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.
June 20, 2020 @ 8:25 am
The Facebook Lives from places like Roberts these past few months helped me tough out this quarantine. Best wishes to him.
June 20, 2020 @ 9:01 am
Don, take a bow. You have made a career bringing so much joy to so many people all over the world.I think of all the tourists who came to Nashville and stopped in to see and experience your band.. You are the face of Robert’s and when you played all those gigs, for that moment in time, for that audience, you were everything great about Country Music. For those magical 4 hours a night you played, there was no better place in all of Nashville. The energy you brought to those shows, the musical firepower your band brought out every night and your enthusiasm we will remember. Thank you sir for passing along your passion for country music to so many musicians and sharing your gifts with so many. You rock brother!
June 20, 2020 @ 9:30 am
Absolutely amazing band every time I saw them. Thank you Don. You brought a level of quality and musicianship that stood out amongst the herd of mediocre unimaginative bands that are a dime a dozen on Lower Broadway these days.
June 20, 2020 @ 10:19 am
A cultural institution. I caught them a couple times passing through Nashville, and it was a clinic in musicianship every time. Don’s retirement is well-earned, and I hope he knows what a rock his band has been. Maybe Marty Stuart should give him a place in the Congress.
June 20, 2020 @ 11:25 am
Don Kelley band was awesome!! Saturday nights at Robert’s will never be the same!….R any bars there on broadway opening soon?
June 20, 2020 @ 10:54 pm
Most are open, at least up around 4th and 5th avenues. I don’t pay much attention to what goes on down below that.
June 20, 2020 @ 12:30 pm
Never had the please to see the Don Kelly Band, but he gave some amazing musicians a platform early in their career. JD Simo is a great guitar player, and I really dig the stuff Daniel Donato puts out. He obviously has a great eye for talent.
June 20, 2020 @ 12:54 pm
Never got to see his band but last summer, we made 2 separate visits to Roberts during the daytime and heard the legendary John Shepherd (writer of the Miller Beer jingle “If you’ve got the time, we ‘ve got the beer”) He was classic, got a cd, and had Robert’s Recession special-$5.99 for a fried baloney sandwich, chips, a MoonPie, and either a Pabst or Miller-obviously I had to get the Miller!
Loved the place, the meal, the great music, and the classic atmosphere-awonderful Nashville memory.
June 20, 2020 @ 1:07 pm
John is the oldest busker on Broadway. Hes been doing it longer than anybody and just prior to the Corona nightmare, he was still going and his wife was always there collecting the tips. Shes also a songwriter by the way, and a former performer. He puts me in mind of that Marshall Tucker Band song “Last of the Singing Cowboys.” Got some great pics of him this year!
December 3, 2022 @ 10:28 pm
I can’t stop thinking about Don Kelly and his band for making such a lasting impact on country music. The first night I heard him singing I said who is that old guy singing? But as the night went on we kept hoping bars but returning to Roberts Western World. The next night we spent the whole time mesmerized by the Don and his band. Porter McClister was a chicken picken fool. I realized that I had fell under the spell of true country music thanks to Don Kelly.
June 20, 2020 @ 1:08 pm
Another unbelievable,super musician is JD Simo! Plays w/all of the top notch people all over!…
King Honky Of Crackershire
June 20, 2020 @ 2:00 pm
I agree with all the sentiments here.
Does anybody know anything about Don’s past? Where he came from? How he became so important despite just being a singer/rhythm guitarist? Did he first come to Nashville to be a star, but couldn’t land a deal, or was being a great bar band his goal?
I’m really curious. I wish he’d write a book.
October 24, 2020 @ 1:33 pm
Sure contact me
June 20, 2020 @ 8:55 pm
My wife was in town on business and stopped in and got me a signed CD last year. She asked where to go for the real thing and immediately I said Robert’s Western World and the Don Kelley Band.
Thank you, Don, for sharing the real thing all those years.
June 21, 2020 @ 9:08 am
Since moving to Florida from Michigan, I’d make it a point to stop overnight in Nashville to see the Don Kelly Band. I often referred to a night at Roberts Western World…. as the Best Entertainment Value in America. Throw in a fried baloney sandwich and PBR and it doesn’t get any better than that. I’ll still continue to stop into Roberts…tradition is hard nut to crack.
