BOBBY’S IDLE HOUR, located at 1028 16th Avenue South, is the only live music venue on Nashville’s Music Row. It’s a neighborhood bar you could find anywhere across the country — except at Bobby’s, the neighbors are the record labels, publishing houses, performing rights organizations and other companies that make Nashville “Music City.”
Bobby’s promotes “Cold Beer and Cool Country,” and it’s a bar that’s easy to imagine Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt holding court in back in the day. Although it no longer allows smoking, the years of Pall Malls, Winston’s and Camels linger in its bar stools, and you can still get a Shiner Bock and some peanuts for less than whatever they’re charging at Starbucks. Bobby’s would have made for a good Waylon Jennings album cover.
It’s Wednesday at Bobby’s, and that means Sam’s Jams. Sam Cooper is the charismatic host of the weekly open mic, where from noon to 8 p.m. artists showcase their wares in three-song increments. It’s doubtful any music influencers are in the house, but Sam introduces each act like they’re playing the Ryman. And the audience, though sparse, responds in kind.
It’s 6:30 p.m., and next up is a distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a well-fitted Stetson, an understated western shirt, faded jeans, comfortably worn cowboy boots and a belt buckle befitting his beloved home state of Texas.
His guitar is a Gibson SJ 200 that he bought brand new, on loan, in 1952 from the J.R. Reed music store in Austin. “I figured I needed a real guitar if I was going to play with the big boys,” he says. And he has, indeed, “played with the big boys,” having performed on both the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry in his younger years, along with countless dance halls and clubs in and around the Austin area.
That six-string’s been built and rebuilt to maintain its classic and original sound — just like the guy playing it. His name is Jerry K. Greene, and he’s 86 years old.
“Tonight I’m a champion, the bluest of blue,” Green sings in his opener. “He got you, I got the Blue Ribbon Blues.” The warmth, strength and sincerity of his delivery silences the room, leaving no doubt he’s lived those lyrics. But he assures the audience he came out on the other side.
“I wrote that song with Glenn Tubb when I came to Nashville the first time in 1966,” Green says. “I remember him telling me, ‘Just stick around Nashville for awhile, and your songs will just keep getting better.’ He was right. There’s been all kinds of ups and downs along the way, but I feel like I’m writing my best songs in my eighties.”
Most artists can trace back to a seminal moment that ignited their initial love for music. For Willie Nelson, it was the songs he heard in church as a little boy in and around Abbott, Texas. For Bob Dylan, it was Woody Guthrie. And for many a baby boomer, it was the Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show that started it all. For Jerry K. Green, it was on a portable stage in a grocery store parking lot in Lewisville, Texas, where as a 10-year-old boy, he saw a long, tall Texan take the stage. That man was Glenn Tubb’s uncle — the Texas Troubadour himself, Ernest Tubb.
“I was mesmerized,” Green says, “and knew immediately I wanted a guitar real bad.”
Tubb, born in Crisp, Texas, had his own share of ups and downs. He dug ditches, worked as a drug store clerk and drove a beer truck before “Walking the Floor Over You” became a big hit in 1941. His style of country and honky tonk swing connected with Green, but being the youngest from a family of 11 with limited means, it wasn’t until two years later, in 1944, that he got his first guitar.
“My older brother was on leave from World War II and took me to Whittle Music in Dallas, where he bought me a Harmony guitar and a Stephen Foster songbook for $25,” Green recalls. “We didn’t have electricity, but some of the cafes in town would play what was then called hillbilly music on the jukebox, and some of my friends had record players where I could listen and try and figure out songs. When I was old enough to drive, a couple of my football buddies had cars, so we’d drive into Dallas and catch bands live, too. Pretty soon me and a few buddies were playing at school assemblies or any other functions we could find.
“I loved the melodies and lyrics of the songs from that era and can still hear my brothers singing three-part harmonies to songs like ‘Wagon Wheels,’ ‘Moonlight and Roses’ and ‘I’m an Ol’ Cowhand (From the Rio Grande).’ I found myself wanting to write songs myself.”
Inspiration struck the summer after his senior year, when Green first saw a lovely young lady from Shreveport who was staying with relatives in Lewisville for the season. A summer romance blossomed.
“When she left to go back home, I was heartbroken and wrote a song called, ‘When You Board That Train to Old Louisiana, Please Take Me Along,’” Green says. “She didn’t take me along, but I boarded a bus to Shreveport a couple weeks later to play it for her. She liked the song but politely made it clear that summer was over, and we were through.”
