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Nashville's Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made

By Bill Rouda (photographer)

Smithsonian Books, 130 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2004

Find it on Amazon
Nashville's Lower Broadway has seen its ups and downs over the years. At one point, the rundown area was unsafe, but then it encountered a resurgence.

And part of that resurgence was the music that infiltrated the area. Folks like BR549 gained their buzz from appearing in the once seedy area of Nashville. Now thanks to photographer Bill Rouda, the Lower Broadway area has been documented for posterity.

An introduction by David Eason capably sets the stage for the photographs that will follow. In that essay, local folklorist Bob Fulcher said the area was as significant to Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans with a colorful cast of characters populating the area.

The area went downhill fast with the Opry moving away from the Ryman in 1974 with down and outers, prostitutes and the homeless populating the area.

But that changed with the opening of the city's convention center in 1987. And the growing corporate feel of Nashville continued with eventually failed chain restaurants like Planet Hollywood, the Gaylord Entertainment Center and the Tennessee Titans home field coming to the area.

Almost in rebellion, the 400 block of Lower Broadway became a hot spot with places like Robert's Western World and Tootsie's among others. Folks like BR549, Greg Garing and Lucinda Williams were key players on the scene. Like practically any similar locale around the country, clubs and faces come and go.

The essay is a fine introduction to the photos that follow, setting the reader up with a picture in his head for what the area was like.

The contrast between Lower Broadway and the city is made clear from the get go with a view showing Roberts and Tootsies in the foreground and several new office buildings in the background.

Photos depict singers doing their best for their place in the sun no matter how large a crowd. It sure looked like it could be lonely up there on stage sometimes.

And some of the folks in the area, like Jule Tabor at the Tootsie's and Miss Pat, owner of the Wagon Burner, certainly come across like lively characters. The homeless certainly get their share of space as well, capturing reality.

Rouda takes a very artful approach to his shots with photos including well-worn guitar cases piled high or a musician counting his tips after the show. Pictures of Garing are especially good.

About the only criticism is that photos could have been dated, giving a closer connection to the essay.

Nevertheless one gets a distinct sense for life as it once was along Lower Broadway for better and for worse.