Lower Broadway vs. 6th Street, Comedy vs. Music, & Joe Rogan

Joe Rogan’s new Comedy Mothership located at 320 E. 6th in Austin

There has always been something unsettling about all of the grousing surrounding what a deleterious tourist destination Lower Broadway in Nashville has become. Sure, it’s teeming with uninteresting out-of-towners in their pastel and khaki clothing, drunk college kids darting in and out of megabars branded behind pop country icons, and pedal taverns full of tipsy bachelorettes braying out bad Carrie Underwood renditions, with it all generally making a trip to that portion of downtown Nashville an uncool experience for many natives and self-aware sightseers.

There is nothing more hip than complaining about what Lower Broadway has turned into over the last half decade or so. Granted, having frequented the Lower Broadway district for years and understanding its historical importance to country music, seeing it now populated with bars owned by Jason Aldean, Kid Rock, and Florida Georgia Line frequented by folks who are uncaring of where they are in the world as they get wicked hammered and listen to a classic rock cover band can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

But the situation could be so much incredibly worse. It could be 6th Street in Austin, which is supposed to be the entertainment epicenter of the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and instead over the last few years has become a derelict portion of town barely holding onto its once important prominence, filled with homeless vagrants, open air drug markets, and abandoned buildings that were once teeming with tourists who’ve now been turned away due to crime, filth, blight, and a dubious reputation for murders and mass shootings.

First of all, everyone needs to appreciate what an economic engine Lower Broadway has become for the country music economy in general, and the independent country music community specifically. Forget all the corporate bars for a second, and just appreciate the performance slots that establishments such as Robert’s Western World, Layla’s, Alan Jackson’s Good Time Bar, and other bars give to actual country artists. They’re also able to put these artists in front of what ultimately comprises a national and international audience from the amount of people who frequent Lower Broadway every week from far flung destinations.

Lower Broadway in Nashville

Though it can be a hard fought life trying to make it in country music from a stage on Lower Broadway, it is definitely possible, and the entertainment corridor has created a foundation from which artists can rise to national prominence if they’re good enough, and work hard at it. We’ve seen this recently with artists such as Joshua Hedley and Emily Nenni among others. If nothing else, the stages of Lower Broadway bestow an opportunity to artists to pay dues, refine their chops, and work out their own songs in between classic country covers that help keep the legacy of country music alive.

Lower Broadway is not all terrible by any stretch. Without the live performance farm system that it comprises, independent country music would be considerably worse off. And without all of the tourists flowing into the region, it also wouldn’t be as robust and successful at churning out and supporting up-and-coming talent, not to mention the buildings and business important to the historical fabric of country music that still remain viable due to the economic activity in the area.

Meanwhile, 6th Street in Austin in many ways resembles what Lower Broadway did back in the 80s and early 90s after the Ryman Auditorium was shuttered, the Grand Ole Opry moved across town, leaving the once bustling entertainment corridor and the few music-oriented businesses behind to fend for themselves. Lower Broadway never fully retreated back into full abandonment, and neither has 6th Street. But 6th Street is far from the once hopping destination, teeming with locals and tourists frequenting cool bars and music venues, and feeling safe to do so like so many Lower Broadway patrons do every day.

Even before the pandemic, many of 6th Street’s venues had become hip-hop or dance clubs, with any true “live” music relegated to other parts of the city, or perhaps on the adjacent Red River Street. Country music in Austin consists of a diaspora of clubs scattered across the city that are all Uber rides away from each other, from the legendary Continental Club on South Congress, to The Broken Spoke on South Lamar, to the newish but now legendary White Horse east of downtown, to Sagebrush south of Hwy 71 that opened in 2020. There is still a vibrant network of Austin honky tonks, but it’s not epicentered anywhere, and most certainly not on 6th Street.

6th and Red River used to be the very heart of the 6th Street entertainment district, with Emo’s and its inside/outside stages anchoring the northeast quadrant of the street. Ever since Emo’s moved to east Riverside, other businesses in that portion of 6th Street have left or failed as well, and now it’s almost entirely abandoned. A crossroads that would usually be teeming with life during Austin’s annual SXSW gathering in mid March was mostly a ghost town in 2023. The buildings couldn’t even open up temporarily for corporate parties or showcases, in part because they’re in such bad disrepair. This is a far cry from Lower Broadway, where every square foot of property is hyper utilized, and heavily sought after.

All the buildings on the northeast quadrant of 6th and Red River in Austin remain vacant

But there is hope of a revitalization of 6th Street to perhaps recapture its once high prominence as a national-level entertainment district. It is not being facilitated through music though. It’s being done through Joe Rogan and standup comedy. After having moved to Austin during the pandemic, Joe Rogan and now a cast of about a dozen national-level comedians that call Austin home are injecting new life into 6th Street.

