Slightly sweaty twentysomethings talk and smoke on the front porch as they wait for the Longbranch Saloon’s headliner, the local punk band Lions, to come onstage. Between handling drink orders, the bartender, Judd Cowan, a senior at the University of Tennessee, is reading a borrowed copy of Flowers for Algernon.
Since taking over management of the Longbranch in November, Cowan and his friends Ben Garretson and Jake Watkins have been reinventing the venerable Cumberland Avenue bar and music venue. The Longbranch, which had recently been almost exclusively a haven for metalheads, now brings in hip-hop artists, alternative rock bands, and once even hosted a French gypsy jazz band, all in an effort to broaden the bar’s musical range.
“If you walk by the Longbranch one night, and you hear something you don’t like, just know that will probably not be there the next night,” Watkins says. “There’s consistently shows, but genres change frequently.”
Garretson, who worked as a music booking agent before coming to the Longbranch, is always looking for new talent, frequently going to college parties just to meet up-and-coming bands and asking them to play at the bar.
“Judd and I will be at the Longbranch seven days a week, but we’ll also be out and about, meeting two to three other people every single day,” Garretson says.
By cleaning the building for the first time in years, updating the beer menu, and inviting new and different musicians to the venue, the bar has reworked itself to appeal more to the thousands of college students who live in nearby Fort Sanders and on the University of Tennessee campus. They’ve even added an open-mic comedy show on Tuesday nights. John Miller, a local comedian and recent UT graduate who runs the open-mic, says the event has become one of the bar’s biggest draws.
“We have some Ph.D. students that frequent the comedy night,” Miller says, “And because it’s such an interesting and different thing near campus, we pull in a lot of the foreign exchange students as well.”
Even the musicians have noticed the change in management style. Josiah Smith, guitarist and vocalist for Lions, has played at the Longbranch roughly 40 times over the past nine years and has seen managers come and go. But he says the new crew has worked harder on creating personal relationships with the bands than any managers in recent memory.
“They’ve just held Longbranch to a standard, which it hasn’t had in a while,” Smith says. “These new guys have just done the right thing and done well by everybody. If you’re trying to be a good person and a good dude and have fun and you have someone else meet you at that same energy, it’s going to turn out well.”
While Watkins is leaving at the end of the summer to start a master’s program at Western Michigan University, Cowan and Garretson, who are also roommates, say they will likely work at the bar into the foreseeable future.
“I want to open the bar up to students, in particular, because the Longbranch has always been a haven for local Knoxville, and with the Strip construction we’re really going to have to,” Cowan says.
While the Longbranch is turning a corner, the timing is far from perfect. With concrete barriers now lining parts of the Strip as part of the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project, it is already becoming difficult for consumers to reach some businesses by car. Since the Longbranch is closed during regular business hours when traffic is heaviest, the bar hasn’t been affected as much as other Cumberland Avenue outlets.
Nevertheless, the construction project still worries the managers, but Smith says that as long as venues like the Longbranch maintain their positive relationships with artists and patrons, even construction won’t keep customers away.
“If you’re able to create a place that people feel is the most positive, fun thing they can do, that little hurdle isn’t going to make a big difference,” he says.
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