Despite being home to some of the best bluegrass musicians in the country and the site of some of the most important historical events, there aren’t many places to regularly see live bluegrass in Nashville. The Station Inn continues to be a bluegrass beacon and you can still hear bluegrass most weeks on the Opry but the overwhelming majority of live music in town is more country than bluegrass and more plugged in than acoustic. Things have gotten expensive as people from big cities flock to Nashville (tickets to the Opry start around $70 and the one-story Station Inn, now across the street from an Urban Outfitters, is dwarfed by high rises), and it’s becoming harder and harder to find a sense of authenticity.
East Nashville, the once cheap, dangerous part of town turned eclectic, artsy haven, often attempts to capture this feeling with bars designed to feel like a “dive” featuring signs with purposefully broken lights and $6 PBRs. But in the heart of East Nashville, tucked between a scrapyard and a plasma donation center, sits the American Legion Post 82, the newest bastion of bluegrass in Music City.
Every Wednesday night, live bluegrass can be heard at the Legion followed by a parking lot jam that attracts musicians of all calibers that can continue well beyond closing. This weekly event is hosted by local bluegrass musicians Evan Winsor and James Kee who are now joined by fellow musician and former manager of the Station Inn, Jeff Burke.
“I had just moved here from Los Angeles, sight unseen.” says Evan. “I barely knew anybody and I was kind of hoping there would be a lot of chances and a lot of places to network and meet people. There was a very small, unorganized jam at the Legion that I’d go to and three or four people would show up every week.”
Legion posts aren’t typically open to the public but for the past five years, Post 82 has made some exceptions. Their extremely popular Honky Tonk Tuesdays has been featured on NPR and Rolling Stone for its great country music and inexplicable scene of people in their 20s dressed like cowboys two-stepping shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor.
“I happened to be there one Wednesday for the jam and it was me and one other person” continues Evan. “The Commander at the time told me that they were losing money on Wednesdays keeping the lights on with no one coming and that they were probably going to have to stop unless there’s someone out there that wanted to organize something. And I thought, well, I guess I’m the right person to do that. Growing up, my friends and I would organize shows, rent out VFW halls, book bands. So, I already had some experience. I put a business plan together and presented it to the folks at the Legion asking to put on shows, have an organized jam, try to get sponsors, and get an active community thing going. They gave me the green light but I figured it would be too much work to do on my own so I approached James and we decided to do it.”
Originally from Connecticut, Evan is a Berklee College of Music graduate (‘09) who has worked extensively as a freelance bass player. During his time in L.A. he was a part of the popular group the Get Down Boys. Upon moving to Nashville in 2018, he met James Kee. James grew up in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and played with bands like NewTown and the Hamilton County Ramblers before moving to Nashville. He now fronts the East Nash Grass, a bluegrass band featuring some of the most talented young players in town.
Together, they began hosting Bluegrass Wednesday Nights at the Legion. Wednesdays have become a staple in the local community frequented by professionals and newcomers all hoping to rub elbows but it was difficult to get started. “The Legion is an interesting place because it doesn’t have any inherent draw,” says James. “So anything that you do there, you’ve got to bring your own people and that took some time. It definitely took us a long time to get it off the ground. What was funny is the first person we booked was Hillary Klug, who is now engaged to Evan. She’s got a huge online following and streamed the show so we had like four people in the room and like 12,000 people streaming online.”
Despite a rocky start, the value to the community was apparent, which is what drove Evan and James to persevere. “It’s like a bluegrass clubhouse,” says Evan. “You just show up and no matter what you believe, no matter where you’re from, it’s like everyone here is on the same page. Everyone respects each other. And it’s just a great place to meet people and make friends.”
Over the years and despite setbacks from the pandemic, the event has grown. Before the shutdown they were hosting three bands every week including a house band of rotating members from around town who would perform while a large jam formed outside full of players from all over Nashville. Their most successful night was in October of 2019 when Rhonda Vincent performed.
“It feels like Nashville is losing its charm with all these new buildings, and a lot of that old Nashville feeling is dying. But I feel like the Legion has real culture. It’s been around for a while and has bluegrass history—they’ve told us that people like Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt played there [at the Legion] back in the day.”
James agrees adding, “The whole reason that me and Evan are working there is that the Legion has a different vibe than all the other venues in town because it’s not really an event venue. It’s the American Legion and it’s been there for a long time. Many of the Legionnaires, Legion members who are veterans, have been there since before Nashville was a super hip town that’s starting to get expensive. I think that’s the draw of the Legion. It still has that old Nashville feel where it doesn’t have a super expensive facility or expensive drinks or anything like that. It’s just like the same Legion posts that everybody remembers. And I think people feel that anything you can do to keep a veteran services post operating is something that’s good for our community. That’s what’s been tough about it because the people that run it don’t get paid anything and have to put in a ton of work for literally no money.”
