Barstool Stories: Brandy Zdan & Mickey’s Tavern
By Kimberly Baugh
THIS IS IT. Once you spot the neon sign that hangs in the window of Mickey’s Tavern is when that warm comfort of coming home starts to settle in. Taking the exit that signals you’ve arrived to your destination–not where you’re supposed to be, but where you wanna be. Perhaps after driving through snow and ice down from the Midwest in a van that doesn’t have heat with bundled up bodies pressed together between gear or up from Texas, unsticking from one another and stretching your legs for the first time in hours. A place to just be.
A comfortable distance from Five Points in East Nashville, Mickey’s has been a watering hole mainstay since it was built in 1950. The building, that is, has gone under different monikers such as Smitty’s Beer Belly, The Beer Barrel, Mom and Pop’s, Ma and Pa’s–the type of joint where you need no introduction, just a drink. Five years ago it was dubbed Mickey’s to maintain that old school character and unfussiness for which it’s loved. Soon after it found it’s Irish bartender, Dermott Orr, who has added to its charm and in return, Dermott is entertained by the storytellers on the barstools.
Dermott is happy to oblige any of the local talent (Grammy winners or beginners) who pull up a seat on a regular basis. Kacey Musgraves, Brittany Howard (of the Alabama Shakes), and the Cage the Elephant crew are just a few of the regular faces that can be found around the pool table on any given weeknight. Even if the dim red glow of the string lights didn’t offer anonymity, they wouldn’t be bothered by other patrons. Dermott says it’s a place of respect where people can just be themselves. “What people don’t know is that we actually like the people who come in here. I would never tell ‘em that to their face though,” he laughs.
In walks Brandy Zdan with a flood of light surrounding her, a transplant like Dermott, but by way of Winnipeg, a seasoned songwriter in snakeskin boots with tales worth telling. The most memorable of this year was sharing a stage and later Cognac in a dressing room with blues legend Buddy Guy. Casual. Today she’s pulling into town from Texas–another southern state she’s called home–fresh off of more touring for her sophomore solo album Secretear which she’s gladly taken across the country with Luck Alum Doyle Bramhall and Aaron Lee Tasjan. But now she’s home, picking out songs on the jukebox and where she left off at Mickey’s.
BZ: [Recollecting her first time at Mickey’s] I think it was some sort of first date–and I don’t even know who it was with–something like that...
DO: Wasn’t memorable!
BZ: But what I was thinking was having those first dates, coming here and talking about those first dates (that went horribly) with my female friends, and then coming here before you kick off a tour or something, or after a local show, to now coming here with my husband and for business meetings. It’s been a part of the fabric. I imagine it’s been the same way for so many musicians in town. Within those are all the experiences that you write about. So it’s somehow a part of the songs.
DO: I know what you’re saying. Because most of the places I’ve worked before if I haven’t seen someone who was a regular for a while, they like had a girlfriend or moved away or something. But here, it’s like, “It’s been a few months, where’ve you been?” “I’ve been on the road.” I know they’re probably just out on the road and I’ll see them when they get back. It’s never been like that any other place I’ve worked.
BZ: The other thing I’ve noticed too is that if I meet someone in town somewhere else, the second time I see that person is here. You know it just never fails.
DO: It’s good that way. It’s one of the only real feel-good local spots left, you know what I mean? People in here generally live here. We will have a lot of people here from New York, LA, or Austin here for the weekend and we’ll ask, “how’d you find this place?” and they’ll say, “My friend who lives here in town and told me it’s the place to come.”
BZ: Absolutely, it’s always the place that’s first mentioned on the list after a show when we’re like “where are we gonna go right now?” And I think it’s because there’s no music!
DO: Oh, the irony! You get to talk. I know, I was thinking that earlier. The irony is that most musicians come here is because they get to talk and there are no bands, there’s no karaoke, and the jukebox is never so loud that you can’t talk. There’s always a conversation happening.
BZ: Exactly! I’ve noticed that so many times.
And if there are people here–acquaintances or in the music business–there is always just one degree of separation from someone else they know, and that’s the really cool thing about this place.
DO: For the most part, every conversation you will hear at the bar is–even if they’re not actually musicians they’re in production or something–they all have moved here for the music business. And when I first came to Nashville in ‘97 it was all kind of specifically country. Everyone was country. It was only in the last ten years or so that it’s been a really noticeable shift to just music in general. To me, compared to LA or New York it’s just another big music center. So many new studios being built and not just in some dude’s basement–professional studios on south Dickerson. It was never like that before. It used to all rotate around Music Row and now it’s not. There’s an organic, independent thing going on now and it’s really cool. Specifically on this side of the river.
BZ: Yeah, and I feel like this place is kind of the haunt for that–the heart of it. Where everybody meets.
The other thing is that if you work in the music business you’re not an alien. You can talk about things like being on the road or whatever it is–you just got done making a record–people understand what that means and you don’t have to explain it to them.
DO: And it’s not just the one option anymore where you have to get into one and conform to it. Plenty of options and it feeds on itself. Not just that–the whole creative thing. Photographers and artists coming up. It’s not just the music scene, it’s this whole artistic community.
BZ: Exactly! It’s the kind of place, too, where I don’t find there to be competition. Maybe just within the community I’m involved in with indie rock. Everybody’s just working hard. And I think that kind of ends up pushing people to work hard, not the competition factor, just working. That’s the take of it. It’s not like the big successes, it’s just working hard.
DO: Everybody that does it like that and lives like that, lives here. The way the music industry has changed there’s no one formula for making it anymore. It really is more of a labor of love for people now than it was before.
BZ: There is no formula. You know a lot about the business!
DO: Just through osmosis.
BZ: That’s like one thing, a piece of knowledge so many people should hear: there is no formula. And anything can work.
Places like this, because of the experiences–good or bad–this is a place where you come to celebrate victories but also a place where you can talk all the shit.
DO: And find an understanding audience.
BZ: Yeah, exactly. So in that is the connection in songs and the connections in inspirations. And also anytime there is a jukebox with good music it always does something to songwriters and musicians.
DO: Every month we put in three new ones and take requests from people. There’s a few that have probably been in there from the beginning. It will change from day-to-day. One night I’ll hear the same song 12 times and then I won’t hear it again for months.
If the jukebox isn’t playing and somebody walks up–especially if it’s not a busy night and no one’s here–we’re like, “Choose wisely you will be judged!” Putting the pressure on, then they’ll be up there for ages trying to pick a strong opener. It’s not your regular audience, you have a discriminatory crowd here when it comes to tunes. But I’ll say it’s hard to find a bad one.
[Other bartender shouts “Shania!”]
BZ: Shania? Is that what he just said?
DO: Yeah, that’s what he said. Shania’s in there.
DO: He knows that drives me crazy though.
BZ: [laughs] Drives you crazy?!
DO: “Whose Bed Your Boots Been Under”– I made the mistake of telling ‘em that I don’t like that song so, of course, I fucking hear it four times a night.
A fresh peruse of the jukebox’s offerings comes up very satisfactory for Brandy who easily finds a few of her favorites, the guilty pleasures, and admittance that she’s no Stones fan and doesn’t care if she’s crucified over it.
Dermott is chill and content. “I look forward to coming here, it’s fun. Getting to know people, enjoying their company. Most songwriters and musicians are good storytellers. I love people telling a good story.”
The door opens again and the light pouring in is overwhelming. The sun hasn’t set just yet. “You can never tell what time of day it is in here,” Brandy smiles. It’s nice that way. And it’s a blank page for a good story.