VOL. 42 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 22, 2018
Bang the drum slowly for a changing 12South
Fork’s Drum Closet is departing 12South for Chestnut Street which – for the moment – is less expensive and less touristy than the current location. The business started in Berry Hill. -- Leigh Singleton | The Ledger
It’s fitting – though suitably melancholy – that the steamy June day I step from 12th Avenue South to bid farewell to a great drummers’ oasis, a dying Music City monument, I also am learning about the death of D.J. Fontana, the guy with the fur-covered bass drum head who was a key accomplice in Elvis’ hillbilly cat crusade.
This column is actually my attempt to bang the drum slowly for Fork’s Drum Closet, which is vacating its landmark home on 12th Avenue South after being sold by founder Gary Forkum. Gary will remain landlord – but no longer owner – of the business when it reopens on Chestnut Street.
Instead of the daily soundtrack of snares and sirens on this incredibly urban stretch, he’ll be spending his time enjoying his animals, crops, children, wife and grandchildren out at the 102-acre farm near Spring Hill he has called home for a quarter century. Got a new pool this year that he plans to enjoy “as much as I can” with the grandkids in this new life.
Gary is “Fork,” by the way, but he doesn’t use the moniker.
“That’s what they called me when I was a kid,” he says as he sits back in the office of the building and shares memories of his life in this store, including some of the highlights like the restoration of D.J.’s drums and friendships and transactions with other musicians, journeymen to great, who have found their comfort here.
D.J. became Elvis’ original drummer when he was drafted by the Blue Moon Boys (guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black and the hypnotizing, culture-changing singer formed the rest of the outfit.) D.J. later became an in-demand session drummer while not trekking the Elvis tribute-circus-circuit. He died in his sleep June 12 at age 87.
As noted earlier, he was a customer at Fork’s, as much a clubhouse for drummers as a store. The fact D.J.’s disheveled and busted up fur-skinned “Elvis drum kit” was restored to rock ‘n’ roll glory here is still something regulars talk about among the rooms filled with snares, full kits, sticks, cymbals and rhythmic dreams. Obviously, D.J. was a hero in the drum world, and his eclectic kit enhanced his legend.
But the column isn’t really about D.J. – who also played drums with and for the likes of Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Waylon and Ringo – but about Gary and the disappearance of one more piece of history beneath the super-charged steamroller of progress that is changing the face and attitude of Music City U.S.A.
Gary and his own mentor, Larry Garris, the owner of Corner Music – it gave birth to Fork’s Drum Closet – are selling the two buildings at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Dallas for $7 million.
Developers have turned the former ragged-around-the-edges neighborhood that long ago formed at the end of the streetcar line from downtown Nashville into a tourist destination with bars, restaurants and shops particularly friendly to the mimosa- “sipping” bachelorette weekenders and various eager spenders and debauchers. It’s not that many years ago that the human highlights of this neighborhood were found at Becker’s Bakery and across 12th at the two music buildings.
The bakery is long gone. I don’t know what’s next for the current homes of Fork’s and Corner Music and their tourist-trespassed parking lot.
Perhaps, I’d guess, a couple of food or drink establishments, designer ice cream joints or places where a $20 rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt costs $80…. the sort of places that already have turned what once was a quiet, sometimes-slightly sketchy retail neighborhood into what can be termed “New Nashville.”
Perhaps someone will put up a few more of those “We’re in Nashville”-type outdoor wall murals for selfie staging. I know they always come in handy when I forget where I am or have been.
Old-timey and homey Fork’s has been right in the middle of this boom that has skyrocketed property values even while turning Gary’s business-style obsolete. Consolation prize has him walking away with denim pockets stuffed with developers’ cash.
“I’m happy that a lot more money is coming into the area,” Gary says. “But it’s gotten too touristy for us.
“It’s gotten to where people who are my customers can’t find a place to park in front of my store. I sometimes have to have my guys out in the lot telling (tourists) they can’t park here.”
An old friend and member of my entertainment-writing newspaper staff when I had one, Craig Havighurst, a music scholar and admirer of second-hand lava lamps, expresses a near-constant sorrow about what is happening here.
“This has literally been my litmus test for whether 12South, in all its interesting and challenging change, could hold on to its integrity as a complete neighborhood.
