Lower Broadway’s traditional country music revival has certainly been one of the most exciting local happenings of the last year or two. On practically any night of the week, Nashvillians can head down to the 400 block of Broadway and hear strains of fiddle and steel guitar drifting slowly from smoky storefronts out into the street. In a relatively short span of time, enthusiastic support for performers such as BR5-49, Buddy Spicher and Greg Garing has provenMusic Row’s infatuation with ’70s country-rock notwithstandingthat there is in fact an audience for classic country music in this town.
Billy “Whiteshoes” Johnson and friends aren’t part of this growing scene but likely would be if they had a downtown stage to call their own. Ever since Johnson completed his second stint with Billy Walker on the Grand Ole Opry this summer, he and his bandmates have been holding forthno cover charge, no tip jarwith their delightful blend of honky-tonk and Western swing at the Alibi Cafe (formerly Beamers) on Omohundro Place in South Nashville.
Johnson jumped at the chance to put together a band when the prospect of a regular gig at the out-of-the-way club presented itself. A talented lead guitarist and expressive singer, he’s joined by pedal steel guitarist Sonny Purdum, drummer-vocalist Dina Nelson, singer-bassist Mark White and, on a good many Wednesday nights, fiddle great and new Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs. “We all love traditional country music,” Johnson explains. “When you go out [on the road] and work with an artist, you play their 10 hits and not much else. You don’t always get the chance to play a lot of the classic songs.” The band’s passion for country music of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s is readily apparentthey’re perfectly at home mixing Texas shuffles, Bakersfield rockers and heartrending ballads into their tight, danceable sets.
The ensemble boasts considerable talent and experience: Johnson grew up with country musichis father was a fiddler and his mother, Granny Johnson, still sings three nights a week at the Nashville Palace. Steel guitar wiz Purdum has worked with Jean Shepard and is currently in Connie Smith’s band, while Nelson’s peerless timekeeping has garnered rave reviews from former Texas Troubadour drummer and Opry star Jack Greene. White, a Johnny Bush disciple whose soulful voice echoes that of his fellow Texan, has played with Stonewall Jackson; during the late ’80s, he even had a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell only to be told that his material was “too country” for country radio. Stubbs, who sits in with the band whenever he can, is the celebrated fiddle player of the Johnson Mountain Boys and, since March, has played with Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright and the Tennessee Mountain Boys.
The Alibi Cafe certainly lacks the hip cache of Robert’s Western Wear or the revitalized Tootsie’s. The shimmering streamers behind the stage and mirror ball over the dance floor aren’t even kitsch enough to be cool, and on Wednesday nights, Johnson and company have to compete with a weekly dart league for attention. That said, the band’s swinging, heartfelt versions of Faron Young, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens classics are nothing if not authentic. Stubbs’ sublime fiddle on Bob Wills’ “Deep Water” and Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” is a rare treat, while White’s deeply soulful vocals on any number of standards associated with Johnny Bush“Where My Conscience Hurts the Most,” the Willie Nelson-penned “Undo the Right,” Johnny Paycheck’s “Apartment #9”alone are worth a trip to the Alibi Cafe on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday night.
While Johnson admits that the Alibi gig is a lot of fun, he’s quick to point out that it’s not exactly a career move. He knows that, even if it featured more originals, his band’s “fiddle-and-steel country music” isn’t the sort of thing that Music Row is looking for these days. “We’re not getting rich playing down there,” he adds, “but, musically, it’s very gratifying.” All of which doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to assemble a bigger band. “If I had it my way,” Johnson says, “if we had enough money, I’d add a [full-time] fiddle and piano. Now that would be heaven.”
Nashvillians would do well to check out Johnson and friends before they lose their stage to a bigger jukebox or an expanded dart schedule. If enough people start turning out for the band’s spirited, unselfconscious brand of traditional country music, maybe some downtown club owner will consider booking them into a trendy nightspot so more people can hear them. Maybe then Johnson and company won’t be what one local music historian calls “Nashville’s best-kept secret in country music” anymore.
That comment was so May 22.
Hello and welcome to 3 years ago
My brother had a pair of those pentagram earrings. They went missing sometime around 1989,…
It is this subtle dimension of understanding that marks the southwestern Indian peoples from other…
When the healthy nature of man acts as a whole, when he feels himself to…