where we used to gather.......jack's guitar bar
by tim buchanan
Where we used to gather While sowin' sounds of puttin' past the Tennessee State Fair grounds, no one around, the absence of day time clatter alowin' my tiny engined car a dominant voice in the city night here on Nolensville Road, the car flies me up the hill unobstructed by stop lights now in sleep mode, I pass by a place where several folks used to gather. Sittin' humbly and somewhat shoddy back off the road, nearly hidden by gravel grass and the lumpy terrain known as a parkin' lot which aided and abetted the eventual departure of the muffler and tail pipe off the very yella automobile that now carries my on-the-brink-bein' middle aged bones, is the beat up little buildin' once known as Jack's Guitar Bar. It was a spit from where I once lived and was the place where I first took to the stage with my own voice. When ya first found yourself walkin' into Jack's, you'd find yourself nearly comin' off the stage of the place. The door was right next to the stage, which I figured later kept people from tryin' to sneak off early from a show. If you were gonna get up behind the mic and put your heart on your sleeve, the venue guaranteed that not many people would be leavin', at least, in the middle of your stay on the stage. The second thing ya found when ya entered Jack's was the plethora of posters, marquees and flyers announcin' more artists that had played at the bar than a coon dog's got fleas. Some, who went on to be huge stars and others, who went on bein' every day no-names. And still others, that would be sittin' at the little unsteady tables or standin' back by the pool table or leanin' against the bar when ya came in, that were there, their sweaty hands holdin' their guitars by the head stocks ready to keep on takin' stabs at gettin' somewheres with their melodies and verse. Yet, all of their names displayed equally here, servin' as the wall paper for the underground, workin' man soul home of Nashville, Tennessee. You might also've noticed was that the floor had maybe seen better days by the inclines and declines throughout the joint and it wern't uncommon for a nervous performer to trip on his way up from an unexpected bump in the floor. I stumbled several times myself and deduced that the floor was a pile of mismatched boards with carpet layed over top to smooth it out. And the last of the universal things you'd notice comin' into the club was the rough lookin' guy behind the bar in the back and to the right and in front of an ancient refrigerator that seemed to belong along what's left of Route 66 in a ditch. This guy was Jack.
Well, the first time I played up there, I felt I needed a little confidence builder before I could bare some of the dark parts of my heart, and so moseyed on up to the bar for a bottle of somethin'. At seein' Jack's face close up, I seen that the neon lights through cigarette smoke had smoothed out the ditch-like lines in his face and his saggy baggy bulgy eyes. Where some might conclude from the sorry state of his face that this man most likely had a criminal record, I'd hold that this man most likely had a story. And I hoped to hear it one day. But on that night, as you found that Jack did with all strange faces, he greeted me with a saggy faced suspicious nod and only ever spoke to tell me how much I owed him. I was disappointed with not gettin' more talk action from the bartender but not as much as when as I was walkin' away and heard Jack greet another fella like he was a long lost drinkin' friend. I certainly wasn't 'in'. It was in that pot marked gravel parkin' lot, full of rain time streams and all-the-time ravines that another fella armed with a guitar and words stringin' far hollered me down as I was leavin' from that first ever go at gettin' in front of folks with my own songs. He told me I reminded him of someone and I in turn told him who he reminded me of. That fella was Jeff Graham of Missouri. A friend to this day who showed me the ropes, gave me some hope, filled me with theories and whispered to me of all the conspiracies against honesty and story in this town. He'd sing songs bout Cadillac dancin', the miracle at Dunkirk, the passin' of his sister and puppy dog love. Illustratin' some of Jeff's theories, he complimented me once bout one terribly honest song I wrote. He said, "As you keep writin' songs like that and you will be moving closer to people who are going to be judging you on your songwriting merit and farther away from the folks who want you to be 'a true artist.'". And then after a soberin' himself out of his dead seriousness streak with a grin, "I'm steppin' down off my soapbox now." But when you're told anything like that, it rings and reverberates in your verse rhymin'' head and smacks at your pen holdin' fingers with a ruler when anythin' contrived or not based on true stories you've found in this world is jotted down.
