The first night frontman Jesse Lee Jones of Brazilbilly — a classic country band navigating between samba and Marty Robbins who play with the fervor of true believers — walked into Robert's 3 Doors Down on Lower Broadway, two drunks were heckling singer Gary Bennett as he tried to sing "Hickory Wind." As Jones looked on, Bennett handled the hecklers and finished Gram Parsons' country tune in style. This impressed Jones, who had come to Nashville in 1993 after following a route that took him from his native Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Florida, Illinois and Georgia before his full stop in Music City.
"There was something about the roughness — something about the Old West," Jones says of his barroom epiphany. Back then, he was an aficionado of the classic country sounds that Lower Broadway was just beginning to resuscitate after more than a decade of shameful neglect. Today, he not only sings for Robert's house band, he's run the place since buying it from longtime owner Robert Moore in 1999. (Jones renamed it Robert's Western World — the latest in a succession of names the bar has had since 1990.) A good Brazilian hillbilly, he fell in love with country music and the city that produced it.
This year marks 27 years since Jones, who grew up on the north side of Sao Paulo, first arrived in Miami with no English-language skills and few prospects. Now 49, he exudes energy, and he's a natural leader. None of the band members hails from Nashville. Bassist David Tanner once practiced law and made his way to Nashville to perform traditional country. Michigan native Chris Casello plays guitar and lap steel, and digs rockabilly. Eamon McLoughlin grew up in London before coming to America, where he's played fiddle with The Greencards and country star Josh Tanner. And drummer Maxwell Schauf, the band's newest member, hails from Wisconsin. He's worked with legendary rocker Lonnie Mack, among many others.
They downplay the missionary-zeal aspect of their craft. "Education is a by-product of what we do," McLoughlin says. "But it's a celebration of blues, Americana, country and bluegrass." Laughing about the crazy characters they see night after night, they seem sanguine about the people who request "Brown-Eyed Girl" and other wildly inappropriate songs.
They're a bunch of unpretentious, funny guys. They love playing the old tunes, and they love the atmosphere at Robert's. As Schauf says, "We study the old stuff, but we put our own sparkle on it." When he says this, Jesse Lee Jones smiles. He's got his band, and he's got a place that feels a lot like home. Sometimes the rough side of life leads to a mighty smooth place.
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