Fox & Locke Renews A Name And Open Mic Spirit In Leiper’s Fork
Amid regular protests against historic buildings being torn down in and around Nashville, the news that Puckett’s in Leiper’s Fork, TN had changed hands and changed names recently might strike some as alarming. New owner Aubrey Preston needs you to know that Fox & Locke, the music venue and eatery in the former Puckett’s building, isn’t erasing history but restoring it.
“In Nashville, when something changes, people assume the worst,” said Preston recently from a porch on Old Hillsboro Road, Leiper’s Fork’s main drag. “In this situation, this building was originally Fox & Locke, so we’re kind of going back to the future.”
Preston is famous in the area for his historic preservation efforts, including timely investments in the Franklin Theater, RCA Studio A and more. Moreover, Leiper’s Fork itself, a 200-year-old town on the Natchez Trace Parkway, is full of well-heeled residents who jealously guard the village’s vibe and integrity, including this former grocery store’s legacy of culture-making.
Here’s the slightly complicated story. In 1947, grocers Jack Fox and Martin Locke opened a general store, then moved it across the street in 1955 to its current location. It was a community crossroads and remained one even after the area’s Puckett family purchased the business and building in 1960, changing its name. The store had changed hands again by the time it added live music in 2002, which over time hosted a vibrant, cozy scene that was always worth a drive out into the country. So the Puckett’s chain, which began expanding with outlets in Franklin, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga and downtown Nashville was, surprisingly, never under the same ownership as Puckett’s of Leiper’s Fork, but all that’s moot now anyway. When the most recent owners put the business up for sale and some out-of-town investors began nosing around, Preston says it was alarming.
“That's when we kind of put our heads together in the neighborhood like we do and just stepped into to save it as a gathering spot, as you know, kind of in the, in the English Irish tradition of pubs or public houses,” he told WMOT. “These are very, very important places for the vitality of a community, particularly a small village in a rural area. We just kind of couldn't tolerate the idea that it might be at risk of being repurposed. So now we're in the restaurant business.”
“We’re kind of like if Mayberry had a nightclub,” said Alex Tinker, emcee of open mic night. “It's just like what they did in Laurel Canyon with developing folk and the movement. I feel like we have the perfect storm of talent from down the road, of real musicians, searching for that ethos. And I mean, what better place to do it than surrounded by fields and cows?”
On a recent Thursday evening, yet another sold-out crowd settled in for Fox & Locke’s open mic night, an old-school talent showcase for artists of all ages who vie for twenty slots. “From 3:00 to maybe 3:10, sometimes we have 100 people text in to get on that list,” says the night’s co-host, who’s known as Miss Debbie. By start time at 6:30 pm, another gathering has formed out front around a firepit, which is a major draw on these evenings while the music gets going inside. The artists queue up for two songs each, and Tinker says certain regulars have emerged as crowd favorites.
Olivia Faye, an alum of talent showcases from Song Suffragettes to American Idol, impresses Tinker for her steady growth and her support of the open mic tribe. Cam Pierce, a songwriter who relocated from Oregon a few years ago, proudly embraces the mantle of country and western music. Bluesy, harmony-driven brother duo The Deltaz has been a fixture at the venue from its Puckett’s days on through the new iteration, where they’re now playing full sets on weekend nights. And Alyssa Flaherty, pictured here, is an emerging artist that gets Tinker especially excited. “She can make the entirety of the room go dead silent,” he says. “We’ve only had several times where people have stood up on tables and chairs requesting a third song; she is one of them.”
This isn’t Preston’s first foray into preservation or arts advocacy in Leiper’s Fork. He purchased enough of the area property to ensure it wouldn’t be razed for major development in the 1990s. He’s contributed considerable money for school-based arts programs. And he spearheaded the Americana Music Triangle, a network of venues and institutions that bolsters cultural tourism.
“This community has been, for many, many years really, based on the idea of giving opportunities to people that want to develop in the arts, starting with the youngest,” Preston says. “Well, an open mic is a really important part of the development of an artist. Just like a ballplayer has to scrimmage, you have to have real time on a stage. And it's hard to find a place that is professionally done, where they're really supportive.”