I believe it was the second time I played over there, a cute little Texan by the name of Stacy Earle was hostin' that particular open mic night. The hurricane in my head of nervousness was brought down to a mild rain storm by her kind words of encouragement before I manned the microphone. And as I descended the stage, her husband Mark ascendin', we both trippin' over floor lumps, gave me a good slap on the back for , "Your harmonica playin's, man, it's great!" He then proceeded to lead the whole of Jack's Guitar Bar in a sing along song bout his grandpa or some family member kickin' Hitler's ass. Stacy's cuteness and littleness ya can't help noticin', deceived me into thinkin' she weren't much older than me. But then she later sang a song bout her teenaged kids! Well, she's again' well is all we can surmise. Her and Jack seemed to be close, which was interestin' accordin' to some fella I had had a half a bottle conversation with there who said Jack and her older famous country singin' brother had had a fallin' out some time ago. It wasn't till the third time, I think, that I visited the place that Jack said very much to me. On that night, I ordered my usual thick European brew, at which he grimaced so much that it made his already haggard face nearly look like a wadded up brown paper drinkin' bag. "I don't see how you drink that stuff!", he said shakin' his head. "It's like the sludge at the bottom of the barrel!" I shrugged my shoulders and grinned, at which he added at slidin' the bottle cross the table top, "This one's on me!". From then, I was in. He even pleaded once for me to stay and play some songs when I was tryin' leave from growin' tired of a crappy commercial country band who exploited every figure of speech in the Southern English language to sing bout how the girls they pursued drove 'em crazy and made 'em say "Yee haw!". "These guys are f---in' terrible and I'm bout to throw their asses off my stage!", he hollered over the predictable noise while comin' round from behind the bar. "And then you'll play!" Though I was honored by Jack pleading, felt slightly sorry for the band that at the end of what they had proclaimed was their best song, got told by Jack, "It's time that you leave!". They stared at him in disbelief, at which he reiterated, "I've heard enough!" Little incidents I remember further color Jack. After one fella, Jimmy I think was his name, got done singin' bout mosquitoes, Jack hollered from behind his bar somethin' like, "Those skeeters!" and chuckled while mumblin' bout skeeters for at least half the night. Another time three girl singers brought their own candles and had 'em up on stage to have burnin' while they sang. Jack went up to investigate, mumblin' on the way up bout, "These women are gonna catch my stage on fire!". But when he got close enough to see that they were fairly pretty, went back to the bar to retrieve three bottles of ale for the girls, on the house.
Jeff Graham recalled to me once after Jack's had shut down, "Well Tim, I'd have to say that one of the things that made Jack's so appealing was the free hookers that he supplied all his 'regulars' with. I remember sometimes when I'd be a little down in the dumps and Jack'd come over and say, 'Jeff, you look like you could use a hooker,' and you know, it was always just the right thing. God bless ol Jack, yessir." Jeff'd laugh and then clear his voice indicatin' the next thing he said would finally be the truth. Grinnin' a grin that looked like most people's wink, "I'm...not right." And regardin' an exclusive Jack's Guitar Bar policy Jeff said, "But hey, my real fond memories consisted of Jack gettin' real pissed off at me because I played a cover song, and not because I played it badly, I hope. Imagine, a club owner pissed off at a musician for playin' a cover!" Which I remember the night: Jeff struck the last guitar chord and all the way from behind his bar Jack hollered, "Hey! Did you write that?!". At which Jeff chuckled and shook his head no. Jack seemed to grumble for the rest of the night about that.
