Honky-Tonk Dreamers

Last month, I found myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame reading to about 450 people. But I only had eyes for John and Lois Shepherd, who were sitting near the front. I first met John and Lois in the late 1990s at the Music City Lounge on the wrong side of Lower Broad in Nashville. They weren’t hard to find. They played and sang there most every day. You could have found them just as easy any day since 1972, when they started playing the honky-tonks that line the street.   I had been asked by Bill Rouda to write a piece about that strip to accompany a book of photographs.  He started hanging out on Broad in the mid-90s with his camera when the street was passing from “the place you most don’t want to be alone after dark” into what it has become today, one of the most iconic images of Nashville. The book happened and now a decade after it was published, I was reading from my favorite section while John and Lois sat, dressed to kill, their faces beaming up at me.

I knew before I started writing for Bill that what made the passage of Lower Broad capture the imagination of both the city and at least parts of the nation was a tremendous creative spark that went off in one of the clubs on the street.  That spark was actually going off all over town as Bloodshot Records documented in an album of Nashville “alternative” music.  Still, even Bloodshot nodded to the importance of the Broadway scene when it symbolized the gap between the “mainstream” and “the alternative” in the title Across the Alley, the alley being the one that separated the Ryman Auditorium from Broad.

There was to be sure some special magic happening on Broad. Greg Garing seemed to be channeling Hank Williams in a show at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge backroom, the “green room” for the Opry in the old days. But the most dramatic sparks were happening three doors down in a new club, Robert’s Western World where its house band BR5-49 had taken an old sound and made it new and become a story in the process.

Robert Moore, who had run a lot of clubs on Broad over the years, tried hard to get out of the club business and opened a clothing store, Robert’s Western Wear. The only trouble was Robert wasn’t selling any clothes.  So one day he decided to go back to what he knew best, running a honky-tonk. The club literally took shape before all of the clothes were gone and a wall of boots remain to this day to commemorate its origins. Opposite that wall he installed a bar and in the front window a bandstand. He added a row of booths and some tables to surround a dance floor, and Robert’s Western World was born.

John and Lois would one day get a chance to play at Robert’s, but that wouldn’t happen for a few years.  At the time, Robert’s house band was filling the place with honkytonk dreams and love. The band was fronted by a couple of guys who had been playing for tips as singles. Both played guitar and were joined by a drummer, a standup bass player and a guy who could play most anything that needed to be played.  They called themselves BR5-49 after the incomplete phone number Junior Sample always used in some of his comic bits on Hee-Haw.  “And the number to call is BR5-49.” BR5-49 was at once hip and down-home, and the combination proved to be magical.  Lower Broad was a place where you played the standards and the band did that with a rocked-up flair that was at once homage and transformation. Gary Bennett, one of the two front men, represented the hard core country side of the band and Chuck Meade, the playful, hip, self-conscious side.

BR5-49  turned the street into a happening. Out on Music Row, a mile or so to the west, the stars of the moment were getting a total makeover–working out in gyms to firm up and bulge in new places, learning the stories they were going to tell to sell their songs, and getting new hair styles and costumes—to make them look like the babes and hunks whose hits would climb the charts.  But on Lower Broad, something totally uncontrived seemed to be going on.  And you had to be a real cynic not to like these guys and the scene they created.  The band played for five hours straight without a break five nights a week. Regulars on the street loved them, the hipsters loved them, and the writers loved them. What was not to love? Soon you saw mainstream country music executives,  visiting stars, and New York writers  in the crowd. And later there were lines and then people in even longer lines waiting for someone to leave so they could get in. Robert added a balcony to squeeze in a few more folks.  “We felt like we were in a movie about a band that went to Nashville and had this great Cinderella story happen,” Gary Bennett told me.

I was trying to write that Cinderella story, but to make that story sing I needed to tell some history—how the street had risen to glory during the Opry years, fallen onto very hard times for two decades after the Opry left, how the scene at Robert’s had given the street new hope, and how ominous forces waited in the wings ready to turn what was genuine and spontaneous into a new formula.

John and Lois were the living memory of the street. They came to Broad before the Opry left, weathered the hard years, and were still there playing across the street from Robert’s as the scene happened. But most importantly, they had paid attention, remembered names, and a few dates (though it was hard to get them to agree on dates). They helped me tell the stories of Tootsie’s great days as others had before me and added to my account of the rise of BR-549, but the story that turned out to draw me in the most was the hidden history of the street between its glory days and its renaissance, the story of the ghosts of that one long Saturday night that endured for two decades after the Opry left in 1974.

