The Lower Broadway landscape gets more valuable, and star-studded, by the day. That’s easily proven by the number of celebrity-themed bars and restaurants that have suddenly hit the area in a development tidal wave. Walk down the tourist mecca and you’ll spot the names of some of the biggest stars in country music adorning the marquees of these establishments. That immediate name recognition offers an extra enticement to walk in, grab a brew or two and check out some up-and-coming artists.
Alan Jackson beat everyone to the famous name game, opening his AJ’s Good Time Bar in 2016. Since then, several country celebrities have lent their names (if not always their checkbooks) to a variety of restaurant/bar venues. Blake Shelton opened his Ole Red Honky Tonk in April of 2018. Other establishments in downtown Nashville feature Florida Georgia Line’s FGL House, located near the Johnny Cash Museum; Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row; the recently-opened Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar; Redneck Riviera, created by John Rich, and the latest addition, Luke Bryan’s entertainment facility called Luke’s 32 Bridge Food + Drink. You can throw into the mix Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville along with the proposed entertainment/steakhouse venture between Kid Rock and the owners of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. That’s enough star power to start your own awards show.
Jackson, who named his venue after his 2008 No. 1 single “Good Time,” set the bar, if you will, for other ventures to come. He was the first country artist to invest in a Lower Broadway bar when he became a majority owner in Acme Feed & Seed in 2014. Acme enjoyed a prime location on the corner of First Avenue with a rooftop bar, now a standard for all new venues, that gave patrons a bird’s-eye view of the crowds mingling on Lower Broad. Jackson saw that Nashville was becoming a burgeoning tourist destination.
“I always wanted a bar to call home,” Jackson said at the time, “especially on Lower Broadway after it became a place to go.” Not surprisingly, the staunch traditionalist also desired to become involved in a spot where “good country music” was part of the overall menu. “I just love that part of Nashville and its history . . . like backstage at the Ryman and those places and Tootsie’s, other places like that,” Jackson stated. “I saw it changing and growing with the tourists, and I didn’t want it to lose that quality that it had of where real country music was played.”
When he first came to Nashville, Jackson often played the beer joints on Lower Broadway, when that area wasn’t nearly as gentrified as today. It seemed a natural fit to open AJ’s Good Time Bar in 2016, at a location that happens to be the oldest building on Broadway, dating back to 1862. Of perhaps even greater significance, AJ’s is also the only venture that is 100% owned by the artist. Jackson isn’t merely putting his name to an establishment. He is literally invested.
Obviously, Jackson foresaw the popularity of the Lower Broadway strip and its potential. Could he be deemed some sort of visionary? Matt Harville, general manager of AJ’s Good Time Bar, would agree with that assessment.
“Alan had an eye on the future,” says Harville, who’s been with AJ’s from the beginning. “He loves the honky tonks. You listen to his music and he talks about it a lot. So having one was kind of always a goal of his. I think he got the idea when he was a partner at Acme,” Harville continues. “The place wasn’t really branded in his name but he was the major financial investor. He saw what was happening in Nashville and he got his eyes set on Broadway. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to do his own honky tonk. He saw the success Acme was having and he bought out this building here and we opened the first two floors of AJ’s in October of 2016. We were lucky enough to get in at the right time and have the success we’ve had so far.”
AJ’s offers three floors for visitors, plus the rooftop bar, with sweeping views of the Nashville landscape. Each of the indoor floors has a different theme. The third floor, for example, hosts the Hullbilly Bar, a fishing-themed level based on Jackson’s love for the sport of angling. Memorabilia from Jackson’s Country Music Hall of Fame career, including photos, magazine covers and various outfits, are spread throughout. Borrowing from a line in his hit “Chattahoochee,” a “pyramid of cans” sits behind one of the bars. Live entertainment runs day and night at AJ’s, and the music, as you may have guessed, is straight-up, traditional country.
“It’s his kind of place,” says Harville. “We keep real country music alive. We don’t sway into some of the newer trends. Our forte falls into that real country category. I think that’s what Alan’s fans would expect. This is really built on live music and the atmosphere that surrounds it.”
With ownership comes involvement, and Jackson is definitely a hands-on owner. “We are 100 percent artist-owned,” Harville emphasizes. “Alan owns the real estate and the business and he loves knowing everything about it and what goes on. He even listens to the acts that we book. That’s pretty neat,” he adds with a quick smile.
Summer tourist season makes for a steady stream of customers to AJ’s. But the place seems to be hopping year-round. “Actually, our biggest seasons are fall and spring,” Harville notes, “but we have a good reach all year. Football season and the weather not being so blistering hot are factors in our fall and spring crowds.” The recent playoff runs for the Nashville Predators NHL squad and the Tennessee Titans NFL team have helped boost the crowds at AJ’s, particularly on game days or evenings. “In hockey season we do very well,” Harville notes. “We see a difference in game day traffic, especially with Bridgestone Arena [Predators home venue] right around the corner. Nashville appeals to the away teams fans also, so it’s nice to have that fan base.”
Jackson’s forward-thinking outlook certainly paved the way for the honky tonk revival now taking place on Lower Broadway, along with the number of celebrity-themed bars and restaurants. “We got in on the ground floor, and we’re doing great,” says Harville. “This is such a cool street and a great area. We have watched it change and grow up.”
As Jackson stated upon the opening of AJ’s, “My goal and motive was just to do what George Jones had always told me, and that’s just to keep it country.” No doubt he’s doing exactly that.
AJ’s Good Time Bar is open daily in downtown Nashville. For more information, please visit their website.