Last September, Dave Brown and Mike Grimes, co-owners of Nashville’s own “Cellarful of Noise,” The Basement, were standing in a cavernous building on Woodland Street. With nearly 7,500 square feet of open space surrounding them, the two business partners realized they were at a crossroads.
Grimes looked at Brown and said, “I’m scared to death.”
“We have to do this,” Brown said. “We talked about this. We found this place. Of course it’s daunting, but what the hell else are we going to do?”
Eight months later, Brown and Grimes are standing in the same spot, showing off The Basement East. Already dubbed “The Beast” by local music fans, the recently opened music venue lives up to its nickname with 3,000 square feet of space in the main room, a 30-foot-long stage worthy of a classic theater, a lengthy and well-stocked bar, and a roomy deck running nearly the length of the building.
“Since we had an empty space to work with, we built it to functionality from not only a bartender’s perspective, but also from a musician’s point of view and for the audience,” Brown says. “The original Basement has certain limitations because of the building, but this was an open canvas, so we could build it exactly how we wanted it.”
“People walked in the first night and said it doesn’t feel like the first night,” Grimes says. “It feels like it’s been open for a while. That’s a real compliment.”
There’s a very good reason The Basement East seems like an old favorite rather than a new, untested venue. Brown and Grimes have decades of experience attending rock shows, playing music, booking bands, and managing nightclubs. More important than the accumulated experience is the pair’s firm devotion to great live music. For both, running a great music club isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.
Grimes is very specific about the moment his life’s calling revealed itself in a blaze of rock & roll glory. Pulling up an image of a mid-’70s KISS concert poster on his phone, he points at it enthusiastically. “That’s it,” he says. “Aug. 27, 1975, the Owensboro (Ky.) Sportscenter — that was the moment when it happened. I was 12 years old, had a $5 ticket, and I was standing just a few feet from KISS, with the stage just about as high as the one we have here. The fireworks were going off, and they almost burned down the Sportscenter. That’s when I knew I was going to either play music or work with music. It had to be one or the other.”
After high school, Grimes left his native Owensboro to attend Western Kentucky University, spending time in Bowling Green’s small indie rock scene before making the move to Nashville in the late ’80s.
“I did anything I could to stay close to music,” Grimes says. “Worked in record stores, interned at publishing companies, worked in promotions for Sony — anything that could lead to some better-paying, music-related job. All the while, I was also playing music.”
After bouncing through several local rock bands, Grimes formed the early ’90s rock combo The Bis-Quits with fellow Nashville rock scene vets Will Kimbrough, Tommy Meyer, and Tommy Womack. He moved from that group to playing guitar with Bobby Bare Jr.’s band. After two-and-a-half years on the road with Bare Jr., he was ready to move on to other challenges.
“I quit and thought I’d get in another band, and it just didn’t happen,” Grimes says. “A friend of mine had started a vintage clothing store in Berry Hill. She suggested I open a record store in an available house across the street from her. I had about 6,000 records and CDs. I wasn’t a collector. I just amassed records from yard sales and had tons of great music to listen to. So I took every record I had, stuck them in the house I rented and put my name out there. I figured even if it failed, people would drop by and hang out.”
In December 1999, Grimey’s New and Preloved Music opened. While far from a megasuccess at first, the store did moderately well, and its status as a hangout for music lovers and fellow musicians spread. After a few months, Grimes stumbled upon an opportunity to take the “cool hangout” concept to another level.
“David Gehrke and I were recording with Josh Rouse at Woodland Studio,” he says. “We had tracked three or four songs and wanted to get a beer. Across from Woodland, there was this place on the corner of 5 Points called Shirley’s. We went over, had a beer, and started talking about starting our own bar on the East Side.” The next day, Grimes and Gehrke decided to see if Shirley was interested in selling the bar.
“I don’t know why we thought we could walk into a place that already existed and just buy it from her,” Grimes says. “But we asked Shirley how long she had been there and she said, ‘17 years, and I’m ready to get out!’ ”
After verifying that they could take over the lease, Grimes wrote Shirley a check for $10,000, the sum total of his savings at that point, and the newly rechristened Slow Bar officially opened for business on Nov. 17, 2000. At first, the only major change was the addition of a well-stocked jukebox. With limited space and only a beer license, the bar had its limitations, but it didn’t take long for the word to spread about a hip, little hangout in 5 Points.
