The Exit/In closed suddenly in July, after months of failing to pay sales tax and what some observers describe as a year of overall degeneration. A few weeks ago, local promoter Rick Whetsel purchased the club; by the time this story hits the racks it will have reopened “for good,” although when the Exit/In’s original owner, Owsley Manier, hears that phrase, he laughs sardonically and interjects, “theoretically.”
When his laughter subsides, Manier adds, “I hope Whetsel does great with it. I think if anybody can, he can. There’s an old adage that says any place that fails twice or three times in one location is doomed, jinxed, etc. Man, I don’t know how many times that place has gone down.”
This isn’t a story about the failure of the Exit/In–though the history of the club is peppered with spectacular failures. Nor is this a story about the rebirth of the Exit/In–though most seem to agree that the new owner has the experience and business sense needed to make a go of it. This is a story about a space and the people who helped create it.
Stripped of its name, and stripped of the memories associated with it, the Exit/In is little more than a block of real estate where–thanks to the imagination and good taste of a handful of determined people–some amazing things occurred. But those moments might’ve happened anywhere, and when asked about the Exit/In, it’s not unusual for former patrons and employees to misremember, to put dates in the wrong order or to recall shows that actually happened elsewhere. And most local musicians will admit that as a performance space, the Exit/In is far from the best in town.
But people remember the nights they spent there, and the nights they only heard about. That’s the nature of live music. It tends to linger, starting with the low buzz in the ears the morning after, and the smell of beer, sweat and cigarettes clinging to last night’s clothes.
Liz Thiels, who was one of the club’s co-owners from 1972 to 1976, probably knows more about the Exit/In than all but two or three others. She came on board during the club’s second year and maintained a periodic association with it even after she ceased to be a partner. More importantly, Thiels kept a scrapbook, full of old menus, news items, advertisements and photographs.
The story of the Exit/In’s early days is in that scrapbook, and even though Thiels let the project lapse when her ownership interest in the club did, if there’s any way to understand what’s so special about the old room, it’s in the accumulation of images and mementos that keep the legend alive.
A word that almost everybody uses when talking about the Exit/In is “vibe.” It’s a touchy-feely word born of the hippie era from which the club emerged.
Thiels remembers that time vividly. When the Exit/In opened in 1971, she says, “It was a forum. The Vietnam war was still happening; the whole women’s lib thing was just getting hot. No self-respecting woman in that group down there ever wore underwear. It was radical, it really was. It was a real San Francisco-inspired, kind of Haight feel. Long hair, beads, peace signs. A lot of what people think of as the ’60s was really the ’70s.”
Owsley Manier and his partner Brugh Reynolds opened the Exit/In in 1971, a time when big cities on both coasts were home to legendary venues for rock ‘n’ roll and the counterculture. In Nashville, there was nothing to speak of–no “listening room,” per se. Manier and Reynolds spent about a year-and-a-half looking for the right place to open one and settled on what was then Elliston Place Village because the proximity to Vanderbilt was good–and because the neighborhood was showing signs of becoming more youth-oriented. On the day the Exit/In opened, T.G.I. Friday’s opened a couple of doors down.
Walter Carter worked at Friday’s in those days and eventually migrated over to the Exit/In. “I got into town in 1971, probably weeks after they opened. That was just the only area of town that was really hip at that time. I was a patron when it was just the little, single storefront lot with the entrance really in the back, in the alley. By the time I started working there, they had doubled the size and put the entrance in the back corner and were serving vegetarian lunches.”
Thiels entered the picture at that point. She had been in Nashville since 1969, working for Holder/Kennedy public relations, and had left that job not long before her first visit to the Exit/In. “I went there first as a customer and was just blown away by the place and by what they were trying to do,” she says. Thiels befriended Manier and Reynolds, and in 1972, when the club expanded, she bought out one of their original partners, Harvey Magee.
“At that time, there were five partners: Owsley and Brugh, Brugh’s wife Alice, myself and Owsley’s cousin Bill Manier,” Thiels continues. “We were all like a little family. I was vice-president of the club and my responsibilities were to do the advertising and the PR. I also ran the dishwasher, was a hostess at lunch and a ticket-taker at night. For a long time, it was kind of a 24-hour-a-day job.”