John and Lois remembered all the street characters and their stories: Broadway Mae, Russell the Hustler, City View, Jule the Minstrel Man (who was still hanging on) and others.  The BR5-49 story was a Cinderella story that put a smile on your face. But life is also about pain, rejection and loss—“songs that cry to be written” as Lois writes in one of her songs–and that long party on Broadway had left a lot of broken pieces to sweep up.

Lois was born in Nashville and met John in Florida.  They came to Nashville as a couple in 1972, two years before the Opry left the Ryman, and, as far as I know, they have never been seen separately since except for the few minutes it takes John to load and unload the car before and after they play. They knew Tootsie and the people who hung out at her place in the last days of the glory years and they had stayed and played on as the street became a haven for homelessness, prostitution, pornography, some violence, and a lot of bad press.  One visiting writer said Lower Broad looked like what Bedford Falls would have been had it not been for George Bailey in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Over the years John and Lois had played at the Dee-Man’s Den, Big Daddy Moose’s, Wanda and Louie’s, Tootsie’s, the Wagon Burner, The Rhinestone Cowboy, Tiger’s Country Saloon, The Wheel, most every bar on the street. John had come to town to sing pretty like Jim Reeves, but he was playing six or seven nights a week just to stay alive in smoky rooms with too little ventilation.  He often tried to do side projects with a voice already worn thin by the long hours.  In 1979, he got a break and for six months was the voice on the Miller beer commercial (“If You’ve Got the Time, We’ve Got the Beer”).  His next big break was a long time coming. On one of BR5-49’s appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, the group gave up one of their songs to John who was able to fulfill a life-long dream of singing on the Opry

John and Lois had been playing at the Music City Lounge a number of years when BR-549 broke through. Gary Bennett told me that John was the Daddy of all the pickers on the street. “As hard as tips were to come by, when he took a break he made the rounds and put a dollar in each of our tip jars.” And the lesson was not lost. “What he was showing us is that we weren’t against each other but were all connected and part of one thing.”

John, and Lois understood early that if you didn’t get home with your money you might as well not have earned it. They saw too many of the players give all their money back to the bars after they finished their set.  They were at the center of a storm of wild ways but kept steady and even did their best to care for some of the broken people of the street.

I sat at their table and listened to all the stories for a long time. I couldn’t have written my part of the book without them.  But something else happened along the way. I came to love watching them perform, particularly on Sunday afternoons when they moved out of their usual 5 to 9 slot for a day show. There were some old friends who came to dance that day and there seemed to be a greater sense of good will. Sunday afternoon still had its drunks and other challenges, but for me the time also had a special beauty that was better than church. The longer I watched them the more I began to feel that transcendent thing that sometimes happens with music, where you, the other people and the place are all one.

The other thing that happened was that I came to care about them. Lois has a very soft, beautiful voice and a presence that casts a spell. I always sat beside her, and she made me feel like she had been holding that seat for me for many years before I found it. I am sure she made others feel that way too. John is high intensity, a counterpoint to Lois’s relaxed ways. He is focused, all about getting the job done and staying within his zone in the clubs. Over the years, he has learned how trouble starts and is good at avoiding it. He has had more than his share of wounds from the life of the street as well. The miracle of it all to me was that both came to trust me and keeping their trust became a vow for me. Life hadn’t turned out the way they dreamed it would, and yet what would have broken others had given them greater character. And they never short-changed anyone when they put on a show.

Many days the Music City Lounge looked like a last stop saloon. John’s crowd was made up of day workers, homeless people, and a few longtime regulars . . . . Sometimes an adventurous tourist would cross the street. . . .But there was a lot to ignore. . . There was that sign in the window that told you to leave your pack outside. And on a given day, there could be some midnight howling before the sun went down or an edgy drunk looking for an argument. . . .I always thought John deserved better. He could sing a soft, sweet country ballad with the best singers. Over the years he had taught himself to be an entertainer as well. He knew a huge number of songs and could sing them on demand as if that was just the song he had been wanting to sing all along. He could handle hecklers and calm down drunks. . . And if there was somebody in the crowd who wanted to sing, he could step aside with grace . . . Lois always joined John on stage for a few songs, including some of her own, and they had great charm together.  The crowds were better some days than others, [but small or large] they came with their ways of feeling that a lifetime had given them and their feelings that moment, which the day had given them. And we were all a little more alive because of John and Lois. On some days, John’s crowd at the Music City seemed to be the poorest of the poor, but they had their songs of the heart, and the music was live and full of power.

