Photos by Stacie Huckeba.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Havighurst) -- Every professional musician was at one time an amateur, and in roots music, amateur musicians and the fans supporting the pros are often one and the same. Here's a story of a bluegrass and classic country music scene that has no interest in record deals, music publishing, roadies or anything beyond the camaraderie of a good jam session and a circle of song.
It's Tuesday night about 7 pm and the music has been flowing steadily for well over an hour when Gene Duggan takes his turn at the microphone. He tackles the high, lonesome and extremely difficult "Body and Soul" by father of bluegrass Bill Monroe.
We're at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in Madison TN, about ten miles north of downtown Nashville. Cars are parked along the driveways of a former bus repair business. Inside what used to be a transmission shop, an audience of 30 to 40 people is seated in church pews, with ten or twelve more up in front in a picking circle. These mostly older men playing guitars, banjos and mandolins seem to be the constant. The singers, one after the other coming up with lyric sheets or songs on iPads, are the variable.
"It goes around the room. If you want to sing, you sing."
A little later that evening, Duggan describes the organizing principle and spirit of Larry's Grand Ole Garage.
"Either Lonnie, Rita or myself will go around and ask people if it’s their first time here, if indeed they would want to run up and sing. And if there's any inclination of their wanting to I insist that they do because I know if they go home without singing, tomorrow they’re going to feel badly. And it will be that much harder the next time for them to do it. So I really encourage if they have any inclination of going up and singing at all that we get them up there to do at least one number. And then next time they cane come and build on that success."
Lonnie and Rita - the Joneses - are the lynchpins of this operation. This is their property and their event. Lonnie Jones says it's been going on pretty much like this for 18 years.
"Every Tuesday night we have a jam session. And we set in a circle up here and we let anybody that wants to play or can play no matter how good or how bad. They're here to be treated equally. They’re here to be welcomed, to play if they want to. If they're good they're good. If they're bad they're bad. If they're in between. It makes no difference. And the people who come here to listen, the audience, understands that."
“I get to give entertainment to people that wouldn’t normally get it. People are in their playing in that circle that have never played nowhere in their lives. Most people shun people away if they’re not good enough. They shun them away. Well I’m just the opposite. If you've got the guts I've got the place."
"All these guys and gals they come every Tuesday night. And Lonnie and Rita we just love them for having this. This is our place to hang out."
This is Betty, one of the Grand Ole Garage regulars.
"My name is Betty McKinney and I’ve been coming to Larry’s Grand Ole Garage probably about ten or eleven years. And I love it. We just have a big time all the time. Bluegrass. Country. Southern bluegrass gospel. Been knowing Lonnie a long, long time, before Rita ever came to Nashville. He’s just always been in music ever since I’ve known him. And then Rita came along and they fell in love and got married. They’re just meant for each other. She love music as you can see. Loves to dance. Music is just their passion. And they love people. You know they do this for nothing – absolutely nothing. Nobody gets paid. Everybody comes and volunteers. And the Double Bubble bucket that gets passed around, that’s to help pay the light bills and all the bills that come in that it takes to run this place. They’re just good people. Just fine people. We just love 'em to death for having this so we have a place to come.”
Lonnie circulates around the room, signing up singers and visiting with everyone. Or he tends to the sound board, which is one of the things that makes Larry's different from most jams. The pickers are all individually miced and mixed through a PA, making the performances more audible and formal.
Sometimes Lonnie takes out his fiddle and plays along from his work station in the middle of the long room. Rita spent most of this evening playing the upright bass behind the singers. There's a snack bar in one corner, where coffee is brewing. There’s no beer and certainly no smoking in here.
"It's designed mostly for the seniors. And the reason for that is all of our barroom days and our drinking and running around are over and we need entertainment and most of the older generation such as myself love bluegrass music. And so that’s how come I came to create Larry’s Grand Ole Garage. And I'm sure you're going to ask how come it’s Larry's Grand Ole Garage instead of Lonnie's."
The answer to that question can be found in a framed photo hanging by the front door. It appears to be from the early 1980s and features a stout fellow in a cowboy hat. He was Larry Plemons, Lonnie's best friend who died in 1999. Larry was a bus driver and owner who helped country stars such as Ronnie Milsap and Waylon Jennings tour the nation. Lonnie says he was also an excellent singer who'd sometimes open for and even upstage the headliners with whom he traveled. Larry used to dream about turning his garage into a music venue, so Lonnie purchased the property after Larry died and set about realizing that idea.
"I only wish I had a picture to show you what it looked like when I bought it. It was a greasy floor. There were holes in the floor where his creepers had creeped back and forth across the concrete where transmissions fell on the concrete and knocked holes in it. Looked nothing like what you see now.”
There's a shrine on the back walls dedicated to fans and participants of the Tuesday jams who've passed away. A case holds photos and memorabilia from Lonnie's own forays into country and bluegrass music. But the most conspicuous feature of the room are elaborate murals on the walls - nature scenes on two sides and a detailed image of the Ryman Auditorium on another. And while all this is tucked away in a corner of Madison TN north of Nashville, Lonnie has set it up so that that the world can tune in to this club house every Tuesday night.
"I am one of those guys who’s always out to have something before somebody else does. So I got win of this streaming thing back about, oh, at least 12 years for sure. Well I said I’m going find out if they can stream something out of New York or somewhere on the internet then I can do the same thing. So I go out and buy equipment and I go to hooking stuff up. Well I get everything hooked up. I had five cameras when I first got started. I got them all working. I got switch boxes that would switch from one camera to the other – all by myself.”
At some point, for simplicity's sake, Lonnie pared back to one camera taking in the main performance from the center of the room. He streams via Concert Window, a site that lets his on-line community chat virtually during the shows and even donate if they choose.
"I just felt like that would make us more famous here, which it has. There’s lots of people who know about Larry’s Grand Ole Garage through streaming. We have two and three hundred people a night watching us. They got it where now I’m understanding they plug their computers into their television and are actually watching it like it was live off of television.”
And the Tuesday jams are only part of the Grand Ole Garage scene. Lonnie presents a formal band concert on the first Saturday of most months. The third Saturday of the month is a jam dedicated to bluegrass gospel. And next week, on June 3, Lonnie's long-running Madison bluegrass festival is moving up to a camp ground in Franklin, Kentucky.
It's a shame old Larry Plemons can't see what's going on in his bus garage today.