Talk to anyone who’s ever been involved with the Exit/In for any length of time and you’ll hear echoes. Owsley Manier tells the story of getting the club ready to open, before the stage was even finished, when it was just “a couple of two-by-fours and some plywood.” A man walked through the street door–not the famous rear entrance that gave the club its name–and asked for an audition. He walked onto the half-finished stage in cutoffs, played a couple of songs, and Manier said, “That’s cool, you’re hired. What’s your name?” It was Jimmy Buffett, fresh from the college circuit and ready to start a run as one of the Exit/In’s first hot young acts.
Over 15 years later, Ned Horton–who would take his turn as an Exit/In owner starting in 1997–walked into the club hoping to get it to advertise on Rebel 100, the radio station he had just moved to Nashville to start. As Horton pitched his ideas to the owner, Steve Forbert walked in, toting a guitar and some equipment. “I had his albums in college,” Horton says, “So I thought that was kind of cool. This really is Music City, with Steve Forbert coming in for a gig at the local club. That’s really my first memory of the place.”
Written on the Exit/In wall is a list of names of people who have played the club, but asked to name their most memorable nights at the Exit/In, longtime patrons freeze, unable to sort through the highlights of hundreds of evenings.
Walter Carter says that the very first week he worked, Doc Watson played the weekend and then Monday through Wednesday was Linda Ronstadt. In those days, he says, the Exit/In would host Bill Monroe one night and Chick Corea the next. “And of course,” Carter adds, “if Bill Monroe was playing, we used a Chick Corea tape to clear the room between shows.” The most popular and profitable performer in the club’s first half-decade, though, was Steve Martin.
In his autobiography, Martin claims to have honed his comedy act in Nashville during his frequent mid-’70s dates at the Exit/In. According to legend, he would march the audience out of the club to create havoc on Elliston Place. Martin would head into the crowd waiting for his second show and jump from the bar into their waiting arms, swimming over their heads. “He did all kinds of crazy stuff and people just loved it,” Liz Thiels remembers. Martin also helped create the impression that the Exit/In was a place where unusual things happened on a near nightly basis.
The other names from those early days read like a who’s-who of boomer singer-songwriters. Two of the most popular early performers were Jimmy Buffett and John Hiatt. Guy Clark and John Prine were regulars. So were jazz acts like Mose Allison and McCoy Tyner.
Michael McCall, who’s monitored Nashville music for various publications for almost 20 years and who started coming to the Exit/In in the early ’80s, remembers that k.d. lang’s first Nashville gig was at the Exit/In. “Such a big introduction to such a strong talent,” says McCall, who remembers seeing Bo Diddley, R.E.M. and the legendary shows by Nashville’s great rock hope of the ’80s, Jason & The Scorchers.
The Scorchers actually only played one full show at the Exit/In in the ’80s, to celebrate EMI’s rerelease of their EP Fervor. Prior to that, they tended to play the now defunct rival rock club Cantrell’s and, after that, larger spaces. But they were as much a part of the Nashville rock landscape as the Exit/In, and it’s only natural for people to associate them with the club. (The band later fed that perception when they mounted a comeback in the ’90s, embracing the Exit/In like the old haunt of theirs it never really was.)
Jay Orr, a colleague and contemporary of McCall’s, was at the Scorchers’ one Exit/In show of the 1980s; it was actually his earliest memory of the club, trailing his move to Nashville in 1983. “I was blown away and glad I had moved here from D.C.,” Orr says. “And I remember the magnificent Scorchers show in February 1995, during the annual Extravaganza. I think they had food for friends who lingered after the gig, and a lot did, pretty much stunned by the power of what they had just witnessed.”
Jason Ringenberg himself says that the Extravaganza night was “the finest Scorchers show we ever did. The energy in the room, you could almost cut it into chunks, into little bricks of energy, it was so thick.”
Other memories recur from patron to patron. Lucinda Williams’ New Year’s Eve show of 1998. A surprise R.E.M. appearance. (Former Exit/In owner Bruce Fitzpatrick, now an owner of The End, says, “They’re friends of mine and they were in town recording an album…just came in one night and used the band’s equipment that was up there and had taken a break.”) The Red Hot Chili Peppers on Thanksgiving night. (Fitzpatrick: “We catered Thanksgiving dinner for them.”)
John Lomax III, who ran the early alternative-press publication Nashville Gazette in the ’70s, once puked on David Allan Coe’s shoes during a Linda Ronstadt gig. “I had about two seconds warning when I knew the suds were making their run to daylight,” Lomax says. “Out it came, all over a pair of Coe’s boots, made of some fancy snakeskin or something. And of course, he had his jeans tucked inside his boots.”
