The Radio Cafe Perseverance Society
Serving up music for two decades, Mac Hill isn't done yet
Mac Hill was in downtown Nashville on that cloudy, stormy day in April 1998 when an F3 tornado came roaring through the center of the city, crossed the Cumberland River, and tore a path down Woodland Street. The swirling maelstrom headed straight for his home, restaurant, and music venue, the Radio Cafe.
“I wanted to get home as fast as I could,” Hill recalls almost 20 years after that day of black clouds and sirens. “You couldn’t drive down Main Street it was so torn up. I had to go up Ellington, circle back to the Eastland Kroger parking lot, and walk the rest of the way, climbing over downed trees and telephone poles. As I got closer to Woodland Street, I started seeing some of the posters from my windows hanging in the limbs of trees.”
Hill eventually made his way to the corner of Woodland and 14th and found the majestic two-story, limestone building was still standing, but the tornado had done its work. “The windows were blown out, the roof had been partially blown off, but my cook was sitting outside smoking a cigarette,” he remembers. “We had no power, but I had a generator — enough to power a light bulb and the beer cooler. We cooked all the food we could, and we never missed a lick. The neighbors who were all sorting through the damage they had sustained to their homes during the day showed up that night. We had music every night for the three weeks it took them to hook the power back up.”
That spirit of perseverance and neighborhood camaraderie is the flame that Hill has protected and nurtured for over two decades on the East Side. As the founder, owner, and manager of the Radio Cafe in the mid-1990s, he brought regular live music performances back to East Nashville at a time when most of the city had written off the neighborhood as a de-musicalized zone. Working with other neighborhood revitalization pioneers, he encouraged a vision of what East Side neighborhoods could be despite years of neglect, demonstrating his belief through persistence and building his game-changing music venue one step at a time.
That same persistence is evident in the rebirth of the Radio Cafe. Since reopening the beloved music venue in the spring of 2016, Hill has slowly rebuilt, expanded, and improved its new Inglewood location at 4150 Gallatin Pike. It’s been a slow journey bringing the Radio Cafe back to life, but one that Hill has doggedly pursued. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Hill was busy working on the soon-to-be-opened kitchen when he paused to reminisce on two decades of making friends, building a community, and bringing music to the East Side of the river.
“I’ve never been a musician, but I’ve always loved music,” Hill says. “I grew up in Jackson, Miss., and when I was a sophomore in high school I booked the band for the senior prom. I was always that kind of guy, hanging around with musicians. I had a pickup truck, so I would book bands and provide cartage to gigs. I loved music, but luckily for listeners, I don’t play.”
By the early ’90s, Hill was working as a salesman for a lab equipment company in Memphis, Tenn. “I was really into the Memphis music scene. I even started working in bars because I was always there anyway. In 1992, my company transferred me to Nashville, and I made the switch from one music scene to another. I was going to the Bluebird all the time.”
After renting for a year, Hill decided to buy property in Nashville. As a lover of classic architecture and with some experience in construction and renovation, Hill cast his eyes east of the river, settling on the former Hooser’s Pharmacy building at the corner of Woodland Street and 14th. Built around 1900 by Dr. Eddie Hooser, the building had been a landmark neighborhood business for over 80 years. Although it still exuded tons of classic architectural charm, the surrounding neighborhood was anything but fashionable.
“It was considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Nashville at that time,” Hill says. “By the ’80s, two pharmacists had bought the business from the Hooser family, but they got robbed so many times they just quit. It was used as a training gym for women wrestlers and a plastic flower florist for a while, but it had been sitting vacant for a year when I found it. I had a down payment, but no bank would touch it. It took me nine months to close the deal. Finally, the two owners self-financed it to me.”
Hill’s plan was to live in the upstairs and rent out the downstairs as commercial space. His first renter opened the coffee shop Cafe Crossroads in early 1994, but closed in less than a year. Shortly thereafter, Hill’s company wanted to transfer him to a new territory. Instead, Hill decided to go into business for himself. In March 1995 he opened the Radio Cafe coffee shop and restaurant — and quickly discovered some special challenges.
“The drug dealers did not want me there, and they did not want the neighborhood to change,” Hill says. “The drug dealers started shooting out my windows. I had to replace them four times. I got bulletproof glass so finally I just left the bullet cracks in the window. Other people were moving into the neighborhood and renovating houses, and we became really tight. It was like living on the frontier.”
In addition to making a stand on his corner of the Wild, Wild East, Hill became a community organizer, cofounding the East Bank Business Coalition (which evolved into the East Nashville Business Council) to lobby the city council for improvements to the neighborhood and promote East Nashville’s image. Along with improving his neighborhood, Hill soon found a way back to his love of music.
