The special exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum celebrating the Station Inn sat mute behind glass on Monday morning as it has since it opened in January. A trickle of masked visitors paused to look and read, most perhaps unaware that the man pictured at the center of the display, the man whose patient tenacity made the Station Inn museum-worthy in the first place, had died over the weekend.
Station Inn owner Earl “J.T.” Gray, a new inductee into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, recently a presenter on the national broadcast of the Grammy Awards, died Saturday morning after complications from undisclosed illnesses. The Nashville and bluegrass communities were caught off guard by the news, having just seen the 75-year-old looking hale and healthy on CBS last Sunday, representing independent venues weathering the Covid crisis and presenting the Grammy for Best Country Album. Musicians and fans reached for explanations. We sought out one another with memories of and tributes to a profoundly important Music City figure. For a Nashville music writer and a bluegrass fan, there’s no dispassionate appraisal of the venue or its late, great boss.
I’d already made my Monday appointment to visit the exhibit, The Station Inn: Bluegrass Beacon for ordinary news coverage, never dreaming I’d be grieving over J.T., a fellow who in an indirect way guided my journey into the heart of the Nashville I love. It was the right place to be, contemplating the artifacts and ephemera that told the story: The weathered, hand-painted sign that hung out front for years. A 16-channel mixing board identified as the first piece of audio gear the club purchased. A fiddle belonging to Tammy Rogers of The Steeldrivers. A cheeky Jim McGuire photo of bass legend Roy Huskey, Jr. that hung in the green room for years. The famous seats out of Lester Flatt’s 1970s tour bus used for patrons along the back wall. An octave mandolin from Sierra Hull, representing the new generations of artists who’ve sought out and slayed on that stage. There is the old cigar box for the door money, the hand-cranked cash register, a poster marking the first show in the current location, June 16, 1978. And a photo of J.T. on his first night as owner/proprietor in 1981.
The Station Inn certainly was my Nashville beacon. When I made my first-ever visit on a work trip in the mid 1990s, it was the place I wanted to see and experience on my one night in town. I found the funky industrial neighborhood and the stone building with the hand painted sign. Inside, I found cozy wood paneling, a museum’s worth of vintage bluegrass festival posters, glowing neon beer signs, and a collection of mis-matched chairs and tables that evoked the countless kitchen jams that school and sustain so many bluegrass musicians.
And by happenstance on stage that night, as if in a dream, was the guitar player who was dominating my listening at the time on my own journey with bluegrass guitar. It was David Grier, with sidemen (“...and friends” as they like to bill them in bluegrass) whom I’d come to know years later (and who is playing the club again this Thursday). It was among the most intimate, charged and exciting evenings of music I’d experienced, and I was house-hunting in East Nashville less than two years later.
After moving to town in 1996, the Station Inn became my starting point for knowing Music City, a basis for understanding how musicians truly lived and worked, how they negotiated a place for bluegrass in a professional life where there are more lucrative styles to play. The place and its ethos were central to my evolving belief system and community. I met fellow newcomers at Sunday night jams who became longtime friends, some of whom would go on to tour the nation in major bands, win Grammy Awards and put marks in the roots music history books.
Eventually I met J.T., and while I never got to know him well, he was always open hearted and neighborly in that southern country way. His manner was level and reserved. But the story of the Station Inn’s precarious first decade and its dynamism and imagination in its heyday years indicated that Gray always had a powerful will and a devotion to putting the music and musicians first, believing that was the best compass one could steer by.
J.T. Gray was born March 7, 1946 in Corinth, MS. He made his move to Music City in 1971 to play and sing with a little-remembered band, The Misty Mountain Boys. A few years later he started his own band, Nashville Skyline, while working side gigs with luminaries like Vassar Clements and Tom T. Hall. Meanwhile, some local pickers with their own band, frustrated by the lack of opportunities at the one or two bluegrass bars in town, pooled their resources to start the first Station Inn as a jamming parlor and performance venue in an old house on 28th Ave near Centennial Park. When that proved too small, they found the current building in The Gulch and moved there in the summer of ‘78.
