Concerts, Music Venues, News

An inside look at Ward Davis and Tennessee Jet show at the Bell Theatre

Ward Davis performing at the Bell Theater in Pineville, Kentucky. Photo by Scott Lukes

Two years ago, I {John Grace} was having a conversation with Mainstreet Pineville Director, Jacob Roan. He had just finished completing substantial renovations to the Bell Theater, which is a beautiful, 1950’s style movie theater in courthouse square in downtown Pineville. It had gone from being left vacant and in disrepair to shining like new penny. It was really inspiring to witness…to not lose a historic building to the pages of history, but to bring it back to life. We also knew that with those renovations came a responsibility. We didn’t want the theater to sit idly by, collecting dust. We wanted to fill with art: movies, theater, and especially live music. We wanted it to be the centerpiece of a thriving small town in the heart of Appalachia. So we set off trying to do just that.

We talked about doing a Fall and Winter Concert Series at the Bell. Doing so was a risk. Our area, while it’s been rich in musical talent since it was first settled, has never been a hotspot for live music. That started to change over the last couple of years as the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Music Series took shape and grew just a few miles south of Pineville. With that series, as well as the newly formed Mainstreet LIVE! In Pineville’s courthouse square, having a heavy presence in the warmer months, we decided to stray off the beaten path a little and try to bring some excitement to downtown Pineville in the colder, drearier months of late fall and winter. It made sense from both our perspectives: both our tourism economy and downtown traffic were heaviest during the warmer months. The months that needed work were basically from November to early March. What better way to shake off cabin fever than by hosting some amazing concerts in downtown Pineville, especially with the incredible improvements that had been made.

Two years ago, downtown Pineville looked like a lot of downtowns in southeast Kentucky. Empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings gave off an aurora of hopelessness. The loss of our coal industry had hit us and hit us hard. But through grit and ingenuity, Mainstreet Pineville and the Mayor’s office have obtained a 100% occupancy rate highlighted by terrific new establishments like Sauced Craft Pizza and Salads, Ole Bootleggers Spirits, Gem City Cakes, Pineville CrossFit, and the Butchers Pub, which sits directly beside the theater and makes for the perfect spot to hang out before and after shows. We had the framework in place to be able to try and do something that hadn’t been done before, but all that hinged on one question: Would folks come to the shows?

So far, the answer has been an unequivocal yes. The Bell Theater Fall and Winter Concert Series has been a success so far, with most shows being sold out, and even the ones we book on weekdays almost being at full capacity. There have been some incredible performances from the likes of Colter Wall, John Moreland, Chris Knight, The Steel Woods, The Ghost of Paul Revere, Arlo McKinley, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and more. We’ve noticed a fantastic mix of both resident Bell Countians, friends from neighboring counties, and folks who travel hours upon end to come. The number of visitors that have come from out of town has been incredible to witness, and it’s led to us making a lot of new friends these past two years. Building that that loyal fan is crucial to the series success. Most shows we attempt to book on weekends, due to the fact that is when most people can attend. But one of the drawbacks in being in a small market like this…often times the bigger markets are first in line with the choice dates (aka Fridays and Saturdays). Competing with Lexington, Knoxville, Johnson City and Louisville is hard, but by the same token sometimes it works in your favor with routing because a high-caliber artist is already coming through and looking for dates to fill in within the region.

I’ve been a fan of Ward Davis for quite some time. The Arkansas native has made quite a name for himself over the past few years. He and his friend and often-tour mate Cody Jinks co-wrote one of the best country songs of the past five years in “I’m Not the Devil.”  Ward’s first official album came with 2015’s masterpiece “15 Years In a 10 Year Town”.  The songs run the gauntlet of hard truths and the heavy tolls of making the wrong choices (“No Going Home”, “More Goodbye”), to heart-wrenching tales from the desperate side of life (“The Overpass”), to instant honky-tonk classics (“Old Wore Out Cowboys” featuring Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson). It is one of the rare albums that doesn’t require to use the ‘skip’ button even once, with a perfect mix of songs and stories that keep you listening intently throughout.  Ward also wrote “Unfair Weather Friend” that Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson cut and was performed at Merle’s funeral.

The show with Ward Davis and Tennessee Jet fell on a Thursday night. Honestly, it had me a little worried because Pineville, being a town of well below 2,000 residents, isn’t used to getting much live music, period, much less on a Thursday night. However, by show time, we watched as the theater filled nearly to capacity for what was to be one of the most incredible shows in our Fall and Winter Concert Series to date.

