Design, Build, Play
When it comes to music venues, Chark Kinsolving does it all
In October of last year, Chark Kinsolving got a call from his friend Mike Grimes. Grimes, along with business partner Dave Brown, were looking at the former B&B Silkscreen building on Woodland Street, and the business partners had some big plans for what would become The Basement East.
“They wanted some advice,” Kinsolving says. “At the time, the building was mostly just a big empty space. There was a small office area up front, but everything else was open. We looked at the building. They ran their ideas by me and asked what I thought. I said, ‘Forgive me guys, but that’s a terrible idea. Here’s what I think.’ I ran them through my concept. They thought it was great, and God bless ’em, they basically gave me carte blanche to build it as I saw fit.”
There’s a good reason Kinsolving was brought in for his advice. As a working musician, building contractor, and nightclub owner and manager, he’s well-versed with the ins and outs of music venues. As the co-owner and designer of Mercy Lounge, The Cannery Ballroom, and The High Watt, he helped save a historic building that was once a treasured venue during the ’80s rock scene, while retooling it for 21st century rockers.
Born and raised in Nashville, Kinsolving was bitten by the rock & roll bug at an early age, spending his younger years mastering the guitar and playing in several garage bands. While rock & roll may have been his first love, his profession was a steadier paying and more concrete pursuit.
“I worked in commercial construction through most of the ’80s,” he says. “I really didn’t get into the Nashville music scene steady until about 1993 with the blues rock band Mother Jones. It was always a tug of war between music and construction. In a band, you’re out late nights playing shows, but you’ve got to get up at 6 a.m. because you’ve got a job to run. I would go back and forth. If I had a great band going, I’d end up quitting the job and focusing on the band. Then when the band would fold, I’d go back to work for another construction company.”
By the mid-’90s, Kinsolving was playing with the blues rock combo Spoonful that featured several up-and-coming musicians including drummer Keith Brogdon, bassist Dean Tomasek, and future Americana star Will Hoge. As the new century began, Kinsolving was ready for a new challenge.
“I had kind of run out of options,” he says. “I was sick of working construction, and I wasn’t in a band at the time. Mike Grimes is actually to blame for me opening the Mercy Lounge. I saw the Slow Bar and thought, ‘This is awesome — I could do this.’”
With his business partners Brent Woodard and David Gehrke, Kinsolving set his sights on the old Cannery building just off 8th Avenue South. Built in 1883, the grand brick building served as a flour mill and coffee mill before gaining its nickname in the late 1950s as a cannery for the Dale Food Company. In the 1970s, it was transformed into a restaurant and country music theater, eventually becoming one of the premier music venues for Nashville’s rock scene in the ’80s. By 2002, The Cannery had fallen on hard times.
“It was in shambles,” Kinsolving says. “It was just falling apart. We signed a lease in March 2002, and it took us 10 months to do the build out and to get through all the codes issues. We rebuilt the stage where it had been, but I never wanted it to be a live music venue. It opened as the Mercy Lounge in late January 2003, and we operated for the first six months without any shows, just running it as a bar.” The original plans for it “just being a hangout” eventually changed due to dramatic events.
“In August 2003, we were blasted with a heavy burst of wind, and the building was struck by lightning,” Kinsolving says. “Most of the third story collapsed. I was in the building at the time, and the whole thing shook like an earthquake. We were closed for six or seven weeks. When we reopened, we needed some income, so we started booking shows. The next thing you know, it turned into a music venue, then eventually a second venue, and then a third venue.”
The second venue arrived in 2005. Located on the main floor of the building, the roomy Cannery Ballroom quickly became a favored stop for midlevel touring acts.
“Someone was trying to lease the space to an antique mall or indoor flea market,” Kinsolving recalls. “We looked at it from the viewpoint of we didn’t want neighbors. We signed the lease Jan. 1, 2005, and I spent 45 days, mostly by myself, working 14-16 hours days, building everything.” Five years later, the third venue, the smaller and more intimate High Watt, opened in the rebuilt third floor of the building.
“We took on a stupidly ambitious remodeling project that cost a ton of money, but it turned out great,” he continues. “We redid The Cannery Ballroom and added some structural steel supports so we could remove some of the poles. Then we went in and started on The High Watt, making it a small mirror of Mercy. I’m very proud of how it turned out.” With the three venues in The Cannery complex completed and successful, Kinsolving found his interests turning back to music.
In 2010, legendary rock & roll sax player Bobby Keys (Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many more) tapped several Nashville-based musicians, including Dan Baird, Mike Webb, Steve Gorman, Tomasek, and Kinsolving, to form The Suffering Bastards. The band became a semiregular gig for the next four years, ending all too soon with Keys’ death on Dec. 2, 2014. In the meantime, Kinsolving decided it was time to move on from being a nightclub owner and manager.
“In mid-2013, the opportunity came to sell my partnership out to Todd [Todd Ohlhauser, who had replaced Woodard and Gehrke as a partner in the business],” he says. “We came up with a deal and shook on it. I left at the end of 2013. I spent the next year taking some time off and remodeling a vacation cabin at Center Hill Lake that my family had owned for a long time. It was a great way of getting my head together and figuring out what I wanted to do next.”
The next thing turned out to be a return to the design and construction of first-class music venues. “I wasn’t really looking to build The Basement East,” Kinsolving says. “They originally called me just asking for suggestions. Then they asked if I could design and build it, and we did it in an insanely short amount of time — less than four months.
“It turned out great, and I’m real proud of everything we did there. With the Mercy Lounge and High Watt, we had to work with the structure that we had. Everyone hates the support columns in those venues, but they have to be there for structural reasons. It was really fun to go in a completely blank canvas and design it the way you want. There is that one support pole in the main room. Apparently in Nashville, you can’t open a music venue without there being a pole somewhere.”
One of the most outstanding features of The Basement East is its custom-designed stage. Thirty feet wide, 16 feet deep, and 3 feet high, the stage has already received compliments from both musicians and audience members.
“The stage is completely free floating,” Kinsolving explains. “It’s not actually attached to the floor. Every post rests on a one-inch rubber pad, so vibration from the stage is absorbed by the pads, instead of the concrete floor. It’s also completely stuffed with fiberglass so you don’t get any type of bass trap or weird feedback issues. It’s a really good sounding stage.”
As the word got out about Kinsolving’s work on The Basement East, he got a phone call from another friend. “Jamie Rubin called me for suggestions about the stage at the new Family Wash, and then he asked me to build it. It’s a much smaller version of what we built for The Basement East.”
While Kinsolving wasn’t planning on becoming a full-time contractor, the quality of his work in such high-profile locations has led to a new career. “Word has gotten out, and I’m taking on other jobs,” he says. “I’ll be building out the new pub that will be part of The Basement East, and I’m working on another bar now, in addition to some residential projects around East Nashville.”
With the “throw-’em-up-cheap-and-quick” methods being followed by many contractors in Nashville right now, it’s refreshing to hear Kinsolving talk about his philosophy — balancing creativity with practicality. It’s a mixture that leads to both great guitar work and awesome music venues.
“It’s all about working with what you have and what was there before,” he says. “You want to make it a great experience for the public and the bands, but you also want to make it great for the people that work in that space. Being able to learn from what you’ve done in the past and then translate it into something new is always pretty cool.”