It’s easy to overlook Bowling Green, despite its rank as the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s third largest city.
Yes, it pops up on the national radar now and then. In February, a sinkhole swallowed eight Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum as sports car aficionados worldwide watched in collective pain.
The WKU men’s basketball team garnered fame as a Cinderella pick in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Tournaments, reeling off upsets in consecutive years, highlighted by Ty Rogers’ now-famous buzzer-beating, 26-foot shot to defeat Drake University.
Bobby Petrino, reputation smudged from an extramarital affair with a University of Arkansas athletic trainer and a motorcycle accident in which they were involved, landed at WKU for a year — and quickly quit to return to coaching duties at the University of Louisville.
And then there was the “non-incident” that occurred on the WKU campus a few years back, when a report of students with guns led state and national media, and law enforcement SWAT teams, to descend on campus like bees to honey.
But now the fast-food hub, long famous for its Corvette heritage, might have a natural signature developing that could stick: a budding music scene born of roots that some might not know about.
Bowling Green bands such as Cage the Elephant, Morning Teleportation and Sleeper Agent — long known by the college set at WKU and elsewhere — continue to make waves nationally.
In 2011, Rolling Stone took notice of the Bowling Green music scene. The iconic music publication selected Cage the Elephant and Sleeper Agent as the No. 1 and No. 2 best new artists of the year, respectively. Cage the Elephant’s latest album “Melophobia,” released in October 2013, gained critical acclaim. The group played on “Ellen” in March 2014. Ellen Degeneres is a fan, she says. They also nabbed spots playing well-known summer festivals in 2014 — Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
The recent emergence of the Bowling Green music scene might seem like a contemporary trend. However, the city has been the stomping ground for talented musicians for decades.
The Hilltoppers, a pop trio formed at WKU in the 1950s, sold more than a million copies of the 1953 release, “P.S. I Love You.”
Bowling Green native and bluegrass musician Sam Bush was instrumental in creating the “new grass” sound, which incorporated electric instruments and song styles from other genres.
All this occurred long before Matt Shultz, the front man for Bowling Green’s Cage the Elephant, dangled from the rafters for capacity shows or snapped backstage selfies with Beyoncé at Coachella.
From country songwriters to rap groups to punk rockers, Bowling Green, more than anything, means music.
January 1985: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” tour took the world by storm. Music video junkies salivated when MTV announced it would launch a new channel, VH1, aimed at playing music videos for older demographics. A fresh-faced girl named Whitney Houston stood a month away from pop stardom.
The United States endured record frigid temperatures brought on by the “Great Cold Wave.” On Jan. 20, 1985, Bowling Green recorded a low temperature of -14 degrees.
But that month in the basement of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house at WKU, Tommy Womack’s rock ’n’ roll dreams started heating up.
Womack graduated from WKU in December of 1984, but he didn’t have any intention of putting his degree to use. Womack spent his adolescence dreaming of life in a band. He decided that bitter-cold winter — the kind that drives mice indoors — to form a band called Government Cheese.
“For years and years, all I’d wanted to do really was do music,” Womack said. “I was depressed because I was a preppy, myopic dweeb that I figured was never going to make it in a band. I just wanted to be in a band so bad.
“So I graduated college, got my diploma in December 1984 and immediately went out and got a job at the brand new Lee’s Recipe Fried Chicken on the 31-W Bypass. Government Cheese played their first gig in January of 1985 in the basement of the Sig Ep house.”
He finalized the lineup in April and by summer, Government Cheese started making a name for itself, albeit a negative one. Its brash punk rock sound didn’t appeal to Bowling Green tastes.
“By this point, a lot of people in town hated us,” Womack said. “There were a lot of really good musicians in town, really respectable players to look up to. We weren’t ‘punks’ as people. We were college students, and every one of us wound up graduating college. But the music we played was punk. Put together in a punk manner, and themes of the lyrics were punk. Everything was punk except the guys themselves.”
Scott Willis, vocalist and guitarist for Government Cheese, said Womack never paid attention to the band’s detractors.