Robert K. Oermann, a music historian who’s covered goings on in Nashville for nearly 25 years, has an impressive list of reminiscences, including Coe, who would perform in a silver-studded Lone Ranger mask. Oermann saw Hank Williams Jr. play when his face was still undergoing reconstructive surgery and his eyes were in different places on his head. He saw Johnny Paycheck perform while wearing a T-shirt that said “Nashville Can’t Take a Joke.”
“One extremely vivid night, George Jones was there,” Oermann remembers. “I went out back in the alleyway and he was sitting on the ground next to the tour bus, incoherent. He was going through a very, very cocaine-crazed period in his career at the time. And I went in and the band played and the band played and the band played and there was no Jones. He was still sitting out in the alley.
“Finally, they get him out there and the bass player literally had to lean over to him and say the line and George would sing the line, and the bass player would say the next line in his ear and George would sing it. And then George started talking in a Donald Duck voice. The audience was just angry and weirded-out. Finally, after about 10 minutes, he left the stage. And there was somebody with me from out of town, and he came up to me and said, ‘This is the legendary Exit/In?’ ”
The corner of West Nashville real estate that still means so much to a lot of people bears almost no relation to the original building known as the Exit/In. For most of its first decade, through expansions and renovations, the Exit/In consisted of a bar and a listening room, the latter of which featured a floor filled with enough tables and chairs to seat around 200 people. Owsley Manier had the acts he booked play two shows a night, and he kept the performance space separate from the bar, though there was a service window that patrons of the bar “could kind of sort of see through a little.”
When Nashville restaurateur Wayne Oldham got involved with the club in the early ’80s, he raised the roof and improved the sound and lighting; he also installed pew seating in the listening room. “Wayne was the one that gutted it,” Walter Carter says. “He didn’t have any choice but to gut it. When they were renovating, the roof fell in.”
Lomax was there on the first night of the short-lived Oldham era. Chuck Berry played and put on a solid show, but toward the end of his set, one of the club’s regulars jumped onstage to dance and was promptly booted out by the new management. “None of these people knew any of the music crowd or had any idea how the music world worked,” Lomax recalls.
“The club insisted on written guest lists to be provided to security and rebuffed any attempt by the label or artist reps to help. I remember seeing [Capitol Records exec] Frank Jones refused entry to an Asleep at the Wheel show he and the label he ran were sponsoring. Frank had been there for soundcheck but had left to eat. The label secretary forgot to type his name on the list and the club security stood on ceremony and refused him entry. Poor Frank had to stay in the bar.”
Lomax adds that prices were too high, the new bar stools were wrought iron and very uncomfortable, and that with the pew seating, there was no place to set down drinks or purses. “I think this phase of the Exit lasted about six months,” he says. “People stopped coming because they didn’t want to be treated like burger customers.”
The Exit/In gradually evolved into a “big box”-style club, more like the grubby, punk-friendly dives that were springing up in college towns throughout the ’80s. The club developed a reputation for bad plumbing–there was reportedly a junction where a big sewage pipe emptied into a smaller pipe, assuring back-ups–and inconveniently located bathrooms and dressing rooms. More and more, the performers made the night special, not the space.
Michael McCall began going to the club while this evolution was taking place, but he still says the Exit/In maintained its aura, if for no other reason than “you appreciate that you can get a couple hundred people in there and still have movement. The size worked in its favor because it was a little smaller than a real spacious room and not real cramped. Of course, I think if you could see somebody in a smaller space, you’d want to–and it always helps to be able to go to the bathroom without walking in front of the band. But the Exit/In always had sort of a mystique.”
“It’s been my experience that nearly all the famous rooms in America are real dumps,” says Oermann. “The Troubadour’s a dump. The Bottom Line is a dump. And the Exit/In to a certain extent was a dump. It was who was there and the music that was made. It wasn’t the club itself, although it was a good room. The Exit felt like a hundred-seat room even with 300 people in it.”
Still, Manier misses the elegance he tried to bring to the old dump. The tables had tablecloths, and the waitresses weren’t allowed to let glasses stay empty for long. “There’s no such thing as service at a club these days,” he says. “Most clubs these days, you’ve just got a shitload of people standing–and that’s cool–but if you’re going to see something that’s avant-garde, esoteric or whatever, do you really want to stand up?”
Thiels concurs: “The truth is I never thought that once they changed the shape and the seating arrangement in the room that it ever, for me, worked as well as it had in the old place. To me, listening to music is a communal experience that you don’t experience the same way sitting side-by-side instead of across the table with somebody else. The original Exit/In of the ’70s? There won’t ever be another place like that.”
