Bluegrass fans lined up on a bitterly cold fall night outside the speakeasy-style door of the Station Inn, a tiny, decades-old club in Nashville’s hyper-developing Gulch neighborhood.
Nineteen-year-old Caleb Montgomery took his place near the front. A guitarist, Montgomery already had visited at least a half dozen times since moving to Nashville for college a little over a year ago.
The energy, he said, is incomparable.
“This is a great venue for hearing bluegrass. Best in town, by far,” Montgomery said. “There’s such a small amount of people in there and you’re so close to the performers.”
For 40 years, the Station Inn has served as a meeting place for country music’s greats, up-and-comers and fans. With its cheap wood-paneling, faded concert posters and Stroh’s beer sign, the club calls to mind a 1970s rec room.
Connoisseurs of traditional country music come from as far away as Costa Rica and Canada, Europe and East Asia to shuffle each night into the 165-seat club. With no advance ticket sales, seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Humble as it might be, the club remains a must-play venue for many musicians, including the biggest names in traditional country music.
“It’s kind of a Nashville landmark,” said Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs.
Skaggs played the Station Inn as recently as late November with his wife and fellow bluegrass musician, Sharon White, to promote a new duets album, “Hearts Like Ours.” The two first performed at the club more than 20 years ago, they said.
“The atmosphere is still the same,” said Skaggs. “Same popcorn. Same pizza. Same hotdog.”
From Warehouses To Highrises
But while little has changed inside the Station Inn, the area outside the sandstone building has transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, the Gulch was a rarely visited industrial district. Now it’s a vibrant residential and commercial neighborhood.
A 22-story condo casts its shadow over the club. An organic grocery has opened across the street. Nearby boutiques and coffeehouses sell pricey denim and four-dollar brews.
Station Inn proprietor J.T. Gray admitted that he’s toyed from time to time with the idea of moving the Station Inn, “but every time we think about it and mention it to anyone, they’ve said, ‘No, no, you don’t want to move.’ ”
More change is coming. Construction is under way on another glassy condo building and two office towers. Early next year, work is set to begin on a 200-room hotel that would curl around the Station Inn like an apostrophe.
A much scruffier area surrounded the Station Inn when Gray bought it in 1981. The slow-talking bass player from Mississippi recalled his neighbors were a plumbing business, a tool-and-dye shop and a meat-and-three.
And the Station Inn itself was on the rocks, Gray said:
“It was just that the last people that owned it before me, they knew the bar business but they didn’t really know the music business, the bluegrass people, the bluegrass bands and how to communicate with all those people.”
But Gray did. He’d toured with Jimmy Martin, a pioneer of bluegrass.
Connecting The Famous — And Not-So-Famous
Gray reached out to his friends in music, and it wasn’t long before stars like Alison Krauss were filling the club. “The Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, showed up for jams, as would a not-yet-famous Dierks Bentley.
“It took a year — almost a couple of years — to get it going again to where we would have good crowds,” Gray said.
The Station Inn continues to draw zealous young musicians. At a recent Sunday night jam, tousled 15-year-old Luke Forrest pulled his guitar from a case decorated with stickers decrying genetically modified food and big government.
He first heard of the Station Inn watching concerts on YouTube. Nervously, he suggested a tune, “New River Train.”
“It’s a little intimidating but it’s good,” Forrest said.
The club this month celebrates 40 years in business, all but four of them in its current location. Gray himself is 68 and said he hopes to pass along the Station Inn once he can no longer run it.
But its fate isn’t entirely up to him. Gray rents the building, and the quarter-acre beneath it is now worth nearly half a million dollars.
Still, the property’s owners have told Gray they won’t do anything with the building as long as he runs the club. And the Gulch’s master developer, Jay Turner, plans to build around the Station Inn, rather than force it aside.
“It’s a wonderful amenity to have in the neighborhood, and something you just can’t re-create,” Turner said.
The Gulch’s transformation suggests change will come to the Station Inn eventually. Gray, under whose watch the club has thrived, is philosophical.
“Of course, I have no control, you know,” he said. “We have no control over anything actually. ... But I hope and pray that the Station Inn stays like it is for as long as it possibly can.”