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Meanwhile In Madison, Dee’s Lounge Looks To The Light After A Dark Year

Michael Weintrob
Daniel Walker and Amy Dee Richardson

Many years ago, during a stay in Amsterdam, I learned a beautiful word. Gezelligheid, whose pronunciation is unspellable with our crude 26 letters, is a cherished Dutch noun/adjective that roughly translates as a vibe that is cozy, social and joyfully relaxed. It’s an elevated state of being that I certainly experienced in Amsterdam and have sought ever since. It fits the atmosphere at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge.

Since opening in Madison five years ago, Dee’s has carved out a colorful niche in Nashville’s night life and live roots music scene by being hip yet humble, musically astute and locally oriented. The bar has in certain ways filled the void left by the demise of the Family Wash as the place musicians and their pals go to mingle. Rolling Stone noticed it nationally as a “hidden hangout for Nashville’s working musicians and fans of old-school country.” 

Proprietors Amy Dee Richardson and her husband Daniel Walker are urban pioneers as well, putting Madison on today’s Music City map as the latest iteration of the New, Next East Nashville and reviving a country music continuity that stretches back to when Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe lived in the quaint suburb. Now in the waning months of the Covid-19 pandemic, they’re also survivors, having nursed the place through the greatest crisis in the history of American live music.

“The storm still going on,” Daniel told WMOT in the conversation presented here. “But we can see the light shining in and we're just really excited to be able to allow more and more people to enjoy what we're doing here and bring back the community that we've missed for so long.”

Thursday night this week at Dee’s was a scene from that reawakening, with Spring weather drawing folks to the front porch and a faster-than-projected vaccination program bolstering confidence. Daniel’s own house band The Killer Dees set up for an 8 to 10 pm set, with out of town visitor Emory Joseph sitting in on vocals and guitar. The crowd stayed below the bar’s current Covid capacity cap, and patrons wore masks on entry and when moving about the room. But they also shook hands, hugged and caught up with one another, gingerly, like forest creatures poking their heads out curiously after a long winter. For me, it was the first night at an indoor club with a live band in more than a year, at least the first that didn’t feel funereal, and it was profound, a shot in the arm sweeter than Moderna.

Daniel Walker, second from right, and the Killer Dees, playing Thursday April 8.

Dee’s is a neat rectangle, neither too small nor too large, divided in thirds by columns and comfortably lit by beer signs and string lights. An abstracted art guitar made of wood strips defines the stage area in racing stripe colors that would suit a 1973 cruiser van. There’s a disco ball (tasteful) over the stage and floor-to-ceiling gold tinsel (less so) behind the bandstand, glittering in a junior prom kind of way. There are two dart boards, a pool table, a painting of a moose, and a taxidermy bobcat. On one wall is a photo of George Jones kissing Johnny Cash, and on the opposite is a photo of Todd Snider and Neal Cassal freaking out at each other on stage, a cross section of patron saints. Note as well the bowl of fresh oranges on the bar, because Dee’s mixes proper cocktails, though you may drink draft or canned beer all you like, as long as you don’t drive drunk or put one on the pool table.

“It’s got more spirit than any formal music venue’s gonna have,” says East Side banjo player and band leader Kyle Tuttle. He calls it a “living room” setting where pickers can try stuff and workshop new combinations. “It’s a very special scene that they’ve had going on and a gift that Amy and Daniel are able to give the rest of us. I’ve been in there playing electric banjo in a skeleton suit more times than I can count. Why do they let me do that? I don’t know, but they do.”

Happy hour and live performance regular Sue Havlish, retired publishing executive and partner in life of blues guitarist and songwriter Mark Robinson, a stalwart on the bar’s stage, marvels at how Dee’s reminds her of the convivial blue-collar bars of her Indiana home. “It has a real rustbelt feel but with a Southern sensibility,” she says. “It is as diverse a group as you could imagine. Especially the Madison old timers, who are as welcome to hang at the bar as any man-bun hipster.” The jukebox, which is free and stocked with classic country and oddities, is so vital, she says, that it's "almost a sentient being.”

This all got started when Amy relocated to Nashville in 2013. She’d spent years serving and managing in New York’s rough and tumble bar and restaurant scene, and she was ready for a fresh start and warmer weather. Coaxed to town by a chef friend and several visits, she got oriented as a regular at Mickey’s Tavern on Gallatin Pike. And in time, she saw a void in Music City.

“I was shocked that there wasn't just a regular bar that had a classic country jukebox, a decent drink and a good pour and occasional live music,” she says. With midwestern roots, her idea of a regular bar was cultivated by the neighborhood taverns on Chicago’s north side, places where pretentions go to die. So she and Mickey’s owner Andy Gaines partnered up and looked around for a space. What they found was a decaying old beer joint behind a donut bakery and sex toy store in as-yet undiscovered Madison. Perfect!

By then Amy was dating Daniel, and they went to work, swapping out the old bar, moving a few things about and generally de-grunging, without stripping the place of its character or the plywood floors of their seemingly geological patina. With early artist patrons such as Margo Price, Elizabeth Cook and Joshua Hedley (currently playing a residency), community cred came rapidly, and by 2019 it was a landmark for those tuned into Nashville’s pre-boomtown wavelength.

It may have the look of a place that’s been there for decades, but as a fledgling venture Dee’s was all the more vulnerable to the pandemic’s worst-case scenarios of last April. “I definitely got to a doom and gloom place,” Amy says, fearing that “everything that we've worked so hard for was gone. And then we tried to do our best to stay shut and follow the rules.” With most of America’s performance sector frozen in place, they were dismayed by establishments downtown that violated the spirit or the letter of the law in 2020. “Other bars didn't care and weren't enforcing anything and there were no repercussions. It was really infuriating because we try to do what's best for not just our community but Nashville as a whole.”

One lifeline was an investment in audio/video gear to create a viable streaming platform, putting its small stage on the web for shows, residencies and special events. Small, masked audiences through much of 2020 offered a bit of live ambience and a trickle of revenue. Amy and Daniel scored a few key federal loans and got active in the Nashville Independent Venue Alliance, which took on all kinds of roles lobbying for support at the local, state and federal levels.

“Luckily enough, constituents and enough representatives heard the call from NIVA,” Daniel says, referencing the Save Our Stages Act, which became law in the waning days of 2020. Applications for assistance opened just this week, causing the Small Business Administration’s site to crash from demand. “Help is still on the way, but hopefully it's coming soon. I know that so many venues in Nashville and around the country are hopeful that that'll really bring them back not to where they were, but somewhere where they can build from.”

See the calendar of upcoming shows and livestreams at Dee's here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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