by Brenda Hillegas
The idea to round up some musicians and question them on performing at the bars on Broadway emerged from dinner at the National Underground one night in September. The National Underground is a owned by Gavin DeGraw and his brother, Joey, with locations in Nashville and NYC. I’m talking the Nashville one. It’s downtown on Broadway where every bar is filled with singers and songwriters, honky-tonk bands, and people from all over the world. This is Music City.
Like every bar on the Broadway strip, hopeful musicians perform all throughout the day. These bars don’t charge a cover (never, not even on a Saturday night) and everyone on stage will attempt to sing whatever country song you throw out to them. Musicians come to Nashville hoping to get noticed and stand out above the rest of the guitar-slinging, twang-singing optimists who are up next on stage that night. They all know that if they want their name in lights one day or the ability to sell out a crowd, Broadway is a great place to start. So, I wanted to know- what does it take? Why do these musicians perform each night, what do they earn, and what motivates them? Are they appreciated?
“We never know who’s in the audience and who’s listening,” says Olia K., a Bulgarian-born singer who moved to Nashville from Chicago after visiting only twice and realizing it was a great city to network and collaborate with other writers and musicians.
“It helps to have something different,” she says of her nationality. “People remember me by that.”
Olia K. has received a lot of local press in Nashville and listeners even know the words to her original songs by the time a set is done. She says it’s easier for a performer to appear at songwriter nights, jam sessions and open mics.
“I was very happy to get my first show on Broadway at the Cadillac Ranch (now Tequila Cowboy,” says Olia K. She notes that getting to perform for people is hard- with so many singers trying to get gigs around Broadway, any stage is appreciated.
While Olia K. says for her it’s not about the money, getting paid is still something to be considered for the Broadway performers. Sure, they perform because they love what they do. That makes sense. And of course, a lot of these musicians are playing as many shows as possible each week in hopes that someone will negotiate a record deal with them. But most nights, the singers who put everything they have into performing for you while you drink your beers and dance to their music don’t even make enough to cover your bar tab. “Some bars will pay $30 to $40 a person,” Olia K. says of the musicians.
“We make about $25-$70 in tips, but more like $50 on average,” says Beth Garner of the Tennessee Twisters. “I know it sucks. Weekend nights are good if the patrons know we are working for tips. People who put a dollar in our tip jar can’t fathom the fact we split it four ways and somehow pay our light bill with it.”
Though the musicians featured in this piece aren’t in it for the fortune (not even the fame sometimes, either), I’m encouraged to put them in front of music fans and hope that you’re supportive of their efforts. It’s not just the performers on Broadway- it’s music everywhere. The bands who perform on the streets, in the subways, in all towns. Two years ago, on my first trip to Nashville, I happened to be in the city at the same time a few friends were playing the Bluebird Café. After meeting a great singer there that night, I realized just how important it is for musicians like him to be appreciated.
The Bluebird Café is a small listening room in a strip mall which holds about 120 seats. They have food and drinks, tables and chairs, and church pews in the back. People who perform here are sometimes lucky enough to become the next huge country star (Taylor Swift was discovered here). Other performers go on to become songwriters for people like Swift. The night I was there, I met Brent Lindley who came from Georgia to perform at the café. He writes original songs, has a red guitar and a great voice. I liked his sound and I was determined to bring more people like him to the Philadelphia area.
I got Lindley a gig in Philadelphia at the PSALM Salon. Not to get away from the topic at hand too much, but if you’re near Philly and have the time- PSALM is the venue to check out. Owner Jamey Reilly lives at the house and listening room with his family. The living room has a small stage and a lot of chairs. Before each show, dinner is made in the kitchen with the option to purchase a meal. There’s complimentary tea and coffee (and BYO of course). I was amazed that Reilly gives all the money from the night’s performance directly to the artist. Because it was summertime and near a big empty college, Lindley didn’t make much that night. He assumed he wouldn’t, but flew there from Georgia anyway.
“Everyone hopes to be discovered,” says Garner. “But, the pay is crap until you hit it big.” Garner’s passion is music. She realizes she must play, produce and write or else she loses her lifeline. “You learn new ways to make money at it,” she says. “Lately, I’ve started a publishing company and work more closely with BMI Live, which is a way for songwriters to perform their songs in clubs and get paid for them.”
Garner’s band stands out by adding a “sexy female flair.” The Tennessee Twisters are an all girl band and they just want to entertain you so you keep coming back. “It was 2am and we were supposed to be done, but these half-a-dozen men came in and started laying hundred dollar bills down,” she says of the biggest tips her band has ever received. “[They wanted to hear] “Orange Blossom,” “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” every fiddle song.” Though the band didn’t know how to play everything, they played until 3am anyway (when the bartender made them quit). Garner notes that they really want to include the audience in their shows. They certainly did.
Two musicians were doing sets as I had dinner at the National Underground this past September. Jerry O’Neal came to Nashville from Arkansas because “it’s the one place in the world for me to be who I truly am. It’s the one place where I can do what I love and do it full time.”
We were seated next to the stage and like Garner’s band, O’Neal included the audience. He greeted everyone at my table, asking where we are from. I’ve seen a lot of performers in Nashville do this, and it’s nice to know they take the time to find out who they’re playing for. Then O’Neal asked if anyone had requests. My friend requested David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle.”
O’Neal wasn’t sure if he could do it but attempted anyway. My friend tipped him, though I’m not sure how much. Unlike a lot of people on the Broadway strip, O’Neal doesn’t have stars in his eyes.