“A lot of musicians were moving into the neighborhood and would drop in the Radio Cafe and say, ‘Let’s have some music.’ Within six months of opening, we were having regular shows. We started out with a little stage right by the windows that were being shot all the time, but we didn’t tell them that.”
Over the next three years, the Radio Cafe slowly built its reputation as an off-the-beaten- path restaurant and music venue. Tourists flocked to the Bluebird Cafe on the west side, but among Nashville music cognoscenti, the Radio Cafe became the locus of singer-songwriter underground cool with performances by Todd Snider, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Marshall Chapman, Phil Lee, Emmylou Harris, and many others. Gradually word spread through stories in the local papers, as well as national publications like No Depression and Mix magazine.
As excitement about the East Side’s nascent music scene increased, many felt that something big was coming, but no one expected it would manifest as the tornado that arrived on April 16, 1998. Along with the Radio Cafe, dozens of businesses and approximately 300 homes were damaged in East Nashville. St. Ann’s Episcopal Church on Woodland Street was partially demolished, the Russell Street Church of Christ and the Tulip Street United Methodist Church suffered major damage, and an estimated 8,000 trees were uprooted. Ironically, the tornado ultimately accelerated the revitalization of East Nashville.
“The tornado brought publicity to the neighborhood,” Hill says. “Everyone was talking about how messed up East Nashville was. A lot of onlookers from other parts of the city discovered these beautiful houses. A lot of people got their insurance money and moved out, putting their homes up for sale. That started a new wave of renovation and growth.”
As East Nashville rebuilt and transformed, music venues began to open. Joe’s Diner (now the Rosepepper Cantina), Slow Bar (now 3 Crow Bar), and others joined the Radio Cafe, expanding the East Side’s cache of musical cool. By September 2001, Hill grew weary of 18-hour days, and with new, locally owned eateries springing up, he decided to shut down the restaurant operations of the Radio Cafe while continuing to book music in the downstairs space.
For two years, the Radio Cafe continued as a part-time music venue. In 2003, Hill agreed to rent the space and the name to outside management. The new version of the Radio Cafe brought a greater emphasis on rock shows and featured a full bar, but the arrangement only lasted a few months. Hill resumed management in early 2004, but by 2007 he was definitely ready to step away.
“I was just burned out,” Hill says. “I wanted to get out of the business, so I sold the building in 2007. I bought a house in Inglewood and just hung out for a while trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I have a degree in finance, so I started working as a tax advisor for H&R Block and managed one of their branches for a couple of years.”
Although preparing tax forms provided stability and less stress for Hill, the excitement of live music was not easy to leave behind. He began looking at potential locations for a new Radio Cafe, and as before, he decided to fulfill his vision with patience and persistence. His path eventually led him to the former home of Joe Corley Motors at 4150 Gallatin Pike, a used car lot once known for its Native American décor and a notorious, politically incorrect statue of “Chief Waki-No-Mo.”
“As soon as I saw it I knew it was the place,” Hill says. “It had plenty of parking, two bathrooms, an area I could use for dining, and the garage area would make a great performance space. I started working on it around the first of 2014. I did all the work myself, so it took over two years. The main performance space is over 1,200 square feet and I had to do a lot of work on the acoustics of the room, but it sounds great now.”
Since opening for special shows in 2016 — followed by a more regular schedule in the spring of 2017 — the new Radio Cafe has hosted a wide variety of music, acting, standup comedy, poetry readings, and more. With each event, Hill improves the venue with an eclectic and always surprising schedule.
Goat Day is perhaps the finest example of the new Radio Cafe’s eclecticism. A partnership with Shenanigoats, a local company supplying goats for landscaping and special events, as well as classes in “Goat Yoga,” Goat Day is a monthly Sunday afternoon family event involving music, beer (for the adults) and baby goats.
“I contacted them and asked if they would bring their baby goats for a day last July,” Hill says. “Our back yard area is completely fenced in so it’s perfect. We had probably 200 people show up for the first Goat Day. We’ve made it a monthly event and added kid karaoke. We’re going to start it up again in March and add an arts fair to the day, although we’ll have to make some arrangements to prevent the goats from eating the artisans’ products.”
Hill sees the Radio Cafe as more than a music venue. It’s a neighborhood hub, a place where locals and like-minded visitors can hang out and enjoy themselves no matter what’s on the schedule — a place where the East Side moxie that created good times with nothing but a light bulb, a beer cooler, and an acoustic guitar still endures.
“I’m just trying to keep some of the old school going,” Hill says. “That’s all there is to it.”