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The Family Wash Legacy Finds A New Lane At Eastside Bowl

Eastside Bowl

When Jamie Rubin first toured the building that would become the Eastside Bowl, the empty Kmart made for a bizarre sight. A row of checkout stations, stripped of their cash registers, was the only furnishing in a box almost the size of a football field. Above was an endless drop panel ceiling with rows of sprinklers and fluorescent lights. Columns held up the roof. And that was about it.

“Ninety-four thousand square feet of nothing,” Rubin says. “You could see from one end to the other. I remember the gray walls with a red stripe and the crazy echoes the room made when I stomped my foot.”

Today, the space is utterly transformed - a visually dazzling, warmly welcoming new addition to Nashville’s cultural map. Eastside Bowl, on Gallatin Pike at Briley Parkway in Madison, runs four different but complementary entities under that wide, repurposed roof, “the big top, if you will,” says Rubin.

Eastside Bowl

One enters a grand foyer with a 19-foot ceiling, suspended geometric panels, spherical pendant lights and a bold color scheme that somehow calls up the 1970s while being tasteful, which is no small feat. On the left, is Chark’s Laneside Diner, fashioned as a classic East Coast luncheonette and named for Rubin’s partner in the business Chark Kinsolving. More on him later. To the right is an arcade room, lined with pinball machines and classic video games. Straight ahead, you can head to the lounge with its ultra-long bar or go bowling on high-tech lanes that offer the game in classic form or with ricocheting, gutter-ball free twists.

Eastside Bowl

“We were able to kind of conceptualize” the interior, Rubin says, thinking back to that empty Kmart. “So we put the diner where the snack bar used to be. And where the lanes are was the women's department. And where the venue is, was the receiving room.” And for those who’ve known Jamie Rubin and Chark Kinsolving for the decades they’ve been in Nashville’s live music business, that venue may be the most important zone of this little Disney in Madison.

The 750-capacity room called The Wash at Eastside Bowl builds on the legacy of Rubin’s legendary Family Wash, which served the blossoming, bohemian East Nashville at Porter and Greenwood from 2002 to 2013 before a brief and ultimately unsuccessful move to Main Street. Rubin says this room, with two stages, a bar, a sophisticated sound system and a mezzanine level on one side, is the new nexus for the community vibe and musician-friendly ethos the old Wash cultivated. As a regular during its whole run, I can attest that it was a great neighborhood music bar that won’t ever be duplicated. But the new venue’s manager Brandon Jazz told me that several factors lay the groundwork for an indispensable independent venue in a town where venues are closing and consolidating under corporate ownership.

“We all kind of agreed we wanted it to not be a traditional music venue,” said Jazz, who spent years working at the Mercy Lounge for Kinsolving. “We looked at ways that we could do it differently here and not be beholden to any kind of rules or models.” Some of what he’s talking about are operational processes that the fan won’t see, but what is public facing is the flexible two-stage concept. National and national-scale Nashville acts will play formal shows (there will even be a curtain) from the main stage for full houses. Local artists from the Family Wash family and new voices will play the side stage and will be billed explicitly as Wash shows. That flexibility has already led to a happy mashup of events, Jazz says.

“Last month in one weekend, on the Wash stage we had DeeOhGee's record release with some fire dancers set up on a drum riser over there,” he recalled. “And then we did an EDM show on Saturday with crazy lights and lasers and so much bass. And I was in here mopping at 5:30 in the morning so that they could load in at 6:00 for the Punk Rock Flea Market all day Sunday.” I am deeply sorry to have missed that.

Eastside Bowl

Rubin’s trajectory as a scene-maker in Nashville began with a move from his hometown of Boston in 1997. He was a working guitar player and rock and roll singer with some experience in retail and hospitality. However, opening a gastro-pub music joint “wasn’t on my list of things I thought I’d be doing,” he says. Indeed, the Family Wash wasn’t the vision for Rubin’s first business partnership. They started work on what would become the Chapel Bistro (later Eastland Cafe, now Samurai Sushi East), but his partner flipped the script and surprised him with a plan to take over an old laundromat nearby. Rubin had to be strong-armed into the idea. But it was just what the neighborhood needed, a sort of secret clubhouse.

“I basically took two pubs that I loved back home in Boston - Toad and Lizard Lounge - because they had a cool concept there that I thought worked. What if I do the music (at the Wash) like that - where it’s intimate and close and like a living room?” Another model was the famed Irish tavern the Plough and Stars. “So that was my blueprint,” says Rubin. And it worked beyond expectations, becoming a true neighborhood magnet where gifted songwriters and side musicians for rock stars mingled at tables when they weren’t on stage themselves. “Community's the thing that held the Family Wash together, you know? And that was my community. I lived there. It was six blocks from my house.”

As East Nashville got busier and more expensive, holding on to the Porter Ave. lease became harder and hopes to expand got bogged down. So Rubin was shown a much larger space on Main Street, and the Wash moved with great expectations in 2015. They expanded hours to be a three-meal a day place, sold coffee and booked successful shows. But the business relationship got strained. Rubin departed the situation in late 2017, and Wash 2.0 closed in January of 2018.

Then began the slow process that led to Eastside Bowl. Rubin hooked up with his friend and fellow venue expert Chark Kinsolving, a man long of hair and rich in talents, including building things, from stages to bars to sound systems. Much of the handiwork building out the legendary Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom, which he co-owns, was his. Chark was already on the trail of renovating a historic bowling alley in Madison, so he and Rubin began planning that out in detail. After months of planning, they were blindsided by a lease agreement that just couldn’t work in a space requiring extensive renovation. And in the wake of that setback, another landholder showed them the Kmart.

Eastside Bowl

The Eastside Bowl team did not go in with a modest or parsimonious mindset. The grand, subdivided space, the 19-foot ceilings and the groovy mid-century modern retro fixtures and surfaces took time, deliberation and investment. “Chark and I kind of had the basic vibe for what we wanted to do. And I would say our North Star was 1973. So we had a lot of design ideas.”

Think of that when you ogle the smoked glass behind the bar, the hand-inked bowling pin wallpaper, the super graphic carpet whose pattern was designed by a woman in South Africa, the atomic neon ball above the main entrance and the Formica tabletops, each with its own painting of Chark and Jamie’s favorite rock and roll bands - The Who, the Stones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - all done in neon colors designed to dance under black lights like some updated teenage bedroom from the analog age.

“When I finally walked away from the new Wash, which is what I did, I didn't know what my next chapter was. At all,” says Rubin. But there’s something tenacious in this middle-aged rock and roller with his spiked salt and pepper hair. He gets knocked down and springs back up, much like the bowling pins in his new establishment. “I always want to finish things, you know? I don't like leaving things open ended. I'm a creative, I guess. And when somebody throws a task at me, or an idea, or whatever, my brain just spins. And I go, and I don't stop until it's completed, or it's a complete catastrophe. And you go: Oh well, On to the next thing!”

Lovers of music, Nashville, cocktails, mid-century design, and East Nashville are collectively hoping there is no next thing, as long as there is this thing.

Eastside Bowl

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