Gigging in Nashville
Honky Tonk: a usually tawdry nightclub or dance hall; especially one that features country music. Webster Dictionary
Lower Broadway has what is probably the biggest concentration of nightclubs featuring live music in the city. It is a truly unique place and deserves its own category. First and foremost, Broadway is a 3 block stretch of maybe 20 or so clubs lining both sides of the street that provides a year round destination for tourists, many whom travel from around the globe to visit some of the more famous spots on the strip such as Tootsies, Roberts or the world famous Ryman right around the corner. Most of the clubs on Broadway have an old western honky tonk feel to them and feature live music 7 nights a week. If you take a drive down Broadway with your windows open, you will hear the sound of a dozen bands booming out the open doors of clubs in tight proximity, creating a hellish cacophony of drums, guitars and twang infested vocals that can be heard nowhere else.
The music (and occasional slaughtering of music) can seem almost non-stop. This fact helps make it the most obvious place for someone new to town without any contacts to start meeting some players and singers and attempt to insert themselves into the scene. When I first moved to town I hit these spots nightly to break myself in. There are 2 shifts that bands and singers can play 7 nights a week year round; 6:00 to 10:00 and 10:00 to 2:00. During the meat of the tourist season, which is April thru November, many clubs add on an afternoon shift from 2:00 to 6:00 that gives a few more slots to bands and solo performers. Tootsies and a few others actually have an 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM slot for acoustic solo acts.
The Pay for most of these clubs is $20 to $50 base pay per player plus tips with a few places offering slightly more. If your front man knows how to work the crowd you might make upwards of $100 per man, if he doesn’t, you might make only $25. $60 is considered a pretty good average. Relying on the tip jar for pay is one reason why there are minimal breaks. If you take a break you might lose your crowd as there are so many clubs in walking distance. It is also important to note that there is often a cap on base pay at the clubs in Nashville, for instance $20 per player up to 5 players. You can still have a 7 piece band but you will only get $100 total base pay to split among the 7 players.
It is also common for players to do “doubles” or even the occasional “triple.” Just like it sounds, a double is usually 2 shifts back to back and might equate to 8 hours of nonstop playing other than the 20 minutes in the middle that it took you to move your gear to the next club.
The Music played by these singers and musicians are a mixture of old Country standards for the most part (see Nashville 100 song list) and some newer top 40 country/ pop/ rock. The biggest hits by the biggest Country artists of all time; Merle Haggard, George Jones, George Strait, Hank, Waylon, etc., plus some lounge standards like Mustang Sally, Honky Tonk Women and Pride and Joy are regularly beaten to death. The audience is here to drink and sing along with familiar classics so this typically keeps the song lists to well known and well worn tunes, with some exceptions of course.
The Players that work on Broadway work at an often grueling pace, and these gigs serve different purposes for many of them. If you start talking to players on breaks (if they have one) or between shifts, you will find some are Broadway regulars trying to hustle a living, some are road guys playing for fun, some are networking and honing their chops, some are newbies to town trying to make contacts, while others have been squeaking out a living by playing solely on Broadway for years and even sometimes decades. Just start talking to people and most will be happy to tell you their story. On any given night, you might be hearing an unknown singer backed by players that work for artists like Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, Dwight Yoakam as well as many other major acts. Of course this won’t be obvious if you don’t already know who these players are.
Hangin' out and sittin' in is the tried and true approach to obtaining work on the strip. As I noted earlier, what appears to be a band is quite often a group of freelance players that were called at the last minute, and this fly by night approach can equate to opportunities for many. If you want to be able to work regularly on the strip you will need to know the standards, or the Nashville 100 as I call it. Knowing these tunes will also give you some common ground when it comes to sitting in.
Pick a club with a band playing and just hang out for a bit. If and when they take a break, try to engage in conversation. If you’re a drummer, chat with the drummer, if you’re a guitarist chat with the guitarist etc. Try to talk to as many folks in the band as you can, without wearing them out. Be friendly, complimentary and be sure to tell them that you’re a player and looking for work. Don’t necessarily ask to sit-in on your first encounter, but don’t be afraid to ask if you feel you are prepared and getting a warm reception. Find out if this band or singer has a regular shift and when they are playing again. If you can slowly build some friendships with a handful of singers and players this way, they will eventually ask you to sit-in. Sitting in around town on a regular basis will increase your contacts, increase your visibility, and quite often lead to gigs. This basic approach can also apply to getting work at clubs outside of Broadway.
FYI You don’t need to bring your own ax to sit in as most players will let you play on their gear. Except for some writers nights and blues jams, it is actually inappropriate to use anything other than the house bands gear as it not necessary and only slows things down.
