The legendary Nashville music venue Exit/In is turning 50 this year. Despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 and the summertime sale of the Elliston Place property to developers, 2021’s 50th anniversary celebrations have continued, and they including the publishing of a book, EXIT/IN: 50 Years. We caught up with longtime venue owner Chris Cobb on-site to talk about the making of the collection and the meaningful moments that it does and doesn’t contain.
Cobb and the crew are bringing some of those memories to life with anniversary shows this week connected to the book’s collection of artists who’ve appeared there over the past half-century, including the return of local rock darlings JEFF The Brotherhood. As he leafed through the pages, Cobb began by pointing out that while the Exit/In has long been considered a cornerstone of Nashville live music, in the beginning, it was a novelty.
“Believe it or not, when Exit/in was opened, there wasn’t a place like this in Nashville,” said Cobb, who has operated the venue since 2004. “We’re so spoiled today. Like, how many venues do we have? It’s great. But back in the early ’70s, outside of the Opry, Exit/In was about it. And so we take a lot of pride in for many, many, many years hosting a lot of different types of music from all over the place, and a lot of great artists. The book did a great job of capturing a lot of that. We we split it up into decades. So there are five chapters, each focusing in on one of the five decades of the club. And and in each of these chapters, we did a deep dive, with a couple of artists that performed during that decade. Jimmy Buffett wrote the foreword that you just have to read, because he had so much to say and he has such an amazing Nashville story. A big part of it was Exit/In. Jimmy Buffett and Diane Davidson opened the club in September of ’71.”
Cobb said that doing the research for the book was revealing and rewarding, with photographers, musicians and others sharing long forgotten photos. But a well-known part of the club’s history almost didn’t make it — the original front door, which was actually in the back and gave the club its name.
“We heard a rumor that a photo of this area existed and we couldn’t find it,” Cobb recalled. “[Lead researcher] Stephen Thompson found it after the book had already been designed and laid out, and so we had to actually go back to a redesign to get it in.”
Cobb flipped to the photo: “That’s the inside of the original front door, and this is the little tiny, original dressing room. We worked on this book for years and we couldn’t find any pictures of that area. It’s got this Paul McCartney poster on the wall. It’s super rad. So [there are many] examples like that, stuff where literally maybe only one person, the photographer who shot the photo 40 or 50 years ago, had seen it until now. It’s really cool to see some of that stuff come out.”
Of course, there were many things that didn’t or couldn’t make the book. Cobb said that the telling of some stories would require wrangling with NDA’s, but there are memories that have special meaning for him — little, personal moments behind the scenes. One of them was the late Sharon Jones borrowing his office for a changing room: “She needed a real dressing room, and Exit/In even had even less backstage facilities then than it does now,” he said, gesturing to the small backstage area. “So she took over what was then my office in the back of the club to change into her makeup, etc. I was out in the hall and she stepped outside and said, ‘Baby, come here’ and waved me over. I’m like, ‘Ms. Jones, what can I do for you?’ And she’s got her makeup spread all out on what was my desk at the time and her bag’s dumped over. It was just Sharon Jones’ stuff everywhere. And she turns around says, ‘Baby, zip me up. Can you zip me up?’ And so I zipped up Sharon Jones’s dress and she took the stage five minutes later and blew the roof off the club.”
As Cobb and company assembled the pieces that would make up the book, the possibility of post-lockdown shows emerged.
“Everybody’s pretty excited about the club turning 50,” he said. “So it’s been a lot of fun reaching back out and connecting with folks. The process started with outreach regarding the book, and with the people who got really excited and were super engaged, we would go a little further and say, ‘Well, what do you think about writing the foreword?’ Or, ‘Would you come down to the club and do this photoshoot and do this interview so you could be one of the featured artists?’ And then the next step from there would be, ‘Would you want to come play a show at the club?’ So it’s super warm and fuzzy, and everybody’s just having a good time and celebrating.’ We have Rodney Crowell and Marshall Chapman coming back in here [the show was on Monday, November 22] and John Hiatt in about a month. And JEFF the Brotherhood right before Thanksgiving. I think it will be a lot of hugs and a lot of love and a lot of great music.”
This is Part 1 in discussion with Chris Cobb of The Exit/In during their 50th Anniversary year. Nashville natives JEFF The Brotherhood play at the venue on Wednesday, November 24 with local openers Kent Osborne and Snooper.