As we’ve talked about before, it was punk rockers with a country edge and neo-traditional country artists that revitalized lower Broadway in the mid 1990’s from a run down part of town. One problem though was the bars on lower Broadway like Robert’s and The Bluegrass Inn did not pay their performers, and still don’t; they worked strictly on a tip-only basis. And work they did, sometimes having to play 4 or 5 hours, sometimes more to meet their obligations.
And to make it worse for the performers, as lower Broadway became a hoping place in the mid 90’s drawing talent from all around the country, competition for choice time slots at the best bars became fierce, and if you didn’t keep the patrons entertained, there was no money in the tip jar. With so much talent and so few bars and dollars to go around, competition became hyper. In this environment, talent and originality were pushed to their limits and it created some of the most dynamic frontmen in any genre of music at any time.
The mold for the lower Broadway frontman, as well as the high energy punk approach to country, was set by Jason Rigenberg of the revolutionary cowpunk band Jason and The Scorchers. The band was based in Nashville and would mainly make their name playing at Nashville’s Exit In, but they haunted lower Broadway as well, which in the early 80’s was hanging on by a hair. Below is a video for their semi-hit, Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” in which landmarks of lower Broadway make appearances, including Hatch Show Print (legendary poster print shop) in the opening scene, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and then the band is seen walking into the alley behind Tootsies to the mother church, The Ryman Auditorium where the final concert is shot, almost a decade after The Grand Ole Opry abandoned the building.
Here’s a more contemporary video that illustrates Jason & The Scorcher’s ridiculous energy and the unbelievable antics that would set the standard for lower Broadway bands wanting to make the scene:
A great example of one of lower Broadway’s abominable frontmen is Nic Roulette of the wild rockabilly outfit Hillbilly Casino. Bred and brought up in the pressure cooker environment of lower Broadway, Nic brings the showmanship like few others, and is backed by a great band. Here they are playing at lower Broadway’s legendary Bluegrass Inn:
But you can’t mention dynamic frontmen without getting to the man both Robert Plant and Jello Biafra feel is the best frontman of our time; that being the Colonel, Mr. JD Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Below is about a 4 1/2 minute clip of JD Wilkes and I talking about his role in the lower Broadway scene, and the rigors the bands there endured:
JD takes the frontman role to another level, where you could watch with the sound off, and still be mesmerized.
Here he is playing with Joe Buck, the focus of Part 1 of the lower Broadway revitalization, in the place that served as home away from home for the stars of lower Broadway, The Continental Club on south Congress in Austin, TX circa 2003:
The heart and energy of the abominable frontmen is what helped jumpstart the heart of lower Broadway once again. Their passion made downtown Nashville a home for music once again.