When the club opened, Manier says, all that Nashville had in the way of country music venues was “touristy crap.” And after the Exit/In paved the way? “There was a place in Green Hills that opened for awhile in the ’70s called The Mucky Ducky. It wasn’t really competition,” recalls Manier. “I never considered that we had any competition. There was a place behind us, across the alley on State Street, called The Wind in the Willows that was very cool that did a lot of folk and bluegrass stuff. It wasn’t really like the Exit/In.”
Other clubs are as much a part of the Exit/In story as the Exit/In itself. Nobody can talk about the Exit/In for long without bringing up the other performance spaces that have shared the Nashville landscape with it over the past 30-plus years; most of them are long gone.
Oermann tosses out names ranging from J. Austin’s to Dusty Roads (“That was for the real hardcore hillbillies”) to The Ringside Seat, an ill-fated boxing venue and restaurant that once employed Steve Earle as a short-order cook and at one time was known as The Cumberland Jockey Club, or “Jock’s” for short.
“There wasn’t a lot of live music in town back then,” Oermann says. “We had The Pickin’ Parlor downtown at the corner of Broadway and Second. At that time, it was more of an acoustic room. And it was a dangerous place in those days. It was just deserted down there.”
For Jay Orr, it was all about Cantrell’s. He danced to Rufus Thomas there, walked through the snow to hear the LeRoi Brothers, saw the Violent Femmes parade through the crowd to get to the stage and hung out with the likes of Bob Stinson of the Replacements and Peter Holsapple of The dBs. “Cantrell’s had more interesting bookings than the Exit,” Orr says.
According to Jason Ringenberg, whose Scorchers made their bones at Cantrell’s, owner Terry Cantrell never cared much for the punk scene that flowered at his club. “But he definitely gave a lot of bands a great start here in the mid-South. That was where I first saw R.E.M. It was the place that would play Black Flag and Circle Jerks and people like that. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of shows at the Exit/In [in the '80s]. It was more of an ‘uptown’ sort of place in those days.”
While Cantrell’s was the hot club of the early ’80s, The Cannery got the best gigs of the late ’80s. Then in the early ’90s, the Ace of Clubs was temporarily the hot nightspot. T.C. Weber, who managed the Exit/In from ’95 to ’97 and again from 2001 until its recent closing, began running the Ace of Clubs shortly after moving to town in 1989. He says that the Exit/In in the early ’90s “was just another club. At that time, the Ace of Clubs…didn’t pay attention to anybody. We looked at 12th & Porter as kind of being competition, but not really. And 328 [Performance Hall] kind of being competition, but they were only taking shows from us that were much, much larger.”
328 Performance Hall closed down in March of this year, bought out by the city to make room for the Gateway Bridge. The Ace of Clubs closed a few years before that, the victim of a slowdown in downtown business.
If the Exit/In outlasted so many once formidable contenders, why did it run into so much trouble this summer? T.C. Weber, who was there at the end, takes a macro view.
“The Exit/In belongs to a group of classic rock clubs that have been around for ages,” he says. “The Paradise Rock Club. CBGB. Metro. Across the country, all of those are having problems. Hopefully, the world hasn’t passed them by. It’s hard to think of the Jersey Shore without The Stone Pony.”
Club owner and musician Mike Grimes fears that the times may have changed in such a way that live music doesn’t mean as much as it once did. “It used to be when you saw live music, when you went to see a band, it sounded better than your record player,” Grimes says. “But now, with CDs and stereos that are bigger and better than they’ve ever been, your music on your stereo almost sounds better than it does live, most of the time. And MTV with all the quick editing–it’s almost created attention deficit disorder where live music is concerned.
“All I had [growing up] were album covers and magazines, so I had to almost create the excitement in my brain,” Grimes continues. “The whole excitement of what music was about was just overpowering to me, man. And now I think the mystique of it all is not there. I mean, I’m still excited about music. There’s still tons of great records that come out. But sometimes I wonder if young kids–I’m not sure if music still holds whatever it had when The Beatles were around, the power it had as such a motivating force.”
Manier blames the declining live music industry on club managers who seem to target only one segment of the market–namely, college-age males who don’t mind staying up late and standing around for two hours. “I think it’s stupid that clubs don’t start shows earlier. I just think they could do a hell of a lot more business because a lot of clubs don’t start until 10:30 or 11 at night. It’s insane.”