Opening the show was up-and-comer Tennessee Jet. TJ is the quintessential one-man-country-band, employing use of a kick drum and harmonica to accompany his guitar playing.  He is making quite a name for himself in the outlaw country scene, having toured with the likes of Cody Jinks, The Steel Woods, and of course Ward Davis just to name a few. Upon taking the stage, he thanked the crowd for coming out then announced he would be traveling to Los Angeles to record a new album soon, and wanted to run a few of the newer tracks by us before he made the trek.

Tennessee Jet at the Bell Theatre in Pineville, KY. Photo by Scott Lukes.

Sometimes mixing a solo performance with a crowd getting ready for a rowdy, full band set can be a disaster, but Tennessee Jet absolutely captivated the crowd from start to finish. At no time was this more evident than when he began the song “Never Forget”; a song about the struggles of PTSD for soldiers returning home.  A hush fell over the crowd for this song and you could hear a pin drop in the theater.  Below is that powerful performance:

Our area in Appalachia is known for producing a great number of brave men and women who defend our freedom overseas, and this song especially hit home with them….moving some of the toughest people you’ll ever meet to tears.  As the last notes were strummed, the silence turned to a roaring ovation for an exceptionally crafted song and performance. TJ made himself a whole community of fans this night, and he is one act I would definitely like to see back in our area.  Be sure to follow Tennessee Jet on his website and Facebook.

Ward Davis was next and kicked right into the boot-stomping honky-tonk anthem “Get To Work Whiskey”. The crowd went from subdued appreciation during Tennessee Jet to a fever pitch in an instant. Ward has a commanding presence on stage, and like TJ was very appreciative of the crowd. He thanked the crowd for coming throughout the show, and even said he was glad to be “in the shadow of Pine Mountain…yeah I googled you all before I came out”. For a town that small, it made a lot of us feel pretty good, especially since several musicians have forgotten what town they’re in when playing here. He even gave props to Mainstreet Pineville, noting how he was impressed with how the town had turned around in the last few years. Very cool thing to do.

Ward was able to put together an amazing set list, from barn-burners like “No Going Home” and the aforementioned “Get To Work Whiskey”, to tear jerkers like “Good and Drunk” and “Unfair Weather Friend”, to amazing renditions of classic tracks like Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “Hurt”, as well as Tom Petty’s “Time To Move On”, which was featured on his newly release EP. He even played two of my personal favorites, “Nobody’s Looking” and “I Got You”.

Ward Davis performing at the Bell Theater in Pineville, KY. Photo by Jon Grace.

Ward’s set was comprised of tracks from both his 2015 debut as well as his forth-coming release (several tracks of which were featured on his recently released EP, “Asunder”, which is a heart-wrenching album detailing the pain of his recent divorce).  Ward mentioned onstage how painful some of the songs were to write and perform live, and it’s an event which he obviously is still trying to sort through. It made me think of what it must be like to not only go through such a dramatic experience, but then as an artist feel an obligation to put your personal pain on display for the world to see. I love a good ole fashioned story-telling song wrapped in historical or fictional context as much as the next person, but the songs Ward is putting out right now hit you on a much deeper level, because you know he is writing from a place of 100% honesty and truth. I give him the utmost respect for being able to put his whole life on display for his fans, something most musicians wouldn’t dream of doing. There’s no wrapping the lyrics in mystery and enigma, no cryptic meanings to decipher.  His songs spell out everything he is going through in heart-wrenching detail. Maybe it’s the catharsis he needs, but man, it takes some guts to do that. To put it all out there for everyone to see – how many folks could do that? Not many.

Ward Davis with a young fan during his set at the Bell Theater in Pineville, KY. Photo by Scott Lukes.

All in all, this was an amazing way to finish out the 2018-19 Bell Theater Fall and Winter Concert Series. This year’s run was fantastic, and we hope to add even more shows next year. Heck, who knows, we may even get a wild hair and have another one before spring gets here.

A major thanks to all who came out. It’s so great to see amazing live music being alive and well in eastern Kentucky. Not only here in Pineville and Middlesboro, but places like Steam Engine Pizza in Irvine, Rockhouse Taproom in Morehead, and Jarfly Brewing in Somerset as well. For too long, we’ve had to drive hours on end to one of the larger cities (Lexington, Knoxville, Huntington, etc) to see quality live music. I’ll still always enjoy going to the bigger cities to see shows, but having them here in small-town Appalachia is something awesome to see, too.

Thanks again to everyone who came down to Pineville to catch a show these last two years.  We really hope to see you again soon. To stay up to date on the Bell Theater Fall and Winter Concert Series, you can visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BellTheaterFallandWinterConcertSeries

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