“Off the beaten track” is not a designation normally applied to a club located just north of Broadway, on Second Avenue—at least not anymore. “Obscure” might seem a surprising way to describe an establishment with a spectacular view of the river that has survived for 20 years downtown, with a long list of distinguished musicians among its patrons and performers. Yet Windows on the Cumberland has managed to stay comfortably under the radar amid the chaotic redevelopment of Second Avenue. Which is just the way its loyal patrons and its current proprietor, Jackson “Boots” Hill, have liked it.
But Windows’ long run is coming to a close. In May of this year, the building containing the Market Street Emporium came under new ownership, and in July, Boots was informed unceremoniously that his lease would not be renewed. Not to worry, though; Boots has his eye on a new space in Berry Hill (he’s not yet ready to disclose the exact location) and plans to carry on the tradition of Windows with the luxury of on-site parking.
Windows is located at the end of the long corridors in the Emporium, an enclave of funky and independent business amid the increasingly generic offerings that dominate the block. An intimate space accommodating under 100 patrons, the bar’s name derives from the large picture windows that overlook First Avenue and the Cumberland. The stage borders the windows, with performers close enough to touch audience members. A balcony stacks a second tier of spectators in the tiny room.
Windows advertises its presence grudgingly. The point is not to pull in the camera-toting tourists or bachelorette parties who patrol the block, hopping among the Wildhorse or Coyote Ugly, blissfully unaware that Windows exists. The charm of this joint is reserved for insiders. “I always said it was the best speak-easy in town,” says Randy Russell, who has performed at Windows often with his band Ballhog. “No real sign to speak of—you have to know how to find it.”
When Windows first opened, the district was still scarred by the abandonment and decay that beset downtowns nationwide since the ’70s. When Charlie Fenton opened the space in 1986, it featured vegetarian food, poetry and live music. At that time, the view out the picture windows revealed the grimy aesthetic of industrial docks along the Cumberland’s east bank; today, it is dominated by the glossy LP Field.
Fenton recalls there were only two “liquor pouring establishments” on the block at the time, The Spaghetti Factory and a seafood restaurant called Laurell’s. Windows sold beer and a renowned vegetarian chili, and showcased an eclectic mix of young, often raw musical talent.
“Being a small club, being in the proximity of Lower Broadway, being nearby to the bus station, I found an awful lot of guys with their guitar cases on their first night out [in Nashville], coming in asking, ‘Can I play, do you have a writer’s night, do you have a showcase, do you have an opportunity?’ ” says Fenton. “And I put them on. I put them on from day one.”
Fenton gave up his share of Windows in the early ’90s, spending over a decade working for the city and earning his pension. Now the 65-year-old is back in the Emporium, running a vegetarian lunch counter called Main Streat [sic]. Since 1997, Windows has been owned by Terry Young and “Boots” Hill, with Boots in complete control of the day-to-day operations.
The vegetarian chili is long gone, but the free-flowing vibe that Fenton created remains much the same. Like Fenton, Boots gives young acts a place to play, and he has a keen eye for talent honed over his long years as a musician. A drummer with an eclectic résumé, Boots played with soul acts like The Drifters and Jackie Wilson as a young man. Upon moving to Nashville in 1976, he performed behind close friend Townes Van Zandt and for local favorite Wildlife.
Like so many musicians in Nashville, Boots at last grew weary of the itinerant lifestyle of a performing artist. But he never left the scene, and he loves his new role nurturing young talent. “I go out every night,” recounts the vigorous 56-year-old. “Even on my nights off, I’m still out looking at music—I mean, every night, so it’s still 24/7 to me, and it fulfills me as much as playing. Booking somebody in here, seeing the response from people, seeing them get excited.”
Boots says he’s ready to get out of downtown, with its crush of tourist traffic and proliferation of themed bars and restaurants. Still, he knows that there’s no replacing the river view, or the sounds of shows past that echo in the walls.
This week features a series of farewell events for Windows on the Cumberland, including performances by Transcendental Crayon Ensemble (Wednesday), Old Union (Thursday) and a.k.a: Rudie (Friday). Windows will host its last show this Saturday, Sept. 30, featuring Fluid Tuesday and The Loft.