The romance may have ended, but while in Shreveport Jerry decided to go by KWKH, the flagship radio station behind the popular Louisiana Hayride show.
“I didn’t know any better, so I figured I’d just show up,” he says. “The doors were locked, but when I knocked the door cracked opened and Horace Logan himself, the show’s emcee, asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ I told him I wrote a song about Louisiana love and wanted to sing it on the Hayride. He opened the door, had me sing it for him, and I ended up singing it on the show that night.”
The significance of that appearance has been rekindled with the recent release of The Louisiana Hayride Box Set, featuring artists, including Green, that played the venerable radio and television show. The show ran from 1948 to 1960 and everyone from Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Bob Wills performed there. Guests also included a young Elvis Presley, who on March 3, 1955, made his first-ever television appearance. And it was on that same stage in 1956 that Logan uttered, “Elvis has left the building” for the first time in an attempt to calm the frenzied crowd.
“Looking back, I sure am glad I didn’t know any better,” Green laughs. “It’s an honor to be affiliated with such a legendary broadcast.”
The final song of Jerry’s set at Bobby’s Idle Hour is his signature song, “Tripod,” the true story of a three-legged dog that he first performed on the Grand Ole Opry in February 1967.
“I wrote this in 1962 when I was a salesperson for IBM living in Houston,” he says. “Tripod was one of my customer’s dogs. I wasn’t the best sales person and quit before I probably would have been fired, but I did get to meet Tripod, so it was worth it. He’s been a real friend over the years.”
He invites the audience to sing along on the chorus: “If you think you got troubles you can’t overcome, don’t sit like a bump on a log / You can do twice as much if you try half as hard as Tripod, the three-legged dog.” Once again Green commands the room, and by the end of the song the audience has joined in.
Green went to college at North Texas State, where he stayed for a year before being drafted during the Korean War in 1953. He was shipped to Fort Chaffee, Ark., and though the war ended his first day of boot camp, he was still obligated to a two-year commitment. Before being drafted, he’d been performing at old Dessau Hall in Austin, where he saw a pretty young lady in a pink sweater in the bunny hop line. “I turned around and told the boys in the band, ‘I’m going to marry that girl,’” Green says. True to his word, they married six weeks later. “We probably jumped in a little quick, but we stayed together for 23 years, through good and bad, and had three children, all born in Austin.”
Blessed with a natural speaking voice, while stationed at Fort Chaffee, Jerry got the first of what would be multiple jobs in broadcasting as an announcer at KFPW radio in nearby Fort Smith. From there he took an Austin-based summer job with Proctor and Gamble.
“I had a company car and could set my own schedule, so I’d time it where I could see a lot of the country and Western artists who were constantly working the Texas circuit, including many of the Louisiana Hayride stars,” Green says. “One of my favorites was Webb Pierce, who was playing a gig in Gonzalez. I had a song I thought would be perfect for him. His bass player seemed like an approachable guy, so between sets I introduced myself and asked his advice on getting Webb the song.”
That bass player was Tillman Franks, who’d go on to write many hits, including the classic, “I’m a Honky Tonk Man,” originally done by Johnny Horton and made popular again years later by Dwight Yoakam. Along with playing bass for Pierce, he was also the booking agent for the Louisiana Hayride.
Though Pierce never cut the song, Tillman liked Green’s music and not only booked him a half-dozen times on the Hayride that summer but also set Jerry up with Specialty Records, who recorded Green’s first album.
A Los Angeles-based label, Specialty Records had powerful roots in R&B, gospel and early rock ’n’ roll, with a roster that included Sam Cooke, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker.
They were looking to expand their footprint by opening a hillbilly division, and Green was one of the artists signed — while he attended school and worked part-time at Austin radio station KVET. But the short-lived hillbilly offshoot went by the wayside and, along with it, Green’s first record. But it did help him land gigs.
“Even back then, Austin had a thriving music scene with a real sense of community, so it was easy to meet people,” Green says. “That’s also where I first met Glenn Tubb. There was a group of us who’d play in each other’s bands and generally support one another. Glenn and Ernest Tubb’s son, Justin, were a big part of it. I had no idea when I first met Glenn that our paths would cross all those years later in Nashville, but I’m grateful they did.”