One of those comedians is Tony Hinchcliffe, who started hosting his widely-popular open-mic style comedy show “Kill Tony” from the stage of Austin’s legendary blues club Antone’s now located on 5th Street. Hinchcliffe later moved “Kill Tony” to the Vulcan Gas Company on 6th, which was previously mostly a techno/EDM club. With Joe Rogan and other national comedians using Vulcan Gas Company to work out material locally before taking it on the road, it created a foothold for the other style of live performance in the “Live Music Capital of the World”—standup comedy.

Vulcan Gas Company on 6th Street

But the scene that emerged at Vulcan Gas Company wasn’t alone. The Creek and the Cave was a legendary New York comedy club for 14 years that was forced to close during the pandemic. Instead of going away entirely, they moved the club to Austin and into 611 E 7th Street where the old club Barracuda had been located before it closed in June of 2020. It’s the same property where Red 7 was located before Barracuda. Both Red 7 and Barracuda cited lowering attendance to live music shows, and rising rents as the reason for closing down. Comedy could do what music couldn’t in the crux of the 6th Street/Red River portion of downtown Austin.

Then on March 7th, Joe Rogan upped the ante for comedy on 6th Street by opening his Comedy Mothership at 320 E. 6th in the old Ritz Building originally built in 1929. With its theater-style layout, it was perfect for conversion into a comedy club. It had most recently been a boutique movie theater for the local theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. After opening, the club immediately became one of the hottest businesses in Austin, with tickets going for upwards of $900 as national comedians from all around the country came to christen the stage that Rogan eventually hopes becomes America’s proving ground for up-and-coming comedic talent.

Joe Rogan said about the opening, “I’m done with milestones. I think I just like risks. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s buy a building on a street filled with crack addicts.'” That’s a fair way to characterize 6th Street in Austin at the moment, and the Comedy Mothership is located right in the the very heart of it. But if Joe Rogan has his way, the club will be a catalyst for a revitalization of the district, making Austin and 6th Street the “Comedy Capital of the World.”

This all may be very good for 6th Street in Austin. But it’s fair to question, what does this mean for music in Austin? At the moment comedy clubs are still considerably outnumbered by dance clubs and music establishments on 6th Street and throughout Austin, and it’s hard to see that changing significantly anytime soon. But could comedy eventually override music in the Live Music Capital of the World?

Meanwhile, Joe Rogan has been a major force for good behind the independent country music revolution. Sturgill Simpson’s appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast right as The Joe Rogan Experience was beginning to explode nationally were definitely a significant part of Sturgill’s meteoric rise. Appearances by Chris Stapleton, Shooter Jennings, Wheeler Walker Jr., and Rogan’s shout-outs of Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, and up-and-coming Austin honky-tonker Ellis Bullard have been a major force behind the rise of these independent artists.

Ideally, if Joe Rogan and comedy truly enact a revitalization of 6th Street and the greater region, it will take music with it as opposed to shoving it out of the way. But with the way raising rents were already razing what once was the bustling 6th Street district, then with the pandemic doubling down on the dilemmas for club owners, and then the crime waves post-pandemic damning prospects even more, this is what already pushed many music clubs off of 6th to the back streets and suburbs, or to be shuttered entirely.

What’s for certain is that with the opening of Joe Rogan’s Comedy Mothership, it is a new day for the legacy of Austin and live performance. It’s an opportunity to see a rising tide raising all boats in downtown Austin entertainment. But this can only happen if the comedians are good stewards, the city and it’s boosters are clear-eyed and conscious with their moves to help facilitate the revitalization of 6th Street as opposed to stifling it as they’ve done during previous eras, and if creativity is allowed to flourish as opposed to just paid lip service by city leaders and the tech sector that now dominates the Austin economy.

Will 6th Street once again be what it was during its heydey in the 90s and early 00s, perhaps even rivaling Lower Broadway in Nashville? We’ll have to see. But the goal has to be to try and grow, yet to grow smarter, to grow better, and since it’s Austin, keep it creative, and weird.

Because even though those that love Live Austin and 6th Street would love to see a grand revitalization, they also don’t want to see it turn into the pop culture Disneyland that Lower Broadway in Nashville has become. Finding a way to have money, tourists, and fans of all live mediums of entertainment flow back to the 6th Street region and feel safe to do so is a dream many would love to see realized. But for it to be done right, it will take vision. That’s something Joe Rogan has brought to the Comedy Mothership. It’s what the rest of Austin needs to bring to bringing 6th Street back as the heartbeat of the Live Music ( and now Comedy) Capital of the World.

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