NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CRAIG HAVIGHURST) At a gentle bend of Dickerson Pike in East Nashville, the downtown skyline seems close enough to touch. In the foreground is a weather beaten and peeling billboard that says: “Charlie Bob’s - Sports Bar and Rest. - Plate Lunches, Hot Wings”
The place itself is a mid-century American diner with a red and white color scheme and a drive-in shelter. The building’s wide windows give off a warm glow on a stormy Spring evening.
Jon Byrd, with his band Byrd’s Auto Parts, is on a stage in the corner. He plays a mix of his own songs and classic country music covers by the likes of Bobby Bare and Porter Wagoner.
“To me, it reminds me of a lot of places I’ve played where the sentimentality, the sort of working class roots of country music - that’s where you find it. And you find people who get it.”
For fans of traditional country music, Jon Byrd is a humble local icon, an artist who should be playing big honky tonks and performing arts centers - and sometimes he does. But he was looking for something steady and something grounding when he approached Charlie Bob’s.
“I’ve been on the East side since 2002, and it’s just a great breakfast place. And I knew they had music in the corner. But it was kind of sporadic. What I did though was I got sort of inspired by Tim Carroll who plays every Friday for the last four or five years at another venue - at the Five Spot. And I just thought you know for a songwriter or a performer that’s got to be a good exercise. And I hate to be sort of analytical about it, but I just thought I need that for myself. So I knew that they had this little performance corner. And I came in here and asked this young fella about booking. And I said I want to play every Tuesday. And he said well we have bands and I don’t know if we could do every Tuesday. And I said I want to play from six to eight. And he was like ‘oh nobody wants to play from six to eight! Everybody wants to play late.’ So that’s - I just came in and started doing it in April last year and here we are a year later.”
As with many things unpretentious and comforting and modest in Nashville, those Tuesdays have come to an end. This is the penultimate show for Jon Byrd. Charlie Bob’s is closing in a matter of days. Owner Michael Douglas explains.
“The restaurant started back in the early 50s by a gentleman named Charlie and Charlie had such good success that he built on twice that I know of. The large dining room was the original coffee house. In the 60s he built this dining room on that we’re sitting in right now and he built a canopy outside, and they actually did car hopping in the 60s. Well then in 72 Bob came in and bought it from Charlie and so that’s how we got the name Charlie Bob. And Bob is my dad. So Bob and Cynthia, my parents bought the restaurant in 72 and put me to work. Over 40 years.”
“We’re located a mile and a half from downtown on the northeast side on Dickerson Pike. In the last three years I’ve had quite a few developers come talk to me wanting to purchase this property. Because I’ve got four and a half acres here. And one day last July I was approached by some local developers and I liked what they did. And I’m like well, do I want to continue working or do I want to think about retirement? So after praying about it and talking with my wife, I think we set on a price and we’ll be closing on it this Friday.”
Jon Byrd had the bug to play music from the time he was in a South Alabama school marching band. He tried to step away from it - to do something more realistic he says - when he had his daughter in his early 20s. But the music wouldn’t let him go. He spent years in a popular local country band in Atlanta called Slim Chance and the Convicts. And then, Music City.
"I moved to Nashville to become a better writer, player, singer if possible. I came here to be a sideman not an artist really. I mean I’d written a couple of good songs I thought. And I’m like man if I can write two good songs I can write four. And if I can write four I can write eight. And if I can get around some real songwriters I might really learn - anyway I had buddies that would ask me so what’s Nashville like? And I’m like well, it’s like this. If you like being a big fish in a small pond, you might ought to stay where you are. Because you’re not going to be the top five - you might not be the top 25 guitar players in this town. And if your ego can handle that then hey Nashville could for you. But it’s a humbling, humbling town. Because you’re going to get your rear end handed to you by some 23-year-old. And you’re going to get your rear end handed to you by some 82-year-old. And you’re just like man I don’t have a chance! But again, that’s how you can get better. How do you get better playing chess? You don’t get better winnin’. You get better by somebody taking you to school.”