In 1957, Green became the stadium announcer for the University of Texas’ Longhorn Band at football games, a stint he held for four years. (He proudly displays a Longhorn Band Honorary Life Membership Award on his den wall.) He also landed his first job after graduation in 1958, working for KTBC television, where he stayed before taking a job in Houston with IBM in 1962.
“I had three kids by that time, so I was looking to make more money,” Green says. “I gutted it out for three years but was stressed and miserable. So when the opportunity came up to go back to Austin and work at KOKE, I jumped at the chance. I was thrilled to be back in and around music and was writing songs on a pretty consistent basis. By that time, Nashville had established itself as the hub of country music songwriters, and I dreamed of going there, but with three kids I wasn’t sure how I could make it happen.”
One of the benefits of working in radio is the opportunity to meet bands and artists who come through the station promoting their records. Like Willie Nelson, who Green met at the station in 1966. Nelson was living in Nashville, and when Green told him of his dream to get there, he said, “You gotta go, Jerry — you just gotta find out.”
Bobby Bare suggested the same. But it was Gabe Tucker, then manager of Eddy Arnold, who said it best: “If you want to go duck hunting, you gotta go where the ducks are. And for country music, that’s Nashville.”
The radio business can be volatile, and within a year Jerry lost his job at KOKE. A month later, his father died. That was a turning point.
“When my father passed, I spent the better part of a month helping my mother and doing a lot of soul searching,” Green says. “I decided there was never going to be a perfect time to go to Nashville, so I told my wife I had to go, and that I’d get home as much as possible.”
Within a week of arriving in Nashville with a notebook full of lyrics, Green ran into his old friend Glenn Tubb.
“Nashville was a small town back then,” Green says. “Glenn was working and writing for a publisher right on the Row. He helped me tweak some of my songs and set me up to do a demo session. I had three ballads, and, if time permitted, I’d record ‘Tripod’ as well. It was ‘Tripod’ that got noticed, and I ended playing it on a local television station. That led to my first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in February 1967.”
Though grateful for the exposure, Green couldn’t establish any consistent footing over the next three years, and the commute was tough on his family. So when he was invited back to Austin to re-join KOKE, he jumped at the chance.
“I like Nashville, but I’m a Texan at heart,” Green says. “And we had a heck of a run at KOKE for the next few years, becoming the No. 1 station in the market. I also played the clubs around town with my band throughout the ’70s, I ended up with two songs on the Billboard Hot 100 country chart, including, ‘Genuine Texas Good Guy,’ which charted for three weeks in December 1977.
“It only made it to No. 96, but hey,” he chuckles, “at least it made it.”
By the end of the decade he took to playing solo at local Holiday Inns before deciding to hang it up in 1979. “I was burnt out on music,” Green says.
“It was no longer fun for me,” he adds. “I wanted a job in a different industry where I could keep a roof over my head and a spouse in the house.”
He did just that, living happily for 14 years with his wife Edie before she passed in 2003 and retiring comfortably after a 16-year career with Caterpillar Financial. In a fitting twist of irony, Caterpillar Financial was based in Nashville. There he was, living in Music City again — but his guitar never left home for 30 years.
“The closest I came to music was listening to Gerry House on the radio every morning,” Green says. “Nobody knew, or necessarily cared, about my history, but then I just started playing open mics like all the other folks who come to town. And I was having fun doing it.
“That’s the key — I was enjoying playing music again.”
Over the last eight years, he’s enjoyed playing out and co-writing with new friends from writer’s nights across Nashville. He also released a two-album set entitled Now and Then that includes “Wherever in Texas,” a tribute to the Lone Star State he wrote with fellow native Connie Mims. “I’d love to get back to Texas and start performing again,” he says.
His old buddy Tripod is enjoying a resurgence as well. Tower Creative Communications, the Belmont University student-run PR firm, put together a Tripod Challenge Fundraiser for animal rescue groups impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston (Tripod’s hometown) with the hope that it might lead to further such events across the country.
As Green finishes up his set at Bobby’s, it’s hard not to be inspired by the humility and tenacity of the man Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel refers to as “a living legend.” Benson, in fact, featured Green on his television show, Texas Music Scene, in 2013 during the “Texas Music Legend” segment.
Another Texas icon, author James Michener, once said, “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” Jerry K. Greene and his buddy Tripod remind us to keep trying.