Welcome to The Palace.
Where the weathered hardwood that covers the floor of this ever-sprawling Honky Tonk haven has been home to many a cowboy boot- and this night would be no different.
Flocks of beards, denim, belt buckles, and cowboy hats filled the different quadrants of the massive country music fortress, all gathered to see the event of the night, Whey Jennings.
As I made my way around, I noticed a common apparel trend- black cowboy hats. Old distressed leather ones, brand new suede, some with turquoise stones and boot strings wrapped around others. But largely black. I caught maybe one or two brown and white cowboy hats, and almost felt embarrassed for them. I thought at any moment they may be asked (or forced) to step out.
Damn near everything in the palace is furnished in wood, giving it a very lodge-like feel. If you took the bar and tables out, you might have yourself a rollerdrome. After obtaining press clearance with the ticket-taker, I moseyed up and around the bar area, and horseshoed my way to one of the circular cherry wood tables in front of the stage. Above me, I noticed the dull glow of a guitar in the form of stringed red and blue lights, maybe ten feet long.
An authentic country feel resonated throughout, which can’t be said about many other “Honky Tonk” bars in Music City. Many old cowboys with beards longer than most women’s hair, and mustaches that likely required their own hygiene routine were on the faces of those in attendance, along with women in tight blue jeans with those notorious sequin-stitched crosses and other patterns on them. Tables surrounding me had plastic numbers perched upon thin metal posts, (22, 13, 33…) indicating a delivery of hot food to come. Red and white paper baskets of assorted bar food delights whizzed past me along with plastic cups of beer, which reminded me…
I looked around admiring all the badass vintage cowboy gear on folks around me, and one guy in particular rocking a black Waylon letterman jacket, which would go for a fortune at any vintage second hand shop here in town. Roughneck-looking dudes huddled around, beer in hand, laughing and joking, and I could hear thick southern drawls in passing. Good ol’ boys now, but one false move and one could imagine bottles breaking and being used as shivs, pool cues being snapped over backs, tables flipping- a full on cornfed melee could be envisioned with this crowd. I saw one ogre of a guy with a salt and pepper Mohawk, arms covered in tattoos, and what I was pretty sure was a silver necklace with brass knuckles as the medallion. But alas, it was a crowd assembled for a good time.
Another man stood off to the side, resembling Pappy McPoyle from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, sporting what looked like a pool cue, but thicker with lumps and bumps. I thought perhaps he was some Honky Tonk wizard, casting spells to fill the wells, and keep the music going all night. But more than likely it was used to aide a bum hip. I would soon learn this man was Whey’s drummer, and also his father-in-law and road manager.
A Pearl drum kit sat raised under the Nashville Palace sign, light shining bright off the snare and cymbals, with its guitar friends and amps flanked to the sides, ready for action. Shortly after my beverage of choice was obtained and I claimed my space for the show, an excitable middle-aged redhead offered me a “cheers”, and reached over to clink my glass. This was the energy at the palace.
Shortly after, a sweet southern voice from the heavens spoke: “Attention please: the show will start soon, and we ask you to please not go out back for smoking, or anything else. Use the front door only. Thank you.” Anything else, eh? She made another announcement shortly after, but I was busy jotting notes to catch it. I also kept seeing a chubby, baby-faced adolescent skirting to and fro along the stage, wondering what his deal was. Surely somebody’s son. He looked like he should’ve been cranking the wheel of a racing game at a Dave and Busters.
And then it was time. Whey and the boys hit the stage.
“How ya doin’ Nashville?” Whey asked, sounding identical to his dear old granddad, Waylon.
Whey, clad in his leather vest, golden steer belt buckle, black sunglasses and (get this) his black cowboy hat, and otherwise road-worn look, led the band through the first hit that earned uproarious hoots and hollers, “I’ve Always Been Crazy.” Jennings no doubt sung with the familiar smoky grit and Texas doggedness so many had been used to hearing. From then on he steamrolled through other classics of his grandfather, a handful of originals, and some other southern rock covers for good measure.
His guitarist, dressed fairly similar, had a very Stevie Ray Vaughan element to his style, and he let his guitar do the talking (wailing). The bassist, ohh the bassist, he was an animal. With his frizzy hair (I think I heard Whey call him Frizzy), his wild facial expressions and body movement made him look like he was a claymation figure. His sharp, pronounced chin stabbed through the air and his eyes bulged, as his spindly arms and body flailed all around stage.
The redheaded woman with the Tom Petty tour shirt in front of me let loose from the get go, hardly ever sitting down. Without a care in the world, she was the only one dancing and hollering, and throwing up rock horns and “wooing” after every song. She was having the time of her life, with what looked to be her much more docile and blonde older sisters.
Whey and the band were celebrating the release of a previous performance recorded at The Palace, putting on a final encore and creating awareness for that and his newest album. Throughout the night, guest artists came up and on stage with Whey, hammering through sing-a-longs together, performing songs by themselves, and all kinds of other musical chairs. You could tell everyone on stage was enjoying the hell out of themselves.
And then I thought to myself, “what if Whey didn’t follow in his grandpa’s footsteps…or if he did in the music sense, but was passionate about his barber shop quartet, or maybe playing trumpet? With a clean-shaven face and dapper suit? Would he be shunned by the Jennings’ tribe?” It was an intriguing thought.
Being the grandson of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, Whey successfully carries the torch into the 21st century, maintaining the legacy of outlaw music in his bloodline.
It was a November night of jolly Honky Tonk fun that left the crowd in elation and nostalgia. Before exiting the palace for good, I examined the many framed pictures of youthful country stars that had passed through, taking note of the big Randy Travis tribute, noting his rise from Palace dishwasher to country superstar.
In the smaller room across from the wall of fame, I witnessed a much gentler scene, with some older gentleman playing more stripped down traditional country music, pedal steel and all, while heaps of retired friends and lovers alike square danced the night away.
Welcome to The Palace.