NASHVILLE, Tenn.— When frantic messages began to flow that a tornado had hit a beloved concert hall in Nashville, Mike Grimes thought it couldn’t be so bad.
Could the eastern basement really be destroyed? Hours earlier, the Grimes co-owner club had hosted a benefit concert for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Affectionately known as “The Beast,” the club was only 5 years old, but had already earned a reputation as one of the hippest music venues in Nashville, across the country. the river compared to the city’s tourist honky-tonks, on Lower Broadway.
The place, with a capacity limit of 475 places, quickly became a leading site for hosting renowned artists in an intimate setting. Margo Price, Cage the Elephant, John Prine, Maggie Rogers, Maren Morris, Sturgill Simpson and many more have performed there.
Maybe, Grimes thought desperately as he walked to the club, the people texting him about the destruction were exaggerating.
But when he stopped at The Beast, his stomach dropped. The tornado had ripped off the roof cleanly a little after 1 a.m., crumbling most of the walls and leaving a tangled mess of destruction behind.
“You just don’t want to believe it,” Grimes said. “It was an immediate shock.”
The March 3 storm killed more than 20 people, some in their beds, as it struck after midnight. More than 140 buildings were destroyed in an approximately 60-mile strip of central Tennessee, burying people under rubble and basements.
The six east basement staff who were cleaning up after the Sanders event escaped evil by running to the building’s basement minutes before the powerful EF-3 tornado roared down the street. It took two staff to close the gate against the winds, just as the tornado was passing.
Immediately after the tornadoes, the virus outbreak hit the state with brutal force last spring, and on Thanksgiving, Tennessee was among the hardest hit in the country, with a record number of hospitalizations and cases. To date, more than 11,000 residents have died from COVID-19.
The pandemic has hit Nashville’s renowned music scene particularly hard. Small intimate clubs weren’t designed to factor in virus-fighting measures like social distancing.
“It’s so strange to have a scenario where the building is gone and then we have something… like COVID-19”, a confluence of devastating events “that never happened like this in our lifetime”, Grimes said.
As the virus raged, the dream of filling the Eastern basement with music lovers again seemed more fragile than ever.
“There were times when I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ said Dave Brown, the club’s other owner.
The East Basement first opened in 2015, but it took nearly five years for the location to become profitable. It wasn’t until 2020 that Brown and Grimes felt they could breathe, that what they were doing was working. The partners – who describe themselves as teenage adults in love with rock ‘n’ roll – had wanted to celebrate their fifth anniversary in April 2020, but the tornado and pandemic had other plans.
Now, as the anniversary of the two catastrophic events approaches, the partners hope to finally reopen. Amid signs that virus cases are on the decline and with more and more people being vaccinated, they have set their sights on this spring. But they still plan to require patrons to wear masks and will spread tables across the club’s 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter) space.
When the tornado hit the eastern basement last March, it left only one thing: part of a mural with the slogan “I Believe in Nashville”.
Like this wall, the city itself is steadfast and resilient, note Brown and Grimes. Both believe that Nashville’s central role in the world of American entertainment and culture will ensure its perseverance.
“The magic of music,” said Brown. “That’s what makes this place so strong.