That last paragraph is from Bill Rouda’s book of photographs–Nashville’s Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004), pp. 11-12.  That was the  section I read at the Country Music Hall of Fame last month. The program, which occurred as part of the Americana Association Conference and Festival, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Lower Broad renaissance. BR5-49, which broke up some years ago, reunited for the show and played along with RB Morris, the Paul Burch Band and Greg Garing.  I asked John and Lois to come, and the Hall put them right down front. As I brought the reading to a close with the words “the music was live and full of power,” my voice caught, the words made more intimate by their presence. I then asked them to stand and the crowd responded with a huge round of applause. Before I knew it, John and Lois had left their seats and walked to the edge of the stage and both had taken my hand.

Afterwards we talked easily and softly like the old days about the things friends share, old times, our health, and our plans.  Lois had some very good news. Eight of her songs, including the title cut, had been recorded by an Irish singer Pat Whelan on an album Spirit Eagle and she had been named International Songwriter of the Year by both the Leinster Entertainment Awards and the KFM Country Music Awards in Ireland for the song “Spirit Eagle.” At long last, some recognition had come for a woman whose heart is full of songs.

John and Lois still play at Robert’s, Sunday through Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. Try to drop in and see them. Don’t forget to tip them well, to tell them that I sent you, and to request “Cowboy Let’s Round Up Your Dreams,” my favorite of Lois’s songs.  Here’s the chorus:

Yippee-Ti-Yi-Yay come along little darling

We’ll ride out together just like we rode in.

Two hearts full a love and a car load a nothing

A guitar picking cowboy chasing honkytonk dreams.

12 thoughts on “Honky-Tonk Dreamers

  1. Great post. “Two hearts full of love and a car load a nothing” goes into my book of favorite lines in a song. I know you have a great pic of John and Lois. Will your blog let you post it?

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  2. body{font-size:10pt;font-family:arial,sans-serif;background-color:#ffffff;color:black;}p{margin:0px;}body{font-size:10pt;font-family:arial,sans-serif;background-color:#ffffff;color:black;}p{margin:0px;}body{font-size:10pt;font-family:arial,sans-serif;background-color:#ffffff;color:black;}p{margin:0px;}Dear David,Wow!  This is an engaging and fascinating story of the life of these musicians.  What an amazing tale.  You have an remarkable ability to write about these events in very personal ways in which you are also involved.  Much credit to you, I think that is an ability that’s very hard to master.  I particularly liked your descriptions of how John and Lois continued to play music, where ever, when ever, no matter what else was going on.  You endeared me to both of them in telling their stories.  I think I have heard BR-549’s music before but I need to go find it again to see if I really remember it.    I just returned from the cornfields of Iowa where I attended my 50th High School Reunion.  It was the most surreal experience I’ve had since I gave up mind-altering drugs many years ago.  When I came back home the book that seemed most relevant was Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Clearly Thompson had a much easier target for social criticism (of our acceptance of excess and lasciviousness that is foundational to Las Vegas) than my little high school reunion.  But the “otherness” I and some of my other former classmates felt in the midst of people with whom we grew up but had no contact for 50 years was disorienting.  Ralph Steadman’s “Lizard Lounge” illustration from Thompson’s novel is a good depiction of the alienness I felt at this Reunion.  (I just included this book in my http://www.holdingarealactualbook.com  website, Chapter 36).Thanks for your essay.  It is really excellent!  Normfile:///Users/normelliott/Desktop/images.jpeg      

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    • Thanks very much. I think this is the kind of writing I always yearned to do but just had trouble doing in the university. I went to one reunion, my 40th, and I understand exactly what you are saying. I begged off for the 50th. I feel different when I meet one or two people, as is the case sometimes in Tennessee, but me in a whole group of my classmates and I feel as gawky as I felt at age 11 or 12.

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  3. ​This makes me want to hang out and listen to the Shepherds. You are quite a writer–keep up the good work. Hope all is well. Carolyn Stark

    ________________________________

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  4. Great piece, David. I like the scene you evoke and your tribute to John and Lois, of course, but also your tone and how easily it all flows (though I know it’s hard to do that). How long have you lived in Nashville off and on over the years?

    Ina and I are thinking of coming to Nashville for a couple of days during Xmas. And Camille might come with us. Any suggestions for hotels within walking distance of the scene?

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  5. That’s great news about Lois’s songs being recorded by Pat Wheelan. I don’t know anyone more deserving! Would love to catch their show at Roberts on my next trip to Nashville.

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  6. I came to Robert’s some ten years ago on a trip to the US and John was playing to very few people then, but we were transfixed and were happy to tip when Lois brought the hat along. My wife brought out the holiday pictures tonight and we both remembered together. I got quite warm in noting that they are still at it. Maybe I’ll be back again to Nashville after I retire next year. Nashville was so special.

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