Photo by Jamie Alexander
“JT was a big wheel in the business,” said the award-winning songwriter and bluegrass musician Larry Cordle just days after the death of the Station Inn’s JT Gray on March 20th, 2021. “This is what blows my mind about him losing his life. I mean, he just got his due. He ran the Station Inn for 40 years, he was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame and with the Grammy Awards doing him right like they did this year—he just got his due. I still haven’t processed that he isn’t here anymore.”
In September of 2020, I interviewed JT Gray for Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine about his impending induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Gray’s plaque would be added to the walls of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY, and it made him very happy.
Six months later, Gray would be featured on the prime-time TV broadcast portion of the Grammy Awards on March 14, 2021. In front of millions of viewers, he explains the hardships of keeping his legendary Station Inn venue afloat in Nashville during this pandemic before announcing Miranda Lambert as the winner in the “Best Country Album” category for her album Wildcard. In his Grammy Award appearance he told the world that “Bluegrass music is like one big happy family.” Six days after the Grammy broadcast, Gray was dead at 75 years of age.
While Gray never made it to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum located just 130 miles from his Tennessee home, his Hall of Fame plaque was brought to the Station Inn and displayed for a short while before traveling to its official destination in Owensboro.
“(IBMA Executive Director) Paul Schiminger came over and told me, when he found out, that I had been voted into the IBMA Hall of Fame,” Gray said last September. “I’m glad I was sitting down, you know, because it was a big surprise. It makes you feel proud, after all of these years of work and playing some music, although I’ve been more on the promoter side of it. It made me feel good and very honored to be asked to be in something like the Hall of Fame because it is something I never really dreamed of in my lifetime. How do you explain it? It leaves you speechless. I’ve never actually been in the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I keep saying that I got to go up there and see it. I definitely got to go now and see my plaque on the wall.” Gray never made it to Owensboro, yet his heart was full.
For over 40 years, the Station Inn has been ground zero for the bluegrass universe. It is a place where young bands could prove their mettle with Gray’s blessing, and where legends of the genre could come in unannounced to jam or watch other groups perform.
Larry Cordle calls the venue a bluegrass “clubhouse” because it was a place where Nashville-based artists could drop in and visit at any time, and it was a meeting place for countless other bluegrass musicians who moved to Nashville from other towns, appreciating the square brick building’s down-home camaraderie and hospitality.
Musicians from all genres would show up at the Station Inn after playing at other venues in Nashville. A perfect example of this was a special, spontaneous affair that I witnessed on September 30, 2010. Early in the evening, singer Claire Lynch won the “Female Singer of the Year” honor at the IBMA Awards Show held at the Ryman Auditorium. After the last prize was announced from the podium, the Station Inn hosted a post-event concert just one mile away. In honor of the great John Hartford being inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame, the late musician’s last-ever group performed a wonderful multi-set after-show at the venue.
As the night progressed, in front of a packed house at the Station Inn; Lynch walks into the club and is almost-immediately greeted by loud applause as she is called out from the stage. The Hartford String Band hails the arrival of the new award winner and the audience responds in kind. Lynch is then asked to come up and play and she spontaneously sings a couple of songs to celebrate the evening.
“It was always funky to go there, with the wooden floors and the posters, the cardboard pizza and nachos, beer and wine coolers, with the old formica kitchen chairs and tables for people to sit in; it was pretty low key,” said Claire Lynch. “But, it was home. It was comfortable, and the people there were amazing. The crowds that came there were warm and appreciative and they were right there, right up under your nose. It was a wonderful, intimate feeling and when the place filled up, it just got magical. One of the most important things was that you got exposed to other acts. That was wonderful. And, there were great players that would come in near the end of the night and sit down and have a beer and watch you play. It was a real community. JT and I were always acquainted and he was always cordial to me. We weren’t elbow buddies or anything, but he was always respectful and I think he rang the bell one time when I did something good onstage and that was saying a lot.”
Looking back, Lynch fondly remembers that extraordinary post-awards evening in 2010.
“I walked in and it got a rise out of the room,” said Lynch. “First of all, I was surprised, but I was also so honored. I’m usually really shy about people asking me to do something onstage, but it felt like a million bucks that night and I wasn’t nervous. I just felt emboldened and confident, which is something I usually don’t feel in a situation without my full band. I was already floating and I just floated up there onstage, too. So, it was invigorating and a very happy moment for me. It was a lovely experience.”