“I do perform to earn a living,” he says. “Music has been a passion of mine since I was a young boy. So yes, even if I knew I’d never get discovered, I know I would still be playing. Just maybe not at the level I’m playing now.”
O’Neal has been lucky enough to work with Donna Rhodes Morris, who sang background on songs like “The Rose” by Conway Twitty and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley. He also worked with Craig Morris, the lead singer for 4 Runner in the 90s and who is currently on tour with Loretta Lynn. O’Neal, on average, performs three nights a week and knows Nashville is the town with the most opportunity for him.
“If I ever make it, that would be great,” he says. “At least I had the guys to try!”
Another gutsy performer was also at The National Underground the same night as O’Neal. Laura McGhee stands out because she adds a Celtic slant to her country twang. She’s from Scotland.
“I moved to Nashville two and a half years ago to pursue my solo career,” she says. “My first USA album release, Celticana, made it to the top 40 of the Americana chart making me the first Scot to break the chart.”
McGhee considers herself to be successful. She was raised on Scottish roots music and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Scotland, gaining an honors degree in classical violin. McGhee is a professional musician in Nashville and with a lot of press under her belt from countries like Canada and England, it’s easy to say she’s made it. But even after performing on Broadway in New York with Pete Seeger and at the Country Music Hall of Fame for a BBC TV show, she still plays the bars in Nashville.
“I do a weekly show at the last songwriters venue on music row, Bobby’s Idle Hour,” she says. Every Tuesday from 6-9pm, McGhee goes there to play original songs and try out new material. “You can’t play covers there.”
McGhee’s goals in Nashville are to pursue her solo career as an artist. She’s obviously doing well. “[I want to] meet new song-writers and continue my craft of writing, recording and performing.” Right now, she’s working on her new album and encourages backing for the project, with rewards for any pledges made.
Like McGhee, Beth Garner suggests that it’s important to meet other singer/songwriters. “Competition is steep,” says Garner, “although I don’t think of it as competitive, more of a community.”
Cort Carpenter believes in competition. “I played Division-1 baseball for the University of Portland,” says the Washington state native. “I’m a tough competitor and growing up as an athlete, I have learned what it takes to be tough minded, setting a goal and doing what it takes to achieve that goal.”
Carpenter was involved in a car accident a few weeks before attending professional baseball tryouts. When he couldn’t regain the power he once had in baseball, he turned to his second love- music. For the past three years, Carpenter was in bands on the West Coast that have been doing very well.
“From casinos to the biggest country music venues, we were doing great,” he says. He moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and started playing southern California venues.
“My fiancée Kelly and I just recently moved to Nashville where I have established one amazing group of guys that formed my backing band,” Carpenter says of the Triple C Band. “My band is all geared up with tunes we have to play out for folks. We will be looking to play out a minimum four times a week.”
Carpenter and the Triple C Band played their debut Nashville show last month at the Honky Tonk Central. They performed for four hours. Though it’s not certain the amount of tips his band made, it’s likely around the same amount as everyone else.
“It depends on the crowd size and what night of the week you are playing,” he says. “I have heard of people making very little in tips to bands making $200 each per person.”
“Weekends are always the best time to play as far as tips are concerned,” O’Neal says, “Unless there is a big event in town like a Titans game or the CMAs. On average, probably $30-$50 a night.”
Competition driven, Carpenter intends to make it big in Nashville. “We present ourselves as an established act,” he says. “I’m looking and striving for a record deal. My band has dedicated themselves to me as an artist to get us all there. We pride ourselves on being a step above and being an act people remember and continue to follow.”
Australia native Richie Scholl doesn’t bank on becoming famous. He does have two albums of original songs, but no major record deal that will guarantee him the title of “next big thing.”
“It’s my sole occupation,” Scholl says of performing. “I think being discovered on Broadway is not impossible, but for the most part, highly unlikely.” He plays at the bars anywhere from three to eight times a week.
Similar to McGhee and Olia K, Scholl also decided to leave his country to further his career. Growing up in Queensland, Australia, Scholl moved to Nashville in 2007 after performing in pubs and clubs back home. Even though he’s had no professional training, he’s been able to play everything from fairs to large arenas with major artists. Still, it’s hard to get noticed.
“Playing on Broadway does give great exposure to tourists and country music fans who come to town,” he says. “I play a lot of my own songs. The originals go over very well. I try and mix it up, as it is a bar and people want to hear familiar stuff.” Scholl tries to perform covers that are not over-played. The biggest tip Scholl has seen for a cover was $200.
The best shift I think to make good tips is probably the 2pm-6pm,” he says. “But that’s not necessarily always the case.” Could it be because this is a prime time for people to sit down and have a meal? Maybe they’re more focused on the music and the bars are less crowded?
“It’s hard to say,” McGhee says about the best times and places for tips. “It really depends on the audience.”
This piece wasn’t written to encourage the audience to send money to the musicians you just read about. It was written to show off the determination of people in the music industry. They all chose to be performers because they love it and regardless of the uncertainty of their efforts, they continue to work hard. Some of Broadway’s musicians will make it. And some might not. Some don’t even care because they just want to entertain you every night. They all know what they’re doing and what it takes to be noticed. So please, notice them. This isn’t what you see in the movies- the people you see on stage aren’t busboys at the bar who had the night off and decided to play for you. That person with the great voice in front of you didn’t take off her bartending apron and hop on stage because the actual band called in sick. These people come from all over the world to perform and hope someone listens to them. If you find yourself in Nashville, or any bar with a band, remember who is performing for you. Thank them.