The Tuesday residency at Charlie Bob’s would be a good school for today’s Nashville newcomers. It’s a master class in songwriting, easy delivery, swing. I meet Jan Zijlstra, a Dutch-born naturalized American who’s been teaching math at MTSU for 25 years and coming to Jon Byrd’s shows at Charlie Bob’s regularly.
“This is the closest thing I've seen in the US to what we call in Amsterdam a Brown Cafe. It's almost like a cafe chantant like they have in Belgium where the people join in. They sing along if they feel like it, mostly to Merle Haggard songs. They'll dance when the band is out. And it's some of the best music I've heard in Nashville. it's classic country music and it doesn't get any better. I'm in awe of Jon Byrd.”
The nice thing about jon Byrd - one of the nice things - is that respect is mutual.
“It’s not a listening room. I have friends who love house concerts and they love listening room situations and they love the Bluebird (Cafe in Nashville). But they have a very difficult time coming to listen to me at Charlie Bob’s because I have the Loud Table. And that’s the table of regulars. And they’re here after a long day at work. And they are blowing off some kind of steam on Tuesday. And I’m in their space. I’ve seen Kevin Welch and Walt Wilkins handle an audience. A loud audience that won’t be quiet. And I love it and I respect it. But there’s no way. That’s not why I’m here. And so some of my house concert friends have a little difficult time coming to Charlie Bob’s because people aren’t listening so carefully. They’re enjoying. And let me tell you what. Some of my best tippers come from the loud table. And I love those people. And I get it. I’m visiting. I’m in their space. That’s the way I look at it.”
The real estate developers are thinking “location, location, location” as they eye these properties on obscure Dickerson Pike. For Jon Byrd though the address of Charlie Bob’s carries a bit of destiny
“My last record was called Route 41, which is the highway that runs from Atlanta to Nashville so I did songs for my friends in Nashville and songs for my friends in Atlanta. But this is Route 41. Dickerson Pike is Route 41. It is the highway that runs from Miami to Wisconsin and it goes from Atlanta right through Nashville and Murfreesboro. I found that poetic in my own sort of way. So I’m playing at this place going wow I made Route 41 and no I’m playing at this little bar right off the pike.”
“What a view,” says Michael Douglas. “A great view of downtown. Best view in the city. Got a lot of old stuff that needs to come down.”
Charlie Bob’s owner says he’s seen more change in the neighborhood in the past three years than the prior thirty. And he’s about to close up shop and get out of the way.
“It hasn't sunk in yet. We’ve had a lot of people that have been in here to play. I give them a little spot to perform and let them get their music out. Actually my dad had live music here and so it’s kind of been ongoing you could say.
I had a young man come in a couple of days ago. His name was Chuck Resha. And he is the grandson of Charlie Resha that man that had this place and sold it to my parents. So he was telling me about when he worked here as a little boy and all the fond memories he had of this place. He said it looks pretty much the same as it did back then. And I thank him for coming out, because I like to hear stories like that.
Country music doesn’t “scale.” That’s business speak for taking a product to a mass audience with declining costs. We have an industry that’s done country music at scale for decades now: chain radio, network television, stadium tours. And that’s produced some hits and built some careers for sure. But the consensus among long-standing lovers of traditional country is that the music paid a high cost indeed - in the intimacy, integrity and emotion that’s so palpable at a Charlie Bob’s.
Country music scale is human scale, sometimes down-scale. It may be most itself in places where there’s barely three feet between the bandstand and the patrons - where young and old, scholar and day laborer, can drink and dance and listen together. Or not listen together.
And yet the demise of this meat and three diner on old Highway 41 isn’t some American tragedy or the end of all that’s good and spiritual. We can cherish the past without believing - whether it’s the evolution of a city or an art form we’re talking about - that nostalgia should be an operational value. Not every quaint and quirky place can live forever.
In the months and years to come, Dickerson Pike will develop and likely offer up some new affordable housing options to artists and musicians who are being priced out nearby hot spots. And Jon Byrd is taking his Tuesday night residency over to the Radio Cafe on Gallatin Road, which is itself a resurrection of a beloved small music venue that closed up more than a decade ago. Rooms come and go. Human scale country music will abide.
All photos by the author. Follow Craig on Twitter: @chavighurst