“Tommy said ‘R.E.M. sucked when they first started,’ so he wrote that on a piece of paper and taped it on the wall,” Willis said.
The band holed up in a house on Nutwood Street, spending countless hours practicing in the kitchen and some were less than enthusiastic about the bombardment of noise the band produced.
“Our neighbors were always complaining,” Willis said. “The neighbor next door would wake up in the morning and cut the grass at like 6 o’clock in the morning by our windows to get us back for making all kinds of noise all night.”
Willis said the band’s name referred to band member Tommy Gray’s grandmother and what she gave the group.
“You’d open up our fridge, and all we’d have is like Iron City beer, Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken and blocks of government cheese,” he said.
Government cheese was processed cheese the federal government provided to welfare and food stamp recipients, and to the elderly in the United States from the 1960s until the 1990s. Now, it remains part of the Women, Infants and Children Program.
Locals rejected listening to songs about things like dropping acid on a camping trip, but before long, hoards of college students took to the sound.
“The whole scene was starting to change,” Womack said. “This weird Government Cheese thing was happening on the street. By 1986, we owned Bowling Green. The freshman and sophomore class at WKU really had taken to us.”
Government Cheese became a weekend fixture at Picasso’s, a now defunct venue that stood in the basement of Mariah’s Restaurant. Eventually Picasso’s began to draw in bands from Nashville, who typically would open for Government Cheese because they drew large, raucous crowds.
Womack said some of his fondest memories involve performing to capacity crowds at Picasso’s. One of the venue’s biggest nights of the week was the “Bladder Bust.” Starting at 7 p.m., patrons paid a cover and drank for free all night — until the first person used the bathroom.
“People were getting drunk as hell and groaning,” Womack said. “Their faces becoming etched with pain, and we would be playing rock’n’roll to these people, and they would be dancing in pain because they had to go to the bathroom.”
Womack said Picasso’s was “ground zero” for the Bowling Green music scene in the late 1980s.
“Every night at Picasso’s was packed, and we owned the place,” Womack said. “I had a second adolescence, and it was way better than the first one.”
But Womack said an array of talented musicians dabbled in their creative endeavors in the Bowling Green area back then.
Artists like Jonell Mosser, Jane Pearl and a band called the Park Avenue Dregs were artists that Womack remembers vividly, the latter of which he described as “Pink Floyd’s first album, but 10 times crazier.”
Meanwhile, as the Bowling Green music scene picked up momentum in the late 1980s, a lively rock scene served as inspiration 60 miles south.
“Luckily we were so close to Nashville,” Willis said. “We knew Nashville had a really good underground scene. We’d go to Cantrell’s, and there would be a thousand people crammed into a 200 capacity place. Just the energy of that, we weren’t going to let that die.”
Womack likened playing a show in Nashville to a night in the big leagues.
“Nashville audiences were hard to impress, and there was really a music scene down there,” Womack said. “There were tons of stars and posers, and a lot of back biting and a lot of ‘you suck, we rule’ ethos to all the musicians on the scene. So there was nothing like a gig in Nashville to make you feel somewhat unloved because it was hard to get people to come see you and drop their attitude long enough to admit they liked you. But it did eventually happen.”
In 1986, Government Cheese strayed from Bowling Green, building followings in Louisville, Lexington and Nashville. Soon after, the band signed with Nashville indie label Reptile Records, received some airplay on college radio and even had a music video on MTV. Government Cheese’s video for its single “Face to Face,” produced by WKU broadcasting students, was featured on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in January 1988. The video features the band in their natural habitat, playing to an enthusiastic, head-bopping crowd at Picasso’s. Womack said the exposure on MTV was huge for Government Cheese.
“What it did for our ability to get booking was incredible,” he said. “The power of MTV then was incredible.”
Government Cheese disbanded in January 1992, as the toll of perpetual touring and partying wreaked havoc.
“It was a hard-partying lifestyle,” Womack said. “When you’ve been living in a van with four guys for days on end, weeks on end, years on end, little things start to mean a lot. ‘Fuck you’ replaces ‘good morning.’”