All this time, Gray was part of the Station Inn gang as a picker and bandleader, not imagining he’d ever be in management. Then he took a road job playing bass for the star Jimmy Martin, but thankfully for Nashville bluegrass, he soon found a more gratifying pursuit back home. In 1981, when the original owners were ready to bow out, Gray bought the Station Inn and took on the challenge of making it more of a venue than a pickers’ hangout. The Bluegrass Cardinals, leisure-suited stars of the 80s, became the first national act to perform in the Gulch building. The full house suggested there was more demand for top tier bluegrass than Gray first imagined.
J.T.’s investment in bluegrass was prescient, but ahead of its time by about a decade, so some difficult years ensued. Gray had to make improvements to the space without consistent crowds to raise capital. His side gig to keep afloat in those years was driving tour busses for major artists, something he’d do in years to come for enjoyment. Eventually though, a community took shape, spawning bands and careers. The Station Inn became a stage for The Whites in that important band’s formative days, before they became part of the Grand Ole Opry. It germinated the Nashville Bluegrass Band, eventual Grammy winners and pillars of the scene.
In the 1980s, Peter Rowan presided over explosive, adventuresome sets by his collective Crucial Country, featuring a rolling thunder revue of the “newgrass” generation: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Stuart Duncan, Vassar Clements, Ricky Skaggs and others. One has to look to a handful of historic American venues for comparable loci of musical revolution: Minton’s Playhouse in the 40s for bebop or the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970s Austin.
The audience, “realized they were seeing something really change,” says singer Maura O’Connor in the documentary The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass. “Not just a hybrid or mutant thing, but a really sophisticated acoustic music. It was visceral. You could see the new gods of bluegrass and acoustic music rise above everybody. And it happened many nights here.”
By the same token, the elders of bluegrass also sought out the club as a haven for the values that birthed the genre. There’s no giant of the music who hasn’t played there, and for years in the 80s and 90s, founding father Bill Monroe was a frequent drop-in guest, famous for striding in unannounced and heading straight up on stage with his mandolin, joining whatever dumbstruck artist happened to be performing.
The Station Inn needed a bona fide house band and it got one about 1990 with the formation of The Sidemen, a group of elite pickers and singers who worked for a variety of better-known artist/leaders. Their Tuesday night shows were loose and consistently great over a couple of decades, and their welcoming vibe became a magnet for bluegrass acolytes. The most famous of these was Dierks Bentley, who built his country music language and career on a foundation of the bluegrass epiphanies he had learning from and playing with the Sidemen crew.
All this went on because of and with the considered imprimatur of J.T. Gray, the sole booker and decider of what did and didn’t make the stage. When a group of Grand Ole Opry and studio musicians sought out a place to play classic western swing, Gray opened the club on Monday nights for the first time, and that became the legendary residency of the Time Jumpers. He graced the country comedy duo Doyle & Debbie with a stage to grow their weird and wonderful act into a sold-out phenomenon that toured and won awards.
“He put so many people in a place to be seen,” says Jeff Brown, the club’s marketing director. “He’s been steering the musicians who’ve been able to come through and influence bluegrass in the last 40 years.” Brown has been working in tandem with club manager Jeff Burke to direct the online shows and low-capacity shows that have gotten the bar through the pandemic. They will go forward running the venue, as close to the status quo as possible.
Brown told me Monday that for Gray, the clientele was at least as important to his concept of the business as the music. “J.T. understood and appreciated the love of the fan base,” he said. “Every time he’d get sick and had to step out and couldn’t come to the club for a couple days, he was usually asking about the fans. He felt at home there more than at his house. This was his family. Never married. Never kids. Bluegrass was his family for 40 years. And it kills me inside that he can’t see the love that’s outpouring for him right now.”
Gray was, at least, able to accept induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame last October in a widely watched webcast. Vince Gill presented, calling the Station Inn a “holy place for bluegrass music.” Like so many others, to adapt a great bluegrass lyric, I arrived a pilgrim. Never felt like a stranger.
The Station Inn: Bluegrass Beacon will run through Jan. 2, 2022.
J.T. Gray's induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame...