Nestled in the West Nashville neighborhood of Bellevue, roughly 13 miles away from the throngs of young CMA Music Festival attendees spilling out of downtown’s rooftop bars this week, sits the Ray Stevens CabaRay Showroom. The 35,000-square-foot dinner theater was a passion project for the 79-year-old Stevens, an entertainment venue where the multi-Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter and comedian could perform onstage each week without straying too far from home.
When Billboard visited CabaRay, the 725-seat capacity theater's parking lot featured license plates from as far north as Maine, and a tour bus was occupying one of the six available spots for large groups from out of state. Walking through the front doors of the venue, one of the first things you are sure to notice is the gift shop full of countless coffee mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with an image of Stevens performing in the music video for "The Streak," his novelty hit about people running naked through various small town establishments, which sat at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart for three weeks in May 1974.
The song -- perhaps a big reason the main dining floor was nearly full of visitors on this random spring night -- was a bigger hit (No. 8 on Billboard's Top Hot 100 singles for 1974) than either Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" (No. 9) or Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run" (No. 22). For a large demographic, Stevens remains the preeminent songwriting comedian of their lifetime. Too old for "Weird Al" Yankovic, too young for Spike Jones, they still appreciate "Ahab the Arab" as much today as in July of 1962, when the song was a top five hit for Stevens on Billboard's Top 40 chart.
These fans are also the ones to whom the menu at CabaRay's caters. There is your basic choice between four entrees (beef, chicken, fish, and pork) with the sides for each being the same regardless of entree choice (potatoes and green beans, say). This isn't a group that necessarily want their palates challenged.
The live show begab shortly after plates were cleared from tables. The show leaned heavily on medleys at the beginning -- "That's all we're going to do of that one, too," the singer said with a laugh after only a line or two from one of his first songs to find airplay, 1962's "PFC Rhythm and Blues Jones" -- only spending the time for full songs on those that were unquestionably hits. Once the applause finally died down after a rousing rendition of the Hot 100 charting 'Gitarzan,' he expressed his gratitude with "Thank you, culture lovers."
These performances are a return of sorts to a venture Stevens made years ago, nearly 500 miles from Nashville, in Branson, Missouri. The Ray Stevens Theater opened there in 1991, only to close temporarily three years later. Over the course of those three tourist seasons Stevens played before 1.6 million audience members, performing two shows a day, six days a week. The pace became too much for the singer, as he would reopen the Branson theater two more summers before finally selling it off for good in 1996. Twenty-two years later, that work schedule is something he kept in mind with the CabaRay, backing off of the planned three-nights-a-week schedule to a more reasonable two, with a third night thrown in here and there.
Broadway -- running roughly from the back doors of Bridgestone Arena to the banks of the Cumberland River, and home to many of the events that make up the CMA Festival -- has been attracting outside dollars for decades, thanks to the legendary honky-tonk bars that dot either side of the street. The question remains of whether CabaRay will attract a big enough portion of these same crowds that it will need in order to compete with its much more centrally located competitors. The CMA Fest unofficially opened the summer tourism season for Nashville, with a five-day grand-opening celebration of Blake Shelton's Ole Red restaurant and bar on Broadway, including a concert billed as "Blake Shelton and Friends" enticing those attending the biggest country music event of the year to step through the doors and check out the multi-level, 26,000-square-foot entertainment complex.
One block down, Alan Jackson's AJ's Good Time Bar, the only 100-percent artist-owned establishment on Broadway, has been partnering with Wrangler Jeans and other brands for songwriter rounds all week long. Dierks Bentley's Whiskey Row is just across the street from AJ's, or FGL House -- Florida Georgia Line's restaurant that features a video wall playing the duo's music while you eat and offers both a "Cruise" rooftop bar as well as a basement lounge featuring cocktails inspired by '90s pop culture. And don't forget John Rich's Redneck Riviera, the Big & Rich member's BBQ joint.
Owning a bar on Broadway is a relatively safe bet for Nashville artists at the moment. Unlike the financial embarrassment that getting into the food industry has historically brought country musicians (see Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken; Tex Ritter's Chuckwagon; or Hank Williams Jr.'s Barbecue Pits) the Nashville daily Tennessean ran a report last week in which bar owners revealed how much money their businesses have brought in recently. Business has never been better, it seems, with the downtown streets of Nashville drawing in a record of nearly 15 million visitors last year.
The Acme Feed & Seed restaurant is making $20 million a year in revenue, thanks to an average of 25,000 diners visiting each week. The OG of the artist-branded bunch, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, has seen revenue increase by 1000% over the past nine years to nearly $12 million today.
Potentially complicating matters for Stevens is a business plan that is seen more often in Branson than Nashville. Whereas a downtown bar in Nashville may offer customers a burger with a beer and a band playing covers for $15 and a tip, the singer is counting on groups of older fans to pay extra for a night of laughs and real silverware.
Tickets to CabaRay shows begin at $59 for balcony seats, without dinner, but with drinks available. A main dining floor ticket with dinner and a show will run you $79, while VIP seating tops out the options at $99. Stevens has stated that he only wants his new venue to offer another option to those visiting Nashville besides the honky-tonks and Grand Ole Opry, but it remains to be seen if the touring groups will flock to his location, or if they'll continue to choose a ticket to the Opry (prices run from $40 to $99) and a bag of popcorn from the concession stand.
At the end of this particular night's performance, it was announced that the singer would be stopping in at the Bill Lowery High Spirits Emporium Piano Bar -- located at the back of the building, and named after the music publisher who first signed Stevens to a contract -- for a moment to thank folks for coming. While awaiting his arrival, many in the groups began pairing off and slow dancing to the selections from the American Songbook that were being performed. Whether Stevens ever showed up to shake hands or not, it was memorable night already for couples who had finally found a place to wear their nice clothes out for a date in Nashville, without having to worry about coming home with PBR or Fireball stains.