“It was still in the prerenaissance or whatever you want to call that period for East Nashville, and it just became this thing,” Grimes says. “The word got out to a lot of younger people about this ‘dangerous’ part of East Nashville and this cool little bar. We weren’t doing live music yet, but people went to shows at other bars and then at 1:30 a.m., 60 or 70 people would show up.”
Although the Slow Bar was never intended to be a live music venue, had no PA system, and only a small raised platform that barely qualified as a stage, Grimes soon found bands were eager to play. The bar opened at one of the lowest points for live rock music since the birth of Nashville’s alternative rock scene in the early ’80s. The Exit/In had closed temporarily, leaving only a handful of music venues open to local groups and up-and-coming rock bands on tour. The first shows were by local acts or musicians just looking to play a show while in town to record.
“Phone calls started coming in,” Grimes says, “Wheat, Japancakes, The Postal Service, Kings of Leon’s first two shows, The Shins, My Morning Jacket, Alex Chilton, The Dirt Bombs. I got a call from The Black Keys. I’d never heard of them. They sent me their CD and they were awesome, but they wanted a $100 guarantee, and I had to think about that.”
Between 2001 and 2003, the Slow Bar ruled the indie rock scene in Nashville with a string of classic shows. It also helped spark a renaissance in the 5 Points area as other bars and restaurants began to open. But Grimes soon realized that hip rock cred wasn’t much help when it came to paying real-world bills. Closing its doors on Sept. 1, 2003, Slow Bar’s location was eventually taken over by new owners and renamed “Three Crow Bar.”
“The Slow Bar was my school of hard knocks,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. About a year and a half in, I had to buy out my partner because things weren’t working out. We had made some mistakes that carried through to the end of our three-year lease. But it taught me I love booking music, and I love helping up-and-coming bands.”
Grimes wasn’t the only one discovering a passion for booking live music. Just three blocks away, Dave Brown was handling the same duties for Radio Cafe. Opening in 1995 on the corner of Woodland and 14th Street, Radio Cafe was a pioneering music venue in the early days of East Nashville’s revival. The club’s original owner, Mac Hill, closed it in 2001, but a new owner reopened the small cafe in 2003.
“The Radio Cafe reopened about six months before the Slow Bar closed,” Brown says. “It was just going to be a neighborhood cafe with no live music, and I was hired as a bartender. The cafe part didn’t go over that well, so to save my own skin, I started booking music. At first, I was so envious of what Mike was doing with the Slow Bar. He kicked my butt on a nightly basis.”
Although Brown was still learning the art of booking live music, he had years of experience working in bars and restaurants.
A native of Chattanooga, his turning point came while he was attending college in San Antonio, Texas, in the late ’80s.
“I was an advertising major, and I hated it,” Brown says. “I was having horrible visions that I would be middle-aged, have 2.3 kids, live in the suburbs, and hate my life. That was the way I grew up, and it frightened me because I was terrified of being bored.
“A really close friend of mine was raped and murdered, and it forced me to really think about life. It might sound hokey, but I made a promise to myself that when I died, I would be able to look back and say I did what I wanted to do.”
After dropping out of college, Brown hitchhiked across the U.S., working in restaurants and bars, and living in locales as varied as Alaska and New Orleans, while also playing music on his own and with various bands. After three years of roving, Brown made his way back to his home town where he worked for nine years at one of Chattanooga’s oldest and most popular pubs, The Pickle Barrel.
“I learned everything about the business from Nick Bowers, the owner,” Brown says. “He taught me that to build a great bar or restaurant, it has to become your life. It’s a labor of love, and if you don’t love it, you need to do something else.”
Brown eventually found his way to Nashville in 2001 — a path that led to his position as music booker for Radio Cafe. With the early aughts’ drought of live rock venues, Brown focused on the local punk and rock scene. “I was booking music seven nights a week, bartending six, did all the managerial stuff and was sleeping five hours a night,” he says. “The neighborhood was really rocking hard back then. It’s almost a forgotten chapter now. The rest of Nashville was afraid to come to the East Side and they just left it alone. Every night, there was something going on. I’d finish what I was doing at the Radio Cafe and then make the circuit. The Alley Cat was open then, and The 5 Spot and the Family Wash were both going great.”
Brown continued at Radio Cafe until 2005. Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, events had been in motion that would lead to Brown and Grimes uniting their business acumen.
In May 2002, while Grimes was still running Slow Bar in East Nashville, he sold a half interest in his record store to Doyle Davis, a former manager at The Great Escape. The new partners kept the cool kids hangout vibe of Grimey’s, but also began transforming it into a new and used indie record retail powerhouse. By early 2004, the business had outgrown the tiny house in Berry Hill, and Grimes and Davis were looking for a larger space. That’s when they discovered a renovated Victorian mansion on 8th Avenue South that just happened to have a live music venue in the basement.
