Country

Whiskey Jam Celebrates 10 Years as a 'Rite of Passage' for Nashville Artists & Songwriters

HARDY
Tanner Gallagher

HARDY

On Monday night (July 26), Whiskey Jam will celebrate 10 years as a can’t-miss event in Nashville’s music scene, with a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium. The feat is impressive given that no talent lineup has been announced in advance.

“Even the artists performing don’t know who else is on the lineup. It will be a wonderful surprise,” Whiskey Jam founder Ward Guenther tells Billboard of the event that bills itself as “10 years of good music for good people.” “It was the artists trusting the fact that we have a show at the Ryman, that it was going to be our best ever, and it was me trusting I could tap into our pool of artists and past guests and say, ‘Can we come back together for one song, on one night, of our biggest celebration ever?’”

Over the past decade, Whiskey Jam’s free weekly concerts at local venue Winners Bar & Grill have become must-see evenings. Whiskey Jam has also become a proving ground for aspiring musicians, with more than 3,500 artists, bands and songwriters having performed to date. Now-household names including Luke Combs, Ashley McBryde, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton all played the Whiskey Jam stage early in their careers. More than a concert series, Whiskey Jam quickly became a networking hub, with top industry execs and musicians in attendance.

“Whiskey Jam is the biggest rite of passage in modern-day Nashville,” says singer-songwriter HARDY. “Every single songwriter and artist in this town that is on the radio right now has gone through Whiskey Jam. Ward has built such an incredible program and I hope that Whiskey Jam continues to be a place where new artists get their start and people go to network.”

Dozens of subsequent Country Airplay No. 1 hits have either been written or performed by Whiskey Jam guests, such as Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.” Farr recorded the song after hearing songwriter Jonathan Singleton perform it at Whiskey Jam. The song became Farr’s first Country Airplay chart-topper in 2015.

Guenther recalls Stapleton performing for the first time at Whiskey Jam in 2012, three years prior to Stapleton’s star-making turn at the 2015 CMA Awards, when he earned three trophies and collaborated with Justin Timberlake. “It was the first time in Whiskey Jam history that I remember the room being completely silent. It’s such a rowdy atmosphere, but when Chris started singing, the room went quiet. To this day, I’m not sure that’s happened again.”

Combs’ first performance came in 2014. “He developed this incredible following. Fans knew all the words to songs that weren’t even out. I stumbled on some old pictures the other day from the first few times they played... it’s the same band members he has now on tour, selling out arenas. In his case, it was just waiting for the world to discover him.”

Still, Guenther maintains, “It's not about seeing somebody famous, it's about knowing you're going to be guaranteed great music.”

Guenther, who moved to Nashville in 2003, launched Whiskey Jam after experiencing his own frustrations as a musician. “I had been doing it for a long time, whether it was cover gigs, on the road, writers’ nights, and the scene stayed the same for so long,” Guenther says. “I would find myself at writers’ nights, bored of my own songs. I was playing cover gigs and I wasn’t having fun.”

One night in January 2011, Guenther joined fellow musician Frankie Ballard for an unpromoted “bar tab gig,” just to play music for fun. The next day, Guenther shared an off-the-cuff post about the evening on Twitter, calling it “Whiskey Jam.” Fellow musician Josh Hoge loved the name and became Guenther’s early partner in the venture.

“We wanted to create an event where friends could get together,” Guenther says, adding, “There’s no pretense, no shushing. There were no lineups, not even really a headliner. It was just purely a group of friends getting together to do the thing we moved to Nashville for: play music. In the earliest days, we were text messaging hundreds of our friends about Whiskey Jam, and you had people show up, all artists and musicians, who could speak the same language.”

What began as a weekly Monday night jam session for artists with a night off, expanded to include Thursdays and a Tuesday night “New In Town” show, for performers who have been in Nashville for a year or less.

The loose, organic vibe of Whiskey Jam drew more than newcomers: A diverse range of artists, including Melissa Etheridge, The Fray, Lady A, OneRepublic, Brad Paisley, Chris Young, and more have attended.

“They had been touring all weekend and they wanted a place to hang out with friends. You have artists like Sam Hunt and Miranda Lambert coming in and sitting down at a table. I’ve had Randy Travis come in and sit with my parents,” Guenther says. “The environment is comfortable enough where they can come in and people are very respectful. It became this feeling of, ‘This is Nashville’s best-kept secret that everybody knows about.’”

Eventually, Hoge left to focus on his own music career, and Guenther teamed with ROAR executive Ryan O’Nan to spearhead Whiskey Jam’s growth, adding business ventures in merchandise, booking and artist/writer services.

“Merchandise became a huge focus when we realized we were selling hundreds of dollars of merchandise at a local writers’ night, multiple times a week,” Guenther says. ”I’ve sold on the road before -- those are big numbers for an artist.”

The company’s Roadshow Entertainment helps Whiskey Jam artists book regular, paying shows in and beyond Nashville. Roadshow has also booked Whiskey Jam events in Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Memphis, and at Key West Songwriters Festival, with plans to expand to additional markets.

As the company has been approached by partners in artist development, publishing and label services, O’Nan says they are using another venture, King Song, as part of “building out an arm of our business that helps create more opportunities for the standout artists that come through Whiskey Jam on a weekly basis.”

Over the past decade, Guenther has resisted suggestions to move Whiskey Jam to a different venue or charge a cover. “The spark here has been everything for us -- it’s what made artists like Lady A come back, in our ninth year, and play a free show to a couple of hundred people. We want a comfortable, low-pressure environment for artists. If you try to blow it up bigger than it should be, you'd lose that support, that magic.”

A crucial aspect of Whiskey Jam’s success has been the team’s ability to focus on the needs of the Nashville community. On March 15, 2020, Guenther recalls Whiskey Jam “shut down pretty much overnight” due to the pandemic. O’Nan suggested a livestreamed event via Instagram, which became Risky Jam. As with in-person events, the Whiskey Jam team welcomed established performers such as Cole Swindell, Travis Denning and Craig Campbell, alongside newcomers -- and the audience kept growing.

“We knew something was big when Facebook couldn't handle the amount of traffic that was going on in their servers. You think about the old days where people gathered around their radios and felt like they're part of the Grand Ole Opry -- it felt almost like a new radio [outlet],” Guenther says.

Given how Nashville’s music community has helped establish Whiskey Jam, Guenther says all proceeds from tonight’s Ryman Auditorium concert will go toward establishing the Jam Fam Foundation, which will fund music-oriented charities and organizations. Tickets are $27, $37 and $47.

Guenther hints the show’s lineup will align with Whiskey Jam’s ethos, featuring a mix of newcomers and established artists. “The lineup ranges from people who were there on the very first night, to some that have never played before. That’s important to me, that this not just be a ‘greatest hits’ show. It’s more about, ‘Here’s the start of the next 10 years.’”