I am not a musician, or even an aspiring musician, but I moved to Nashville in 1987 because of music. One of my college roommates was in graduate school at Vanderbilt and invited me to visit, and my own graduate school boyfriend tagged along. Haywood was, and still is, a picker himself, and he expected to fall in love with Music City; he even packed his resume.
Katy Ginanni, my college friend, lived on 17th Avenue South, in the section called Music Square West. It’s part of a rectangle of streets that collectively form Nashville’s fabled Music Row, which became the heart of Nashville’s music industry — not just country music, but also gospel music and Christian music and, in recent decades, pretty much every other kind of music. Music Row is the very definition of a cultural Centre, but Nashville’s cultural Centre didn’t spring from the mind of an urban planner. It grew up organically, as music-related businesses opened in the mid-20th century to capitalise on the growing popularity of country music.
Centred on 16th and 17th avenues, it was originally the site of recording studios (many of which have lately moved elsewhere), music-publishing firms, talent agencies, publicists and booking offices, all nestled among old bungalows and churches and human-scale commercial buildings. B.B. King and Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley and Charlie Pride all recorded there, which you probably know, but so did Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkel and the Beach Boys, which you might not. In 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the whole district “.”
Tour buses drive up and down the streets of Music Row, their guides telling tourists the stories they came to town to hear. But the city’s explosive growth in the last decade has imperilled its own beating heart, with quaint Music Row houses and historic Music Row studios falling again and again to developers who put up fancy condominiums and trendy restaurants and shiny office buildings in their place, despite concerted efforts by individuals and historic preservation non-profit to save the Row’s character. In 2014,.
Back in 1987, my friend Katy’s apartment was within walking distance of the Country Music Hall of Fame (it has since moved downtown), as well as seemingly innumerable tiny “museums” dedicated to specific stars. Broke as we were, Haywood and I paid to have our picture made with a wax museum version of Parton, just to have a souvenir of our visit. It was so hot in the building that even Dolly’s wax doppelganger is sweating in that Polaroid photo.
We loved the kitsch, but what really sold us was the music. We had arrived in Nashville in time for a music festival called Summer Lights, an act-after-act marvel of unfathomable talent. Near Katy’s place on Music Row, music and cigarette smoke poured out of the neighbourhood bars, and during our visit we stopped in to tap our feet and drink a beer at I don’t know how many of them. We especially loved a shabby little tavern called Bobby’s Idle Hour.
Back in those days Bobby’s occupied a trailer, which I remember thinking was like a living stereotype, the kind of place that becomes the Centre of the story every time you talk about the time you went to Nashville. It’s nothing like the music-themed bars that now line the tourist Centre known as Lower Broad, where neon and big-hat country hold sway — the part of Nashville that the journalist Steve Cavendish, writing in Rolling Stone, calls the “.”
Bobby’s is an altogether different kind of bar. It began life in 1948 simply as the Idle Hour. By 1978, when Bobby Herald bought it and added his name to the sign, it had already been on the Row for decades, a place where songwriters and neighbours and music scouts and industry regulars gathered. On weekend afternoons, people would bring their kids to hear the music.
In 2005, the Idle Hour was evicted from its longtime site — a condominium complex sits there now — and Bobby Herald and his wife, Dianne, moved the bar to its current location on 16th Avenue, eight doors down from the old trailer. Bobby died later that year, but Dianne kept the bar going. It still has autographed head shots of musicians taped to the walls, interspersed with dollar bills signed by guests. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollar bills, many yellowed by smoke from the years before the bar banned smoking.
Lizard Thom Case, 72, bought the place in 2013 after Dianne retired, but he’d been a regular at the bar there for years before he bought it — so much of a regular that Dianne hand-picked him to be Bobby’s “steward,” as Case calls himself. Even he doesn’t remember how the tradition of taping dollar bills to the walls began: “I don’t know how it started, but it grew like a fungus,” he said. His best guess: “Tourists love this place so much, they just want to leave some part of themselves here.” Visitors still come back years later, he said, and take selfies next to their own signed bills.
