From Nashville To Nashvegas: How Lower Broadway Is Becoming Country Star Row

Whiskey Row
Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row
– Whiskey Row
NAMES IN LIGHTS: Dierks Bentley’s Whisky Row is a three-level renovation of a building at Broadway and Fourth Avenue in downtown Nashville.

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On an unusually balmy February afternoon on downtown Nashville’s main drag, Lower Broadway, tourists milled about restaurants, gift shops, and honky tonk bars, the dozen or so spots with free entry and world-class musicians playing cover songs for tips. 
This is the calm before the storm, a time for families to browse and listen to music before the neon signs turn Nashville into Nashvegas. Most joints were doing modest business, except for three new establishments bearing the names of country stars – they were killing it. 
Lower Broadway is becoming Country Star Row. In the last year, three businesses bearing the names of country stars – Alan Jackson, Dierks Bentley, and Florida Georgia Line – have opened locations on or near a stretch of three city blocks, from Broadway and 2nd to Broadway and 5th; two more star-signed businesses are on their way. 
Household names even beyond the country music world, these artists have helped create a new breed of entertainment property that updates the traditional country bar experience. Ultimately, these artists and their hospitality business partners are betting they can capitalize on a red-hot market with a reputation as one of America’s most entertaining square miles.  
On the corner of Broadway and Fourth Avenue, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, a partnership of Bentley and Arizona-based Riot Hospitality Group, typifies the country-star honky tonk: a spacious, multi-floor building with updated Southern food. While it’s a country music establishment, Whiskey Row sounds country but feels rock ‘n’ roll. The decor, a flashy update on reclaimed wood and exposed-brick walls with eye-popping art installations, is warm and exciting. Stacked on one another are a performance space, a bar-restaurant hybrid, and a bar for sports fans with an open-air patio overlooking Broadway. “We wanted to capture his audience and the youth and energy of it,” said Mike Troyan, president of Riot Hospitality. 
Introduced through mutual friends, Riot Hospitality and Bentley already have three locations around Bentley’s hometown of Tempe, Ariz. Riot Hospitality is leasing the 13,200-square-foot property that was purchased by an investment group for $7.5 million in January. Bentley was “heavily involved” in Whiskey Row’s development, according to Troyan, and received a mix of equity and licensing fees. 
Alan Jackson’s modestly named AJ’s Good Time Bar, tall and slender like its namesake, sits across the street from Whiskey Row. Jackson bought the 6,000-square-foot property, along with two businesses that were housed in the building, for $5.75 million in 2016.
AJ’s has three floors plus a rooftop bar. While music is central to other artist-branded businesses, AJ’s Good Time Bar is modern but a traditional honky tonk; the emphasis is on music, dancing, and drinking domestic beers. “I always wanted to own a honky tonk that plays real country music on Broadway that I could put my name on,” he told The Tennessean. 
Jackson is also a partner in Acme Feed & Seed, a restaurant-bar housed in a 128-year-old building on the corner of Broadway and First Avenue. A self-described “funkytonk,” Acme has given each of its three levels a unique theme. Above is a rooftop bar with views of the Cumberland River and the downtown Skyline. Acme is ranked 31st on Restaurant Business’ list of top-grossing independent restaurants in the U.S. in 2017, having grossed $18 million and served 611,000 meals, seventh-most of the top 100. 
One block away from Whiskey Row is the future home of Ole Red, country star Blake Shelton’s upcoming entry into the downtown Nashville fray. Set to launch in April, Ole Red partners Shelton with Ryman Hospitality, a multi-faceted cornerstone of country music; Ryman owns the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, and WSM, the AM radio home of the Opry since 1925. 
The first Ole Red opened last year in Shelton’s hometown of Tishomingo, Okla. For the Nashville Ole Red, Ryman Hospitality is spending $20 million to renovate the 26,000-square foot building into a combination bar-restaurant-performance space, according to chairman and chief executive Colin V. Reed. Ryman bought the property, the former Broadway National Bank, for an undisclosed price. “We haven’t made it public, but it was not cheap,” said Reed. 
A few hundred feet south of Ole Red is FGL House, a fun, raucous joint that plays well to young country fans. Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line created the 22,00-square-foot FGL House with TC Restaurant Group, an Ohio-based company with a handful of businesses on or near Lower Broadway. The four-floor space is like being inside a Florida Georgia Line song: seven bars, two stages, a rooftop bar named after the band’s hit “Cruise,” FGL memorabilia hanging on the walls, and a cocktail menu with drinks named after other hit songs. 
FGL House
– FGL House
This Is How We Roll: FGL House, a raucous bar/ restaurant/live music/retail shop, opened in June 2017.
