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VOL. 45 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 6, 2021

Still room for Station Inn in Gulch

By Hollie Deese

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The Station Inn, lower right, is nestled among much newer and taller buildings in The Gulch. Locals have worried for years that it and other music venues will be squeezed out by developers.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Joshua Ulbrich knows he might surprise people when he says he loves all of the development in The Gulch, especially when they hear he owns and manages bluegrass mecca The Station Inn.

“I think it’s been wonderful what development in that area has done,” Ulbrich says. “People think that the development around here has probably hurt us, but with all the hotels and restaurants that have come in, it has only helped us.”

A dobro player, Ulbrich moved to Nashville for music in August 2003 and has been with The Station Inn for 20 years, working alongside his longtime friend and owner Earl J.T. Gray, who died March 20 at age 75.

The Station Inn was first opened in 1974 by a group of six bluegrass pickers and singers, Red Smith, Bird Lee Smith, Jim Bornstein, Bob Fowler, Charmaine Lanham and Marty Lanham, along with Bob Fowler’s wife, Ingrid Fowler. The club was originally located near Centennial Park and Vanderbilt University, with the owners themselves as the house band.

The club moved to its Gulch location in 1978. Gray, a one-time tour bus driver and musician, bought the club and building in 1981 after sitting in on countless sessions. Gray looked at buying The Station Inn “as an opportunity to have something of my own, and a way to be more into bluegrass music without having to be out on the road all the time,” the club’s website states.

Gray died with no children and had no will. Ulbrich is considered the manager of the Station Inn, President of JT Gray Enterprises Inc., and executor of the Estate. The entire estate is in probate.

Ulbrich has been running the business since Gray died, and while he knows it might surprise people, he loves the growth the Gulch has seen. It has translated to full rooms most evenings at the Inn, which is open seven nights a week, taking the pressure off booked bands to provide their own audience.

“We have noticed that we get a lot of foot traffic coming in just to see what the place is all about,” Ulbrich explains.

Of course, it isn’t only the fast-paced growth of the area that fuels the club’s appeal. In a town that values authenticity in music and culture, The Station Inn remains just that as other longtime spaces that once drew plenty of locals become less appealing to anyone but tourists.

“Of course, we do have our regular locals that come in, but people that come in and don’t know about us, it really even starts at the airport. They may ask somebody what they have to see in Nashville, and nine times out of 10 somehow they get guided to us.”

Venues like The Station Inn are why many people come to Nashville in the first place, to get as close to the heart of music as they can and get a peek into what a day in the life of old Nashville might have been.

“Places like Gruene Hall in Texas that have stayed true to their roots, just maintaining what they do and not trying to change to accommodate the surroundings and the times, it just adds flavor to it,” Ulbrich says. “And Station Inn, it’s a unique place. And the fact that it is what it is, kind of a dirty little old building set now amongst a bunch of high-rise, high-end hotels and restaurants, I think that just adds to it.”

The new 16-story W Hotel slated to open in September at 12th and Pine will likely bring even more visitors to The Station Inn. In fact, Ulbrich says the W team has been by several times to ensure a partnership that is collaborative and only enhances both businesses.

“Their entire leadership team has come in and offered their full support and have made it well known that they didn’t want to be seen as that big corporation that was moving in to take over the area,” Ulbrich points out. “They want to work with us. And they see us for what we are, where some of the other larger hotels around there, I think they kind of look at us like the dirty trash across the tracks.’’

W Nashville officials say they are launching a new concept immersed in music, culture and dining, embracing local as much as possible like an on-site Barista Parlor. It also will have its own music venue with the goal of showcasing local talent.

The hotel is positioning its primary entrances, storefronts and seating on the exterior of the building, adding even more to the walkability of the neighborhood.

And Ulbrich says that kind of revitalization has made a once dark and a little bit scary part of town vibrant and alive.

“A lot of people see it as a big development encroaching, on our property and it’s just simply not the case,” Ulbrich says. “The property’s safe, and if it was going to be sold or were endangered in that manner, it would have been done a long time ago.”

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