then I’ll play different people, meet people,” he says, nodding over to the snooker table where on this afternoon electrician Chris Locke, 30, takes on his pal Elliott Holt, 27, an unemployed cook.

“I cook nowhere at the moment, as of five days ago,” says Holt, who joins Locke frequently down here for some subterranean cue-stick duels.

“I always play snooker,” says Locke, as he puts a long-ashed cigarette down and prepares for his next chance to score on this massive table. “It’s just my game, man. And this 12-foot table: I think there are only eight of them in the world.”

No one knows where they heard that, but the “fact” there are just seven other such tables is regularly professed by the room’s denizens. But who’s counting?

Jules Ledbetter, 34, who is in the storage business, has been coming down here since he was 18. Now he mostly plays snooker here three or four times a week, often against his wife, Fabiola, who routinely wallops him. “She’s world class,” he says, adding that he taught her the game that she mastered quickly.

“We play down here all the time. I’m all right. He’s pretty good,” says Holt, as his friend, Locke, takes aim on one of the red balls – “reds” or “cherries,” depending on who you ask – that must be sunk before he can score points with the other balls.

“We like it that we can come down here at 11 (a.m.) and play. If I’m up early and I don’t work that day, I come down here and shoot pool and drink a beer,” Holt says.

Jones jokes about the two as he watches them play on the table that is a favorite of the great songwriter Prine. “He comes down here with his guys in the winter,” Jones says, adding that he began playing pool here 3½ years ago.

“Used to be it was a hobby. I would get a little frustrated with the music thing and come down here to enjoy,” he says. What he’s discovered is that by playing virtually every day, improving his game, it has often become “equally frustrating” behind the eight-ball.

Laughter echoes through the low-slung room as an early, low cloud of smoke begins to form.

“People are pretty friendly here. And there is so much history, Jones says, adding that late honky-tonk hero Webb Pierce is said to have had a heated slugfest on the stairway. Don’t know if any of Webb’s drinking buddies picked him up on his way down.

And then there are those nights when fellow hustlers would say “Rack ’em up, Fat Man” to the world-famous shark who settled in the Hermitage Hotel in his later years.

“Minnesota Fats and all of his people used to come here. All the touring hustlers,” says Jones, looking around the Melrose hall. “And there’s something about being underground. It hasn’t changed.

“It would be a big loss to Nashville if this place wasn’t open.”

Even though The Melrose development of residential and retail is going on above ground and on the surface surrounding the old commercial strip, this pool hall will stay put.

At least that’s the plan of the Chandler brothers, long-time owners of the pool hall, and of the developers.

Jim Chandler says one concession to modern times will be the addition of machines that will suck the smoke out of the room. He doesn’t see it becoming a non-smoking place, adding “about 80 percent of my customers smoke.”

Jones looks around. “Some of the coolest things have happened here. A lot of musicians come down here. For some reason, musicians make pretty good pool players.”

He admits to playing 4-5 hours a day when he’s not on the road. He used to come late at night, but shifted to the afternoon when he found “some really good pool shots” play in the early hours, when the hall is quiet. “I come to learn.”

The three men note that about once a month, the hall is used for a music video shoot, by the likes of Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan.

Jones lists a roll call of prominent musicians – other than the late great Mr. Pierce – who find time to play here. He has played against members of Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, two of Jack White’s groups.

And then there was the night he and his roommate, Brien Sager, a sound engineer, took on the rock guitar hero and Third Man Records impresario himself.

“We played snooker against Jack White and Mike Dirnt, who plays bass for Green Day,” Jones says, adding that he and his roommate beat the rock stars.

“We won two tickets to that night’s Green Day Show. Never saw them before. Good concert.”

Musicians were among those who pitched in when the 2010 flood reached six feet in the pool parlor. “All the regulars came down here and pitched in and painted. Lot of volunteers. A good set of people,” Jones says.

While Jones relishes the fact that he sometimes finds himself playing snooker against some of the best songwriters and artists in Nashville, he keeps on thinking about Prine and how he has become one of the great singer-songwriter’s biggest fans.

But, even if he’s at the next pool table, he really is a bit too star-struck to say much to the singer whose most famous character had a hole in his arm rather than in the corner of a pool table.

“I don’t have the guts to say anything. Only thing I asked was to look at his snooker cue.”