We were stuck somewhere between the downstairs bar with the giant bronze eagle and the rooftop patio with the neon “Born Free” sign.
Confined to a locked stairwell inside Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky-Tonk & Rock ‘n’ Roll Steakhouse, a bride-to-be demonstrated her freedom to let out a big scream.
“I’m getting married, so hurry up [bleep] get up!” she shouted to a crowd that included several other bachelorette parties in addition to her own.
Such is the roar, thrum, blur, rush and smash along Nashville’s Lower Broadway these days.
A glut of new celebrity mega-bars on Music City’s legendary downtown Strip has created a bustling nightlife, which rivals Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Sixth Street in Austin in liquor sales – and has much more power to attract tourists.
The celebrity-led revival of Lower Broadway has made Nashville a popular destination for spring break and wild weekends, especially among Midwesterners. Sun Country, Southwest and Delta have added nonstop flights in recent years from the Twin Cities, which are consistently ranked in the top five markets for country music sales.
Kid Rock’s four-story, 5,800-square-foot mega-bar — he doesn’t mess with the “fat” part (no comment on “ass”) — is one of eight sprawling nightlife resorts in Nashville which sport a chart-topping music star name on the marquee.
All within t-shirt and pistol shooting distance, the row of trademark drink and dance palaces also includes: Blake Shelton’s Ole Red, Luke Bryan’s Luke’s 32 Bridge, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, AJ’s Good Time Bar d ‘Alan Jackson, Florida Georgia Line’s FGL House and Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar.
A female moniker was finally added among those brawny names in the lights of Broadway last summer.
Miranda Lambert’s Tex-Mex-themed Casa Rosa opened just a few doors down from her ex-husband Shelton’s house. Unsurprisingly, it’s the prettiest of the bunch, with Mexican tile floors and tons of neon pink.
“I am happy to represent women here in Music City! Lambert said when his place opened. “Tacos, tequila and tufted pink booths, what more could a girl ask for?”
“Never seen anything like it”
On a late-night bar crawl on a Thursday last summer, all of Casa Rosa’s predecessors in the city’s mega-bar scene were buzzing again. They all started blending after a while, not because of the many drinks available in the mixers, but because they all have a similar layout and concept.
They are housed in early 20th century buildings with different bars and stages spread over three or four floors. Rooftop patios complete each venue, offering views of Broadway and… well, every other rooftop patio.
Bands or songwriters usually perform on two or three floors, playing mostly modern country or classic rock tunes (with Lynyrd Skynyrd as the standard middleman). There’s also usually a DJ spinning the top 40 hits on one floor. Quieter areas with booths and tables are also interspersed here and there for dining or chatting.
During a lull in the music downstairs at Shelton’s Ole Red — a big single version of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” had just ended — Houston resident Cole Clay impressed the Texas sprawl of the Broadway stage last summer.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, even in Texas,” said Clay, 24, who cited Shelton’s home as his favorite of the group because of its “casual vibe.”
“It’s cool to see how each location matches the celebrity involved.”
George Jones was the Nashville celebrity who shaped the mold of these mega-bars the most with his semi-notorious late 1960s saloon, the Possum Holler. More recently, Toby Keith and Jimmy Buffett have set a new standard by giving their names to bar-grill franchises.
Four of the current hotspots are operated by the same company, TC Restaurant Group, including the Aldean and Lambert locations.
At Lambert’s ever-popular Casa Rosa, future bridesmaid Kat Menkel of Grand Rapids, Michigan found out why there’s now an entire industry of party buses and hotel packages around Nashville bridal showers.
“These singers all make fun, enjoyable music that’s about living life to the fullest,” she said. “That’s what you feel like you’re doing when you come here.”
A well deserved kick
That good-time vibe has helped Nashville recover from bad times far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
In early March 2020, just before the lockdown began, a tornado tore through the city, killing 25 people and causing around $1 billion in damage. Then, on Christmas Day 2020, a domestic terrorist detonated a bomb on 2nd Avenue near Broadway, also damaging dozens of buildings and the collective nerves of the city.
Some of Nashville’s old-guard nightclubs have been lost or nearly lost in recent years, including legendary music hub Exit/In, which had to be saved by a GoFundMe campaign.
Older venues along Lower Broadway, such as Robert’s and Tootsie’s Lounge, were open last summer but didn’t have as many people as the hippest celebrity-backed bars.
Among the most popular new hot spots were Aldean’s and Kid Rock’s respective joints, both with velvet rope lines up front and VIP options. So much for the worker aesthetic of these singers.
Still, there’s no doubt that the money brought in by these bars is doing the city good — not to mention the money their namesake co-owners have added to relief funds.
“Anything that needs to be done to help Tennessee and the people it holds stricken by [the] devastating storm, count me in,” Kid Rock said when he personally donated $50,000 after the tornado.
The lesser-known musicians who play in these bars also seem to reap some benefits. At Kid Rock’s “honky-tonk,” the band on the downstairs stage fulfilled the demands of the highest bidders from the audience.
“We’re gonna need $130 more to play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” one of the singers shouted before launching into “Jolene.”
At Luke’s 32 Bridge – named after the Georgia Highway river crossing near Luke Bryan’s childhood home – the band Flatland Revival launched into a cover of Luke Combs’ “Hurricane” via a request accompanied by a tip.
As the crowd collectively lit up in the rapped parts of the country mega-hit, singer Casey Edgar visibly lit up.
“Nashville is back, baby!” he yelled.
The best of Nashville’s mega-bars
Here are some of the most notable traits of Nashville’s famed mega-bar fleet.
The longest line: Aldean’s namesake bar, which also has the most beautiful rooftop patio, located in the shadow of the Batman-esque AT&T building. It’s also home to the broadcast booth for Bobby Bones’ iHeartRadio show and cool vintage neon signs for Sinclair Oil and Euclid Tavern.
Best Memories: Lambert has a distinct advantage here, as the glamorous old dresses and diamond-studded belt lining Casa Rosa (originally worn in music videos or award shows) are much more exciting to watch than the shirts in flannel on the walls of all other places. She also has a giant neon cowgirl sign for a cool visual centerpiece.
Top liquor seller: Ole Red is littered with swill-pushing Shelton ads. Example line: “Dr. Blake’s health tip: Drink plenty of fluids.”
Other Signature Traits: Ole Red features a red tractor suspended above the main stage. Luke’s Deck 32, housed in an old bank, has a black pickup truck parked inside the front door and a neon sign reading “Huntin’ Fishin’ Lovin’ Every Day”. Bentley’s distillery-inspired, wood-lined Whiskey Row has neon “Tip It on Back” and, yes, lots and lots of whiskey. Kid Rock’s place is filled with guns and eagles and other things you might see in a VFW room.
The most shameless self-aggrandizement: Kid Rock’s, of course, where you see a car hood on the wall airbrushed with “American Rock & Roll” over images of Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, John Mellencamp and guess who.