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Scene: Country Music Takes Root At Joelton Hardware

Joelton is an unincorporated community north of Nashville with no discernable town center and no dazzling reputation a destination for a night out. An unlikely bid to fill that cultural space has taken shape at Joelton Hardware, Feed and Farmacy on Clarksville Pike. That’s farmacy because you can’t fill a prescription there, but you can buy locally-grown produce and stuff to keep chickens.

One can also hear exceptional country music at Joelton Hardware, played and curated by one of the most interesting and important figures in Nashville roots music, the lanky Lower Broadway pioneer Greg Garing. There’s good food and craft beer as well and a gathering retinue of regulars. We dwell a lot on music scenes when they vanish, and it’s rare to spot them being born. But something pretty wholesome and outstanding is growing at Joelton Hardware.

There, between Smiley’s Vape Shop and Grandaddy’s Hot Chicken is the neon ‘open’ sign above a white board listing the week’s live music. It’s spacious inside. A full kitchen, a small bar, a stage with an upright piano and a collection of thrift store tables and chairs define the near side of the room. Off to the left are shelves and shelves of everything the Joelton homeowner might need - air filters, hoses, sandpaper, duct tape, spray paint and organic pesticides. You can get a key made or buy guitar strings or get equipped for fall canning. Keeping with the times, there’s a small counter of CBD products. Owner Kris Houser says it’s becoming a general store and community hub, and that she’s been making this up as she goes.

Joelton Hardware
Ed Rode

“Well, we moved out of East Nashville about 16 years ago with our two little babies. And we've been here since then,” says Kris. She and husband Eliot built a “little homestead farm,” part of a small movement of city emigres living the rural life twenty minutes from downtown. As her kids got older, she grew interested in building something in and about her community. So she bought a business, a hardware store in a strip along Clarksville Highway, and soon decided it could do more in a significantly larger space in the same mall that came available.

“So we took on a six-year lease and we renovated it,” she says. “And I knew when we took that lease that the thing that would be a game changer would be adding food, local food if I could do it. Because it can change the community.”

Into the scene with impeccable timing wandered Lee Miller, a chef with New York training and years of experience cooking in southern Louisiana, who stepped in to finish out the kitchen and launch the new era with a crawfish boil this spring.

“We got the beer permit, and we had a big party,” says Houser, who is also, it should be said, a singer and songwriter. “My band played and a couple other my friends’ bands played, and the community ate it up. And that was the day Greg Garing walked in, because he just happened to be staying at a house around the corner. So it all just kind of blew up and came together, I say under the grace of, you know, everything good and holy.”

“As soon as I saw the place, I saw the potential,” said Garing on a recent Monday night before his weekly bluegrass set. “They said we want to do a music venue, but we’re so busy. And I said, well I got time. A few days later I had keys and a few days after that we had music six nights a week.”

Garing tapped a network of musicians he’s known for decades. He says he met fiddler Billy Contreras when he was a boy and a fiddle prodigy. Now he’s in the bluegrass band, along with country artist and instrumentalist Brennen Leigh, whom he’s known for nearly 15 years. Old compatriot Kenny Vaughan has been playing with his trio on Wednesday nights when he’s in town and not touring with Marty Stuart. Loretta Lynn’s former piano player Gene Dunlap leads a jazz trio on Thursdays. Nora Jane Struthers and her husband Joe will be there this coming Saturday at noon.

“It’s turning into a listening room,” Garing says. “Musicians are liking playing here and that’s the whole goal from my end. It’s just this wonderful co-op that comes together with farmers and musicians and artists and good old country folks. There are some real interesting old timers out here, that’s for sure.”

The bluegrass set was raw and rollicking, with anchoring banjo playing from Luke Munday, drifting harmonies from Leigh and the daring, edge-of-the-seat solos that define Billy Contreras as a genius of his time. I had Lee’s excellent cheeseburger and local draft beer. But it was my return trip on Saturday night that hit me in the gut and reminded me of Garing’s gifts.

It’s hard to convey the mystique and talent of Greg Garing in a short space. During the 1990s, when his sets at Tootsie’s were seminal in the historic Lower Broadway renaissance, he was typecast by some as a reincarnation of Hank Williams, but that was always too simplistic. While he’s mastered a massive repertoire of classic country, he’s an astute, contemporary songwriter with a broad ear. On stage, he commits to a lyric and the drama of a song like few singers I’ve seen, with direct lonesome emotion that can be startling.

He split from Broadway and from Nashville in 1996 and became an underground icon in Brooklyn. He traveled extensively and lived for spells in dozens of states. He battled some debilitating health issues, but he says he’s doing “a thousand times better” lately and that he’s been back in Nashville for about eight years.

“To tell you the truth, the pandemic made me a little crazy like all the other musicians,” he told me. “That’s the first year I’ve taken off and not performed. So it allowed me to regroup myself. I made a way out-there record. And just as I was about to mix that I walked in here and went to straight country music again. So we’ll see what happens with that.”

And it’s happening. With a lean and propulsive three-piece band, including Eliot Houser playing a mean and spot-on electric bass, Garing seized old songs by the neck and shook ‘em. “Milwaukee Here I Come,” from the catalog of fireball Jimmy Martin, Johnny Horton’s “Ole Slew Foot,” the one about the bear that could make 30 feet a jump, and “Night Train To Memphis,” from the heart of Roy Acuff’s repertoire. He’s also an astonishing guitar player who filled the spaces in the songs with the tone of an old hollow body Gibson electric guitar through a vintage-sounding amplifier. He coursed across chord changes with blistering runs and swoops and surprising angles, as if John Coltrane was a country picker.

It wasn’t the biggest crowd Joelton Hardware has seen, on this rainy night in August, but Garing performed as if to a full house, utterly focused. Several times he said, as if surprised with himself, that he’d not played this or that song in years. But it was certainly the old Garing, not just here for a one off but here to build something and to share his lifetime of experience and musical relationships with anybody willing to make the short trip out for a hang.

Garing and the team also have their sights set on building out the large back yard of the store into a beer garden and a stage. Kris summed up the formula as she stood behind the store’s central counter. Gesturing to the shelves she said, “over here’s the hardware.” Looking back at the listening room, the kitchen and the music and the people - “There’s the software.”

Find Joelton Hardware on the web HERE.
5538 Clarksville Pike, Joelton TN, 37080
Call: (615) 891-1098

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Craig Havighurst

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.