The Bard of Lower Broadway
By Mikeie Honda Reiland
Photograph courtesy Robert’s Western World
Jesselee Jones stands on stage at the bar he owns with the band he leads, a guitar in his arms, a .22 Magnum on his hip. His sleek black hair carries a whiff of Elvis, his eyes are the color of faded denim. He wears a black shirt, a black cowboy hat, black boots. Rising from his shirt collar, his face is a full moon, and he scans the room with the air of someone constantly aware of possibility, the eyes of a man who watches a lot of Westerns.
It’s two-thirty on a Saturday afternoon on downtown Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Brazilbilly, the house band at Robert’s Western World, one of the strip’s original honky-tonks, is about to start their set. Concert posters, old guitars, shelves of old cowboy boots, and a neon Busch sign line the walls surrounding the stage. It’s the kind of place people come to feel their idea of Nashville. Most people who actually live here wouldn’t set foot anywhere on Lower Broad by choice. Anywhere except for Robert’s.
“We don’t want to get into politics,” Jesse’s wife, Emily, says into the mic. “But that flag represents our freedom to bitch and moan. And we always start with the national anthem.”
The drummer starts a roll, Jesse puts his hand over his heart and gazes at the flag, mounted on the wall next to a twenty-inch box fan. He moved to the States from São Paulo in his twenties. Emily and Jesse met for the first time on this stage. A mutual friend had invited her there one night knowing two things: one, that she could sing Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” and two, that Jesse would be there. The friend tipped the band $100 to call her up to the stage. She sang. Jesse listened. A friendship began. Then, a relationship. Now, Emily and Jesse are married, and they run Robert’s together. She’s played many shows in her home state of Texas and her voice fills the space without issue, calibrated to carry over dance hall din. After she belts out “And the home of the brave,” she smiles, says, “Let’s honky-tonk, y’all!,” and descends from the stage to her table.
The band opens with a few instrumentals—fiddle-heavy, foot-stomping tunes. Then, Jesse steps to the mic. When he starts to sing, his voice is deep, almost conversational. Bar talk hums beneath the music, but for the most part, the crowd is entranced, spellbound, transported to 1944 with a cowboy classic.
See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free, I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling
When Jesse finishes, there’s a pause. Then, the crowd cheers and whistles, as if Jesse snapped his fingers and brought them back to the present. “Thank you,” he says bashfully, as if after almost three decades on this stage, he still can’t believe the applause is for him. “We’ll get it going here.” Jesse nods once at his bandmates, then launches into an old Marty Robbins tune.
Some memories just won’t die
Some feelings just won’t leave
No matter how hard you try
Through the window behind the stage, pedal taverns, party barges, and glow-in-the-dark buses cruise down Broadway. Bachelorettes and recent SEC grads stream past, down the street to multilevel bars owned by modern country stars. Jesse’s time machine effect dissolves beyond these walls. It’s late September, and Nashville’s summer is turning to fall.
Nashville’s Lower Broadway bar district stretches four blocks, from Bridgestone Arena, where the hockey team plays, to the soupy banks of the Cumberland. Lower Broad is a gradient—live country and airbrushed history close to Bridgestone, bros and bachelorettes increasing in number as you approach the water. The street smells like piss, leather, Old Spice, and hot dogs. On most nights, a landslide pours inexorably toward the river, where the loudest, newest, shiniest honky-tonks blast Florida Georgia Line and Lil’ Jon on light-up dance floors. Alan Jackson (AJ’s Good Time Bar), John Rich (Redneck Riviera), Blake Shelton (Ole Red), Florida Georgia Line (FGL House), and Jason Aldean (Jason Aldean’s) all own signature bars on Broadway.
Robert’s, located on the first block near the arena, consists of a stage, a long rectangular bar, and a balcony, all cast in dim, aquarial, reddish-yellow light. The most famous thing on the menu is the Recession Special: fried bologna sandwich, chips, a PBR, and Moon Pie for six dollars. A sign behind the bar reads, BEER: THE REASON I GET UP EVERY AFTERNOON. In here, Blue Moon and Shiner Bock are high-end. Emily and Jesse are dogmatic about not using fancy ketchup; they are Heinz squeeze bottle loyalists. There are no TVs. The Robert’s crowd generally out-ages the rest of Lower Broad by a good two or three decades.
Jesse and Brazilbilly often play from two-thirty to six P.M. on weekends. Throughout sets, Bert, the tip collector who’s worked for them for two decades, circulates a plastic jug. The band used to play from ten P.M. to two A.M. every Friday and Saturday. But Jesse got married and now battles Meniere’s disease, which can cause progressive deafness and vertigo. Afternoon sets make sense. At first, Jesse missed closing down the bar, but now, he’s used to it. The quieter afternoon crowd creates more of a listening room, and he can play more of the old songs he loves.
Jesse took an oblique, yet seemingly pre-ordained, path to this stage. Picture a boy, the son of Italian immigrants, growing up in the Seventies in north São Paulo. He grows up with nothing, but he has a TV, and from his working-class corner of a cosmopolitan city, living in a tiny apartment above the bar that his father runs, he can access the world. He listens to the Beatles and Stones. He mainlines shows like Cannon and The Rockford Files and pictures himself cruising around L.A. in a Lincoln Continental. Life in these shows seems much more appealing than his actual circumstances, in which his parents’ relationship and his home life crumble around him. He’s the oldest of three and protects his two younger sisters from the random adults who pass through their home, who sometimes beat him. At twelve, he runs away to live with his uncle Ruy, who sits him down and plays him Eydie Gormé and Nat King Cole on vinyl. Although he can’t understand the words, the melodies captivate him. He stands in front of the mirror, waving his arms like a conductor, and sets his heart on a career in music. As a teen, he receives a classical-style guitar as a present, learns the basics, and starts a band.