During his run at the Exit/In, Manier started the early show weeknights right at 8:20, 8:30 on weekends. He says he rarely had a problem with the audience showing up on time. “We sold more and ran a pretty tight ship. Because we had a huge line of people waiting to get in for the second show,” he says.
Welcome to the Club. Rick Whetsel, the new owner of Exit/In.
Almost more than the people who had an investment in the club, the strongest attachment to the Exit/In is held by the music journalists who spent the bulk of their nights there in both a professional and personal capacity. John Lomax III camped out there, because, he says, “It was the only showcase room for a couple hundred miles, Printers Alley having lost favor once Nashville passed liquor by the drink.”
When Bob Oermann moved to Nashville in 1978, he had a job in the library of the Country Music Hall of Fame and was writing for fan magazines and alternative newspapers like the Nashville Gazette. His wife, community activist and cultural anthropologist Mary Bufwack, still hadn’t made the move. “I was kind of on my own and I didn’t know anybody in town,” Oermann says. “That, and the Gold Rush across the street. That was the hangout.”
Michael McCall moved here from San Francisco in July 1984 to write about rock and the music business for the Nashville Banner. Back then, he says, “I spent more time at the Exit/In than at home. It was the center of the rock scene outside of the more underground places like Cantrell’s.” He describes those days as “a big whirl of great music and friends and the social activity that goes into it.”
The Exit/In also provided a locus for the kind of local music scene rarely seen these days, at least in Nashville. In the ’80s, bands hung out together more, supported each other more and writers tracked their movements as the musicians made their way up the club ladder to the Exit/In. “It was the place you aspired to play,” McCall remembers. “So early on when you had people like The Nerve, Afrikan Dreamland, they would pack the place out without having any national attention at all. [I watched] bands like Walk the West or Raging Fire or The White Animals get big enough to play the Exit/In. You played the Exit/In, you’d made it.”
“It has all the stuff that you need to make a good show in a mid-sized venue,” says Jason Ringenberg. “It’s a great-sounding room; it’s got a good stage. They always had a good P.A. system in there. The atmosphere in and of itself wasn’t all that special; it wasn’t any different from a lot of other mid-sized rock ‘n’ roll rooms across the country. But I think because it had such a history of playing great music before the music broke, there was a certain feather-in-your-cap if you played there.”
In recent years, Kim Collins of the band Kim’s Fable carried on the tradition of local bands drawing crowds at the Exit/In (even though in her day job, Collins works for competitor 12th & Porter). “We didn’t play there for awhile because we just didn’t get the crowds,” Collins says. “When T.C. started doing the booking, his first focus was on local bands and we started playing again. We had a big blowout show–like 400 people–and it was great. So we started playing there more often because we were able to accommodate more fans.”
Also in the last couple years, Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival, a weekly showcase of country and roots music performers, served as a mini-reunion for some of the old Exit/In gang. One reason is that Western Beat had a definable musical link to the early days of the club, when it was a haven for singer-songwriters who straddled the line between country and rock. When they had no home, the Exit/In provided one, so it was only natural that fans and musicians alike would be drawn to the Western Beat’s twangy music and communal vibe. (The showcase has since returned to the reopened Exit/In.)
T.C. Weber may be cynical about the future of live music around the country, but he remains committed to the belief that a local club should support a local scene. “I think the importance of a rock ‘n’ roll club above and beyond bringing in traveling stuff is to be a part of the community and the local music community. I’ve got a lot of great memories of seeing a lot of great bands who have gone on, from the Matthew Ryans to the Boneponys and Fleming & Johns.”
Given the city’s indifference to its own homegrown talent, it’s remarkable that some of those memories ever happened. Nashville musicians admit that they often get treated better on the road. Because of the imposing presence and demands of the country music industry, many young music fans here want to do anything but see live music at the end of a hard day of sorting through demos and checking out showcases. Nashville has encoded “poor event attendance” into its civic personality, lapsing only periodically, when a new nightclub opens that proves impossible to resist.
Weber had a front-row seat for the most recent collapse of the Exit/In. “There wasn’t people coming to shows,” he says. “Everybody gets on to me, but if you look at it, this has always been a soft market.
“Nobody likes to hear that. And they think that you’re being negative, but the truth and the fact of it is, this city just doesn’t support live shows, not of the nature or the size needed to make the Exit/In successful at all times. What with the overhead and everything else there is on it, you’re going to need to put 300 to 400 people in there four to five nights a week. I just don’t know what it’s going to take to do that.
