These days, Lower Broadway has become an ever expanding row of tourist traps. Revered haunts such as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge may hold their own against the encroachment of Planet Hollywood and NASCAR Cafe, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer.
Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to overlook the Bluegrass Inn, located on Broadway between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. But stop for even a moment, and you can’t help notice the picture that’s been pasted in the windowJohnny Cash angrily flipping the bird at the camera. That one image tells you everything you need to know about Bluegrass Inn’s owners, Jim Finklea and Leila Vartanian: They love Nashville’s rich heritage, but they’re not so sure about what the city has become.
Needless to say, these two young Chicago transplants aren’t your typical bar owners. Few people would have the gall (or sense of humor) to tell their customers, “If your belt buckle’s bigger than your head, then you can’t come in.” That may strike some folks as un-country or un-Nashvillenot to mention downright unwelcomingbut the owners of the Bluegrass Inn are passionate about country music and about Nashville. They’ve just got a different idea of what those things should be. And they’ve certainly earned the right to call it as they see itin the space of one hard and crazy year, they’ve gone from being street musicians to being club owners.
The two musicians met at a Chicago rehearsal space in 1995. Jim is originally from Bird’s Corner, a tiny Missouri town, while Leila, the daughter of Armenian restaurant owners, was born and raised in Chicago. Within weeks of making each other’s acquaintance, they’d started a band, Gringo, and gotten married. After only three months, the group had locked into the city’s growing Americana scene, releasing a record on the Pravda label.
Gringo hit the road hard for a year-and-a-half to support their debut album. But Jim was determined to play straight country musichis first loveand he wanted to move South. After months of grueling tours, they played one last gig in Indianapolis, then headed to Nashville.
“On the way here, I told Leila, ‘We’re getting an upright bass and we’re going to play hillbilly music.’ She thought I was crazy,” Jim says with a grin. “We drove all night and got here at 10 in the morning.” The couple wasn’t at all familiar with Nashville, but whether through luck, or through some innate homing device, they ended up right in front of Robert’s Western Wear. “We...walked in, and I said to Leila, ‘This is where we’re going to find our home.’ ” After witnessing the cowboy boots on the wall and hearing a live band at 10 in the morning, they knew they’d come to the right place.
They stayed about a week, surveying the scene on Lower Broadway and observing the tough life of musicians who worked hours at a stretch for nothing but tips. They saw it as a way to hone their craft and to play real country music to people who actually wanted to hear it. They went back to Chicago, wrapped up their obligations with their record company, and moved to Nashville in July of 1996 at the height of the tourist season.
With seasoned local musicians holding tight to their gigs, though, the couple had a tough time finding workuntil Leila came up with the idea of playing on the street. “We dressed up like old country stars, set up a little stage, PA, and battery-powered lights right on the street,” Jim says, still visibly excited about the experience. “We had a blast, we were in the papers, we were meeting and playing with all kinds of musicians.”
By the end of the summer, they’d gotten a lot of recognition and made some decent cash, but they still didn’t have a steady gig. With winter coming and downtown foot traffic slowing, things started looking grim. They packed it in and headed out on another Gringo tour.
At the end of the tour, they stopped in Nashville for a visit before heading back to Chicago. “I was driving the van,” Leila remembers. “We were about 40 miles out of town, and Jim goes, ‘Turn the van around, I’m not giving up.’ The next day, we walked into Robert’s. It was a Saturday, and there were a bunch of people out, and they had no band.” Before the pair even had a cup of coffee, they were onstage.
Enthuses Jim, “It was us and Toby Carr, and then [guitarist] Pete Mitchell played with us for a while. He played with Ernest Tubb for 13 years, which I didn’t even know at the time. We played from 10 in the morning to 6:30 at night without a break.” They ended up playing a back-breaking, finger-bleeding, 48 days straight for about eight hours a day, with Jim on guitar and vocals while Leila translated her electric bass skills to the upright and sang harmony.
One month later, Robert Moore opened the Bluegrass Inn next door and asked the pair to be the house band. But he wanted them to play only bluegrassno electric instruments. They seized the opportunity and continued their rigorous performance schedule for the next 11 months. But the bar didn’t do well, and Moore told them he was going to have to close the place down.
“He was doing only bluegrass bands,” Leila says, “and it’s very hard, especially in this town, to keep bluegrass alive. We were just starting to get a good crowd.” So, as Leila puts it, laughing, “We bought the business to keep our jobs.” They were able to take over the club, thanks to Moore, who served as the big-hearted patron and gave the couple a huge break on the price.
Moore may have helped Jim and Leila get on their feet, but it’s clear that the pair’s hard work and dedication have kept the place a vitaland viablesource of live music. Even so, they give credit where they feel it’s due. “We owe everything to Robert Moore and Toby Carr [who owns the building],” Jim says. “They’re the real deal. They’re businessmen who really care about the artists, which is rare in this day and age. These places wouldn’t exist without them. Robert Moore has taken in so many musicians who didn’t have jobs or homes; he’s truly a blessed soul, and he saw that Leila and I were passionate about it and would make it work.”
With the club now under their control, Jim and Leila have made it their own: a place where music and musicians can live, breathe, and grow. Thanks to this mind-set, the Bluegrass Inn has gradually amassed a bevy of local talent tackling everything from country and bluegrass to swing and rockabilly. This open-minded stylistic approach is never more evident than during a typical Saturday night at the club. An early set of jazzy swing by Audrey Malone and the Rhythm Kings is punctuated by drummer Greg Smith’s impressive solos. Then Jim, Leila, and banjo player Martin O’Dougherty take the stage with their so-called “hillbilly spectacle,” Joe Buck. The evening winds up with a rousing rockabilly set by Harry Fontana and the Tennessee Tone Boys, featuring Johnny Cash’s bassist, Dave Roe.
Joe Buck’s set in particular captures the essence of the place. The band’s music is dynamic, ranging from the straight honky-tonk of Hank Williams to the bluegrass of Bill Monroe to well-crafted originals like “Valentine.” In short, they deliver traditional American music, but with a modern sound and sensibility.
The club’s appeal is reflected in the eclectic makeup of the people who come there from night to night. Tourists, country fans, and local musicians may favor the vocal talents of young bluegrass singer Buddy Goines. But alt-rock fans, country music die-hards, and retro-hippies alike gather for the humorous, Americana-laced folk-rock of The Connoisseur Rats, whose set incorporates country standards, originals, and tunes by Leonard Cohen and the Replacements.
The Bluegrass Inn has even started showcasing progressive out-of-town artists such as Gastr del Sol guitarist David Grubbs, and it plans to host more in the future. Enthuses Jim, “I love playing a Joe Buck show and looking out into the audience and seeing punk kids and old people and cowboys and rockers, and they’re all having a good time, and that’s when I feel I’ve achieved my goal. I’m playing music...and that’s the human bond that you can never put a price onthat connection.”
That feeling of connectedness makes the Bluegrass Inn all the more unique. The artists who perform here share a feeling of family, a sense of unity in their love for country music. “Out our back door is the mother church of country music,” Jim says, gesturing almost in salute to the Ryman Auditorium. “I feel very blessed that me and my wife can make a living at what we love, albeit not a very glamorous living. But we’re around what we love, with people who feel the same way. We’re very lucky.”
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