A lot of people over the past year (including us) have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pinpoint the single event that turned around the city’s fortunes. Was it Jack White moving to town? Robert Altman? Pro sports? Cases can be made for all these and more, but for the sake of argument we’ll pick the moment 20 years ago when a handful of blazingly talented hard-country acts — some with roots in the all-ages punk scene at the late, lamented Lucy’s Record Shop — took up residence in Lower Broad’s honky-tonks, back when the district had mostly coin-op porn and dying businesses. Drawing young people downtown in droves for the first time in ages, they not only rejuvenated the street (with a big assist from the previously padlocked Ryman) but reminded the city that hardcore hillbilly music was a source of civic pride, not a stain we were tring to overcome. The gaunt, ferociously gifted Greg Garing held down the fort at Tootsie’s, while three doors down Chuck Mead had folks kicking up dust at Robert’s as one of BR549’s two dynamite frontmen: The early years of that honky-tonk renaissance remain some of the happiest in Music City’s recent development.
Like all things hip, it didn’t last — but most everyone involved (including participants such as Paul Burch) has gone on to interesting work. Though plagued by health issues related to metal poisoning, Garing made provocative early forays into electronic music, established a much-loved hillbilly outpost in Manhattan for a while, and was the subject of the 2010 documentary Legend. Mead, meanwhile, has continued to make first-rate honky-tonk records — including his new Free State Serenade LP — while scoring a left-field triumph as music director for the Tony-winning Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet (which sets up shop for a run May 6-11 at TPAC). Tonight they’re playing gigs the same night at clubs not too far apart off Eighth Avenue South. See if you can hit ’em both.
Tonight's Chuck Mead release show at The Basement costs $10 and starts at 9 p.m. Greg Garing's show at Mercy Lounge starts at 8 p.m. and costs $8.