At a gentle bend of Dickerson Pike in East Nashville, the downtown skyline seems close enough to touch. In the foreground is a weather beaten and peeling billboard that says:
Sports Bar and Rest.
Plate Lunches, Hot Wings.
The place itself is a mid-century American diner with a red-and-white color scheme and a drive-in shelter. The building’s wide windows give off a warm glow on a stormy spring evening.
Jon Byrd, with his band Byrd’s Auto Parts, is on a stage in the corner. He plays a mix of his own songs and classic country music covers by the likes of Bobby Bare and Porter Wagoner. “To me, it reminds me of a lot of places I’ve played where the sentimentality, the sort of working class roots of country music — that’s where you find it,” Byrd says. “And you find people who get it.”
For fans of traditional country music, Jon Byrd is a humble local icon, an artist who should be playing big honky tonks and performing arts centers, which sometimes he does. But he was looking for something steady and something grounding when he approached Charlie Bob’s.
“I’ve been on the East Side since 2002, and it’s just a great breakfast place,” he says. “And I knew they had music in the corner, but it was kind of sporadic. What I did, though, was I got sort of inspired by Tim Carroll, who plays every Friday for the last four or five years at another venue — at The 5 Spot. And I just thought, ‘You know, for a songwriter or a performer, that’s got to be a good exercise.’ And I hate to be sort of analytical about it, but I just thought I need that for myself. . . . I came in here and asked this young fella about booking, and I said I want to play every Tuesday. And he said, ‘Well we have bands, and I don’t know if we could do every Tuesday.’ And I said, ‘I want to play from 6 to 8.’ And he was like ‘Oh! Nobody wants to play from 6 to 8! Everybody wants to play late.’ . . . I just came in and started doing it in April last year, and here we are a year later.”
As with many things unpretentious and comforting and modest in Nashville, those Tuesdays have come to an end, and Byrd is playing his penultimate show at Charlie Bob’s.
“The restaurant started back in the early ’50s by a gentleman named Charlie, and Charlie had such good success that he built on twice that I know of,” longtime owner Mike Douglas explains. “The large dining room was the original coffee house. In the ’60s, he built this dining room on that we’re sitting in right now, and he built a canopy outside, and they actually did carhopping in the ’60s. Well then in ’72, Bob came in and bought it from Charlie, and so that’s how we got the name Charlie Bob. And Bob is my dad. So, Bob and Cynthia, my parents, bought the restaurant in ’72 and put me to work. Over 40 years.
“We’re located a mile and a half from downtown on the northeast side on Dickerson Pike,” he continues. “In the last three years, I’ve had quite a few developers come talk to me wanting to purchase this property because I’ve got four and a half acres here. And one day last July, I was approached by some local developers and I liked what they did. And I’m like, ‘Well, do I want to continue working or do I want to think about retirement?’ So, after praying about it and talking with my wife, I think we set on a price, and we’ll be closing on it this Friday.”
“It’s not a listening room,” Byrd explains. “I have friends who love house concerts and they love listening room situations and they love the Bluebird (Cafe). But they have a very difficult time coming to listen to me at Charlie Bob’s because I have the loud table — and that’s the table of regulars. And they’re here after a long day at work, and they are blowing off some kind of steam on Tuesday, and I’m in their space. I’ve seen Kevin Welch and Walt Wilkins handle an audience — a loud audience that won’t be quiet. And I love it, and I respect it. But there’s no way, that’s not why I’m here. And so some of my house concert friends have a little difficult time coming to Charlie Bob’s because people aren’t listening so carefully. They’re enjoying. And let me tell you what, some of my best tippers come from the loud table. And I love those people. And I get it — I’m visiting, I’m in their space. That’s the way I look at it.”
The real estate developers are thinking “location, location, location” as they eye these properties on obscure Dickerson Pike. Yet, for Byrd, the address of Charlie Bob’s carries a bit of destiny. “My last record was called Route 41, which is the highway that runs from Atlanta to Nashville, so I did songs for my friends in Nashville and songs for my friends in Atlanta. . . . Dickerson Pike is Route 41. It is the highway that runs from Miami to Wisconsin and it goes from Atlanta right through Nashville and Murfreesboro.
“I found that poetic in my own sort of way,” Byrd says. “So, I’m playing at this place going, ‘Wow! I made Route 41 and now I’m playing at this little bar right off the pike.’ ”
Looking east from the restaurant, Douglas offers, “What a view. A great view of downtown. Best view in the city.” Then adds, “Got a lot of old stuff that needs to come down.”
Charlie Bob’s owner says he’s seen more change in the neighborhood in the past three years than the prior 30. And he’s about to close up shop and get out of the way. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Douglas admits. “We’ve had a lot of people that have been in here to play. I give them a little spot to perform and let them get their music out. Actually, my dad had live music here, and so it’s kind of been ongoing you could say.
“I had a young man come in a couple of days ago, his name was Chuck Resha. And he is the grandson of Charlie Resha, that man that had this place and sold it to my parents. So, he was telling me about when he worked here as a little boy and all the fond memories he had of this place. He said it looks pretty much the same as it did back then. And I thanked him for coming out, because I like to hear stories like that.”
The demise of this meat-and-three diner on old Highway 41 isn’t some American tragedy or the end of all that’s good and spiritual. We can cherish the past without believing that nostalgia should be an operational value. Not every quaint and quirky place can live forever.
In the months and years to come, Dickerson Pike will develop and likely offer up some new affordable housing options to artists and musicians who are being priced out of nearby hot spots. And Jon Byrd is taking his Tuesday night residency over to the Radio Cafe on Gallatin Pike (Highway 31E), which is itself, a resurrection of a beloved small music venue that closed up more than a decade ago.
This article was adapted for print from Mr. Havighurst's original online piece, which also contains an audio postcard, on the WMOT Roots Radio 89.5 website.
Special thanks to Craig Havighurst and WMOT Roots Radio 89.5