For any Music City groupie, fresh off the minibus or long departed from the Greyhound, the jet-black, brick club on Elliston Place near Centennial Park proves sublime and as historic to Nashville as the AT&T building or the Parthenon.
The Exit/In opened its doors 44 years ago and continues to anchor the music scene.
Johnny Cash, REM, Keith Urban, Paramore, Billy Joel, Indigo Girls, Switchfoot, Eric Church, The Wailers, Cold War Kids, The Cult, Maroon 5, The Replacements, The Police, Ramones… the Wall of Fame over the bar looks like a record store exploded. The 250-plus names on hand-painted plates show the legendary artists who have sold out Exit/In since 1971.
The venue’s raised stage and open floor let the audience connect to the performers. Stairs lead up to a small mezzanine that gives a great view for early birds willing to stake out a spot. The dark, intimate interior showcases the most important aspect of the Exit/In— the music. Experiencing a moment rendered timeless by pure vocals and the pulsing of the bass rumbling in your chest cavity makes the venue renowned.
Black and white photographs interrupt the dark interior of Exit/In. The photographer, Alan Mayor, recently passed but his pictures live on. Mayor’s prints line the walls on the balcony and the house floor, showcasing legendary artists who performed on the Exit/In stage.
Besides above the bar, band names are written above the couch backstage and on a wall next to the venue’s entrance. The band names present a dizzying collage of genres spanning from post punk to blues to psychedelic rock. Sitting backstage, Jesse Baker, the talent buyer at the Exit/In, works in his office as the phone chirps incessantly.
“We pride ourselves on the diversity of the calendar,” said Baker.
On any given week, the shows shift from R&B funk one night to Indie Rock to electronic dance music to country to reggae. The calendar constantly showcases rising and reputable talent and provides affordable tickets for patrons 18 and up.
Earning a cult-like status, generations of patrons and musicians alike have kept the club timeless and eclectic for more than four decades. They identify with the Exit/In with a nostalgic passion.
“Exit/In is the next level for a lot of local bands. The day you play Exit/In is kind of the day you realize you can make something big happen. I think playing Exit/In, with all the names on the walls put it all in perspective,” said Chase Bader, lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist for the local band Koa.
Clear evidence of the Exit/In’s legacy can be found on the on the back cover of The Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, Sting wears a T-shirt as dark as the club itself with bold white letters proclaiming the club’s logo. From secret shows from big artists like Miranda Lambert to documentaries, music videos or the antics of comedian Steve Martin the Exit/In holds an enchanting history.
“The sheer spectacle is really rad. I think the simple fact that a lot of legendary artists can attest to their experience here makes the Exit/In unique,” said Baker.
Originally a premier seated listening club with a separate bar and restaurant for vegetarian cuisine, the Exit/In gained popularity in the 70s as a center for rhythm and blues.
“So much has changed. For starters, the entrance is no longer in the back—that’s where the club gets is name— the stage is on the opposite side of the room from original placement, the ceiling is twice as high and it operates as mostly standing room now,” said Chris Cobb, co-owner of the Exit/In.
The founders, Owsley Manier and Brugh Reynolds, wanted to establish a live music venue to rival the big venues in New York and California.
Although the Exit/In changed ownership since opening, the mission of the club remained the same. The bands who normally play for large crowds come to the Exit/In for an unparalleled intimate performing experience said Baker.
Whereas other venues around town hold 2,000 to 20,000 people, Exit/In accommodates 500 people. Combined with the history and exemplary acoustics, the events allow patrons, musicians and staff to leave with thrilling memories.
“It really is the best room to see a show in. Past that, the history is amazing. Exit/In has some magic that’s been created by 44 years of live shows— that’s not something you can fake— you can feel it when you walk through the door,” said Cobb.