• Jefferson Street critical in Nashville becoming Music City

    Jefferson Street critical in Nashville becoming Music City

  • How newcomers are bringing Jefferson Street back to life

    How newcomers are bringing Jefferson Street back to life

  • Nashville Black Churches: 126-year-old Jefferson Street Missionary Bap

    Nashville Black Churches: 126-year-old Jefferson Street Missionary Bap

  • Metro 50th: North Nashville

    Metro 50th: North Nashville

  • A drive down historic Jefferson Street with Lorenzo Washington

    A drive down historic Jefferson Street with Lorenzo Washington

  • Jefferson Street residents remember once-thriving music club

    Jefferson Street residents remember once-thriving music club

Much of Nashville’s country music history can be drawn on two famous streets.

Recording studios and publishers line Music Row, while legendary honky-tonks and other venues are crammed onto Lower Broadway.

But there are two other roads — overlooked and unsung — that took the sound of Music City in a very different direction.

That sound was rock ‘n’ roll.

From the 1940s to the ‘60s, Nashville’s black nightclubs turned Jefferson Street into a hotbed of rhythm & blues. Venues like The New Era Club, Club Baron and Club Stealaway became proving grounds for future rock legends.

Before Little Richard had a record to his name, he was making $100 a week on Jefferson Street — and he never forgot it.

“I wasn’t famous,” he said in 2009. “I thought I was, but I wasn’t — no records yet. I packed the house. You couldn’t get in.”

In the early ‘60s, you could find a young hotshot guitarist named Jimi Hendrix performing with his band, The King Kasuals, at Club Del Morocco. He was also among the performers featured on the Nashville-produced TV series “Night Train,” which brought black performers to the small screen — several years before “Soul Train.”

Of course, Jefferson Street wasn’t just a place for future stars to pass through. Homegrown talents Robert Knight and Bobby Hebb had huge hits with “Everlasting Love” and “Sunny,” respectively.

But by the 1970s, another development stopped this scene in its tracks: the construction of Interstate 40, which cut directly across Jefferson Street. Some buildings were demolished, and other businesses slowly burned out.

Forty years later, its golden age would be lovingly captured in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit “Night Train to Nashville,” which also produced a Grammy-winning historical album.

As Jefferson Street’s music scene began to fade, another one was beginning on a tiny stretch of Church Street known as Elliston Place. It would eventually gain a nickname: “Rock Block.”

That’s largely thanks to the Exit/In, which opened in 1971 and still stands today as Nashville’s most famous rock venue.

Right next to the front door is a list of dozens of giants who’ve all played the venue over the years, from Tom Petty to Billy Joel, R.E.M. and B.B. King.

When those acts returned to Nashville in later years — playing arenas and auditoriums — the intimate club still loomed large in their memories.

“I loved the Exit/In,” Sting told The Tennessean earlier this year. “The name, because it was reminiscent of my old band, Last Exit, and (because) we were playing in Nashville!”

By the 1980s, Rock Block was ground zero for Music City’s booming rock scene. Acts like Jason & the Scorchers, The White Animals, and Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks lit up the Exit/In stage on a regular basis.

Eventually the scene would grow to include another club across the street — The End, which has a more experimental, punk bent than its famous neighbor.

“It was a scene, and it was bustling, and you’d run into people,” Wilder said. “It just seemed like the air was different.”

Still, it wasn’t until the 21st century that Nashville’s rock scene began producing its own stars. Homegrown bands like Paramore and Kings of Leon played their earliest gigs on Rock Block, and transplants Jack White and the Black Keys also played its venues on their way up.

Today, the city’s rock successes — from Moon Taxi to Diarrhea Planet — share space on Exit/In’s “Wall of Fame” with Petty, The Police and the like. Half a century later, Nashville’s rock ‘n’ roll is heard around the world, but it will always call these streets home.

 

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