Amid the rubble of what Nashville once was, lurking in the shadows of the condominium high rises and prefabricated mixed use block developments spanning across the city like a contagion, there is a thriving and vibrant honky tonk movement doing what it can to keep the old style of country music alive. And when we say “old,” we’re not talking about the 80’s or 90’s.
From Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway, to Santa’s Pub south of downtown, to the American Legion Post 82 in the northern portion of east Nashville, performing artists and their fans are keeping the memory of what Nashville once was living and breathing in the modern context. A new 45-minute documentary from Great Big Story goes in-depth into this scene, primarily following fiddler and singer Kevin Martin, and bass player/promoter Brendan Malone, the latter who is the brain behind the American Legion Post 82’s Honky Tonk Tuesday Nights, which pound for pound is one of the coolest events and most interesting success stories in traditional country music coast to coast.
“I grew up being around country and western music a lot from my parents,” Brendan Malone explains in the film. “At our house we had a jukebox, a 1954 Wurlitzer that played 45s. What always got me close to country music was that no matter the way I felt, being happy, sad, or discontent, there was some type of song out there that I could relate to. And it seems like everything that’s out now, you got to sing about ‘this,’ you’ve got to sing about the parties down at the beach. There’s just no soul to the country music anymore.”
The documentary not only captures the music, the style, and the people involved in Nashville’s vibrant honky tonk scene, it illustrates how it is very much a grassroots and participatory movement. Many of the performers work other jobs. Nobody’s doing what they’re doing to keep the music going for the money. But there’s an appreciation and importance to it due to the weight of the endeavor.
Along with Brendan Malone and Kevin Martin, keen-eyed country music fans might also notice other performers in the film passing through or mentioned such as Kristina Murray, Michaela Anne, Tommy Ash, Cheryl Deseree, Ronnie Dale, The Three Country Tenors (incl. Kevin Martin), and Cory Younts of Old Crow Medicine Show. Santa’s Pub, The Basement East, Robert’s Western World and its owner Jesse Lee Jones are also featured, but the primary setting is the American Legion Post 82.
“Everybody thinks, ‘It is what it is, man. I got to be part of what it is,'” says Jesse Lee Jones in the film. “I am saying it is what it was, schmuck. It is what it was.”
If you ever wanted a primer into the true honky tonk scene in Nashville and haven’t found the opportunity to experience it yourself, this is the closest thing. It also is a great explanation for people who see the performers and fans in throwback duds and either think they’re being fuddy duddy, or too hipster for their taste. With the previous generation passing on more day by day, it is up to the new generation to preserve the music, as they’re doing at places like Robert’s Western World, and the American Legion Post 82.
People like Jesse Lee Jones, Kevin Martin, and Brendan Malone are doing the real work to save country music on the ground floor, and at the local level. Director Josh Goleman and his crew at Great Big Story did a great job capturing this at its essence in this compelling video piece.
The entire documentary can be seen below.