New venue seamlessly combines hearty grub with food for the soul
After months of quietly planning and renovating a building to serve as an oasis for acoustic music lovers and a haven for songwriters, Kit Rodgers and Cullen Kehoe have opened the Troubadour Roadhouse and Performance Hall at 4705 Old Kingston Pike.
Having come up in the thriving, rich and competitive songwriter scene at popular Atlanta venue Eddie’s Attic in the ‘90s, Rodgers rubbed elbows with several songwriters who later became early-millennial hitmakers. “I got to play with a bunch of people who went on to fame and fortune,” he says, referencing, for example, Zac Brown, John Mayer, Shawn Mullins and Jennifer Nettles.
“I worked in restaurants, so we’d been around it for years,” Rodgers says of the connection to the food and bar side of the business. He’d eventually gone on to work as a touring songwriter before settling down into a decade-long career as a criminal-defense attorney. But he still played in local bands like Brimstone Treehouse and Model Inmates while lawyering.
Kehoe at different times was a manager of Preservation Pub, Scruffy City Hall, and Market House Cafe, and he also worked for years as a WFIV disc jockey. A songwriter himself, he hosted for years the popular open mic night at the Pub.
“I actually made it to the finals [of the Pres Pub competition] in the first one and lost to Kevin Hyfantis,” Rodgers says, which he explains is the around the time he met Kehoe.
They came to the project of the Troubadour with the idea of making the ideal space for the kinds of shows they’d often wished they could have as songwriters themselves.
“We just really want it to be ‘the’ venue for this type of music in town,” he says. “We’re both conscious of … we’ve been musicians on the other side looking for opportunities … I wanted it to be a stage that I would really want to play on, and it is!” In fact, the two dusted off their guitars to play “The Owners’ Show” on March 9.
The Troubadour will host acoustic-based music of various styles within the larger roots umbrella in a continuum of formats: songwriter nights on Mondays; open mics on Tuesdays; three-songwriter shows on Wednesday (based on winners of songwriter shootouts from the mic nights); happy hour shows (5-7 p.m.); primetime shows (8-10 p.m.) on the weekends; and they even want to add lunch music eventually.
Shows have been free so far, but the plan, as more heavily promoted shows with bigger artists become commonplace, is to add covers in order to help get artists paid. “We won’t turn people away,” Rodgers explains, pointing out the extra dining room and bar area in which folks who don’t want to have to pay to be able to eat and drink could spend an evening.
Rodgers says that while the fare has been local for the most part (with a few Nashville songwriters coming through), the Troubadour does plan to host some national-level talent.
The venue is set up much like the Down Home in Johnson City, with tables and chairs facing the stage like a dinner-theater nightclub environment reminiscent of earlier eras. It can seat 85 patrons at tables, and a sold-out, standing-room-only show in the room might accommodate around 100-110 folks.
“We want to keep it an intimate, seated performance space,” Rodgers says, “to cultivate singer-songwriters in the area but also to attract touring artists that aren’t coming through here … to this listening room environment.”
The initial open mic nights have been well-attended as songwriters test the waters, and booking has begun in earnest with several artists announcing shows in coming weeks. The first true show, a songwriter’s round with Knoxville veterans Mic Harrison, Kevin Abernathy and Handsome and the Humbles’ lead singer Josh Smith, turned out to be a great success.
“It was packed in here for that show; it was really good,” Rodgers says.
“They were completely locked into what was going on,” Smith says of his experience playing at the inaugural show. “It was a true listening room, which there aren’t enough of … there are plenty of places for full bands, but there are so many great songwriters in this town; this should provide a place for them.” Smith also attended the first songwriter night – and a few since then. “I’m always blown away by the talent that shows up to the open mic nights,” he says.
Rodgers mentions that part of the mission of the Troubadour is developing artists. “If we’re booking you in here,” he says, “we think you have something.” Kehoe and Rodgers plan to book local acts opening for national acts to help them build their contacts and networking base.
Another part of that mission in developing the talent is through a little friendly competition in the form of a $2,000 songwriting shootout every six months. Presided over by a panel of music industry judges, participants will be culled from winners of the mic nights and the best of the demos that are submitted. A winner will be chosen after several evenings of live competition rounds. The grand prize will include the money plus – hopefully, Rodgers says – other perks from eventual sponsors, like studio time. “There’s a reason to get better … it gives them that boost,” he says.
They have their sights set on even more, too; in 18 months or so, Kehoe and Rodgers hope to have finished a renovation of the basement of their building in order to open a jazz lounge that serves wine and cocktails. “But we need people to come support us here so we can afford to be in business,” Rodgers laughs.
With a clean, warm brick-and-wood interior, bright professional lighting, excellent sound quality, a fully-stocked bar, a kitchen serving barbeque and even some vegetarian fare and music most nights of the week, the Troubadour is open for business. Joey English is scheduled for March 14, and Beth Snapp will perform on April 12.