A few other things to know about working on Broadway
Parking can be a nuisance especially during tourist season. Quite often you will need to double park to load in your gear, and then if you want to save the $10 parking garage charge, spend anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes driving around to find a free spot. There is no cover charge at most clubs on Broadway, and the clubs on “The Stage” side of the street are non-smoking while the clubs on the other side are smoking. The bands play long and loud thru less than great pa systems quite often spanning 3 ½ to 4 hours with a minimal break (sometimes pee breaks for players are provided by the singer playing a couple of songs solo). Most of the clubs in Nashville that have live music also have house pa systems, some of which even sound good. It is also noteworthy to mention that many of the bands play songs considerably faster than the record, sometimes called “Broadway Tempos.” And if you plan on gigging regularly on Broadway, know the Nashville Numbers System, it is absolutely essential!
Nashville is oversaturated with people trying to get ahead in the biz. There are simply more players and singers than there is work for them. This high level of competitiveness makes for some shark infested waters. While there are a lot of genuinely nice people that will go out of their way to help you, there are others that are less than helpful or sincere who might show you some interest but have ulterior motives in mind. There is also an element of territoriality, as many musicians are trying to protect their gig. Of course this is true everywhere, just be forewarned.
There is life outside of Broadway. There are many other paying gigs in Nashville outside of Broadway that are less obvious to find. Right up the hill you can find the somewhat hidden historic Printers Alley right off of Church Street. Printers Alley has been home to many a club since the 1940s and has a great old town feel to it with elegant Victorian style architecture and a cobblestone street. In the early sixties an unknown guitar player worked nightly at clubs in the alley years before the world knew him as Jimi Hendrix.
Many clubs have come and gone in “the alley” but since 1996 The Fiddle and Steel Guitar Bar has been a staple, and at times a great hang for many of Nashville’s road musicians when they are not on tour. Often called the “Cheers” of Nashville, the club has a great vibe to it, a decent stage with a house drum kit and a good pa with a house engineer. Over the years, the Steel has been known to be “sit-in friendly” frequently allowing guest performers to show their stuff. Before Rascal Flatts was a household name they were one of the house bands at the Steel for quite some time.
If you go down Demonbreun to the roundabout there is a strip of several pub style bars that have live music nightly. Places like the Tin Roof and 3 Doors down have been popular college hangs for several years and feature bands nightly that play everything from country to Motown, to classic rock and original music. Most of these clubs do base pay plus tips.
If you take James Robertson parkway across the river to East Nashville you will find another cluster of trendy college and indie bars. These clubs have bands and performers that play everything from originals to covers and even the occasional poetry reading. This area is somewhat unknown to tourists and is home to some cool hangouts like the 5 spot, the Foobar and the Family Wash, among many others. With a few exceptions, these clubs are mostly tips only, or play for the door scenarios.
At the time of this writing, these are the biggest clusters of nightclubs that feature live music in the city. There are many more worthy of mention that are scattered throughout the city and its outskirts each with its own unique vibe and type of clientele. Here is a little more on some of these stand alone music emporiums.
The Exit Inn is a great concert club with a great stage and top notch production and is a stop for many national acts coming thru Nashville. Third and Lindsley is another stop for nationals, regionals and local acts and is a popular place for industry showcases as is 12th and Porter and The Rutledge. The Mercy Lounge (birthplace of the music mafia) is housed in an old mill building off of Eighth Avenue, and Douglas Corner is a great listening room with a diverse array of bands and performers a little further down 8th avenue. There is the world famous Bluebird Café, king of the singer songwriter night. The Basement (right below Grimeys) is a great club for the indie scene and the Tap Room and Café Coco are good places to play for the jam band types. A few others worthy of mention would be the Listening Room, Spring Water, The End, Cadillac Ranch, The Rock Bar, BB Kings, and Sambuca.
The pay rate for these venues runs the gamut from pay to play to upwards of $100 per night per player and everything in between. Most clubs in the city are tips only or a $20 to $50 base pay plus tips. Be aware that there are a few pay to play clubs here as well as some clubs require performers to pay a “production fee” for use of their pa and sound engineer. The audiences range from tourists to locals, college kids to music row execs, but the biggest draw in general(excluding the tourist laden Broadway) is musicians, singers, writers, and music industry wannabes. This is good for those who are out networking but bad for the players that are playing for tips, as most musicians in this town are broke.
This information about the Nashville clubs is based on my personal experiences of gigging and exploring Music City over the past decade. I am sure I have left out some useful venues; however I wanted to write about the venues in which I have firsthand knowledge. There are far too many to address each one individually, but if you perform an internet search on Nashville nightclubs you will find plenty more to check out.