Country’s Last Stand

Depending on who you ask, the tale you’re told about the present presence and future pretense of country music will waffle between sinking ships and soaring rockets. Either it’s gotta get better or it’s gonna get worse, with no room for compromise. Forty years ago, you could adjust the radio dial and go from one extreme to the other, knowing exactly what they were. When you turn on the radio these days, for better or worse, it all blends together into a hodge-podge of jazz infused-country/pop, having singer/songwriter sincerity and classic-rock power chord progressions. I admit to holding a special place in my itunes playlist for such musical salad, but I also know where to go when I’m hungry for meat and potatoes. There are still places that not only adhere to their roots, but refuse to stray from the strands that continue to define America‘s musical pedigree. On a bustling city street in downtown Nashville, sandwiched between a barbecue joint and a string of other notable watering holes sits the self-proclaimed “Home of Traditional Country Music“, and the probable savior of an otherwise dying breed of  song, Robert’s Western World.

Robert’s has been around, in one form or another since the early 1990s, morphing from western wear shop to hillbilly watering hole to bona-fide honky-tonk in less than a decade. It’s musical lineage stretches back even further than the name emblazoned on its neon sign, beginning in 1964 with the opening of Sho-Bud Steel Guitars. Though Sho-Bud had been around since 1955, the departure of founding partner Buddy Emmons brought the business from its Madison, TN location down to the dirty sidewalks of Broadway. It was the perfect spot, sharing an alley with the Ryman Auditorium, and staring into the front windows of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, this is where both touring and local musicians did their business, both personal and professional. As it does, time passed, and the shop began to change. The manufacturing portion of Sho-Bud was moved back to Madison in 1968, while the retail store and custom/repair shop stayed downtown. More changes took place throughout the 70s, and by the end of the decade, both the manufacturing and selling of Sho-Bud products had moved out, leaving Shot Jackson‘s Guitar and Repair Center. 1983 saw the final nail driven into the coffin, and 416 Broadway became another one in a long string of liquor stores, peep shows, adult book stores, etc.

So, why did what was once the musical epicenter of country music, suddenly become the place no self-respecting citizen would dare journey into? It’s because the Grand Ol’ Opry moved to the suburbs, with most of its listeners. The new Opry complex, built in 1974, left the Ryman lying derelict and any traces of its melodies scattered to the four winds. That is, until 1992.

Robert Wayne Moore, one-time proprietor of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, turned what had become Lynn’s Liquor Store into Rhinestone Western Wear. Never straying too far from his bar-owner roots, he installed a jukebox, beer cooler and cigarettes behind the counter. Still, this was not enough, so out went the jukebox and in came a small stage and grill. As time passed, as we all now know that it does, the rhinestone wear gave way to liquor racks and dance floor space. Musicians filed in and out, taking their turns at the mic or writing songs at a free table. The most legendary of these, known as BR5-49 were pivotal in revamping the landscape of Lower Broad. Becoming the house band at Robert’s, they dove head first into the back catalogue of hillbilly twang, putting their own neo-traditional stamp on it. Going through enough Pabst Blue Ribbon and sliced baloney to afford a name change, Rhinestone Western Wear became Robert’s 3 Doors Down (from Tootsie’s). Over the next few years, they sold fewer boots and more beer, so Robert’s Western Wear Bar and Nightclub was christened, which finally became Robert’s Western World in 1999, upon the sale to its current proprietor, Jesse Lee Jones.

Any given night, you will walk into Robert’s, noticing three things. First, there still stands a wall of boots directly across from the bar. Though no longer for sale, I’m willing to bet that if the price were right, you could still walk out with your very own pair. Second, the abundance of memorabilia adorning every nook and cranny. Countless faces have passed through the door, known and unknown, friends and strangers, the lonely and the loner. Most importantly, and the reason that you will sit down and stay, is the music. You won’t hear a note of current Top-40. What you’ll hear are the sounds of an era, previously relegated to the audio section of your local public library. At Robert’s, tradition comes alive in vibrant color, right before your eyes and for the pleasure of your ears. Folk, blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, honky-tonk, gospel. Train songs, plain songs, belly rubbing shuffles and jitterbug tunes. In here, you can hear the cream of Nashville’s professional musicians scream through Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, Tom T. Hall and Bob Wills, with the grace and style most radio acts can’t fathom.

I’ve been everywhere, and I’ve spent my fair share of time bellied up to the bar, but this particular one has a special place in my heart. You see, I’m the one waiting when you walk in and ask for a drink. I’ve danced across its floors, taken its stage and popped thousands of PBR tops over the course of four years. It serves as second home, school-house and sometime chopping block for my ideas and ideals. It has taught me the relevance of tradition, in a society where fleeting trends are the base commerce.

Country music is not dead. It continues to live on in the highways and byways, with the people and places who have become laymen curators.You can still hear it on the radio, but much like a photocopy of a photocopy has dulled the edges of the original picture, modern country has smoothed out the once rough edges of a vibrant culture. Robert’s Western World has become the keeper of the keys, proving that “3 chords and the truth” is still enough.

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