BY JEREMY BURCHARD Wide Open Country
- Stories about George Jones are like Oreos: you’re never satisfied with just one. Some are hilarious, some are heartbreaking and all of them are part of country music history.
Jones earned the nickname “The Possum” early in his career thanks to his apparent likeness to the furry marsupial (hopefully not when they’re hissing). When the native Texan eventually moved to Nashville, he had a desire to establish his own club.
When he adopted the Nashville sound in the early 60s, his success skyrocketed. He also knew that owning a club would help his career even more. He particularly wanted a place with his name on it.
Or at least close to his name.
The Original Nashville Hangout
In 1967, Jones opened up “Possum Holler” on Nashville’s famous lower Broadway Street. Jones chronicled the 500-seat venue in his autobiography, I Lived To Tell It All. It was the perfect location: across from Ernest Tubb’s record shop, next to the famous bar Tootsie’s and on the other side of the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
While Jones eventually opened all kinds of venues and theme parks with his name on it, nothing quite compared to the original Possum Holler.
Jones let his band “The Jones Boys” become the de facto house band when they weren’t on the road. That meant anybody at any given time had a world class band ready to play behind them. That coupled with Jones’ long list of country star friends meant an amazing concert could break out at any time. And often did.
“There was hardly ever a shortage of talent inside the old room, which had a high ceiling and was located on the top floor of an old building,” Jones wrote in his book. The club captured a certain sense of camaraderie, one Jones later goes on to lament.
“The club was open during the days when Nashville’s country stars were an unofficial ‘family,'” says Jones. “We hung out together. Today’s stars are so reclusive that they work entire tours together and never see each other. In an earlier day stars struggled together financially. Today they’re rich by themselves.”
Just about everybody who was anybody in town, including Saturday night Opry-goers, ended up hanging at the club. Artists and their bands would finish up and head down the back alley to Possum Holler and close it down. Artists hung out and played together, and the audience got the benefit.
Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Waylon Jennings, Dottie West and countless others descended upon the Holler regularly. The Grand Ole Opry quartet The Four Guys would even take breaks from their own club to play at the always happenin’ Holler.
It wasn’t just artists, either. Possum Holler became a hangout for songwriters, many of whom actually pitched their tunes in the club. It was its own concentrated version of Music Row, right downtown.
The Club Goes Down The Tube
Possum Holler’s most respected and frequent visitor was Roy Acuff. He was the only man in town whom his peers called “Mr.,” a testament to the respect he commanded. His museum, “Roy Acuff Exhibits,” was the floor below Possum Holler. And he owned the building.
Of course, all the respect in the world didn’t stop the Holler’s toilet from overflowing and leaking into Acuff’s museum one fateful day. It ruined one of his exhibits. The problem was irreparable, and Acuff had to make the tough call to close down Possum Holler.
“He was calm as could be when he told [the manager] Billy that we would have to close the doors to Possum Holler,” Jones recounted. “‘But Why,’ asked Billy. ‘You love this place.’ ‘I know it son,’ he said. ‘I know it. But we just can’t have turds inside my exhibits.'”
There’s no good way to close a club, but that’s as good as a bad thing gets.
But it wasn’t the end of Possum Holler. In fact, after Jones married Tammy Wynette and had the biggest successes of his career in the early 70s, he opened another. This time, “George Jones’ Possum Holler” found itself in Printers Alley, a spot made famous in the early 40s as the area where everybody in news and print would hang out after work.
Jones had much less involvement with the new club. His name was on it, but he didn’t own it. In fact, Kenny Rogers bought the building and gifted it to Jones’ one-time manager Shug Baggot sheerly out of the kindness of his heart. Baggot convinced Jones to open up the “World Famous Possum Holler,” which was an immediate hit with tourists and country fans.
And though it still attracted countless regulars, it didn’t have quite the same vibe as the original. Baggot ran it quite a bit differently than the original, and it didn’t have the same “artist hangout” allure.
Baggot and Jones had many fond memories together, but Baggot was also the one who turned Jones onto the most destructive path in his life. While trying to shock Jones out of a drunken mess before a show, Baggot gave him cocaine. It was the beginning of the worst part of Jones’ career.
Jones eventually found sobriety and recovered his career in the 80s, though he never tried to open another club in the same vein as the original Possum Holler. Maybe the industry changed too much. Maybe country became too popular, making a spot where all the stars hang out impossible.
But Possum Holler’s initial success eventually inspired a lot of country artists to open their own venues, too. While some have been successful and some flopped, the idea of country stars with bars persists even today. Just look at Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” chain for proof of that — not to mention the countless one-offs owned by artists across the country.
The club is another piece of George Jones lore. As always, The Possum is always imitated but never duplicated.