To this day, childhood flashbacks keep him up at night. But he still believes that when he sat in front of that record player, music began to save his life.
In his twenties, he decides there’s nothing for him in Brazil, where he drives a cab. He finds a family, friends of friends, to host him in Peoria, Illinois. He speaks no English. He gets robbed on the Greyhound he takes to meet them, and he shows up penniless. When he arrives, the matriarch teaches him to love Westerns, especially the show Gunsmoke, and he falls in love with the wistful quality of the music in these movies. He attends Illinois Central College and studies to become a cop, inspired by gunslingers in Westerns and his love for his new nation. He doesn’t graduate, but a professor gives him a Marty Robbins cassette, which moves him to tears. Country music and Westerns, with their worship of an idyllic, shared past, allow him to escape his own. So much so that he wants to make this music himself.
His childhood dreams of a life dedicated to music resurface. He drives to Nashville in the early Nineties. He cleans bathrooms at the theme park Opryland USA. He makes his way to Lower Broad, which at this point is all sex and knives and needles and pools of street sludge. It’s been this way for two decades, vacant and dystopian after dark, ever since the Grand Ole Opry left the Ryman for the suburbs in 1974.
He moves from bar to bar in search of music, eventually drawn to the one that sells rhinestone Western wear. When he walks in, a lone guitar player stands on stage singing “Hickory Wind.” It’s classic country, pure nostalgia and plaintive steel guitar, the singer reflecting upon climbing an oak tree in the Carolina breeze. A pair of women start fighting in the crowd, and the singer stops to tell them to shut the eff up. He’s drawn to this place, to its raw outlaw air. It feels like a saloon. It feels like those Westerns, that pure Americana that soothes him.
He talks to the bar’s owner, Robert Moore, who takes him on as a de facto apprentice, showing him how to keep the books, run the business, make the food, scrub the toilets. When he pays enough dues, Robert puts him on stage.
Beyond the bar, he hones his craft, playing shows at nursing homes across the city. When he arrives, he knows a few chords, but Nashville forces him to improve. He gets much better on his six-string and starts to learn the piano. People are confused by him at first, this Italian-Brazilian who loves old country standards.
“You’re a Brazilian hillbilly,” a member of Robert’s house band tells him one day. “You’re a Brazilbilly!”
Near the end of their two-thirty set, Brazilbilly plays one of their classics: “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. It’s one of their most requested songs, the one that Bert, the longtime tip collector, loves seeing them play. It’s a tale of adventure and travel, of cowboys and the cost of forbidden love. It’s a song about the type of world Jesse wants to live in, one built on tradition and honor, one that provides an escape hatch through storytelling.
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play, and Feleena would whirl
After their set, Jesse retires to a leather armchair in his office above the bar, where the band divvies up the evening’s take. It’s been more than two decades since he bought the bar from its namesake. When he retired and decided to sell his honky-tonk, Robert Moore could’ve accepted more lucrative offers than Jesse’s. But he liked Jesse’s work ethic and allegiance to the bar’s original vision. He saw Jesse as his rightful heir.
Right as Jesse showed up on Lower Broad, life started to return. In 1994, the Ryman reopened as a concert venue, and live music began to drift out the doors of Robert’s and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a neighboring bar. The city changed zoning codes, allowing for residential construction downtown. The arena was built in ’96. Stable healthcare and higher-ed sectors supported Nashville’s growth through the aughts. Tourists began flocking in, bringing a windfall of money to downtown. Soon, bachelorette parties became ubiquitous along with now-infamous “transportainment”: pedal taverns and party barges cruising Lower Broad. As tourism boomed, many spaces on Broadway became caricatures of past selves (John Rich’s Redneck Riviera Nashville, the three-story Honky Tonk Central), fine-tuned for weekend travelers and their expectations of Nashville. The fallout is complex. Certain parts of the city have grown rich. But it’s all started to feel like one big Airbnb.
In the midst of change swirling all around, Robert’s has not budged. It is Jesse’s very own Rosa’s Cantina, a fantasy kingdom, a place by design stuck in time. A bar where the old country legends never die, where idealized versions of tradition and the past remain—until you walk out the door and they don’t—where you can still get a sandwich, a Moon Pie, chips, and a beer with not much more than a five-dollar bill. A place where your own past doesn’t have to matter, so long as the collective country and western past does.
“Robert’s is the Last of the Mohicans,” Jesse says from his chair. He sweeps an arm out to indicate Broadway. “This was a sea of country music. Country music meaning the music that made Music City. We’ve got to travel back to the late ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to talk about that music, because that’s the music that established this town as Music City, U.S.A.”
“Everything has changed around us,” he continues. “But these are the things that attracted me to Nashville. These were the things that brought me to America.”
A giant, glass Apple store rises up just beyond the alley behind the back door of Robert’s. Turn right, walk a block, and you’ll end up at Ryman Auditorium. Nashville is like this, the hypermodern mingling with the historic, the past, present, and future running together like paints on a palette. Jesse and Robert’s are prime examples.
“It’s actually very easy to do what we do and stay where we are,” Jesse says. “I don’t pay attention to what [everyone else] is doing. Not at all.”
Later tonight, Jesse will leave the bar he owns, this altar to tradition that will forever be preserved. He’ll hop into his car—a black 1978 Lincoln Continental, the one he always dreamed of—and drive across the river to his house in East Nashville, where most of the city’s working musicians live. When he’s ready to try and sleep, he’ll pop in one of his many Western DVDs. And he’ll see if he can fight off the flashbacks, drifting off to the comforting sounds of gunfire in the saloon, tumbleweeds in the wind, and the music that saved his life.