End of an Era as Don Kelley Exits Robert’s Western World

Of course nothing is more tragic than the loss of life that COVID-19 has caused. But in music, the cost to local music venues has been astronomical, with some of the most legendary spots in local communities being forced to shutter for good, and others hanging on by a thread as the world slowly tries to return to normal. Some estimates have the numbers nearing 90% of the local venues that may end up closing permanently.

One spot many were worried about in Nashville was Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. The last of the true honky tonks in the area, it was also the first to open in the area in the early 90’s after the Ryman Auditorium shuttered in 1974 and the area became overrun with pawn shops and dirty bookstores. Robert’s was the place the lit the spark for Lower Broadway’s revitalization. Located right across the alley from the Ryman’s artist entrance, it’s where BR549 and Brazilbilly had their now legendary residencies, and today artists like Sarah Gayle Meech and Brennen Leigh regularly hold court.

Robert’s Western World has also been home to the Don Kelley Band for a quarter century. Though not as flashy or well-known as some of the other bands that blew up from the Robert’s stage like BR549 and Joshua Hedley, those who know Robert’s and The Don Kelley band know just how important the band has been to both keeping true country music alive on Lower Broadway, as well as being a proving ground for musicians.

Robert’s was finally allowed to open after the COVID-19 shutdown on June 15th, but with a limited capacity. However while celebrating the re-opening, owner (and Brazilbilly performer) JesseLee Jones announced that Don Kelley and his signature white hat would not be returning to continue his legendary run.

“After 25 years of Robert’s Western World, Don Kelly told me first hand, that he is going to gracefully enjoy the rest of his days, close to his son and family in Florida,” says JesseLee Jones. “I respect him. I understand him and I also understand the fact that he wants to go quietly without any pomp and circumstance. Don asked if he and I alone, could have a quiet dinner to reflect on the many years at Robert’s Western World and celebrate our friendship, support, and always being there for each other…”

The Don Kelley Band was an institution in Nashville. The band had its own listings in tourist recommendations right beside museums and historic landmarks as something to see when you’re in town. The list of musicians who utilized The Don Kelley Band as a stepping stone is incredible, with Guthrie Trapp, Brent Mason, David Byrd, Paul Cook, Sid Hudson, Johnny Hiland, Daniel Donato, JD Simo, and so many more with dues paid in the band. Even the legendary Redd Volkaert was once a member. Many Don Kelley Band members have made for some of Nashville’s most sought-after session musicians by day, while playing at Robert’s by night.

The Don Kelley Band was never about making it big, or releasing albums or singles, or even trying to shake up Nashville. It was simply about preserving country music as an American art form at the very epicenter of where it emerged as one of the most popular and influential genres in history. If you wanted to experience The Don Kelley Band, you had to do it at Robert’s, and it was an experience. The high energy and infectiousness made it one of the most enjoyable bands to catch on Lower Broadway. The memories are many, including the one time the band played such an epic ending to “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the drummer fell through Robert’s front window.

But the legacy is not completely over. Members of the band will continue on as the Don Kelley Heroes. The COVID-19 shutdown has out many musicians and venues like Robert’s Western World in the hole. So when it’s safe, and if you feel so inclined, make sure you stop by next time you’re in Nashville, order a fried balogna sandwich and maybe some cheese curds, and help keep the legacy of Robert’s Western World and The Don Kelley Band alive.

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