“Look at the Pollstars for the last five years and look at people’s touring schedules, and they’ll go Atlanta, Knoxville, up to Louisville or Lexington, Memphis, Birmingham,” Weber continues. “And you look at the top shows that are out there right now. I mean, the Stones are coming, but there’s no Springsteen date, there’s no Guns N’ Roses date; there was no U2 date. It’s not that we don’t have the facilities, either. It’s that Nashville is perceived, and to some extent has earned the reputation, as being a soft market. We’re used to being able to see world-class music without having to pay anything for it.”
Ringenberg says that the situation wasn’t always so dire. “I think the audience has become more diverse,” he says. “When I first started in the early ’80s, there were two audiences. There was the country crowd and there was the very small, but very intense and very aware punk rock crowd. Now there’s just so much different stuff going on, it’s such a huge industry, entertainment town that you really can’t plug into one scene or another.”
Rick Whetsel is well aware of the challenges of selling live music in Nashville. “I heard it said to me one time that Nashville is very much a bedroom community–most folks are willing to spend their weekends at home. They’d rather rent a movie than go out. So you really have to work hard to give people something that they want to see and an atmosphere they’d like to see it in.”
Whetsel is planning to replace the heat and the air-conditioning in the club, among other things, to keep people from using sour ambience as an excuse for not turning out for shows. But he also knows that he’s got his work cut out for him drawing the showbiz-saturated citizens of Nashville.
So why does anyone bother? Why back a loser, putting money into a business that seems designed to fail? The thrill of putting on a show? Manier sparkles when he talks about the nights of music that he made happen.
“In ’72, when we got larger, we started doing some name acts and we just started slowly moving beyond–I mean, we kept playing Hiatt because he had a following, we kept playing Coe–but we were large enough then to play showcases. I remember Willie [Nelson] played there when his Red Headed Stranger album came around, when he started happening in a large way. [Dan] Fogelberg was hanging around here a lot then and he played. We played Prine and Emmy and people like that, started doing a lot of jazz, started doing everything, started doing comedy–Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Billy Crystal.
“I was essentially trying to balance it and figure out what we could do business with and what was cool,” Manier continues. “It was my call. I played some stuff that was just phenomenal but no one came, and that was always a drag. Because I was hoping to get established to the point that people would know that on any given night there was going to be something incredible there. And there was, and across a range of artists. [John] Hartford played there once, and Vassar Clements. Sam Bush, when he was with New Grass Revival. And then McCoy Tyner would be there after that. It was absolutely, totally eclectic.”
Manier even programmed a film series focusing on obscure African American movies. It was all part of his plan of catering to the complete spectrum of Nashville audiences.
Thiels says that one of her fondest memories after she became a partner in the Exit/In happened when she and a friend “were roaming around on a Saturday afternoon and we felt like we needed to just go hear some good blues, but we couldn’t figure out where to go. So we went over to Mary’s Barbecue on Jefferson Street to find out if anyone over there could tell us where to go. And they said, ‘You need to go down to the Exit/In, man.’ ”
According to Manier, there were some nights when 80 percent of the Exit/In’s clientele was black. He brought in jazz acts like Roy Ayers and Weather Report, and even ventured into avant-garde jazz players with a political agenda. The diversity of bookings was designed to prevent burnout from any one customer base. Nevertheless, Manier says, “We had people who showed up a lot, because they got it. They knew that there was something very cool that was eventually going to happen there.”
That aspect of entertaining crowds and seeing exciting new talent tends to trump the making of money–otherwise the Exit/In would’ve closed permanently a long time ago. “I get as much of a kick or more of a kick watching the crowds enjoying themselves–kind of as a social chairman, just watching everybody’s face and their dancing or whatever,” says late ’90s Exit/In owner Ned Horton.
Over at The End, Bruce Fitzpatrick says that a great show is almost worth it even if the crowds don’t come in droves. “If there’s a band that I like, I’ll go ahead and do the show even though I’m going to lose money,” he says. “I just want to see ‘em, y’know?”
The chain of ownership of the Exit/In is so kinked that no one person can chart the complete sequence of rises and falls. Owsley Manier tosses out some names: “The last incarnation that I was involved with [included] Wayne Oldham, who was an old restaurateur who has since passed away, and Joe Sullivan, who was Charlie Daniels’ manager at the time, and I think Charlie Daniels as well, and Steve Greil, who’s now head of TPAC. They bought the club from whoever had it before them, which I think was Nick Hill and Nick Spiva of Spiva/Hill investments.”
