Legends That Almost Were

The Slow Bar & the Bis-Quits

The Slow Bar: if you were there, it made a difference. If you weren’t, you have no idea what you were missing. Its destiny might have put it in the upper pantheon of regional clubs people know by name: think CBGB in New York, the Cabaret Metro in Chicago, the Grand Emporium in KC, Lawrence’s Bottleneck, the 40-Watt in Athens, the Birchmere in Arlington, the Black Cat in Baltimore, the Continental Club in Austin, and the Fox in Boulder.

Nashville, like many other towns surviving a metropolitan existence for nearly two centuries, is a city made up of neighborhoods. Since its inception as a frontier community along the banks of the Cumberland River, it has served as military outpost; it has been the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War (the Battles of Franklin and Nashville, ca. 1865); it has been an important intracoastal marine shipping throughway and rail distribution center; and it has lately become a center for the burgeoning for-profit healthcare business. Oh — and its claim as the capitol of country music remains mainly unperturbed.

Tennessee itself has an incredibly rich place in American music. From the east, country music sprang from the Appalachian hills around Bristol and made the Carter Family a timeless legend. Bluegrass wandered in from the north, from the Cumberlands, and the high and lonesome sound innovated by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers found its home. From the west, Memphis added rhythm to blues, which made its way northward from Muscle Shoals, from places like Yazoo City and New Orleans, and from points north like St. Louis and Chicago. Soul came into its own there in the hot-buttered variety from Stax and silken tones from Hi Studios, a mere two blocks over and four blocks down from the intersection of College & McLemore.

Nashville is a natural crossroads for these traditions, both geographically and historically. However, for all of its music tradition, there were still substantial opportunities for an enterprising soul to open a live music venue. Since the venerable 328 Performance Hall shuttered its doors and was subsequently bulldozed, the noteworthy Radio Cafe has changed hands numerous times, the mainstay Ace Of Spades went and turned itself into the vacuous meat-market known as BAR Nashville, and the perennial tour stop Exit/In has been in perennial financial trouble. Sure, there were a number of honky-tonks sprawling the side streets around Broadway, but even stars like Tootsie’s and Robert’s had fallen from favor among locals. Moreover, these clubs do not draw the rock ’n’ roll crowd in substantial numbers. A significant population of music hacks, vinyl collectors, geeks, hipsters, and garden-variety fans live all over Nashville, but a center of gravity had yet to coalesce.

Enter Mike “Grimey” Grimes. A veteran of the local scene, Grimey had played with Collin Wade Monk, Bill Lloyd, the Hot Buttered Rockets, Bobby Bare Jr., Giant Sand, John Prine, Josh Rouse and the Bis-Quits. He was making a go of a boutique record store in a funky retail district and he decided to take a shot at a local bar in the insurgent neighborhood known as East Nashville.

The Slow Bar opened in 2000 to little fanfare but instant local notice. Over the door, there was a marker which commemorated the life of Joey Ramone, one of the first things that said, “Ah. This place is home” to the Nashville hipster crowd. During Slow Bar’s short lifespan, you could find yourself standing five feet from: Alex Chilton performing with his Memphis trio; Buddy and Julie Miller playing a midnight concert for the Americana Music Conference; Ryan Adams busting his chin open the night before he played a Willie Nelson TV taping; or James Gandolfini hanging out during the filming of The Last Castle. About two weeks after he’d left Wilco, Jay Bennett was kind enough to play a private show for my wife and me. Lucinda Williams frequented the place before her petulant departure from town, and the Slow Bar served as backdrop for BR5-49’s “Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal” video.

One of the most memorable, and deeply personal, moments for me was one night following a Mike Watt & the Secondmen show at another venue in town. My wife and I were heading home from the concert and we dropped in at the Slow Bar, because we were forced to choose between Watt and the Jay Bennett/Edward Burch show. This was on May 2, 2002, approximately two weeks after the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and we were eager to see what Bennett was up to following his departure from Wilco. Unfortunately, Bennett was breaking down the set when we arrived and was beginning to load out. We approached him and told him of the quandary that some faceless booking agents had confronted us with, and he offered to give us private renditions of his new material. Grimey offered up his office, and we were treated to our own concert there. Ken Coomer even dropped by while we were there, and we sat and talked music for the next hour or so. (Both former Wilco members even conceded that given the opportunity to see Watt, they would have been hard pressed to fulfill their obligations that night.)

News got around in the middle of 2003 that Grimey was opting not to renew the lease on the Slow Bar. When the schedule for the last month’s worth of activities came out, commanding immediate attention was a reunion concert of the Bis-Quits, slated to take place three days before the place was to shut its doors forever. The Bis-Quits (pronounced “biscuits”) was a short-lived ensemble which arose from the ashes of a couple of other bands of sterling local repute. They had a solid single release on John Prine’s Oh-Boy label, which was released in 1993 to a small flurry of critical acclaim. Even today, the songs are good listening. There are elements of southern-fried blues pop (think NRBQ), post-punk (think Tim-era Replacements), and throw in a Richard and Linda Thompson cover for good measure (“Walking on a Wire”).

Much like the bar that they were about to send off into the sunset, legend has it that if you were not at their shows, you missed something special. Events that make history (or, at the least, local legend) typically do not offer advance notice, but despite the lack of big press or big promotion around this event, there was an immediacy about it just the same. This was history in the making, and it offered the chance for you to be a participant instead of hearing about it second-hand.