June 21, 2020 @ 10:59 am
June 22, 2020 @ 12:37 pm
I keep my Don Kelly Band CD in regular rotation. Seeing the band inspired me so much and made my early trips to Nashville memorable. Will miss seeing Don, but look forward to checking out the new line-up! Thanks for writing about this.
June 22, 2020 @ 1:24 pm
Happy trails to you Don Kelly. We will certainly miss seeing you at Roberts. Any chance of a farewell show? Hint, hint……
July 7, 2021 @ 2:47 pm
Don and I are friends from the old Wichita Falls days. Enjoy retirement my friend TJ
Barry Frederick King
March 8, 2023 @ 5:10 am
Came to the USA in 2003 and was lucky enough to see Don with Guthrie Trapp. Was even lucky enough to get some video of them. Truly amazing time. Got a 52 year old Tele and it’s by my side every day. Thank you Don for some great memories.
June 29, 2020 @ 1:06 pm
Was able to see Don just before the Covid-19 lockdown and had hoped to bo back and see him again. One of the best concerts I had seen in years! Bought the CD they had at the concert and it is great! Since it won;t be possible to see him again live, does anyone know if there is more than 1 CD of the most recent Don Kelly Band (i.e. with Luke McQueary)? If so, any idea of where it can be obtained?
June 30, 2020 @ 6:59 pm
This is very sad news. Has Don retired from the country music scene, or are there any rumors that he and his band will be back at another venue in town?
I started coming to Nashville in 1991. Don Kelly’s was the first band I ever saw in town in a club on Murfreesboro Pike. Since then, I’ve been back probably a dozen or so times, the last being in May 2018. That was the last time I’d seen Don Kelly perform. On the night of my wedding. It was a special treat seeing him and the rest of the band, and if this is indeed the end of the road, Roberts and Lower Broadway will simply never be the same.
Thank you, Don, for many happy memories.
November 13, 2020 @ 9:17 pm
I had a job traveling all over the U.S., and after one trip to Nashville and stumbling in when Don Kelley was playing at Roberts when JD Simo had the coveted spot, I made my business to make sure I scheduled my trips to Nashville on the nights Don Kelley was playing. Sitting at bar, on hot nights, drinking beer, doing shots of vodka, strangers became friends digging on how generous Don Kelley was to the many lead guitarists and all the band he gave the spot light to. “Fill the tip jar folks, I’m tryin to keep my kids in cigarettes”. Thanks Don, you killed it every time.
September 2, 2021 @ 2:12 pm
We saw the band many times over the past 10-15 years. Pretty much with JD Simo. They were unequivocally our favorite band in Nashville, which is saying a lot. Alas, all thing must pass. They will be missed. Don, thanks for everything!
September 29, 2021 @ 9:40 pm
Fantastic live band but labelling them “country music” is a little narrow. “Ghost Riders” may be a country western standard, but Dickey Betts’ “Jessica” defies genre- and they nailed it.
Don Kelley’s show was never so structured that the lead guitar could not go off on a spectacular electronic blast- while still keeping the crowd involved.
I hope he can be coaxed into occasional reunions….
October 18, 2021 @ 4:34 pm
Been in many music venues across this great big country, but none of them like Roberts Western World on Saturday night with Don Kelly Band. I had so much fun on those spontaneous nights I can’t tell you. The Professionalism and connection with audience was so enjoyable. I haven’t been back to Nashville since our daughter graduated from college, but we will carry those nights with us forever trust me. Best of luck to all including the band and Don in Florida. Let it
Be known Don Kelly Band was a gift to all.
December 25, 2021 @ 7:03 pm
Saw many times , would not go anywhere else. Don Kelly Band
August 15, 2022 @ 2:31 am
Wife and I from Oz on a road trip in 2017. Wandering the bars and locals looked at us and said – Roberts is the place for you. Kelley’s band was playing. Bought their CD and got it signed by all four. What a great night. Nothing like roaring down the freeway to Ramblin’ Man with Luke on lead guitar.