Did any of them make any money? Manier sighs. “To kind of give you the overview of it, the total amount that’s been lost in that place, if you adjust it for inflation–way over half a mil, maybe 700,000, maybe more has been flushed down the toilet in that place.”
Manier remains the man most strongly associated with the club, even though Fitzpatrick may outstrip him in total years there. Ned Horton had the most recent tenure as a public face of the Exit/In, and if he hadn’t overextended himself and his partners, and if he hadn’t burned out on the whole experience, the club might not have closed up a few months back. He enjoyed the process, but he stepped away from the Exit/In because “the part that I loved [was]–the marketing, the retooling, the reimaging of the venue. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of managing bartenders and stocking inventory, that’s not my background.”
Horton became a silent partner in the club when the Exit/In was bought into by 3MK, a California-based management group with restaurant and bar interests throughout the Southeast. “Essentially, a year later, they weren’t fulfilling their obligations and we had to get divorced from them, which meant somebody had to go back in and run it, either [my partner] Jay [Langford] or I,” Horton says. “He wanted to do it, and I was all for that. So he bought me out at that point. He took all the stock and ran with it.”
But Langford was doing all this from a distance, never having moved to Nashville from his home base in New England. Money dried up, and according to frequent visitor Bob Oermann, “It got horrible there at the end. There was no air-conditioning.”
From his perspective across the street, Fitzpatrick sees the collapse from a practical standpoint. “Maybe some shows didn’t have the turnout they thought they were gonna have. You know, that sales tax is due the 20th of each month for theprevious month. It’s basically 8.25 percent of your sales. They’ll let you get behind for a little while, but at some point, they come after you.”
Rick Whetsel came into his new position as owner of the Exit/In almost by accident. He had just taken command of 328 Performance Hall before its closure. As he and his team looked for a space to replace 328, the Exit/In closed. “We just kept waiting and waiting for somebody to open Exit/In and then it never happened,” he says. “So we just kept talking to other people and they kept talking to us, and finally we were like, you know what, let’s see if we can’t get this thing done.”
Whetsel comes in not so much as a visionary savior, but as an adventurous music-lover and businessman who thinks that the Exit/In still has a place on Nashville’s live music landscape, as foggy as that landscape may be. He plans to keep the names on the wall and to install new lighting and sound. “We’re going to make some minor changes cosmetically to the front of the house,” he says. “Most of our changes are going to occur in the way of artist hospitality. The dressing rooms and such need a little help.”
Another in a string of out-of-towners to be involved with the Exit/In, Whetsel moved to Nashville from Pittsburgh in 1992; through his Great Big Shows promotion group, he’s worked with just about every club owner in town.
Mike Grimes is excited about his new competitor. “I love Rick,” he says. “Rick, myself, John Bruton–all the promoters in town work with each other. It’s not as cutthroat as I’m sure it is in bigger cities. We actually check with each other about gigs, so we don’t book the same kind of band on the same night. I think the competition will be more between 12th & Porter and Exit. That size venue is a step up from 12th & Porter. It’s much needed.”
As for Whetsel, when reminded of the past problems that club owners have encountered, he stays calm and points out that he’s been involved with the Exit/In before, and that he’s not planning any big, risky projects. “We know what we can afford and we will spend accordingly,” he insists. “That said, if people don’t come to shows, I’m in big trouble.”
Paging through her scrapbook, Liz Thiels comes upon a July 1976 clipping from the Nashville Banner that reported the club filed for Chapter 11 on Nov. 28, 1975. “It says here that our debts at that time were $123,558, and we had assets of $47,503. We had tried the benefit concert route and we had tried other investors and we had tried everything we knew how to do to hang onto it ourselves. But the day just came where we had to say, ‘OK, it’s for sale.’ Owsley and I, the court named us as the managers, and we worked there for more than a year with no salary, nothing. I don’t know really how we did that.”
Walter Carter has a different perspective on that era–a bartender’s perspective. “They really didn’t know anything about the restaurant and bar business. They started selling liquor, but they had only call brands, so if you ordered a bourbon and Coke, you got Jack Daniels, Smirnoff Vodka for a Vodka Collins. They were trying to serve vegetarian, and one of the guys from the bar business brought in a chef who just looked at the figures and looked at the food and said, ‘You guys are losing money on every meal.’
“Right before the bankruptcy, they showed the employees the balance sheet for the past couple of months. The club broke even, and probably could’ve made money if they hadn’t been in such a hole already. It was pretty loosely run. A lot of people knew their way through the kitchen. We did our best to put a stop to that, but never really controlled the ‘brother-in-law’ entrance.”