Last summer Case’s landlord announced that he was selling the site and four adjacent buildings to a developer. (All five evicted businesses are quintessentially Music City: a clothing store called So Nashville, a guitar repair shop, a music academy, a music publisher and Bobby’s.) Short of the kind of 11th-hour miracle that saved Studio A, Bobby’s Idle Hour (“The only live music venue on Music Row!”) would end its seven-decade run, and yet another office building would rise in its place.
“Nashville doesn’t have preservation tools that other cities use as a matter of course,” Carolyn Brackett, senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, last summer. “There are practical solutions that would balance development with the preservation of Music Row’s historic fabric and retain the music businesses that fill them. We urge Mayor Briley and Metro Nashville leaders to adopt them before it’s too late.”
For the current iteration of Bobby’s Idle Hour, it’s already too late. Last fall Bobby’s was named to the “,” an annual list of the most endangered historic places in Nashville, but this time no miracle was forthcoming. Case has until the end of the month to clear everything out.
It was never his plan to retire: “If we’d been able to stay in this venue, this particular building, I could’ve kept this bar another 10 years,” he said. “I love it. I love nurturing the songwriters. I love setting up these great nights of music. It’s been my life.”
I stopped by the bar on Jan. 12, the last day it was open to the public, and spoke with Josh Distad, 29, a songwriter and Minnesota native who’s been tending bar at Bobby’s for the past four years. He and three other investors, all Bobby’s regulars, had just bought the contents of the bar, along with its name, from Case. They hope to open again at a new location in the summer. Distad isn’t worried about making Bobby’s a success; Bobby’s is already a success, and he’s been studying what makes it work. But he recognises the forces that he and his partners are up against, too.
They’re considering a site just around the corner from the current Idle Hour, but there may be zoning issues to address there — it’s near a church — and other obstacles to repurposing the building as a tavern.
The chief obstacle is Nashville itself. The five-year lease the building’s owner has offered is within the new owners’ price range, but they know they may well be priced out of the neighbourhood again as soon as the lease is up, and they can’t afford to buy. “The real estate in this area — real estate in the city, really — is so high now that a small mom-and-pop shop just can’t succeed,” Distad said. “The lowest property we found on the market in this area is listed for a million dollars.” Even so, he believes the right place will turn up in time.
The death of a neighbourhood bar in a growing city is in no way a tragedy. There are much more disruptive consequences to poorly planned growth: the loss of affordable workforce housing, the that offsets the effects of greenhouse gases, destabilised communities and debilitating strains on ageing infrastructure, among others. But cultural continuity does matter. Bobby’s Idle Hour is “part of the fabric of this town,” said Carolyn Lethgo, 29, a Middle Tennessee native and one of Distad’s co-investors. “We just want to carry on the meaning and the legacy of this place.”
It’s a quite a legacy. Before you even walk in the door, the big plywood guitar out front tells you that Bobby’s Idle Hour is the place you’ve been looking for, the kind of place that makes you pack up and move to a new city to start your life all over again. In part because of Bobby’s, my husband and I have been here 31 years, our entire adult lives.
Jonathan Long, 72, is a songwriter from upstate New York who came here in 1971. He’s also one of the Idle Hour’s longtime bartenders: “I’ve been working here 20 years,” he told me, “but I’ve been drinking here 47.” He plans to be at work at the new Idle Hour, too, wherever it lands, even if that’s not on Music Row.
I asked Long if the Nashville moment had passed, if it’s too late now for a songwriter with a dream to make a life in Nashville. He wasn’t entirely hopeless: “If it’s something you want to do, don’t even bother to come here,” he said. “If it’s something you have to do, you might want to come. But if it’s something you are, get your a- down here. It has to be who you are, or it’s not going to work.”
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.