Music club

Nashville music club owners remember the night the music died

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When frantic messages started pouring in that a tornado had struck a beloved concert hall in Nashville, Mike Grimes figured it couldn’t be that bad.

Could the basement really be destroyed? Hours earlier, the club that co-owns Grimes held a benefit concert for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Affectionately nicknamed “The Beast”, the club was only 5 years old, but had already earned a reputation as one of Nashville’s hippest music venues, across the river from the honky -tonks loaded with tourists from the town of Broadway.

The venue, with a maximum capacity of 475 seats, quickly became a leading venue for hosting renowned artists in an intimate setting. Margo Price, Cage the Elephant, John Prine, Maggie Rogers, Maren Morris, Sturgill Simpson and many more have played there.

Maybe, Grimes thought desperately as he walked to the club, the people texting him about the destruction were exaggerating.

But when he stopped in front of The Beast, his stomach deflated. The tornado had torn off the roof cleanly a little after 1 a.m., crumbling the majority of the walls and leaving a tangled mess of destruction behind.

“You just don’t want to believe it,” Grimes said. “It was an immediate shock.”

The March 3 storm killed more than 20 people, some in their beds, as it hit after midnight. More than 140 buildings were destroyed in a 60-mile strip of central Tennessee, burying people in rubble and basements.

The six Basement East personnel cleaning up after the Sanders event escaped the harm by running to the actual basement of the building minutes before the powerful EF-3 tornado roared down the street. It took two staff members to close the door against the winds, just as the tornado passed.

Hot on the heels of the tornadoes, the virus outbreak hit the state with full force last spring, and by Thanksgiving, Tennessee ranked among the hardest hit in the nation, with a record number of hospitalizations and cases. To date, more than 11,000 residents have died from COVID-19.

The pandemic has hit Nashville’s famed music scene particularly hard. Small intimate clubs were not designed to take into account virus control measures such as social distancing.

“It’s so weird to have a scenario where the building is gone and then we have something…like COVID-19,” a confluence of devastating events “that has never happened like this in our lifetimes,” Grimes said.

As the virus raged, the dream of once again filling Basement East with music lovers seemed more fragile than ever.

“There were times when the thought crossed my mind: ‘It’s not going to happen’,” said Dave Brown, the club’s other owner.

Basement East first opened in 2015, but it took nearly five years for the site to turn a profit. It wasn’t until 2020 that Brown and Grimes felt they could breathe, that what they were doing was working. The partners – who describe themselves as teenage adults with a passion for rock ‘n’ roll – had wanted to celebrate their fifth anniversary in April 2020, but the tornado and the pandemic had other plans.

Now, as the anniversary of the two catastrophic events approaches, the partners hope to finally reopen. Amid signs that virus cases are dwindling and with more people vaccinated, they have set their sights on this spring. But they still plan to require customers to wear masks and will distribute tables throughout the club’s 5,000 square foot (465 square meter) space.

When the tornado hit Basement East last March, it left one thing standing: part of a mural with the slogan “I believe in Nashville.”

Like that wall, the city itself is steadfast and resilient, Brown and Grimes note. Both believe that Nashville’s central role in the world of American entertainment and culture will ensure its perseverance.

“The magic of music,” Brown said. “That’s what makes this place so strong.”