Blown Away, Rising Again: Nashville’s Basement East Rebuilds, Hopes To Rebound In Early 2021

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The image of the Basement East’s mural went viral after a March tornado knocked down walls at the venue.
The Bernie Sanders benefit was over. The last of the staff was cleaning up as March 2 turned to March 3 when the sirens went off. Thinking quickly, they headed for the cellar. People cowered in the basement as an EF-3 tornado headed towards 5 Points; moments later, the roof and back walls were torn from Basement East, one of East Nashville’s premiere music venues.
Co-owner Michael Grimes, known to all as “Grimey,” told the next morning, “The tornado hit at approximately 1:15 a.m.; the Bernie benefit was over, and our conscientious staff of five ran down to the basement with seconds to spare before the roof blew off. All are safe. We are so fortunate. The venue is pretty much a total loss.”
That should’ve been enough. Immediately, an image of what was left of the front and a portion of one wall – the portion bearing the mural with the “I Believe In Nashville” logo – went viral. In a city that survived two biblical floods, that image was just what was needed to maintain resilience in the face of a sucker punch.
Grimes knew it was going to be OK when he got the call from the building’s owner. “He’s an awesome retired fireman, and he was one of the first people to reach out. He said, ‘When you guys started (in 2015), I didn’t know if you were gonna make it or not. But you did. So, know we’re gonna get this figured out.’
“He could’ve dug into the lease, found some reason to cancel it. But that’s not what happened. First thing he did was call the insurance company. The wrecking ball was out 12 days later, and two weeks after that phone call, we were sweeping up the debris.”
Acknowledging that the 475-capacity venue, one that’s hosted Jenny Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Margo Price, Cage the Elephant, Maren Morris, John Prine, Archers of Loaf and more, was “completely decimated,” the contractor assessed the situation and told Grimes they’d be rebuilt by the end of July. Construction began; heavy equipment was seen moving materials in the lot of the Woodland Street venue, as a team of men began reframing what was once a solid brick building.
Once again, it seemed, Nashville was rising.
“Seeing that really builds your sense of making it happen,” Grimes admits. “And the second the landlord said, ‘We’ll rebuild. We’ll put the building back together,’ we thought, ‘OK.’ 
“I knew we were set up to be the ray of hope. I repeated that, over and over like an echo chamber, to everyone who reached out. Whether it was an interview, or another venue owner, a music lover or a band who wanted to play again, I took the point of view, ‘We will rise.’”
It was early in the dawn of COVID-19. No one truly understood the deadly virus, which by Jan. 7 was diagnosed in more than 21.4 million Americans and took 361,000 lives.
That sense of devastation would come later. It would also arrive with variants in how people responded to the idea of wearing masks, staying home, socially distancing. Having long been a hub for music lovers throughout middle Tennessee – Grimes being a well-known drummer and member of the Guilty Pleasures, as well as co-owner of the Basement and Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music – Basement East’s sense of community drove the co-owners’ decision to suspend concerts when it became obvious how much was unknown about guaranteeing people’s safety at concerts.
A blue dot in a red state, the media had a field day documenting the mayhem on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, where the bars looked like Mardi Gras on spring break. Let Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk make drinking, drowning and bridesmaid parties great again. The Basement – like so many local venues around Nashville – remained committed to Mayor John Cooper’s recommendations of limiting both in-person and closed-space gatherings.
“We had some pretty big bands say, ‘We want to be the first band when you re-open,’ artists who’d normally play the Ascend (Amphitheater),” Grimes enthuses about the days following the start of the rebuild. “But after months and months, the optimism dims. We get exhausted, because it’s hard when you don’t know and you can’t guess when things are going to get better…”
Never one to concede defeat, Basement East – known affectionately to locals as “The Beast” – continued with its rebuild. The original Basement stepped up, hosting a series of livestreams and a handful of actual shows in its parking lot during October and November. Jeremy Ivey with the Country & Westerns and Savannah Conley, the Josephines with the Minks, the Oh Boy Friendsgiving and Food Drive with Arlo McKinley and Kelsey Waldon, and Katie Pruett shows in October and November were among them.
“It was real stripped down, going back to the old-days OG Basement. I wanted to do some bar sales; we got our beer permit extended outside to the parking lot.”
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A crowd enjoys the music at the BasementEast during a 2016 benefit show.
They set tables up far enough apart to recognize distancing measures. Limited the size of the parties. Put up plexiglass-shielded stations to buy drinks. Several shows sold out, but at 88 capacity, it was far less than the up-to-500 who’d previously crammed into the space to enjoy the music, vibe and collective energy.
“It’s an experience that’s so customized for these times. But it’s not the same.”
With business interruption insurance held up and their staff finding partial unemployment and/or picking up fill-in gigs like driving for Postmates, Grimes recognizes the challenges. Thankful their insurance covered their rebuilding costs, he’s trying to focus on what matters.
“I like to concentrate on stuff other than insurance and the money, because you can drown in that stuff and forget about all the great music, the shows and the community. Everybody and everything is on hold except for livestreams right now – and that’s, no matter how great, not the same thing. It’s the best it can be, but when you’ve been in here and it’s packed… people are crammed together, everyone in that same moment and song, there’s nothing like it.”
Those livestreams, though, have saved the day as much as anything. As he offers, “The Convention and Visitors Center’s Music City Bandwidth (concert series) hoped to raise certain amounts of money (through the streams), but they also paid us to do them, which is what really helped. It’s still the idea that we’re fighting to get back to being able to take care of our people.
“You know people aren’t drinking less, they’re just not going out to places to do it. The parent companies are probably fine, but below that, that’s where people are getting hurt. The local distributors, the ones we deal with, we aren’t buying, because we aren’t selling.”
Still, with the final touches being applied and Nashville cautiously trying to find some sort of normalcy, there’s great hope that the Beast will be back by early 2021. At 5,000 square feet, the social distancing requirements are more than possible.
Grimes knows this, and he also knows how much people need live for their souls – and their sense that normal life is going to return. “If I can’t do 100 people in there safely, or whatever number they tell us, it’s hard to imagine who can. And that’s the tricky part. We have to pay rent and insurance no matter what. We were fortunate, because the Beast was hit by a tornado, there was some insurance money to cover what was inside, which helped.
“Right now, our target is middle January. We’ve not booked anything yet, because we have to go through the health department. They have to see our seating chart and the plan for social distancing, the COVID protocol before they’ll sign off.
“All I know is: We’re ready to get back to putting on live music for our local people. The bands have let us know they’re ready to come back, and the community, most of all, have shown up for the limited stuff we did at the Basement.
“Nashville has the most fertile musical climate in the world, the number of extremely talented musicians and songwriters playing out each and every night. We can have an incredible three-band at the OG Basement over the years and have 35 people show up. It was crazy. But, I think when live music comes back, people are not going to be so blasé about all that great live music.”