NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Guitar slung loosely across his chest, brim of a baseball cap covering his eyes, Isaac Mathews ambles to the microphone and introduces himself.
He receives little acknowledgment from sports fans watching television at the bar, or from the table of women munching burgers near the stage until he launches into startlingly good rendition of Dierks Bentley’s “Come a Little Closer.”
One of the women snaps a photo with her cellphone. A couple sways to the music. The end of the song is met with applause. From there Mathews winds his way through four hours worth of country standards and new classics, the audience at times rapt, other times aloof.
The full-time musician moved to Nashville five years ago, trading his hometown of Muldrow, Okla., and a steady paycheck as a pump operator for a Halliburton contractor for a shot at making a go of a career in music.
“One day I decided I wanted to move out here,” the 31-year-old Mathews said, taking a break from a gig at Benchmark Bar and Grill on Second Avenue. “So, I packed up my wife and kids.”
He is hardly alone. Boosted by hundreds of musicians toting guitar cases stuffed with song lyrics and dreams, Nashville’s Lower Broadway area has evolved from dive bar central to a destination plugged by city fathers and convention organizers as a key part of the face of Music City and the city’s tourist economy.
“I don’t know if it’s the honky or the tonky, but Lower Broadway is where it’s at,” Mayor Karl Dean told a group of hospitality industry workers at a forum last month. “We have here on Lower Broadway one of the most unique music corridors in all of the country.”
That wasn’t always the case. Two decades ago, the area was an unkempt, seedy place, known as a hangout for prostitutes and those seeking their company, said Brenda Sanderson, who along with her husband owns The Stage, Legends Corner, Second Fiddle and Nashville Crossroads, all in the 400 block of Broadway.
“It was skid row,” said singer and guitarist Gary Bennett, whose band BR549 played Lower Broadway in those days. “It was dangerous and rough and dirty and seedy.”
At the time, visitors to Nashville spent most of their time touring Music Row or visiting Opryland attractions on the outer edge of town, said Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“When I moved here (in 1991), you wouldn’t even mention it, much less take anybody there,” Spyridon said.
The near closure of the Ryman Auditorium in the early 1990s was a low point, Spyridon said. But the historic venue’s revival in the middle of that decade brought new life to the area. Capping the renaissance was the opening of what is now the Bridgestone Arena.
The latter brought two much-desired groups to the area — families and tourists.
“It was like coming out of a recession, if you will, for the downtown area,” Jeffe-Lee Jones, who owns Robert’s Western World and leads the bar’s house band Brazilbilly, said of the transformation.
Today, Lower Broadway is considered a “starting point” for musicians who land in Nashville, said Eric Normand, a musician and the author of “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.”
“It’s the densest nightclub area in the city,” Normand said. “It’s the most obvious place to find musical situations to dive into.”
It also is among the most competitive. John Taylor, entertainment director at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, said he receives 500 to 1,000 emails a week from people who want to entertain at the Broadway honky-tonk. He auditions 30 to 40 artists a week, sometimes for just a single open slot.
Many of them are encouraged by the stories of artists like Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts, who cut their teeth at clubs on Lower Broadway before making it big.
It took Mathews five years to land a spot on the Benchmark stage, working his way to the spotlight from a job behind the bar. Other people will spend time hanging from bar stools hoping to befriend performers in a position to offer them a spot on-stage should a band mate get sick or go on vacation.
Artists angling for a slice of prime time can range from so-called front guys, who come to town hoping to become the next big thing, to road musicians looking to get gigs to sustain them when they aren’t off with a headlining act, to session musicians.
“If we did not have these wonderful new musicians constantly coming to Nashville wanting to be the next big thing, I’m not sure we could do what we do,” Sanderson said. “That’s what keeps us going as honky-tonks down here. Otherwise we would just be bars on the street.”
That unique offering has not gone unnoticed. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, for instance, hosts meeting planners, reporters and other groups on Lower Broadway as part of its efforts to sell them on Nashville, Spyridon said.
“It’s our front door. I would say it’s our museum by day and our theme park by night,” Spyridon said. “We always go out and play either before or after dinner just to let them experience it unscripted. From the person that thinks they would never listen to and like country music to the most die-hard fan, they are blown away by the talent of the musicians and the energy of the clubs.”
On a recent weekend, tourists decked out in New England Patriots jerseys, women wearing T-shirts bedazzled with the words “bridesmaid” and “bride” and families dressed in matching denim shorts and cowboy boots were among the hundreds of people wandering Lower Broadway, stopping occasionally to listen to music wafting out of bars.
As a group paused outside the window of Benchmark, Mathews was showing off his guitar skills on Pat Green’s “Wave on Wave.”
It’s one of hundreds of songs he has had to memorize to get work in the area.
“I didn’t do a lot of cover songs until I moved to Nashville,” Mathews said. “For the most part, my music was about writing. That’s what I wanted to do.”
But there is money to be made in entertaining tourists with country standards and the occasional pop hit (in this set it’s George Michael’s “Faith). Sometimes he sneaks in one or two of his own pieces, depending on the crowd. Mostly though, Mathews croons thousands of words written by other people. He keeps his iPhone on a stand raised to eye level just in case he forgets the lyrics.
“When I moved here, I realized I could make a living playing covers,” Mathews said. “A lot of times they want to hear a lot of the old standard stuff. They want to come to town to hear the old (Johnny) Cash songs.”
The Nashville tourism industry, which includes conventions, as well as leisure and business travel, is a roughly $5 billion annual business.
Mathews is aware of the important role he and other musicians play in helping to boost the city’s coffers.
“We are the face of Nashville,” he said. “When it comes to downtown, it’s all about the little guy. We’re it.”
But like most independent musicians, his immediate concern is making a living doing what he loves.
He doesn’t mention it during his set, leaving patrons to remember on their own that he plays for tips. Mathews hopes during any given set that what gets deposited in the jar will be greater than the $40 he is being paid for the four-hour set.
As a couple walks up to deposit a few bucks into the jar before slipping out of the bar and into the sunshine of Second Avenue, he calls after them, politely, without missing a beat in the music.
“Thank you guys. Thank you very much.”
Mathews earns $10 an hour to play from 2-6 p.m. at Benchmark. That’s about average for the industry. Many musicians offer to play for free, Normand said. That keeps downward pressure on rates
Mathews’ goal during any given performance is to earn another $60 in tips to total $100, before he pays for parking and lunch. He routinely books nine gigs a week.
“They get paid some, probably not nearly as much as they deserve,” Sanderson said. “Hopefully it’s enough to cover their expenses. But they’re not getting rich playing down there.”
The artists largely see the potential to get discovered as worth dealing with low pay.
“Broadway can open the door to a lot of opportunities for these people and I think that’s one of the reasons they come down here,” Sanderson said. “This is not a career. This is a steppingstone.”
Such was the case with Bennett’s band. A chance encounter with an editor at Billboard led to a story about the band in a music magazine and eventually a record deal.
“It’s like we were in a really cool movie, like a Cinderella story,” Bennett said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen at a bar in that part of town.”