PICTURES FROM THE RIVER’S OTHER SIDE

Filmmaker Ron Coons captures a moment in time with “East Side of the River”

  • For photographer and filmmaker Ron Coons, the idea for his directorial debut didn’t come as some eureka moment of inspiration. It was nurtured slowly, over multiple evenings, songs, and pints of good beer.
         “I’ve been going to the Family Wash since it opened,” Coons says. “No matter who plays, there comes a time in the evening when things kind of wind down, and there are always three or four world-class musicians in the place — people who are out there killing it on a regular basis with someone on the road or in the studio. But there they are, arguing with [Family Wash owner] Jamie Rubin about some Queen song, or some Bad Company album. It piqued my interest as to why all these great musicians were drawn to this neighborhood.”
         That persistent question eventually led to “East Side of the River,” a documentary and accompanying photo book chronicling the musicians and individualists who came together to rebuild a neighborhood by their own standards. The film is a mosaic of interviews that recount the changes that swept through East Nashville during the late ’90s and early aughts.
         “I like to say I got 50 people to tell the story, one sound bite at a time,” Coons says of the film’s easygoing, improvisational style of storytelling, touching on major events like the rebirth of East Side live music venues and the 1998 tornado. “I started this movie with an idea,” Coons says. “No script, no treatment, and no real end game. All I had was the idea and the skills to make a movie.”
         Those skills came from Coons’ years of experience as cameraman in video and film production. A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Coons graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in telecommunications and moved north to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and television. “I’ve been behind a still camera for probably 39 years and a movie camera for probably 31,” Coons says, “shooting everything from ‘National Geographic’ to ‘90210.’” In late 1994, he relocated to Nashville with his girlfriend, a Music City native who wanted to return home. Coons found easy employment in the booming video production business that was being fed by the mainstream country crossover machine. “I was shooting two videos a week between 1996 and 1999 — Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, Joe Diffie. I’d go back to L.A. to shoot Faith Hill videos in the desert. And then it all crashed around 2000.”
         Even though the nature of his business changed and he eventually parted from the girlfriend that brought him here, Coons made a home for himself on the East Side. “When we initially moved here we rented a house near Hillsboro Village. In 1995, the house we were living in sold for $141,000, and we had to move. I found a house in Inglewood for $75,000, and it was pretty much the same house.”
         Like many people drawn to East Nashville in the mid-’90s by lower real estate prices and sturdy, personable houses, he discovered the neighborhood’s bad reputation to be exaggerated. Not that there weren’t areas with problems, but there were also broad areas that were no more “dangerous” or “safe” than any other middle-class neighborhood in Nashville.
         “We didn’t have any crime problem at all,” Coons says, “but we had all the issues people mention in the film — no good grocery stores, only fast food restaurants, and no nightlife or music. You just had to adjust your mindset. You had to go across the river to do your shopping and to go to bars and restaurants.”
         Enchanted by the diversity of East Side neighborhoods, and the contrast of urban decay and grassroots regeneration, Coons began shooting photos in East Nashville and Inglewood, with the plan of eventually compiling a photo book. He later brought his friend and fellow photographer John Partipilo in as a collaborator on the project, but as the project progressed, the narrative that Coons saw being played out made him start thinking beyond still photography.
         Coons was documenting the growth of a community of musicians, artists and other creative-minded individuals who valued the opportunity to live in a neighborhood of people with similar interests and challenges — whether it was dealing with dodgy neighborhoods, saving money through DIY house renovation, raising families, or sharing a love of music and arts.
         A growing community of musicians naturally called for a neighborhood live music venue, a place where musicians could try out sets, hold impromptu jams, or just socialize. Thus was born the Radio Café, opened by Mac Hill and housed in a former drug store at the corner of Woodland and North 14th (now Mad Donna’s). It was soon followed by Mike “Grimey” Grimes’ almost “accidental” take-over of a former dive bar in Five Points and its transformation into the Slow Bar (now 3 Crow Bar), and the opening of Jamie Rubin’s Family Wash in a former Laundromat on Porter Road and Greenwood.
         “I sort of missed out on the Radio Café scene when it first opened,” Coons says, “but I became a regular at the Slow Bar and Family Wash once they opened. I don’t want to pinpoint just the Family Wash because it’s not fair to the other bars, but it really became a nucleus for the musicians’ community. It’s off the beaten path, for four or five years many people didn’t even know where it was, and it’s a safe haven for musicians. Robert Plant has been in there and nobody bothered him or freaked out.”
