In some ways, it was a typical fall night at Springwater, the unassuming beer bar off of West End Avenue. People were crowded into the smoky back room drinking longnecks. But it was a most unusual evening as well. Onstage, former Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome was ripping through classics like “Sonic Reducer” and Rocket From the Tombs/Pere Ubu’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” at a freight-train pace. “I can’t believe I’m in Nashville!” he exclaimed, beaming. The packed audience cheered him along, and no one could escape the realization that something truly unique and wonderful was taking place: the kind of rock ’n’ roll show that most only hear about.
Through it all, no one could have been more pleased or as caught up in the moment than Springwater’s booking agent/bar manager Kara Nicks. “It’s nights like these that keep me doing it,” she exclaimed over the din. For close to a year now, Nicks has been striving to make such nights a regular occurrence in Nashville and not just a one-off oddity. As each month brings more interesting bookings and increasingly enthusiastic crowds, it looks like she’s succeeding, helping to raise the quality of live music in town.
It’s been a circuitous journey that led her to this point. Nicks, who grew up in Dickson county, spent most of the ’80s in Los Angeles working for SST Records, arguably the seminal American independent punk label, which served as home for such legendary underground acts as Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Black Flag, and Sonic Youth. “When I started at SST,” she recalls, “I wasn’t making as much money working for that label as I was working at a record store. You could spit and hit everyone in the office!”
Nicks oversaw shipping, receiving, mail order, sales, and marketing. She also went on several short tours with the Meat Puppets, Black Flag, and Minutemen. It was a turbulent and rapid period in music; bands went on the road constantly, manufactured their own merchandise, and relied on a grass-roots fan base that would help define the way “alternative rock” came to be shaped over the next decade.
It all started to change in the late ’80s, however, and Nicks had had enough. “When I left, I was just kinda bummed and disillusioned.... To me, SST was a major label; it was just like a Hollywood movie corporation.” At the time, returning to Middle Tennessee seemed like a strange option, but it kept coming back to mind.
During the period she worked at SST, Nicks says, “I lived at [late Minutemen guitarist] D. Boon’s house for a while. D. would come off tour and would be talking about this place in Tennessee called Cantrell’s.” Located on Broadway just a few blocks down from the Division Street split, Cantrell’s was, in many ways, the center of Nashville’s musical underground in the ’80s, serving as a regular stop on the road for various SST bands, first-wave thrash groups like Minor Threat and The Circle Jerks, and local bands like Jason and the Nashville Scorchers.
Flash forward to 1995, when Nicks returned to Nashville and started working at Jamaica’s, the short-lived restaurant that moved into the building once occupied by Cantrell’s. It was there she made acquaintances with Terry Cantrell, the onetime club owner and, since 1979, current owner of Springwater. Some time later, he hired Nicks to be a fill-in bartender at Springwater. “I just called him up and said I needed a job for a few days,” she says. “Next thing you know, I’m still here!”
Springwater has been a Nashville fixture for yearsthe building dates back to the 19th century. In the ’80s, it was known as a musician’s hangout, frequented by such singer-songwriters as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. When Nicks came on board in March of last year, the bar had fallen on hard times, however, and she was determined to turn things back around.
“[Terry Cantrell] had been removed from the bar for a while...and he wanted it to be like it was back in the daylike Cantrell’s was,” Nicks explains. Originally hired as a bartender, she soon found herself serving as bar manager and, by December of last year, as the club’s booking agent. Nicks vowed to Cantrell to turn the bar around in three months. Both were determined to restore the establishment to its former luster, to make it a place where local and touring bands would be proud to play.
Their chief obstacle was combating the reputation that Springwater had acquired in the past few years. Proclaiming to be “Nashville’s oldest dive bar” had proven to be a mixed blessing, and Nicks found a great deal of initial resistance when she began booking. “I’d call people, and they were like, ‘Uhhhh, I’ll get back to you,’ ” she says. However, a January show by local rocker Rebecca Stout “really kicked the doors open. I took down a lot of phone numbers of bands that night.”
Soon, local groups like Trauma Team were making regular appearances, and other bands started to trickle in. This summer, Trauma Team’s Laurel Parton helped organize a series of benefits to raise money for a new sound system. It was an instance of local bands pulling together for the collective good. “I surround myself with people who see what I see,” Nicks explains. “They see past the outside of the club and maybe even the inside.... They see the vibe that’s going on, and it’s a really cool vibe.”
On any given night, the diversity of bands at Springwater is a startling indication of the breadth and vibrancy of Nashville’s current underground music scene. Local shows have included sets by speed-core kings The Hissyfits, the brainy/angular guitar pop of The Carter Administration, the freeform folk of The Cherry Blossoms, Murfreesboro’s garage-punk Lucky Gunns, and Nashville’s legendary sage-rocker Dave Cloud. On most nights, chances are that Cloud will either be closing out a show, or just holding court at his table with a pitcher of beer.
In recent months, the 21-and-over club has also seen a variety of touring artists. Blue Oyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard performed here, avant-folk guitarist Eugene Chadbourne has made two appearances, and there was Cheetah Chrome several weekends ago. Perhaps one of the most unlikely coups was scored when the Argentinean experimental combo Reynols made a stop at Springwater last month. The show was brought to Nicks’ attention by local experimental artists John Sharp and Andrew Seal. “[Reynols] played [New York City’s] Lincoln Center the week before, and here they were at Springwater,” Nicks says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God! What an honor!’ ”
“Every time a band plays Springwater, it’s an honor,” she adds. “It’s 100 percent about the bands.” This policy is a practice with the club: All the money after paying the door person goes to the artists performing that night. More important, Nicks hopes to create an atmosphere where everyone feels they have a chance to play a gig. “It may be the easiest place in town to get booked,” she muses, “but that shouldn’t be a negative for anybody.”
Is there work left to do? Certainly. “I really wish there was more of a support system here in town, both with the bands and the clubs,” says Nicks, who is quick to point out the solid support she gets from her bar staff. “Waxing nostalgic, I think there was a lot more support back in the [’80s]. Maybe nowadays we all just work too much!” After considering this for a second, she adds, “There’s a lot of hope in this town. There’s a really cool scene here.”
What does the future hold? Nicks hopes to bring in more out-of-town acts, and she also wants to start showing films. “Independent films tour just like bands do,” she points out. She also hopes to have art shows and vows to bring in more experimental artists.
Looking back on the past year, it’s clear something at Springwater has changed, thanks in large part to Nicks, who approaches her job with a strange mix of fatalism and optimism. “Life is risk,” she says. “Some of the greatest things have happened to me because I just was going for it. My motto is, ‘Show up early, stay late.’ You never know how it’s going to go!”
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