In Nashville, there’s a bar. It’s called the Springwater Supper Club and Lounge. It’s been around for 125 years. That’s long enough to say that it’s Tennessee’s oldest continuously open and operational bar. Now if you do the math, that means they were a bar even during the prohibition years, when it was illegal to be one. Don’t worry, they converted into a speakeasy for those years.
A bar with that sort of history comes with its legends, like it being the watering hole during the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, back in 1897. Al Capone supposedly liked stopping in for a drink and to gamble with Jimmy Hoffa at the Springwater.
The Black Keys recorded a music video at the bar. Dierks Bently played there regularly during his early days on the Music City bar circuit. He is quoted saying, “There was no supper, and there was no lounge. It was such a dive that if it rained, the stage leaked.”
They have live music seven days a week, probably not an extremely uncommon thing for a Nashville bar to boast about, but this place is special. It’s not on Broadway. It’s not flashy. I was concerned that if I leaned against a wall I might accidentally push it over. It’s a dive-bar lover’s dive bar. Stickers and graffiti and random memorabilia line the walls and bathrooms.
I was at the bar because my lifelong friend Eric was playing at their weekly Wednesday night Open Mic Night, as he often does on Wednesday nights. It would be a silly thing to come to Nashville and not hear live music. An open mic night full of locals playing at Tennessee’s oldest bar is much more my jam than choosing a random bar downtown on Broadway.
The whole evening was wonderful, and perhaps what amplified the experience for me was that not only did I get to hear Eric play live music for the first time in many years, but Sarah was there with me. A rare treat. Lydia stayed back with the boys at our Airbnb to give us a date night out.
John, the host of the evening, started off the evening with a few “snippets of snippets” on his guitar. He sang some words I wasn’t able to make any sense of. It was a bit disorienting, but there was nowhere else in Nashville I’d rather be at that moment. Other songwriters slowly trickled in and signed up to play. Each songwriter signed up to sing three songs, until closer to the end of the evening they were only allowed two songs due to number of people wanting to play.
Every songwriter walked up on the small stage with a guitar, some with a harmonica, too. One had a banjo. Another man had his wife or girlfriend play the fiddle with him onstage for one of his two songs. Eric played early on enough that he played three songs. One of the songs was only a few days old, another was an older song of his, while the last was a lovely cover of Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Drum.”
The bar goes quiet when the songwriters play. It feels respectful. It feels holy. I don’t say that flippantly. A group of (mostly) men gathering in an old divey bar to share their songs with each other. Men from all sorts of walks of life. One older man said on stage that he was currently living out of his van. He shared a song about that, and how he plays in bars and taverns, but doesn’t drink alcohol. When I looked over at him later in the night I saw nodding in time with the music, his cans of Diet Coke sitting on the table next to him.
When Eric played, I soaked it in. It’s not a stretch to say that we drove 750 miles for this. I closed my eyes to be as present in the moment as I could. My eyes were watering anyway. I opened them briefly to look over at Sarah sitting next to me, and she grinned back at me with with delight and deep satisfaction. I knew she was enjoying this as much as I was.
We live a busy life, a full life, Sarah and I. I don’t like to sound like I’m ever complaining about that. We have three wonderful children and a lovely life that I wouldn’t trade for the world. But with our life together so full, getting out to do something like this almost never happens.
In this sanctuary of songwriters, in Tennessee’s oldest bar, we were happy. We appreciated what we were hearing, what we were experiencing. And to be able to be there with Eric, well, it was just a very good day. We had spent a good couple hours earlier in the day at the Country Music Hall of Fame, looking at the memorabilia and reading about the artifacts of the American music legends of old. But here in this little bar, this felt like more of a tribute to craft and the art of American music. I’m so glad I was there for it.
The open mic ended at 8:00. There were more people who would have liked to play that didn’t get the chance to. Maybe next week they will. But a recent tradition for the group involves them all walking out to the back porch to sing one last song as a group together. One of the men’s wife also was a singer-songwriter, loved and appreciated in this arena, and she recently passed away. The group now gathers together to sing one of her songs, “Buenas Noches.” It doesn’t take long to learn how to sing along with the chorus, but this is the one time of the evening that I felt out of place, like I was intruding into a sacred space for these musicians. I know they would disagree with such a sentiment, but it was special. And the sort of thing that stirs my soul up in the right ways.
After two years of a pandemic. After nearly one million deaths in this country, here we are gathering together safely without masks. Singing together. Laughing together. Living life together. I will more than likely never see any of these people every again in my life, but I spent an evening with them. A true, what some Japanese would call an ichi-go, ichi-e (一期一会) sort of experience. And I am grateful for it.