         After a decade of living in Nashville, Coons returned to the West Coast for a job he thought was too good to pass up. “I thought I had gone for good,” he says. “But things didn’t work out after a year or so. I was living in Burbank, and even though I was making more money, I was just living paycheck to paycheck. Even when I had time off, I was still stuck in L.A. — it was just depressing. I realized that I had a lot more fun in Nashville.
         “I came back to visit, and I was here for a week. The last day I was here I drove around with my realtor. She showed me this post-war cottage in Lockeland Springs — 700 square feet for $90,000. She was a typical realtor, ‘Prices are going up tomorrow! It’s the last “cheap” house in East Nashville.’ I drove to a cash machine, got out $500 for earnest money and ended up buying a house.”
         After moving back to Nashville and settling into his new home in Lockeland Springs, Coons continued working in film and video production and married an East Nashville native. All the while, the idea for a documentary continued to gestate. As the changes in East Nashville and the city as a whole began to attract international attention, he came to the realization that the East Side was entering a new era, and the time to tell the story he envisioned was now.
         “There are a lot of people that moved here in the late 2000s that have no knowledge of what the Radio Café was,” Coons says. “They have no concept that Beyond the Edge was once a caved-in cinder block warehouse. Just 10 years ago, there was nothing but Radio Café, the Slow Bar and the Family Wash. Everyone thinks the neighborhood is so cool now, but many don’t know why. It was all the hard work that went into the neighborhood and the people that moved here and opened businesses when no one else would.”
         In the fall of 2012, Coons began work on the film. “I made a short list of about 25 people I knew from Family Wash,” Coons says, “and people that were vital to the story like Mac Hill with the Radio Cafe, Mike Grimes with the Slow Bar, and Diane Garrier from the 5 Spot.”
         “My focus was on the musicians in East Nashville. I had that big question, ‘Why are there so many world-class musicians here?’ They came because it was a cheap place to live, but there was more than that. There was no script, I just wanted to interview everyone I could and see what they had to say. I did have about five questions I started with, things like: When did you move here? What’s it like living in a neighborhood with all these peers?
         “L.A. is full of musicians, but it’s not a neighborhood. Nashville is a neighborhood. It’s a community. If you give something to the neighborhood, someone is going to appreciate it, and if you need something you’re only a couple of phone calls away from help. That applies to gigs, home repair, and the way people live their lives. That’s what makes it a real community.”
         As the interviews began to accumulate, Coons discovered that sense of community also applied to the making of the documentary. “I’d interview one person,” he says, “and they would ask, ‘Have you talked to…?’ So there would be one name knocked off the list but two added. The list probably grew to around 160 people; I eventually interviewed about 70.”
         Coons started by asking the question, “Why do people move here?” but he discovered something much deeper than cheap real estate prices or a hard-to-define aura of hipness. The treasures and travails of East Nashville neighborhoods, combined with a strong DIY ethic and the communal nature of music and other creative endeavors, engendered a deep sense of community pride in many East Side transplants — an appreciation for their own “Island of Misfit Toys” that rejected the facile, cookie-cutter opulence of McMansions and Hummer Houses. With property values rising, opportunistic developers grabbing every vacant lot, and eager buyers waiting in lines, there can be little doubt that the days of the “East Side Pioneers” are drawing to a close, but it doesn’t mean what was built must now be lost. Ultimately, the roots put down by the people who first succumbed to East Nashville’s quirky charm may hold the key to it weathering the perils of becoming an “it” neighborhood. It’s a mindset and attitude that Coons’ has experienced first hand.
         “There was a dirt lot with a trailer across the street from us,” Coons says. “One day the trailer was gone, the orange fence was up and they were grading the lot. I looked it up on Metro’s website. It sold for $144,000 — just the dirt. If somebody offered us $150,000 for our little ramshackle house, we would be 100 percent out of debt on everything and we would have money in the bank. But we would never own property in Lockeland Springs again. We’d be living in a condo somewhere else. We would never make it back to East Nashville, and that’s something we won’t give up.”
         “East Side of the River” received enthusiastic responses at recent preview screenings held at The Building and the cradle of its formation, the Family Wash. Coons is currently taking pre-orders for a DVD version and ironing out various technical details and music licensing issues. Looking ahead, the experience of being a one-man production company has given Coons a taste for more. “I’ve been thinking about delving more into the stories of certain musicians from this film. [East Nashville] is such a rich environment for stories.”
         That’s a statement that’s evident in every frame of “East Side of the River.” “It’s not everybody,” Coons says, “and it doesn’t tell the whole story, but I think it does tell important parts of the story. Mike Grimes said it best. He was referring to the Slow Bar but it also applies to the movie: ‘It was a moment in time.’”