The American Legion was chartered in 1919 as a veterans services organization. Since then, they have been instrumental in the creation of services such as the Veterans Affairs Department and the G.I. Bill as well as various community services across the country and abroad. Legion posts are the headquarters of operations in a particular region and provide various services based on location for veterans including housing for those experiencing homelessness, counseling, and a general sense of community. They are not typically open to non-members which is part of what makes both Bluegrass Wednesday and Honky Tonk Tuesdays so peculiar.
“Some of the members didn’t like it at first. They felt like it was turning into a honky tonk. But the ones that didn’t like it, to be honest, have pretty much moved on by now because these events have been going for so long and the organizers have proved their commitment to the Legion and the fact is that it would be out of business without these events. So, everybody on the executive board and the operating board has defended us to the state and regional guys as well as the other other members who didn’t like it.”
Despite having a stage and decent sized hall for banquets, the Legion didn’t have much sound equipment. Much of what is there now has been donated by the owner of Robert’s Western World (a popular music venue on Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville) who works with the organizer of Honky Tonk Tuesday. Many other necessary repairs and upgrades have come as a result of these connections. James and Evan, who don’t make any money from the events they run, have paid performers out of their own pocket on slow nights and both have joined the Sons of the Legion, the non-veteran arm of membership, to help manage the building. James currently serves as Commander and Evan as Vice-Commander. Moving forward, they hope to reinforce their commitment to both the bluegrass community and veteran community.
“I don’t want it to be perceived as just a music venue,” says James “and neither do the guys that run Honky Tonk Tuesdays. And it’s our job is to try to remind folks that it is a veterans services organization.
“I’ve always been a community type person with whatever I do,” says Evan. “So even though it’s a lot of work and I’ve sunk a bunch of money, I’ve seen the impact it’s had on our community. I’ve seen people show up and meet other people and then they start playing music together and they start doing recording projects together which is incredibly rewarding for me.”
“The Post is still doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” says James “but it definitely had periods in the last few years where it probably did more of being a music venue. But everybody who’s working with us has made it clear to the state guys that we want to honor that part of what the Legion does and that we want to support it in any way we can.”
Currently, every night that the Legion is open, including Wednesdays, they have to pay to keep the lights on (in a huge building), run a kitchen (they recently hired a new chef that has improved the menu), and hire bartenders (for what might be the cheapest drinks in town). James and Evan are in charge of everything else. From booking, to promoting, to making flyers, to hiring a sound person, to running the door (which usually doesn’t have a cover charge, just a suggested donation), they do it all. Then all of the money goes to the bands.
Due to the relaxed COVID restrictions in Tennessee and the generally nice weather, they were able to keep the event running through most of the shut down by cutting down to one performance a night and presenting shows and having the jam outside. But as more and more restrictions are lifted, James and Evan, who are both professional musicians, have found themselves overwhelmed by the growing crowds and their growing schedules. To help with this, they’ve brought in Jeff Burke as a third partner in the endeavor. Jeff, another professional musician, is a familiar face in town who originally moved to Nashville in 2005 as part of the Americana duo Jeff and Vida. Most recently, Jeff also managed the World Famous Station Inn through 2020. With this new energy and help, the trio is excited to continue to present bluegrass and special events while honoring the post and it’s members.
More than anything, their commitment to respect has created a community space that is welcoming to a wide array of musicians, fans, and veterans. In the summer of 2019, Bluegrass Pride, a California-based non-profit whose mission is to uplift LGBTQ+ musicians and creators in roots music, hosted an event at the Legion in conjunction with Bluegrass Wednesday Nights.
“When we were first approached about it we kind of thought, how is this going to work?” remembers Evan. “The American Legion and Pride are two worlds that normally never come together, especially here in the South. But you know what was so cool? When we asked them about it, they said that all they cared about was respect. As long as they’re being respectful, we will be respectful to them.”
“In a world where people are not showing a lot of empathy to other people, their biggest thing is mutual respect. I thought that was a really, really cool thing. They have a marque out on Gallatin and for the longest time it read ‘All Are Welcome.’ That’s really what they’re all about. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, what you believe in; just respect everybody.”
Information about Bluegrass Wednesday Nights including upcoming performances can be found on their Facebook or Instagram pages. James and Evan ask that nonmembers please remember to sign the guestbook and consider joining the Sons of the Legion.