After some night of comin' off the stage with my trusty mandolin, a high pitched voiced fella caught me before I got to sit myself down and said, "If you play that thing", indicatin' my little eight stringed thing, "you might like to see what I've got back here." He then led me to the pool table at the back of the joint where watched over by a cat-eyed girl was some strange-ass lookin' instruments. I looked over the some skinny, some fat and double necked, beautifully built double stringed things while noticin' in the corner of my eye the beautiful cat eyed girl watchin' me like I might be a suspicious character. "I invented some of these and made them all", the fella said with his nasally Northern accent. And that's where I was introduced to the invented dulcitar and it's creators, Shawn and Jenny Spencer. Who would've known that I would one day find myself playin' in the couple few 'Dulcitar Meltdown's that the Spencers would organize at Jack's, featurin' a whole night of folks playin' nothin' but the instruments made out of stuff Shawn and Jenny had found in the trash. Who would've known I would one day find myself in the bottom of a dumpster with these two, lookin' for stuff they could make their instruments out of. Years down the road when I had just bought one of Shawn's double neck instruments, I asked him bout what to do about gettin' a case to hold the thing. He answered shruggin, "The best thing I can tell you to do is find somebody who makes coffins for children and get them to make you a case. They're bout the same size I figure." The subject matter of the songs played at the venue was as diverse as the collective lives and years that the frequent patrons of Jack's brought with 'em. There were songs bout workin' fast food joints, drinkin' well water, wishin' on well water, livin' in trailerparks, livin' in desolate motels, bein' in prison, drivin' down highways, anticipatin' weddin' nights, true love, jilted love, the love of Christ, the love of dogs and so on. One guy even tried to take us with him on a ride in his stock car, his bangin' on the piano supposin' to represent the wavin' of flags, the spins of the wheels and the churnin' of pistons. He even had a line in the song like, "Oh, look out! Here comes the wall! Oh Lord, now I'm on fire!" Regardless of the race car guy's tryin' too hard, most every subject was real, not the result of focus group designated buzz words and heart string yankers. It'd be such a marked contrast of leavin' the Guitar Bar with testimonials still ringin' in your heart and then listenin' to the most-of-the-time contrived radio songs on the way home. It seemed that some other arch-enemy club, workin' through a lovin'-to-be-meddlin' local government official, strived real hard at makin' trouble for Jack's Guitar Bar's existence. Jack was tellin' me once over a bottle of sludge that a band who was to play at the bar had put up posters all over the city, somehow violatin' some kind of zonin' ordnances. And since Jack's establishment was listed on the posters, a big fat fine was levied against Jack! Another financial penalty came knockin' on Jack's door because a few of the patrons got up and danced durin' a danceable evenin' and beins the place didn't have a permit for dancin', laws were broken! One has to have a permit to dance? Which both incidents are another illustration of a bloated, bureaucratic, greedy, unchecked power, freedom stealin', hard earned money stealin', far from the Foundin' Father's intentioned, out of control government.
I once heard a European fella explain why he now lived in America and not in Europe. His illustration went somethin' like this: In Europe, nobody helps ya and everybody tries to stop ya. In America, nobody tries to stop ya and everybody helps ya. While this may in large be true, it's reality is in jeopardy. From the ever intruding and awarding itself more power federal government to the local corrupt good ole boy petty power local government, it can only get worse if it's not fought. After Jack told me bout the dancin' fine, I promptly went to the beat up bathroom, walls readin' graffiti as much as a small novel, relieved myself of some of my sludge and then shook my rump, swung my arms, jig kicked my feet- dancin' like patriot and breakin' the law! Well, eventually the persecution would add up I guess. Jack got tired of all the trouble, finally called it quits and on some fateful night, hollered out the last call. But man, my memories try real hard to outweigh the tragedies. There were tons more singers and a few other folk who spoke and bought me drinks. I run into them all the time from time to time these days and we trade the memories, the hard luck tragedies and sometimes a few success stories. There were all kinds of other stories, philosophies and conspiracies told to me at Jack's that have ended up in a song or two, and still influence my thinkin' every day; they're too many to mention here. But they're all good and warm to pull through my mind, these night thoughts while chugalugin' and passin' by where the truth mattered, against the mic spit and blood splattered, this place where, we used to gather.