The lineup: Grimey on bass, Will Kimbrough on lead guitar and vocals, Tommy Womack on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Tom Meyer on drums. Tommy Womack would have been indistinguishable in most crowds, but at the Slow Bar, he stuck out a bit. His blond hair had been shaved to a quarter-inch buzz, and he wore a button-down shirt with a tie, slacks, and black cap-toe wingtips. Tommy is a longtime fixture on the music scene in Nashville; in addition to a somewhat successful solo career, he was the linchpin member of the almost-seminal Government Cheese from Bowling Green, Kentucky. (You can read his trials and tribulations in his riotous book, Cheese Chronicles.) Will Kimbrough is also something of a local hero, with a short list of solo recordings which he had released in the years after his rise to national recognition as head of Will and the Bushmen. Add to that a long list of accompanying industry credits, and his credentials are sound.

As the ensemble took to the stage, Will hammered the volume pedal on his rig and started playing along to the Replacements song on the house music. Tommy shouted, ““Yeah! Yeah! Let’s finish it out!” Grimey doodled along, Meyer took up the backbeat, and Tommy and Will fell right into lockstep, with Tommy bellowing, “Look me in the eyes/now tell me/that I’m satisfied. Hey now, are you SATIS-F-IIIII-ED?” He meant it, man.

Womack has summed up the Bis-Quits this way: “I’m a decent guitar player. Grimey’s a damn good guitar player. Will Kimbrough is a frightening guitar player.” Boy howdy, is that ever accurate. Kimbrough is a thunderous guitar player — it doesn’t appear that he’s doing much, but he plays with absolute abandon and manages to keep it on the rails, even when it looks like he’s headed for disaster. He cracked up the audience by pulling off his t-shirt to reveal a sleeveless Tesla shirt with iron-on spangly letters. He cued off his “new” song (“It’s in G, 1-4-5”) and whooped, “The Bis-Quits were the best two years of my life! The Bis-Quits were the best two years of my life! I had me a record deal and a brand new wife!” In other interviews, Tommy has voiced the same sentiment quite clearly, but admits that playing for a share of the door and crashing on the floor was a lot more romantic at 20 than at 30. Now encroaching on 40, Tommy doesn’t seem to have lost many steps.

The band ran through most of the Bis-Quits repertoire, almost all of which can be found on their only album, The Bis-Quits (Oh Boy! Records), which is out-of-print, but highly recommended. The set included a cameo appearance from Todd Snider, who had covered the Bis-Quits song “Betty Was Black (And Willie Was White)” on one of his CDs. The event wound up with a rousing cover of “Free Ride.” Call it kitsch, call it hipster irony, call it whatever you want — it was the essence of rock. Meyer shattered a microphone on the final downbeat. “It was a lot more fun before you owned the bar,” quipped Tommy in Grimey’s direction.

Afterwards Tommy was yakking with a small clutch of folks right outside the front door. Raving about the festivities just prior, Tommy said, “It’d be great if we could only figure out a way to make money off of this. You just gotta drink while the spigot is open.”

So the Bis-Quits returned to an indefinite, distant orbit in the galaxy of the local scene, and the Slow Bar went out of business. The gossip circuit abounds with theories why. Some people say that Mike needed to focus on his other business, the burgeoning indie record store Grimey’s. Some say that the bar was driven out by a huge increase in the price of real estate. Others say that the business model was fundamentally flawed — that the income from beer sales and t-shirts wasn’t enough to cover their expenses. There never was a charge to use the jukebox, and reportedly, the revenue from the door went 100 percent to the performers. While generous, this certainly makes it harder to address bottom line concerns.

For his part, Grimey remains typically upbeat. “There still might be a Slow Bar.” Drop in, and he may guide you to a huge stack of digipak promos that he carried back with him from his overseas travels. Perhaps you can find European promo copies of Guided by Voices or a Brazilian import collection from Gilberto Gil. He says that with 10 people a day bugging him to do the bar thing again, he remains open to the idea. Failing that, he’s been talking about promoting shows locally, but he is trying in vain to find a business model that works. However, he is having a good time doing pick-up gigs with his friends. He has a popular “Guilty Pleasures” series which has kept going from the Slow Bar, featuring some energetic local talent playing ’80s covers, and he has initiated an outing he has dubbed CCR, which stands for “The Clash, Cheap Trick, and the Replacements.” The shows are ragged, loud, clumsy and a hell of a lot of fun.

In the meantime, you can find him at the store, yapping about music with his co-workers and with anyone who stops to ask for his advice. His business partner, Doyle, once related that Grimey had staked his personal record collection to get the store going. Now the store can hardly accommodate the accumulated trade. The floor sags from the weight beneath the “Just In” bin. There are boxes on top of boxes on top of the racks; some are marked, some aren’t. While the most reliable method of parsing the selection is to browse, you have to allow yourself extra time for shuffling of containers and making your way among the clientele. Somehow, the store manages to house a preview station and an impeccable collection of vinyl.

Titles of Interest
The Bis-Quits
Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals Starvation League
Will Kimbrough, Home Away
Tommy Womack, Circus Town
Obviously, music is a business, and music is the business of Nashville. Many people have come to this town looking for a fortune, only to encounter the intervention of harsh reality. Yet, somewhere between the success of the next platinum-selling artist to sign up on Music Row and the pan-handling also-rans who came to town only to end up playing for tips on street-corners, there is a community of people that have found their relative fortunes in their continuing passion for music (and coincidentally make an honest living in the process).

Some projects would be lucky to become footnotes as the story is written, and thus might become the fate of The Slow Bar. Just know there was more to the story than any asterisk can tell.