On Friday evening, I went with my daughter, who lives in Nashville, and my wife to see the Roland White Band.
I took with me a CD of White’s 1967 performance in the week that he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. I intended to give it to him. I had been sent a copy by his ex-banjo player, who somehow had kept a copy. He had invited me to attend. I did. That was a long time ago.
White’s band plays once a month at the Station Inn. The venue is something out of the mid-1970’s. It is in the Gulch area of downtown Nashville. It is tiny. In the 1950’s, it would have been called a coffee house, had it been in any city except Nashville. In the 1960’s, it would have been called a folk music club. It opened in 1974.
It holds at most 250 people. It may be closer to 200. You can buy beer and pizza. There is no minimum. It costs $12 to get in.
In 1974 in most cities, anything like it would have cost $12.
Here is the kind of music you hear at the Station Inn.
See the kid with the mandolin? That’s Roland. The kid with the guitar is his brother Clarence — probably the most spectacular bluegrass guitarist of all time. He was run over and killed by a drunk in a parking lot in 1973, not long after this performance.
On the Station Inn’s walls are posters of famous and not-so-famous bluegrass acts. On one of them, there was a list of six bands in six weeks. There was no year on it. The Del McCourey Band was coming. Underneath each name was another, lesser known band. One of them was the Steep Canyon Rangers. That band formed in 2000. It still plays in Nashville. It’s coming in March. It costs $125 per seat at Grand Ole Opry. It is Steve Martin’s back-up band. It has been since 2009.
I do not understand the economics of the Station Inn. How does it pay its real estate taxes? Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Real estate prices are skyrocketing. The location, if sold and torn down — and it would be — would be used to build a multi-story building, like those that now surround it.
My daughter’s assessment (she has an MBA): The owners maintain it for the sake of the good old days. The good old boys still attend, although there were younger people in the audience.
It’s basically a form of charity. The owners want to preserve a way of life, including prices. I know of nothing quite like it.
Walter Knott kept Knott’s Berry Farm free of charge until he died. Then his heirs turned it into a Disneyland theme park. But the founder was in the preserve business — literally. Boysenberry preserves, mainly. Knott hired unknowns to perform — people like Steve Martin. The heirs sold the preserve business in 1995. They sold the farm for $200 million in 1997.
The Station Inn is proof that money is only one motivating factor in life. There are others. Sometimes, the others prevail.
If you ever visit Nashville, check who is playing at the Station Inn. It may be worth $12.