On many nights, it was not uncommon to see multiple IBMA Award winner Ben Surratt working as the sound engineer. As a result, he got to spend a lot of time with JT and got to meet a lot of great people.
“My wife (multiple IBMA Award winner Missy Raines) and I moved to Nashville in 1990 and the Station Inn was our home away from home,” said Surratt. “When you first go to Nashville, you don’t know what’s going on and you’re timid and people invite you in and it becomes your second home, and that is what the Station Inn did for so many in bluegrass that came here. The first person that I really knew after I started working there was Lin Barber, who was pretty much the manager back then. JT was around and I got to know him after a while. He was kind of quiet, but once you got to know him, he was very warm and very friendly. It is really a blow to us all to not have him there now because the Station Inn was JT’s house and you always had a place to go to and you always had a place to hang out.”
Surratt witnessed many evenings of great music while plying the sound board.
“If anything real traditional was going on and it lit JT’s fire, he’d get up onstage and sing tenor with somebody and that was always a treat,” said Surratt. “Years ago, you would go down there to see someone like Larry Sparks and the place would be filled with musicians. You would know everybody in the room because they were there to see Sparks. Also, I was doing sound for the Nashville Bluegrass Band one night and they brought up the Fairfield Four, and that was pretty incredible. You’d be in there hanging out and Bill Monroe would walk in and make his presence known to everybody and then go into the back room. Then, of course, he would get called up onstage to play. Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley would come out on occasion as well.”
In fact, Vince Gill has spent many a twilight at the Station Inn and the loss of Gray has hit him hard, as with everybody else.
“JT has been the one thing you could always count on for bluegrass music,” said Gill. “The Station Inn was a safe harbor, a safe place, a holy place for bluegrass. I sure hope it lives on in his memory for a long, long time.”
Larry Cordle felt the same way when he first became a regular at the Station Inn after moving to Nashville in the mid-1980s. He has performed at the venue many times; including his long-running Monday night gig with Carl Jackson, Val Story, Doug Jernigan, Aubrey Haynie and others.
“I’ve known JT for a long time,” said Cordle, “Any time I had anything going on, JT always made a way for me to play there. I’ve been playing in there off and on since the mid-80s. I don’t know if musicians ever had a better friend than JT. He went out of his way to make things work because he knew what it was like, being a musician himself and playing with Jimmy Martin, and he drove a tour bus as well. He was like all of us, as in he was called on to do whatever he had to do. And, he was a great singer.”
Like most patrons at the Station Inn, Cordle saw many cool jams happen on any given Tennessee evening.
“I went down there one night to see Del McCoury and this was when all the ‘McCraze’ was going on when Del was working with Steve Earle and there were all of these people that we didn’t know in there because people came in to see Steve,” said Cordle. “They came in to see Steve but they left there saying, ‘Who in the heck is this Del McCoury guy? Can you believe that these guys can play and sing like that?’ I witnessed it, first hand. Mr. Monroe got up and played nearly a whole set with Del another time I was there. Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley would stop by and play not long after I got to Nashville. There was constantly somebody great in there. When I did my all-star duets album and I called around and called in some favors to see if I could get some folks to come and do the release party with me in 2015, Dierks Bentley shows up and gets on stage with that huge crowd in the Station Inn and he says to me, ‘This is the most intimidating stage in Nashville.’ And, it is, because you know that every great musician you can think of has played there.”
It must be said that along with the regular attendees at the Station Inn, the club still brings in bluegrass fans from all over the world.
“We had this thing that we would do, where we would ask people to shout out where they were from and the response would be amazing, as in Austria, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and more,” said Cordle. “I did tours in Sweden and in Norway and I got both tours by working at the Station Inn. These people that were from these organizations overseas saw me perform there. I got a lot of good mileage out of the things that happened to me at the Station Inn. I played original songs there that other artists later recorded. I had an advocate. I had JT.”
Nothing meant more to Gray than being inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. He seemed to know that living long enough to have that experience was not to be taken for granted. He said, “To get this Bluegrass Hall of Fame plaque and to get it up there on the wall with the guys that originated the music and made it popular, like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Reno and Smiley; it totally blows my mind,” said Gray. “It is such an honor. Of course, you always think about something like this, as in, ‘Will I ever get to see my name up there?’ Especially, before I’m gone from this earth. So, it has absolutely been the biggest honor for me. It is the biggest honor for any bluegrass artist or for anybody involved in bluegrass music. It is a great feeling to be honored for something that you’ve put your heart and soul into for so many years.”