Nashville’s honky-tonk district on Lower Broad is a sort of ground zero for live country music, but it can be quite the assault on the senses. If you’re in the Music City and want to branch out beyond the mainstream country cover bands, particularly if you’re searching for something a little more traditional, you only need to venture about a mile away. In the slightly upscale and trendy Gulch neighborhood, tucked among the high-rise condos and high dollar restaurants, you’ll find an old Nashville institution: The Station Inn.
The Station Inn predates the contemporary neighborhood by quite a few years, dating back to time when the area was filled with small warehouses, industrial buildings and gravel lots. The Station Inn occupies an old, brownstone industrial building, serving as a venue for live bluegrass music, as it’s done for more than 40 years now.
Relatively speaking, there aren’t a heck of a lot of bars, or clubs, that specialize in Bluegrass, even in a Southern music mecca like Nashville. Of those that do exist, The Station Inn is widely considered to be the best. Of course, such statements are arguable, but in this case, it’s an argument worth making. On any given night of the week, you can come and hear world-class music from some of the most adept pickers and grinners you’re likely to encounter.
What is less widely known outside of Bluegrass circles, and the ranks of live music aficionados, is the secret of the Sunday night Bluegrass Jam. Okay, so maybe it’s not a complete secret. You’ll be among an eclectic mix of serious bluegrass fans, hipsters and a few tourists from the Northeast (they’ll be the ones taking pictures of the Moon Pies). Still, it’s always surprising to me how few people, including Nashville natives, seem to know about this local treasure. That may be a good thing, in a way, because the place still manages to fill up on most Sunday nights. It runs from about 7 PM – 11 PM, but from 8 o’clock on is when seats can start being hard to come by. If you want to be sure of staking a claim to a table and having a little elbow room, earlier is better.
I like to describe the Sunday night Bluegrass Jam as something akin to a hillbilly cèilidh. Basically, anyone with an instrument and the inclination can come join in. There are easily a couple of dozen musicians most nights, often more. This is Music City, so some of these folks may be professional musicians, but certainly not all of them. You’ll find men and women, young and old, jumping into the fray. My word of warning is this, for those who think they might want jump into the fray and test your musical mettle. The atmosphere is friendly and often familial, but even the amateurs in this group can set fire to their strings. If you lack either confidence, or skill, you might want to hang around the fringes until you get a feel for things.
There is another point worth making, since I’ve had a couple of folks in the past who have misunderstood my explanation of the open jam. It is not the equivalent of an open mic, or songwriters night, where people sign up to take turns playing. This is a big, group jam session. People do take turns, in terms of taking the lead, but it is very informal and everyone plays along. Even though this is in a business establishment, there is a definite front porch picking, or old-time barn dance, vibe going on.
The Station Inn is a Nashville institution and the Sunday Night Bluegrass Jam is one of the most unique live music experiences to be found in a city where there is no shortage of live music experiences. Drop by, get yourself a basket of popcorn, a cold beer, sit back and enjoy the show. You’ll hear some first class musicianship, maybe get to know the people sitting around you and you’ll get just a little slice of what Southern music might have been like before it went mainstream.