The Rise and Fall of ‘The George Jones’ Museum & Restaurant

It seemed like an ambitious plan to say the least. First came the late September 2014 announcement of the 4.35 million-dollar purchase of two adjacent properties at 128 and 130 Second Ave. N. in Nashville by the widow of George Jones parallel to the Cumberland River, and right near the Lower Broadway entertainment district. Then on January 13th of the next year, George’s widow Nancy Jones unveiled all they had in store for the multi-level, 44,000 sq. ft. property.

Eventually coined simply “The George Jones,” the location would be the ultimate shrine to The Possum. Along with housing a George Jones museum and multiple pieces of memorabilia, there would also be an event space, a music venue, a restaurant, a rooftop deck and bar, and a gift shop, all to commemorate the legacy of the country music legend. Also unveiled as part of the presentation was the plan to have the name and likeness of George Jones used on his own line of flavored moonshine and vodka, branded after his first #1 hit from 1959 written by The Big Bopper, “White Lightning.”

Along with the ambitious scope for the new property, what also was remarkable was how quickly they expected to have it open. They gave themselves only 3 1/2 months—until April 26th, 2015, which was the two year anniversary of George’s death—to get the entirety of the complex built, finished, artifacts moved in, the restaurant and gift shop stocked, and employees trained. Nancy Jones said they would be working “around the clock” to make it happen.

And remarkably, they did. “For Nancy to open the newly renovated George Jones Museum, Tennessee laws had to be rewritten,” said the law firm of Bone, McAllester, and Norton, who helped usher legislation through the state government to allow all facets of the multi-use space to be allowed, including a rooftop bar and package liquor operation for the George Jones-branded alcohol to be sold on the premises.

When The George Jones opened in late spring of 2015, it really was a sight to behold. Though the museum may not have been as expansive as some, it was still cool to see that the legacy of George Jones would be enshrined in Music City right beside so many other locations dedicated to country music legends. The food was surprisingly good, and so was the talent they hired to play the space. The venue became a regular place to play for traditional country artists such as James Carothers and Tim Culpepper.

For the first year, it felt like everything was running smooth, and the George Jones Restaurant and Museum would be a Nashville institution for many years to come. Unlike other Lower Broadway bars and restaurants, it wasn’t especially overcrowded, and the views of the Cumberland River made it one of the best spots in the region to grab a drink or a meal.

But financial irregularities behind-the-scenes soon began eroding at the integrity of the business and property. In the fall of 2016, it was revealed that the manager of The George Jones and a business partner of Nancy Jones, Kirk West (also known as Kirk Leipzig), had plead guilty to Federal fraud charges. West had lied about his income, and forged documents and pay stubs to dramatically inflate his net worth on tax documents to secure loans on properties around the Nashville area. Federal charges were filed in July 2016 against West, and he plead guilty to the charges on September 19th. Along with the two years in prison, West agreed to pay $935,045 in restitution to Reliant Bank.

Soon, some folks started to complain about poor service at the bar and restaurant. Though not being inundated with drunk tourists was one of the reasons to seek the property out, being slightly off the main drag ultimately made it difficult to draw in patrons. The downfall of Kirk West put the property on unsure footing both from a leadership perspective, and financially.

Then a couple of months later, on November 23rd, it was announced that the George Jones Museum had been sold by Nancy Jones to a Nashville-based investment group called Possum Holdings LLC. Along with the George Jones Museum and all of its facilities, the ownership group also negotiated a Master License to the George Jones name, image, and likeness. The George Jones estate no longer owned the George Jones Museum and Restaurant, nor his name or image.

“I poured my heart and soul into building a premier destination for George’s fans in a way that he would have loved,” said Nancy Jones at the time.

The principal of the new Possum Holdings LLC ownership was a man named Paul Jankowski, who was a former executive at MCA Records, Gibson Guitars, and other music-based entities, and was currently the Chief Strategist at New Heartland Group which works on matching brands with celebrities. Some of the company’s high-profile deals included matching up Taylor Swift with Pepsi, and Blake Shelton with Pizza Hut.

After the sale, some felt like the family atmosphere of the place began to disappear. Then the pandemic hit with mandatory shut downs, which put the business in peril. And then to add injury to insult, the George Jones Museum and all of its neighboring properties were swept up in the 2020 Christmas bombing of 2nd street in Nashville, which happened on the block down from The George Jones

“Christmas morning brought news that the unimaginable had happened,” the venue said in a statement. “Thank you all for reaching out with words of encouragement and support for all of the businesses facing another mountain to climb as the result of the explosion in 2nd Ave. We are ok. We got off much better than many others.

Though only minimal damage was sustained by The George Jones, it left a pall over the entire 2nd. Street corridor that remained even when lockdowns finally eased, and tourists began trickling back into the area. More recently as life returned fully back to normal on Lower Broadway, both the supply and labor shortages continued to weigh heavily on the property.

On Monday, December 13th, after 6 1/2 years of trying to sustain the business through a litany of adversities, The George Jones announced it was permanently shutting down.

“It has been a difficult 2 years for so many—our company has been no different,” said the property in a statement. “From the pandemic (and the starts and stops there) all the way through to the 2nd Ave bombing one year ago—we have fought for what is right for our loyal staff and local partners. As many business owners know, between the workforce shortages and difficulty with consistency of products, it is a challenge day to day (to say the least) to make a business viable. For these reasons, it is with a heavy heart that we announce we are closing The George Jones Entertainment Venue after a beautiful run.”

Current ownership promises that the museum and all of its contents are being handled with care, and will hopefully find a new home soon. But it will not be the one first envisioned by Nancy Jones as the premier destination for all George Jones fans, and a shrine to “No Show” in Nashville.

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It really is a shame that with all the commerce and activity that transpires in the Lower Broadway area, one of the few bright spots and businesses that paid tribute to a country legend was one that couldn’t survive. Seemingly snake bit from the start, and saddled by bad financial decisions behind-the-scenes, now all George Jones fans can hope is that the artifacts and memories re-emerge somewhere else so like the music of George Jones, they can sustain well into the future.

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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