The experience was crushing for Thiels. At the time of the bankruptcy, the Exit/In was as popular as it had ever been, and Manier’s booking bravado was starting to pay off. “At nighttime, when the music was there, it was truly a magical place,” recalls Thiels. “When you got up in the morning and you had to, y’know, meet the creditors, realize you didn’t have the money for supper, didn’t have your rent check, didn’t have enough reservations to feel like you were going to have a show–the days were black, the nights were white.”
It was hard at the time, but rewarding in the long run. When Thiels left the Exit/In, she eventually took a job with Sound 70 music promotions, the first big rock promoters in town, who later bought into the Exit/In and enabled her to work with the club again. Thiels left Sound 70 in 1979 and formed her own PR firm, Network Ink. One early client: the Exit/In. Network Ink closed up shop last December when Thiels became the senior vice president for public relations at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Carter didn’t lose any money, but he also turned his years on “the rock block” into capital later on. “There was a street magazine called Hank that Harvey Magee had started,” he says. “I wrote a couple of things for that, just because I had criticized it and Harvey challenged me to do better. That became my portfolio, that got me on at The Tennessean.” (Carter worked at the paper from 1978 to ’82 and currently is an in-house historian for Gibson Guitars.)
Similarly, Manier emerged from his Exit/In experience scathed, but surviving and eventually thriving. “Everything I’ve done since then has been because of that,” he says. “I’ve salvaged a great reputation as a straight-up guy. I’ve had two record companies, management of artists, published people, done DVDs, videos, still do radio production; everything I’ve done since then came from there, but it has nothing to do with that. People remember me for that, but that’s ancient history. I’ve done a million things since then.”
Was it worth the money lost? Thiels exhales for a long time before she answers, and then says, “As an education, it certainly was. As a life experience it certainly was, just as a musical experience. Absolutely. It truly was a college education in how the music business worked. A real education in the psyche of artists. To have seen them perform in such an intimate setting and to have the opportunity to converse with them, observe them closely, hear them take a kind of mentoring attitude. A lot of artists and their managers and agents became our mentors. If I had it to do again, at that age, I’m sure I would do it again.”
Pop in the DVD of Robert Altman’s Nashville, jump to chapter 13 and there’s the Exit/In listening room in all its tables-and-chairs glory. Jump to chapter 14 and there’s Keith Carradine, singing the Oscar-winning song “I’m Easy.”
Manier claims that the idea for Joan Tewksbury’s screenplay for the movie came to her while she was sitting in the bar at the Exit/In. “The cachet was already there,” he says. “There was some poll that did top clubs in the world and we were always Top 10 in the planet. I mean, it was a huge hangout. I can remember standing at the bar next to George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, any number of times. It was like that. All the time.
“There was something serendipitous about that, and that happened a lot. Magic had the possibility of happening there all the time and it did. There was some creative thing going on there that was pretty intense.”
Beyond Nashville, though, there’s not much permanent record of what happened at the Exit/In in those early days. Manier oversaw a string of live recordings, broadcast on WKDA and WKDF, but out of 150 reels of tape, 120 burned up several years back. “It was a huge chunk of my life,” he moans. “The quality of some of the stuff that I’ve been able to salvage–I might’ve been able to recoup some of what I lost [financially]. It’s a shame, because not only did we get the moments, but the quality of the recordings was quite superior. It wasn’t bullshit.”
“I wish I’d kept a diary,” says Oermann. “It was a very nice club. It was a very cool place to go.”
One who did keep a diary of sorts was Thiels, with her scrapbook. But the existence of the scrapbook itself is complicated by the fact that she put it together as an exhibit for bankruptcy court. The book made a case for keeping the club alive, even as it documented why it wasn’t going to make it.
Does Thiels wish that the club would’ve closed for good when its golden era ended? “I never have thought about that,” she says. “I don’t know. The more time there is between that time and my life now, the more I realize how much it meant to people.
“I still, everywhere I go, every time I meet somebody new, if they find out that I ever had anything to do with that place, that’s what they want to talk about. To tell me about their experiences there and who they saw there, who got engaged there–those kinds of stories. People hold it very dear. But I think, for me, as a matter of survival, it was just something I had to give up. I had to go on. It was necessary emotionally to just surgically remove it.
“[The Exit/In] was about music, it was about good wine, it was about good food, it was about comedy,” adds Thiels. “It was just a real center. A forum. It was really democracy at its finest.”