Live at the Idle Hour

A chronicle of The Idle Hour, the world famous watering hole at 1010 16th Ave.So., Nashville, Tn. Recently re-established at 1028 16th Ave.So.

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Location: Nashville, Tennessee, United States

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Imagine you went on the Keith Whitley ride, Posted by Hello

And ended up playing bluegrass at the Idle Hour. Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Friday night was packed at the Idle Hour. Posted by Hello

Emory was back in town from NYC. Posted by Hello

The gang rode in from PA. Posted by Hello

And the band played on. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Billy Arr and Wanda Kay celebrate their first anniversary with T Ford. Posted by Hello

Sandy Moss with her parents Bill and Pansy from Sunnyvale, Ca. Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 20, 2004

T Ford wants a ride. Posted by Hello

Billy Arr, Wanda Kay, and Zak. Posted by Hello

Zak and Teeter find a friend. Posted by Hello

Eli makes his annual visit. That's not his sister. Posted by Hello

Friday, June 18, 2004

An Evening At The Idle Hour

A Haven for Nashville Songwriters

An Evening at the Idle Hour Tavern

By Mike VanBuren

It’s late evening on Nashville’s Music Row and an old six-string Washburn guitar is being passed along the bar at Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern.

"Play something before I kill you," the bartender says, taking a long, serious draw on a cigarette and releasing the smoke slowly into the air.

"I’ll pass," says a middle-aged man perched on a barstool, leaning forward with his elbows on the counter.

"The hell you will," challenges another patron sitting three stools away. "You can’t pass."

"Well, I’m passing," the man says. He holds up a calloused hand to signal his choice and takes another deep swallow from a long-necked beer bottle.

"There ain’t no passing," the bearded bartender confirms matter-of-factly. "Grab the guitar and play a song, or get the #&*! out."

The Idle Hour erupts with laughter. The reluctant performer smiles sheepishly, lays the guitar across his lap and begins to play.

"He sings a good song," the bartender says with a satisfied smile, taking another intimate drag on his cigarette. "I’ve heard him."

The bartender is right, of course, and the raucous atmosphere quickly shifts to a near-reverential silence. All ears are tuned to the man delicately picking the steel strings of the Washburn. But there’s more here than the mellow serenade of a fine-sounding guitar. The man is singing one of the most tender love songs you’ll ever hear – an intelligently written masterpiece that he composed himself.

At first glance, the Idle Hour seems an unlikely venue to hear such well-crafted love songs. It’s a dark and dingy shack-of-a-place that looks like it would attract many more roughnecks and brawlers than writers and poets. But looks can be deceiving. Perched on the ridge of a small hill along the east side of 16th Avenue, the bar is a popular watering hole for struggling songwriters – and a few roughnecks, as well. Funny one-liners, occasional four-letter words and a wide range of sensitive song lyrics flow as smoothly as beer from the shiny tap.

"This is all that’s left of the real Nashville," one man says in an unsolicited commentary on the current state of the country music industry.

I’ve come here with a friend and occasional co-worker – Nashville-based videographer Jack Lawrence. We’re killing time and waiting for a call-back from Charlie Dick – widower of the legendary singer Patsy Cline – who has some great Patsy memorabilia at home that Jack wants me to see. Neither of us has been to the Idle Hour before and we’re surprised at what we’ve discovered. It’s not your typical tourist destination – even though the sign out front explicitly welcomes country music fans. Most people would probably consider this ratty joint to be a dangerous little dive – at least from the outside looking in. I thought so, too, when we first walked through the door, and I seriously wondered whether we’d get out with all our teeth.

The small windows are covered with smoky grime and "Dr. Longfinger" – a battery powered novelty toy – is unceremoniously flipping the bird to unwary customers who approach the bar. The walls are covered with tattered yellow photographs of mostly unknown country music wannabes and green-topped pool tables sit ready and waiting in the elevated back room. But most of the activity centers around the bar, where there are free peanuts, a tip jar for the bartender and a "No Whining" sign prominently displayed to head off ill-advised complaints. For those who dare sample the limited menu, Rolaids are offered for 50 cents and Alka Seltzer for a dollar.

"This is a neat place," says Jonathan Long, one of several talented songwriters here on this particular evening. "You can hear some of the best music in the world here – and some of the worst."

Long takes his turn at the guitar and serves up some of the finest ballads I’ve heard in a while – mostly from a CD he put together titled Back Porch Point of View. One of the songs, a catchy tune known simply as "Nuthin’," talks about the tough times encountered by many who are trying to break into the Nashville songwriters’ market. "I started out with nuthin’," the song goes, "and I’ve still got most of it left."

Heads turn in unison when a tall blonde woman steps into the male-dominated enclave. Her broad-shouldered boyfriend – or maybe it’s her bodyguard – is with her, but that doesn’t stop a toothless old man sitting at the end of the bar from asking her to dance.

