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Blake Shelton, Alan Jackson & Other Artists Raise the Bar On Nashville Honky-Tonks

After chasin' that neon rainbow at the start of his career, Alan Jackson is rewriting the script by becoming a part of the actual neon sign on the front of his own honky-tonk.

In fact, as tens of thousands of fans descend on Nashville the for the Country Music Association's annual CMA Music Festival June 7-10, they'll discover that Jackson and several of his fellow acts — including John Rich, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Florida Georgia Line — are all part of the event's footprint as participants in clubs on or near lower Broadway. In most cases, the artist's name is part of the signage, a move that helps publicize the locale but also creates some expectation for the experience inside the joint.

"If you see my name, you immediately know a lot of things probably are true about that place," says Rich, whose Redneck Riviera opened its doors on May 25. "My fans know a whole lot about me. They know I'm patriotic, they know we take care of our musicians, they know that I'm a hands-on guy, and I like mingling with the fans and chilling out with the bands that are down there."

The emergence of artist-owned or –affiliated clubs is a logical next step as Music City's downtown rebounds from a dangerous past. When the Grand Ole Opry moved from the nearby Ryman Auditorium out to the suburban Grand Ole Opry House in 1974, it left Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop as the primary country residents in an area full of porn shops and illegal trade. Opry ambassador Roy Acuff once suggested tearing down the Ryman to keep tourists from wading through an X-rated neighborhood to find the G-rated monument.

But Nashville has carefully rebuilt its downtown, with the Ryman's renewal in 1994 a significant part of the process. Ryman Hospitality also opened the Wildhorse Saloon that year, the Bridgestone Arena debuted in 1996, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum relocated in 2001. Music Row and the downtown honky-tonks began to co-mingle to the point that Luke Bryan sang from the roof of Tootsie's to a packed street a year ago when the CMA Music Festival overlapped with the Nashville Predators' first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.

But artists moving beyond the stage to hang their names on the venues is a new wrinkle. While Jackson's club, AJ's Good Time Bar, has been open for about 18 months and one of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Café outlets has been in place for years, the FGL House opened during the 2017 CMA Fest. Bentley's Whiskey Row unlocked the doors in January, and Redneck Riviera, Jason Aldean's Kitchen + Rooftop Bar and Ryman's Shelton-associated Ole Red will all hold their grand openings the week of June 4.

"We wanted to do it when we could get Blake's attention for three days, national media for three days and 60,000 people in town," says Ryman Hospitality chairman/CEO Colin Reed. The timing "just feels very natural."

So does the emergence of the artist-related signs in an area that already relies on acts for some of its vibe. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum hinges on exhibits and artifacts related to the likes of Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks, while other museums have popped up in the last five years devoted to one specific artist: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Patsy Cline. Also on the way is a Merle Haggard Museum, the National Museum of African American Music and a club rumored to be backed by Bryan. (A Bryan spokesperson was unable to confirm.) Even pop artist Gavin DeGraw has a space, Nashville Underground.

"It's definitely a hot area of town now, and everybody's trying to put their name on a place," says AJ's GM Matt Harville.

That requires each venue to create its own unique personality, distinct to the artist it represents. Margaritaville has an obvious island theme, AJ's leans on a honky-tonk personality with a commitment to authentic country music, and Rich is putting his gregarious showman tendencies into the Riviera. A street-level neon sign — "John Rich is in the house" — lights up when he's on the property, and the building has a window that opens onto the street that lets him literally reach out to passersby.

"I'll be able to shake hands with people as you're walking down the sidewalk, take pictures with them, invite them into the bar and really be that 'ol Hee Haw-style man," he says.

The Hee Haw reference is apt, since TV has played a role in the city's uptick. Ryman Hospitality sprung the Nashville TV show, enhancing the town's reputation as a destination among younger viewers. The annual CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock special puts the town and country music in the spotlight, and even the 2010 flood gave the downtown area a storyline. Shelton, in his role as a coach on NBC's The Voice, has consistently plugged Music City in his attempts to add contestants to his team.

"You went to downtown Nashville 10 years ago, and you basically saw the same audience that you would see in the Opry House, which is a very sort of mature-centric audience," says Reed. "Today, you go to downtown Nashville, you see a very different audience. You see tons and tons of millennials, bachelor parties, bachelorette parties — this place has become the bachelor, bachelorette capitol of the world."

Some 14.5 million tourists visited the city in 2017, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. Ryman Hospitality polling found that when consumers first visit, it's typically to discover why the town is so popular. Only 20 percent come for the music. But 75 percent of those who return are looking specifically for music experiences. Thus, the artist/club tie-ins make enormous marketing sense, for Jackson and the other artists ought to know what makes a good venue.

"It was always a dream of his to have a honky-tonk," says Harville of Jackson. "You know, he is a product of those. He started that way, hustling and riding around in a van with a couple of guys and going from bar to bar, playing for the love of music."

The music will certainly be booming this next week. In addition to the multiple stages within walking distance at the festival, several of the artists are offering guest musicians and events at their clubs to entice customers. AJ's guests include Mo Pitney, Shane Owens and Cyndi Thomson; Ole Red has Shelton bringing in a bundle of friends, plus a series of Spotify-curated shows that include Craig Campbell, Hunter Hayes and Midland; FGL House has an industry-only No. 1 party on the books; Margaritaville has its regular four-hour Music Row Happy Hour with Buzz Brainard that airs live on SiriusXM; and Redneck Riviera has Gretchen Wilson, Colt Ford and Granger Smith.

"The Nashville government ought to call it ‘Celebrity Row' 'cause that's exactly what it's going to be," says Rich.

But those celebs are no longer chasin' that neon rainbow. They are the neon, even as they continue livin' that honky-tonk dream.