Back in the nineties, before East Nashville was a thing, when you had more of a chance of getting shot in the face than getting a shot of boutique whiskey, Mac Hill opened up a coffeeshop on the corner of Woodland and 14th. As the neighborhood began to fill with artists fleeing the high rents around Music Row, the new locals encouraged Mac to turn his place into a music venue; and thus was born the Radio Cafe. Through many incarnations, including a direct hit from a tornado, Radio Café blazed the trail for music venues on the East Side, and hosted acts such as Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Marshall Chapman, and many others. But as the neighborhood began to blossom and other venues opened up, Mac grew tired of the grueling schedule of being a restauranteur-slash-club-owner, and sold off the Cafe in 2007.
But Mac is back, a little more low-key but with the same indie anything-goes spirit of the original venue. Now housed in a former used car dealership on Gallatin Pike, Mac’s new venue, still operating under the same name, is showcasing the kinds of artists that are getting shut out of the showcase/writer’s night/pay-to-play/four-songs-and-you’re-done scene that is currently infecting Nashville’s smaller music venues. The new Radio Cafe is a haven for Nashville’s new breed of old-school-meets-the-modern-era musical acts, artists looking for a place to experiment, a place to interact, and a place to form new sounds. A place kind of like the old Nashville alternative scene. Mac is keeping the flame alive, and in the process he’s holding East Nashville’s feet to the fire, defending a bastion of integrity and passion for music that Nashville insiders know continues to beat at the heart of this town.
Last Thursday I was invited to check out my old friends Cody Brooks and Eric Phillippi share the bill for a night of soaring soulful ballads (from Eric) and raucous, almost-off-the-rails high octane rock and roll (from Cody). By the end of the night the lineup had switched around about four times, Eric was behind the drum kit for Cody’s last set, and sweat was dripping from the walls. A fitting tribute to an old institution, reborn and blossoming into something new.