"You brought a beautiful woman in here with you," the man mumbles almost incoherently as he stumbles across the room toward the young woman. The woman smiles and, to everyone’s surprise, accepts the man’s invitation.

"Play a slow, pretty one," somebody says, and the old man wraps his arms tightly around the woman – probably more to hold himself upright than anything else. When the song is over, the old man thanks the woman politely – then wraps her in a giant bear hug that lifts her feet three inches off the deck.

"I can’t dance," the old man admits to anyone who hasn’t noticed, "but she helped me."

The woman’s boyfriend is engaged in an animated conversation with someone at the bar and ignores the entire scene. The woman winks at her aging dance partner, then turns to flirt with someone else while the old man stumbles back toward his seat. The journey is not without mishap, however. He bumps into a barstool, staggers awkwardly into Jack and falls hard on the dirty floor – scattering barstools in all directions.

A stocky, pot-bellied man in his late 30s – who looks like Hollywood actor Robert Blake with his tattooed arms, sleeveless shirt and a University of Tennessee baseball cap turned backward on his head – bends over to help the old man to his feet.

"I saw somebody put that chair in front of you," he says sympathetically.

The disoriented old man seems genuinely embarrassed by the commotion he has caused. "I’m sorry," he says with an alcoholic slur. "I think I may be a drunk."

"That’s OK," says the tattooed rescuer, who claims to have done time in prison for some violent offense. "That don’t mean you’re bad people."

Safely back on his stool, the old man takes another gulp of beer and starts singing loudly to his young dance partner, "I’ll get a line, you get a pole, honey." The young woman smiles at the off-key rendition of a country music classic and wanders into the tiny men’s rest room, letting the door swing shut behind her.

"We HAVE a ladies room," the bartender says with mock indignity, pushing a smoldering cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray.

The Washburn guitar is now in the hands of another songwriting patron, who strums the strings loudly and sings, "I believe in the two-party system – party all day and party all night."

"I’m starting to feel drunk," somebody says. "Give me another beer."

The guitar continues to pass up and down the line until it ends up in the hands of the bartender, who cradles the instrument and offers his own musical poetry. "It’s nearly impossible to underestimate the insignificance of almost everything," he sings with deadpan delivery. And the lyrics to a second original song, "the bigger the buckle, the smaller the ranch," bring cheers from listeners who are clearly disgusted by the disingenuousness of some modern country music stars.

"This is the redneck version of Cheers," says Rob Wolf, referring to an old television comedy set in a Boston pub. Wolf, a big, friendly man who has just finished sharing one of his songs and is now sitting at our table, is a computer programmer by day and songwriter by night. He says the late Sgt. Barry Sadler, who gained fame during the 1960s as singer of "The Ballad of the Green Berets," once recorded one of his songs. But he’s still trying to get the attention of thick-headed Nashville music publishers. I think the song he just shared may cause them to notice. It’s a hauntingly beautiful story of lost love that contains the lyrics, "Her whole world’s in Wyoming; mine’s on a bus to Cheyenne."

Heads turn once again as the Idle Hour’s front door swings open and a man with a scraggly beard and wire-framed glasses steps inside. He is carrying a battered guitar case and is followed closely by a woman wearing a nylon jacket with these words embroidered across the back: Buster B. Jones World Tour.

Jack and I look at each other and shrug.

"Hey Buster," several people call out. "Where the hell you been? Haven’t seen you around in a long time."

"I moved to Oregon," Buster says. "I had to get out of Nashville."

"I’d like to shake your hand," says the old man, wobbling precariously on the barstool, "but it would take me a while to get over there."

Buster plops the guitar case down on a table next to ours and pulls out a fine-looking instrument that resembles the Martin D-28 I have at home.

"I brought my guitar along," he announces to the obvious delight of the Idle Hour crowd. Then he turns to Jack and me.

"I figured I could find someone to pick with here," he says. "If you can’t pick your guitar in a bar in Nashville, where can you pick it?"

Turns out, the guitar is a steel-stringed Simon and Patrick model made by the Godin Company in Canada.

"I’m a gut-string player, usually," Buster says. "But I brought this one along tonight."

He lets us inspect the instrument while he praises its quality. "It’s a Martin, without the ego," he says. "I only paid $950 for it. Actually, I think it’s better than a Martin."

The guitar has an electronic tuner built into the body – an innovation that Buster says he created himself out of a musician’s frustration.

"I was backstage one night trying to use a clip-on tuner," he says. "It was noisy and I couldn’t get it in tune. I got mad and busted a hole in the guitar with my boot and installed the tuner inside with glue and duct tape."

Since then, he has had the tuner built permanently into his guitar, he says.