The future location of John Rich’s Redneck Riviera is a few doors down from Whiskey Row. Rich, one half of the duo Big and Rich, partnered with Bar Management Group of Charlotte, N.C., and opened a Redneck Riviera Las Vegas in January 2017. The Nashville location is coming in spring 2018. Rich is having fun with the redneck stereotype. The decor integrates beer cans and weathered aluminum siding. Urinals are cut-out beer kegs. The menu centers on barbecue, jerky and nacho cheese sauce. 
Downtown Nashville wasn’t always a major tourist draw. Robert Altman’s 1975 film “Nashville” showed a downtown Nashville bustling with department stores and shops. Retailers followed people fleeing from the city center in the ’50s and ’60s, says Charlie Robin of Robin Realty, which worked with Jackson to buy the property that became AJ’s Good Time Bar. 
The opening of the Opryland hotel and theme park in 1972, followed by the Grand Ole Opry’s move from downtown to Opryland, left Lower Broadway to become something of a red-light district with X-rated shops. “The area was dying,” said Robin. Aside from some honky tonk bars, Lower Broadway “was a rotating group of restaurants,” says Joey Valenti, broker with Centennial Retail Services, the seller of the 6,900-square-foot 421 Broadway location that became AJ’s Good Time Bar. “Nobody lasted long.” 
A key to the downtown’s turnaround was the opening of Bridgestone Arena in 1996 on the corner of Broadway and Fifth. The 17,000-plus-seat arena and home of the NHL hockey team Nashville Predators, Bridgestone brought locals downtown and made Lower Broadway a more attractive destination. While in a small market, Bridgestone Arena has become one of the most successful arenas in the country. 
Last year, Pollstar put Bridgestone at No. 4 in the U.S., at No. 12 on its global rankings and named it Arena of the Year. Live Nation books shows at Bridgestone as well as two other downtown venues: the three-year-old, 6,800-capacity Ascend Amphitheater, which it operates for the city; and the 9,432-capacity Nashville Municipal Auditorium
Today, Nashville is a boom town with cranes towering over downtown. New restaurants, often opened by chefs fleeing more expensive cities, offer tourists and locals a culinary scene unrecognizable to dining choices just five years ago. Hotels large and small, from boutiques like Noelle to well-known brands such as Marriott, are sprouting up within walking distance of the honky tonk bars.
In fact, there are an additional 5,400 hotel rooms currently under construction, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. New hotels should help visitors. “New places will drive the costs down,” said Joey Valenti, the buyer-side realtor in the AJ’s Good Time Bar property. With demand high and supply insufficient, Nashville had the most expensive hotels in the U.S. in 2016. Less than a mile from Bridgestone, new office space has attracted Sony Music, Warner Music Group, Spotify, and Pandora. 
Conventions are a big part of tourism. A $623 million convention center opened in May 2013 next to the Bridgestone Arena and Country Music Hall of Fame. The change has been palpable; over the last five years, the number of conventions was up 113 percent and convention delegates rose 46 percent. The additional bodies give Lower Broadway more bustle. Any night of the week, middle-aged professionals wearing lanyards and business casual clothing are drinking and dancing in nearby bars. Robbie Goldsmith, founder of Bachweekend, is doing brisk business selling packaged experiences for bachelorette and bachelor parties in Nashville – the city has become one of the country’s favorite locations for these pre-nuptial rituals. Now Goldsmith is targeting convention guests. “We’ll become a mid-week destination as well.”
Ultimately, Ryman sees Ole Red as another way to capitalize on the popularity of Nashville and the country lifestyle. The Opryland Resort, an 11-mile drive from downtown, acts like a hub of Ryman’s entertainment options. Ryman already shuttles its Opryland guests downtown to the Ryman Auditorium – Ole Red will be a few hundred feet away – and the Wildhorse Saloon, where guests receive free entry. 
Ryman has two other properties for tourists: The General Jackson, a 1,000-capacity showboat, and Opry City Stage, opened in 2017 in New York City’s heavily-touristed Times Square.  
“Nashville” has had an incalculable effect. Ryman benefits from giving its venues visibility. The city, other businesses, and country music benefit, too. Tourists from around the world travel to Nashville and spend money not just at Ryman’s properties but also, the FGL House, AJ’s Good Time Bar, Ole Red, and countless other bars, restaurants, and hotels. 
Although “Nashville” is in its final season, Reed believes the show will have “a big tail to it” and draw tourists for years to come. With over 100 episodes spanning six seasons, “Nashville” will run in syndication and be translated into foreign languages for many foreign markets,” said Reed. “Life after the TV show ‘Nashville’ doesn’t end after this season. This is going to have a long-lasting impact on the city of Nashville.” If that’s the case, businesses investing in Nashville now have plenty of time to get up, running, and profitable. 
And given the precedent, more artists’ names are going to be seen in bright neon lights in downtown Nashville.