Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2013

SALISBURY — During the nearly 21/2 years it took to develop Nashville Nights, the owners wondered, “If we build it, will they come?”
The answer at the Feb. 9 grand opening was a resounding, “Yeehaw!”
More than 700 people walked through the doors of Salisbury’s new country western nightclub that night to hear Darrell Harwood & The Cool Water Band. So many people showed up that, with the club’s capacity at 432, owners had to cut off admission and let in new customers in small groups as people left the bar.
“The place was packed,” said Karen Littleton, who owns the two-story nightclub at 125 and 127 E. Innes St. with husband Jeff Littleton and friend Dick Palmore. “The response was overwhelming.”
A line of people dressed in cowboy finery waiting to get in stretched up the street to Uncle Buck’s restaurant. Other downtown restaurants and bars benefited from spillover business, and local fans ecstatic to have a live country music venue in town are calling Nashville Nights “Salisbury’s premiere nightclub.”
While Darrell Harwood, a popular country singer originally from China Grove, draws a crowd wherever he plays, Nashville Nights did well the following Saturday night when a lesser-known band played and more than 300 people came.
Friday night DJs, Thursday night karaoke and Wednesday night cornhole also have attracted healthy crowds. To date, more than 1,500 people have paid $5 for an annual membership to the private nightclub that takes up a good portion of the city block between Bangkok Downtown and Pottery 101.
Nashville Nights features two custom-made bars, large dance floor, lounge, waterfall, stage large enough for a 12-piece band, four pool tables, game room and six bathrooms (including one for the band).
Coming soon, a rooftop patio, which will bump up the capacity to more than 500.
One of the most extensive downtown renovations in the recent past, Nashville Nights occupies the former Western Auto store. Most recently, the Habitat for Humanity thrift store and a used bookstore operated there.
From custom milled door casings that resemble hand-tooled leather to a 65-foot long draw draft beer system that runs under the floor from the walk-in cooler to the bar, Nashville Nights owners apparently spared no expense.
They’re not saying how much they spent, aside from naming the price of the fire sprinkler system — $40,000.
Landlord Victor Wallace, whose family has owned the buildings for five generations, said his company alone put $150,000 into the project, including replacing 180 rotting floor joists and 40 tons of air conditioning.
“It’s two floors, and they did a complete renovation,” said Randy Hemann, executive director for Downtown Salisbury Inc. “It’s just great quality.”
Safety and security have not been an issue so far, with one patron escorted out Feb. 9 by his father. The nightclub offers two entrances, one on East Innes and another at the back, where heaters keep customers warm on an outdoor patio.
Just three doors away is the new Gritz restaurant, co-owned by Palmore’s sister Bev Ryan, which will provide a bar menu at Nashville Nights starting Monday.
Gritz isn’t the only business that stands to benefit from the bar.
“Already, the impact from (Nashville Nights) has been phenomenal,” Hemann said. “The crowd at the grand opening filled up Cooper’s and Uncle Bucks.”
Other surrounding restaurants reported an uptick in sales Feb. 9 from people waiting to get into Nashville Nights or having just left.
Nashville Nights is the only country music venue of its size between Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, owners say.
The most frequent comment from patrons since the club has opened? “It’s about time.”
“I think there is pent-up demand for those types of spaces,” Hemann said.
Demand for not only country music, but live entertainment in general, he said.
“I think you will see the same thing when Lee Street Theater opens,” he said.
The theatre company is raising money to renovate a warehouse at the corner of North Lee and East Kerr streets for a black box theater and performing arts center.
These and other venues will bring more bands and performers to Salisbury, which will have an economic impact, Hemann said.
He said he’s working on another venue — a restaurant and live music combo — but would not give details because the lease hasn’t been signed.
“It will be in the core of the downtown,” Hemann said.
Nashville Nights is the sixth and final Salisbury bar owned by Palmore, he says. First came the Gamecock Lounge, which Palmore opened in 1972 when he came back from Vietnam. The place was so rough, he says, he wore a pistol on his hip when he went to work.
Among the businesses, Palmore and Littleton owned the Office Lounge, an AMVETS club and First Edition, the first disco in Salisbury.
They opened Benchwarmers in 1994 and sold the bar to Littleton’s son Todd after Littleton had a massive heart attack in 2000. Benchwarmers is still in business on East Fisher Street.
After Palmore’s wife died three years ago, Littleton said he felt like his friend was moping around. One day, Littleton suggested opening a bar, “just a little hole in the wall.”
“I told him this would be the last one I had anything to do with, but I wanted it to be nice,” Palmore said. “I wanted the ‘wow’ factor. I wanted people to walk in the door, turn around and say, ‘Wow.’
“But I wasn’t envisioning all this.”
As Palmore recounts the long road to opening Nashville Nights, which was littered with government red tape, setbacks and skyrocketing costs, he recalls Jeff Littleton reminding him, “All I wanted was a little hole in the wall.”
“This damn ‘wow’ is costly, I’ll tell you,” Littleton said.
The project grew and evolved beyond their expectations, said Karen Littleton, who books the entertainment and decorated the club in what she dubs “country elegant.”
From her father’s guitar to thrift store cowboy boots to more than a dozen large mirrors, Karen Littleton has filled the nightclub with large and small details, including signs in the women’s bathrooms that read, “Pretty in pink, wicked in spurs” and “American by birth, cowgirl by choice.”
Open at 11 a.m. six days a week and noon on Sundays, the bar closes at 2 a.m. and employs 15 people, including two Catawba College football players as security guards. Salisbury police provide additional security on Saturday nights, and Kelly Fink is the manager.
Mike Wiegel painted the mural of the Nashville skyline on the wall and, as word spread about the quality of his work, soon landed two more jobs — murals at Gritz and Go Burrito.
Wallace said he’s usually “very reluctant” to rent to bars.
“They tend to damage buildings,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the business.”
Nashville Nights was different. When Palmore approached him, Wallace said it was evident the nightclub owner was talking about a massive renovation with staying power.
“It’s clear they are here for the long haul,” Wallace said.
Wallace said he also liked the idea of another live music venue in downtown Salisbury that would build on the excitement of the East Fisher Street entertainment district, including the new Norvell Theater and popular Salty Caper, next to a possible new brewpub on South Lee Street.
“If the economy stays good, we are seeing the makings of a great, festive area for Rowan County, including the redevelopment of the Fire House,” Wallace said. “… We get a good density of entertainment, and it really gives people a chance to park in one place and hop around from spot to spot. That’s what you do in Nashville and Charleston.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

Nashville Nights

Where: 125 & 127 E Innes St.
When: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Noon to 2 a.m. Sunday
What: Country western and bluegrass nightclub
How: Annual membership $5

Who: Owners Karen and Jeff Littleton, Dick Palmore