A man that I guess to be in his mid-50s – with a soulful voice that sounds a lot like Joe Cocker – has the house guitar now and is singing a bluesy sounding song at the bar. Buster sits down in a chair next to our table and begins to play along. We’re immediately spellbound by his prowess on the instrument – a combination of styles reminiscent of Merle Travis, Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins – and I find myself wondering who this guy is. He’s obviously a seasoned pro and I’ve never heard of him before.

Later I learn that Buster – whose first name is actually Brad – is well-respected in guitar circles. Among other things, he’s the 1990 winner of the National Fingerpicking Championship in Winfield, Kansas, and has more than ten instructional videos to his credit. Fans in France have dubbed him "Machine Gun Jones" and Chet Atkins once said that Buster "plays like he’s double-parked." Guitar Player magazine labeled him "one of the finest players we’ve heard in years."

But tonight he’s just plain Buster to his friends at the Idle Hour. And Jack and I are among those friends. Buster plays along with all the songwriters, offers a few original tunes of his own, and introduces all of us to his new bride – the woman wearing Buster’s embroidered tour jacket.

"(Jerry) Reed used to say, ‘If it has more than five chords, it’s jazz,’" Buster says, and proceeds to jazz up the songs being shared by the Idle Hour regulars.

"You look like creative people – with your beards and all," the bartender says to Jack and me. "I know you’ve got songs in there. I can see it in your eyes. Play some of them for us."

Jack and I insist that we’re just there to listen and resist the pressure to perform.

"You’re not holding out on us, are you?" the bartender asks suspiciously.

But nobody forces the issue. After all, we’re guests at the Idle Hour and apparently one of the more appreciative audiences they’ve had in a while.

"There are people who don’t get it," Jonathan Long says as he tosses one of his CDs onto our table. "But you guys do." I follow him back to the bar to pay him for the gift, but he waves me away.

"That’s not why I gave it to you," he says. "I can tell you guys like words." Still, I insist on paying and he finally accepts ten bucks for his songs.

I tell Jack that the Idle Hour is quickly becoming one of my favorite haunts in Nashville and he seems to agree – even though acoustic country isn’t his first choice in music. That doesn’t matter. It’s clear why the tavern attracts musicians and listeners of all stripes. It’s warm, friendly and completely without pretense – a good place to be on a chilly November evening.

"It’s cold here in the winter," proclaims the self-described ex-convict sitting at the bar. "I’m glad I had a car last winter. I hope I have one this winter." Several other patrons nod in silent agreement.

Our tiny table has now become the gathering place for songwriters anxious to talk about and share their compositions. It’s like a private mini-concert, filled with great music and intelligent lyrics that seem better than most heard on country music radio these days. Soon we’re loaded up with cassette tapes and CDs from composers looking for someone – anyone – who will take the time to listen to their creations.

"I can’t believe you haven’t had some of these songs published," I say to more than one songwriter.

But they know things about the music industry that I don’t know. It’s brutal, fickle, and well-controlled by big-money interests. Music houses have salaried staff writers. And publishers prefer to own all rights to the music they publish. It’s much more lucrative for publishing companies if they don’t have to share royalties with renegade songwriters who aren’t beholding to corporate interests.

At least that’s the view from the Idle Hour Tavern.

So what keeps these itinerant artists writing and sharing their intensely personal thoughts and words? It comes down to love – for music and lyrics. Each has his or her own burning passion for a good story and a trunk load of personal experiences just begging to be immortalized in song.

Most have lofty dreams and career aspirations, as well, but there’s something even more important than that. It’s the song itself – a simple collection of phrases and rhymes with the penetrating power to touch hearts and souls. A chart hit would be great. Nobody denies that. But maybe such success isn’t nearly as great as having a small circle of loyal friends with whom to share their working-class poetry – the kind of friends that gather regularly at the Idle Hour.

Jonathan Long aptly sums up the songwriter’s challenge in a clever composition called simply "Stuff."

Now it’s got to be commercial

To be a pitchable song

Not too simple, not too clever

Not over three minutes long

The public just wants to listen

Don’t want to think or feel, you know

And the industry just wants some more

Of that stuff on the radio

"And I think I’m goin’ crazy," he sings. "This writin’ sure is tough. I’d like to thank the publishers for listenin’ to me and I’ll be back when I get more stuff."

And I’ll more-than-likely be back at the Idle Hour on my next trip to Nashville.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Lori Johnson marries Jonathan Long. There's a song here someplace. Posted by Hello

These two are next. Posted by Hello

Some of us got goofy. Posted by Hello

It was raining. They were happy. Posted by Hello

Jonathan and Lori got married. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Fun at the Music City Marathon Posted by Hello

Jonathan Long "I Love This Bar". Posted by Hello

Dianne's Roses Posted by Hello

Idle Hour oil by Ann Tiley Posted by Hello

CB Fullmer Posted by Hello

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