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Amid A Celebration Of J.T. Gray, Cautious Optimism About The Station Inn’s Future

Nate Shuppert
Family members of the late Station Inn proprietor J.T. Gray play music at a Celebration of Life on Sunday.

Tributes and bluegrass music flowed freely over three hours on Sunday afternoon at Nashville’s Station Inn as friends and family remembered J.T. Gray as a man of humility and tenacity who put musicians on a pedestal and made a "home" for bluegrass in Music City. The club’s four-decade proprietor and bluegrass hall of famer died suddenly in late March, leaving a void at the beloved venue.

Among the most prominent and influential voices was country star Vince Gill. “It didn’t matter what night you came, you knew you were going to see something great. You were going to see something musical and something that would feed your soul. And I just enjoyed every trip down here for the last forty years,” Gill said from the stage. “And I’m just grateful that with a little grace and good luck it’s not going to become a big hotel of something. It’s gonna stay what we need it to be, a beautiful home for bluegrass music.”

Just how much luck and grace will it take though? The passing of Gray and his longtime landlord and friend Charles Wehby within a few weeks of one another raised questions and concern about whether their decades-old understanding – essentially a handshake deal – could survive transition to new management at a time when the land under the old stone building is said to be some of the most valuable in the fast-growing city. As of Sunday, the management question seemed settled at least, with dobro player Joshua Ulbrich, a 20-year friend of Gray’s, receiving best wishes in his new role running the business.

“As I see it right now, the Station Inn is very safe. It’s not going to go anywhere any time soon, if at all,” Ulbrich told WMOT on Tuesday morning. “The family’s concern is that it goes on exactly like J.T. had it set up.” He added that community goodwill is a powerful force working in the Station Inn’s favor. “There has been a great outpouring from family (and) friends to very influential people, celebrities, who have offered their undying support, whether it be financial or whatever we need. The consensus is that they just want the Inn to remain there for the bluegrass community.”

The next order of business though is critical and uncertain, because Gray, who had no wife or children, died without a will. “We are very close to actually opening the probate estate, maybe within another week,” Ulbrich said. Details of Gray’s assets and liabilities remain closely protected by the family. The lack of planning by the late proprietor has “complicated things, no doubt about that,” Ulbrich added.

Bass player Mike Bub, a musician who’s played the Station Inn stage as many times as anyone and who was very close to Gray, sounded quite optimistic Tuesday about a smooth transition. “I don’t think (J.T.’s family) ever figured they would be in the beer joint business. But they want it to remain, with J.T.’s wishes, which was to carry the Station Inn on forward to a new generation of people without a whole lot of change,” he said. “I just really feel positive about it. I know that Josh has a real passion for it just like we all do.”

Jeff Brown, the Station Inn’s marketing manager who has been spearheading the venue’s lifeline-like Station Inn TV streaming service during the trials of the pandemic, sought to quash rumors circulating on the internet that there are unspecified forces working against the club’s long-term survival. “The community is concerned, but that’s nothing new,” he said. “I wouldn’t put any stock in that at all. I’d say watch the room, the fact that the house is selling out and people are coming around. The fact that we did J.T.’s Celebration of Life, and it was overflowing. That is the better indicator of how things are going.”

Sunday’s ceremony was attended by three of Gray’s four siblings as well as numerous nieces and nephews, many of whom performed together on stage. Artists and industry figures sent in video greetings and tributes that were played for both the online and in-house crowds, including clips from Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien and fiancée Jan Fabricius, bass player Missy Raines and husband/engineer Ben Surratt, booking agent Mike Drudge, guitarist David Grier, and outgoing IBMA Executive Director Paul Schiminger.

A performance by the award-winning band The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, one of Gray’s favorite young bands, closed out the gathering.

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.
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