Earlier this fall, the Exit/In, one of the most celebrated and influential night clubs in Nashville, turned 50. Coffee table book, ‘Exit/In: 50 Years,’ which ships later this fall, celebrates the history of the cultural landmark, featuring interviews with John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell, Margo Price, Darius Rucker, Jason Ringenberg, Lucinda Williams, Marshall Chapman and more. There are also photos from legends like Willie Nelson, John Prine and George Jones at the vaunted venue — which was sold to a hotel developer earlier this year and whose future is unclear. The book, which also comes in a collectors edition, can be pre-ordered here from Grandin Hood Publishers.
Exclusively premiering below is Jimmy Buffett’s foreword for the book. Buffett, who was just starting his career, became the first act to grace the Exit/In stage in 1971. He returned to play the venue again this year.
Somehow, back in 1971, I wound up playing the opening of the Exit/In. That’s why, when the shocking fact that it was fifty years ago started showing up online from people who share my love of the place, it took me back to the twenty-four-year-old me living in Nashville and the thrill of getting that job. And so, I want to take you on a quick trip down the song line that brought me to the entrance of the Exit/In that day.
After a brief period as a student at Auburn University, I left during the third quarter and headed to Panama City Beach, Florida, to look for work as a singer. With no luck on the beach, I returned to my hometown of Mobile, not telling my parents that I had dropped out of school. There I got my first real singing job at a Mexican restaurant at the mall.
After re-entering college at University of Southern Mississippi, I began traveling with classmate friends to New Orleans, where we found ourselves in the Bayou Room on Bourbon Street, listening to “professional” folk groups and dreaming of being on that stage one day. Eventually we formed a folk music group and landed a few bookings and “pick up” gigs in the French Quarter, but sadly, live music, which had been as big a draw as the ubiquitous strip clubs, began to disappear from Bourbon Street, where I had learned more than in any classroom.
Returning home to Mobile, I got a day job at the shipyard and a night gig at the Admiral Semmes Hotel bar. Local music impresario, Milton Brown, heard my music and offered to take me to Nashville to record demos with some “real pickers.” I had reconnected with my high school classmate and Spring Hill College beauty queen Margie, and we had just gotten married. We decided to take the leap and pursue the Nashville dream. Milton had introduced me to Buzz Cason, and I began work as a writer for Russell-Cason Music at a hundred and fifty dollars a week. Margie found a job as a receptionist at Capitol Records. My plan was to use those skills I had honed in New Orleans and Mobile and get a job singing.
Hell, that should have been easy in Music City. But what I didn’t count on was that there were no places for unknowns to play in the city that sold itself as the music capital of the world. I am not kidding. In New Orleans, I had been a street singer before I ever saw the inside of a club. It was a tradition there. In Nashville, they arrested you for it. Musicians’ jobs were jealously guarded — from the honky tonks on Printers Alley, behind the Ryman Auditorium, to hotel bar gigs for “has-been country stars.” There were no listening rooms in town — places where patrons sat and sipped coffee, beer, and wine and listened to acoustic guitar–playing performers.
With a journalism degree from Southern Mississippi, I was a Billboard reporter by day and at night wrote and recorded demos of new songs at Buzz’s studio in Berry Hill. Buzz also introduced me to Don Light, a very respected talent agent who started booking me into performing rooms on the folk circuit in the South: Atlanta, Athens, Raleigh, Smoky Mountains resorts, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Miami. But still no listening rooms in Nashville.
As a Billboard reporter, I had become acquainted with Elliston Place, as its eateries were very popular with musicians and people who worked on Music Row. I could ride my bike through Centennial Park to my favorite spots: Elliston Place Soda Shop, Rotier’s, the Krispy Kreme, and Elder’s Bookstore. It was in the Elliston Place Soda Shop in 1971 where the universe did some magic. It was a Wednesday, which was “fried chicken day.” As I was finishing my coconut creme pie dessert, I noticed a bustle of activity at a building across the street. I asked the waitress if she knew what was going on, and she told me they were building a nightclub, which seemed to annoy her.
Quickly paying my tab, I walked over to take a look. The front door was open and workers were going in and out. One of them told me they were renovating the building to be some kind of a bar. I asked him what kind of bar. Squinting, he said, “A quiet joint with music, doesn’t sound like much fun to me.” “You mean a listening room?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s it,” he said. Then he told me the owners were inside, and I should talk to them about it. As he walked away and got in his truck, I took a peek inside the door. More workers were busy hammering away on a small stage in the back, and others were unloading tables and chairs.
I ran to get my guitar and hurriedly re-appeared in the doorway. The two guys sitting at a table, looking more like hippies than construction workers, had to be the owners. I walked right up to them and introduced myself to Brugh Reynolds and Owsley Manier and asked if they were the owners, to which they said yes. I asked if they were auditioning performers yet. “Not really,” they said. Determined and hopeful, I continued, “It won’t take long.” “Sure, go ahead,” Owsley replied. Brugh asked the workers to turn off the saws and drills, and I sat in a chair on the unfinished stage and played four or five songs that I knew had worked in clubs elsewhere. When I finished, the carpenters applauded, and Owsley and Brugh hired me on the spot.
When the venue opened, my world got a big bump from that first show, a bump which seems to have lasted for fifty years — or at least memories of it. The Exit/In was also the spark that ignited the spread of listening rooms in Nashville. All you have to do is look at the sign out front with the names of stars and wannabes who became stars to know what this place means to the musical history of Nashville. In these pandemic days, when so many performers and technicians are struggling to stay afloat until we can all work again, I am going to do whatever I can to help keep the door of the Exit/In open, and I hope this story will help the cause.