“As long as Corner and Fork’s are there, I said, 12South is cool and dynamic and culturally interesting. So that’s it then. And yes, I know they’re moving, but they anchored the strip for me. They are the two-minute drive to drum lessons for my kid. They are colorful and funky. Whatever goes up in its place will be lifeless and profane to me. Dammit,” he writes on Fork’s Facebook page.
Good place to explain that Larry Garris, who I should feature in another tale one day, is going to take his part of the proceeds and open a larger Corner Music – with more parking – away from this strip.
And Fork’s also will have a new home, over on Chestnut Street, as noted earlier. Gary, soul of that business, will own the building and a warehouse he maintains over on Hermitage Avenue. But he’s only going to be the landlord after selling Fork’s Drum Closet to Steve Maxwell, who operates similarly skewed vintage drum outfits in New York and Chicago, and who will retain the name of this local landmark business.
Rubbing thumb and index finger together, Gary jokes that his role in the new arrangement will be “collecting money.” In reality, he will be doing whatever he can to help the new store succeed. After all, it carries his name and reputation.
“I tried to sell to someone who has the same vibe, the same type of business going,” he adds of the new owners who were in town the same day to work out legal niceties and also interview the current Fork’s staff. “As far as I know, they’re all keeping their jobs.”
Gary Forkum began his legendary drum shop in a small room in the old Berry Hill location of Corner Music. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
With the help of his family – wife of 37 years Melissa, chief financial officer; and son Matt, 35, general manager – Gary figures he has taken the business as far as he can. (Daughter Jaime, who works in the Williamson County dining and hospitality world, also contributed internet expertise for a while.)
“I felt like I didn’t know if I had the energy or the enthusiasm to kick it up a notch,” says the 60-year-old, who by the way spends much of his outside time as drummer for the Midnight Riders, a fine Allman Brothers tribute band in which he joins lifelong best pal, guitarist Jeff Jones (subject of a recent column about the Dairy King in Woodbine/Flat Rock, where both men grew up). He also plays for The World-Famous Channel Cats, a classic rock band, and three or more other pickup bands.
As for Fork’s, well it’s not just a business to him. He has spent more than 30 years not only earning a reputation as one of the nation’s best drum merchants (and repair purveyors), but he’s also turned it into a hangout for local drummers and for touring drummers when they hit town.
Clients/friends include Jaimoe, the legendary drummer who helped found the Allman Brothers Band. A gift from Jaimoe – a Gretsch bass drum head he’d inscribed and decorated and doodled on – hung on Gary’s office wall for awhile, but it now is on loan to The Big House, the Allman Brothers Band museum in Macon, Georgia.
“I was just down in Macon a couple of weeks ago to visit him,” says Gary of his friendship with Jaimoe and his mecca-like view of that Georgia town where a concoction of blues, jazz and rock was brewed among the kudzu and Southern Comfort by dead-too-soon band leader Duane Allman and brother Gregg, Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts and Jaimoe.
“I’ve played with Jaimoe some. And he even got me on-stage where I played with the Allman Brothers Band a few times,” adds Gary, unrepentant awe in his voice.
But he too has created a mecca, his rooms filled with drums and accessories, a business he notes was honored this year as the best drum shop in the country. “Not a bad way to go out, is it?
“I felt like I was on cruise control now,” Gary says of his business. “You need to be innovating and creating new things. We believe this new team of owners can take it up another notch.”
Not that he hasn’t taken it up a few notches himself over the years after he decided to find a job after finishing high school and hitting the road as a musician.
“I was registered to go to MTSU, but Jeff (Jeff Jones, the Dairy King guitarist and lifelong bandmate) and I got a road gig and we took off and started playing music. We spent a year playing all across North Carolina in the Holiday Inns. It was a great learning experience.”
Even though he came off the road, it turned out he was able to use that experience, that love of drums, in the next stage of his life.
He went to Garris, who already was operating Corner Music in its prior Berry Hill location, and asked if there was any work he could do. “He needed some help. I started coming in to clean up the place. They were overwhelmed.