“I thought the space (for the store) was perfect,” Grimes says. “I went back and told Doyle, and he said, ‘You just want that space because there’s a club underneath.’ But when he saw it, he was sold.”
Grimey’s relocated to their new location in June 2004, and by early 2005, Grimes, along with bartender Geoff Donovan, had taken over the lease and management of The Basement. Although limited by space and the odd layout of the venue, The Basement quickly gained a reputation with inventive booking of local bands and lower- to mid-level national acts. Their success soon led to the need for an extra bartender.
“When my job at the Radio Cafe had run its course, Geoff Donovan offered me a job bartending at The Basement,” Brown says. “I started working one night a week, on Saturdays. I believed so much in what they were doing that every other job I got had to work around my schedule at The Basement. I soon went to two nights a week and convinced them to open on Sundays so I could go to three nights.”
After five years, Donovan was ready to move on to other ventures and sold his shares to Grimes and Brown. The new partners continued refining their business.
“I took what I had learned from my days at Pickle Barrel and applied it to The Basement,” Brown says. “That’s when we started to blossom as a business. I really pushed the idea of doing a 7 o’clock show. Even if you only do $200 at the bar, when you multiply that out three times a week and then into a year’s worth of revenue, that’s $30,000 that you weren’t making. Having earlier shows also gave us flexibility with good bands that might not be able to draw the number of people that we need for a 9 o’clock show. Say they bring in 40 people, it’s a good show for the band and it helps the bar.”
Although Brown and Grimes continued to refine their business at The Basement, they both knew it was time to expand. “We had been talking about expanding for a while,” Grimes says. “We looked at three or four places, but all fell short because of location or timing. Some were cool, but really small. We wanted it to be in the right neighborhood, and it had to be big enough for a proper stage.”
“It all came down to the best luck of my life,” Brown says. “We had an early listening party at The Basement. I usually drive up Davidson Street, but I was low on gas that day. I went to 5 Points to gas up and was coming down Woodland and saw the for rent sign. The landlord had just put it out that morning.”
“Dave called me,” Grimes says. “He had to go to work, but I drove over right then. I couldn’t get inside, but I looked through the windows and called the owner. He came over and showed it to me that day. It was huge. I made arrangements for the next day so Dave could look at it. I asked my wife that night, should we go big or go home, and she said go big.”
Although Grimes and Brown both thought the space was perfect, finding the funding to bring their dream to fruition was another matter. That’s when the pair learned the true value of a good reputation. “I told the landlord, ‘Look, we don’t know how we’re going to do this, and we don’t even know if we can do this, but we’ll put earnest money down so you’ll know we’re serious,’ ” Grimes says. “We were lucky the landlord liked us. We were just two guys saying how much we wanted the place.”
Their good fortune continued when Grimes ran into a friend who had funds he was looking to invest, and two other investors were soon added. With financing in place and the lease signed, a marathon run of design and construction began. They turned to another friend, Chark Kinsolving, the designer, builder, and former owner of Mercy Lounge.
“Chark is incredibly insightful and knowledgeable,” Brown says. “What he did with the Mercy Lounge is amazing. It’s a landmark. There were so many times he said, ‘No, you should do this and here’s why.’ And the light bulb would go off in our heads — of course!”
Current plans for The Basement East include an adjacent pub and extended deck area in the rear portion of the main floor that are scheduled to open this fall. Brown and Grimes also plan to continue operating the original Basement under Grimey’s, while making big plans for the club’s East Side brother. With a solid 10-year lease on The Basement East and an option to buy, they are eagerly looking forward to the long-term success of their rock & roll palace on Woodland.
“A big part of this was coming back to East Nashville,” Brown says. “I’ve lived over here the whole 14 years I’ve been in Nashville, and it has a special place in my heart. It means a lot for us to come back and be a part of a neighborhood and scene that we really, truly love so much.
“One of our partners asked us when we would know that it’s going to be a success. I said two years because of what I know about the failure rate of new businesses, but Mike instinctively said, ‘The first night!’ That’s why we make great business partners. I’m thinking about all the things that can happen, and you have to be so careful, but Mike is just, ‘No, we’ll know. If people come out and dig it the first night, we’ll know.’ ”
“And it was great,” Grimes says. “It was so rock & roll.”