“I started doing guitar repairs and then started running the drum department. Larry’s main business was guitars, so I approached him to ask about buying out the drum department. He sold it to me for $8,000 (in 1982). I borrowed $4,000 from my dad and $4,000 from my grandfather.”
His drum room inside the Corner Music building was more-than-cramped, so the “Fork’s Drum Closet” legend was born.
Gary Forkum, founder of drum closet, with his family, including wife Melissa, the company’s chief financial officer, and Matt, its general manager -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
In 1984, when the rent grew too steep in Berry Hill, Larry began looking for a new home/homes.
“Larry found this building on 12th Avenue (at Dallas),” Gary recalls. “Larry approached the guy who owned it. He was an older gentleman who had been at the Normandy invasion. He wanted to take his wife back over there for the 40th anniversary celebration.
“Larry had been trying to get a bank loan, but back then, 12South was kind of scary.”
The D-Day vet offered a solution, telling Larry that if he could come up with enough money to pay for the reunion trip, he’d help them with their financing.
Fork’s and Corner Music shared the building with Neely’s drug store before taking over the entire building. In 1996, when Nashville Suede and Leather moved from the next-door building, Gary took the Drum Closet across the parking lot.
“It was scary place back in those days,” Gary recalls. “I got robbed at gunpoint, cars were broken into, the stores got broken into.
“But we were extremely grateful to be there. The fact we hung in here and established two businesses in this area encouraged other people to come this way. Kind of makes us pioneers.”
A couple of generations later, though, there’s no room for pioneers here. The condos, designer coffee shops, boutiques and restaurants continue to boil up, making 12South more and more an extension of downtown Nashville.
This drumbeat of progress is emotionally difficult on local drummers, like Steve Ebe, 55, a session and live performer (The Long Players, Guilty Pleasures, etc.) who has taught drum lessons at Fork’s since 1996, when Gary relocated to the old leather cleaners.
He’s hoping to do the same thing— he teaches 1-7 p.m. Monday-Friday – at the new Fork’s.
Steve’s optimistic about the next incarnation but sad to see the end of the old place on 12th. To him it is a landmark, a signature location in the evolution of Music City.
“I think it’s been the greatest resource,” he says. “It’s known as one of the top 10 drum shops in the nation.
“Drummers see it as a ‘hang’ where you can get information and just talk. A lot of us are sad about it. I’ve seen some of my drummer pals taking selfies in front of the store.”
And, he predicts: “I know it is going to get torn down. They’ll put some big, horrible thing in its place. I’ll never go over to 12th Avenue again after that happens.”
Gary, the pony-tailed drummer who built this legendary joint and its reputation admits, “it probably hasn’t hit me yet that my life is going to be changing dramatically. I do have some melancholy thoughts about it.”
But there also is the cheer of going on into the next phase of his life, which he will spend in his 1850 farmhouse (complete with an old square-dance hall that he uses as his music room) on the family’s 102-acre “South Creek” farm.
“I have for a long time dreamed that I would wake up in the morning and realize I didn’t have to leave the farm all day,” he says of that goal that was born when he and Melissa moved from Woodbine about 30 years ago, first to a small farm in Mount Juliet, then Thompson’s Station and then, 25 years or so ago to “South Creek.”
“We just wanted to go out to the country,” he adds, to which I add an old Canned Heat lyric “where the water tastes like wine.”
“That’s right,” says this farming rocker. “We raise cows and sheep and chickens. Raise a few horses. Garden. Orchard. It’s kind of what we like to do.
“Matt is going to come farm with me and is going to start some landscape (business),” Gary continues. “If he’d had wanted to keep Fork’s going, I’d probably have let him (rather than sell), but he would rather farm. He likes to get out there with me and cut hay and raise cows.”
“Fork,” who by this time says I can refer to him by his junior high rock band nickname, mentions the new swimming pool, the grandchildren and other reasons why he knows he won’t miss the daily trek into Nashville.
Sure, he’ll miss his old store, the opportunity to mingle with the Jaimoes and D.J.’s of the world, but down at South Creek “I like the peacefulness, the calmness of it. It’s the complete opposite of 12South.”
Don’t expect him to give up his drumming though. “I always love the drumming. I love playing music. Sometimes the business side can turn you off, but I can play for the love of playing. That’s why we all got into music to begin with.”