The fame and fortune Womack pined for never came to fruition, but he said he is proud of the lasting impression Government Cheese made on the Bowling Green scene.
“We made our stamp, and that’s my dream come true really,” Womack said. “I did wanna be a rich and famous rock star, and that didn’t happen. But also part of what I wanted to do was be somebody that contributed something that lasted to the climate, to the culture I was around, and we’ve done that.”
Government Cheese got together for sold-out reunion shows in Nashville and Louisville earlier this year. The band recently finished recording their first album in 25 years.
Womack said he is thrilled to have the opportunity to write a new chapter of Government Cheese history, a defining part of his youth.
“In this business, longevity means everything,” he said. “No matter how uncool you are when you’re a year-old band or a 2-year-old band. By the time you’re a 7-year-old band people respect you just because you keep getting up every time you’re knocked down. It will work that way for Cage the Elephant. It will for that way for Sleeper Agent. Anyone who sticks around for long enough.”
Revolution 91.7, WKU’s campus college radio station that sits on the third floor of Mass Media and Technology Hall, made its format a platform for local music since it launched in 1988.
Burlington senior Savannah Burke joined the station her first day of college and now hosts “Local Shots,” a two-hour special dedicated to local music, each Wednesday from 10 p.m. to midnight.
“We bring up a band almost every week to interview and that gives them a chance to get on air and talk about their music and kind of be that voice,” Burke said. “Local music is huge for the Revolution, that’s a ton of what we do, and it’s one of the most important things we do. Every hour, we play at least one local song, so we’re pushing local artists all day long.”
Burke said Revolution embraces its role as a platform for established and fledgling local artists.
“We’re constantly in contact with local bands, whether its Facebook or email or phone calls,” Burke said. “They’re always calling us saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this new single — can you push it?’ We are their go-to. The Revolution is their go-to in town, and that’s a really cool feeling.”
Each fall and spring Revolution 91.7 hosts a free concert on campus. In the fall they sponsor “RevFest: Battle of the Bands,” which showcases eight to 10 local bands. In the spring, Revolution brings in a national headlining act for its free “Mayhem” concert, but it includes local bands to complete the bill.
Burke wasn’t familiar with the local music scene prior to moving to Bowling Green, but she quickly developed an affinity for helping give local artists the exposure needed to succeed, she said.
“If you can support those smaller bands and watch them grow, there’s something really special about that,” Burke said. “And if you love music and have a passion for music — I would say I definitely do — it’s really cool to see that happen, see bands grow and move and go other places. There is something really satisfying about that and to be a part of that, to be an integral part of that, is really cool.”
On a spring night at Roland Bland Park in Bowling Green it’s silent, save for the occasional scrape of a skateboard on pavement or the indistinguishable chatter of a distant pick-up basketball game.
Vito Tisdale rests on the railing of a park bench. He raises the red flame of his lighter to the end of a blunt.
“It’s just some mid,” he said, smoke billowing from each of his nostrils. “But it will get you through the day.”
It’s been 12 years since Bowling Green’s Nappy Roots released their Grammy-nominated album “Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz.” During an era of rap dominated by materialistic boasts, the group from south central Kentucky gained fame rapping about growing up poor.
“Our sound basically is Bowling Green — what you see is what you get,” Tisdale said. “Most cats here are unhappy, so we had to have a music to relate to that.”
Tisdale was raised by a single mother in the ShakeRag Historic District of Bowling Green, a historically African-American neighborhood located along the north end of State Street. Tisdale’s humble upbringing was signified by his mother, struggling with the burden of raising three children alone.
“Mom would go to church and cry and break down,” he said. “You could see your breath in my room in the winter. I thought everyone lived like that. I didn’t know I was tough. We were heavy in the church, and gospel got us through.”
Nappy Roots formed in 1995 while the six members attended WKU. The group garnered a buzz for its debut, the independently produced album “Country Fried Cess” released in 1998, but the breakthrough came four years later.
“Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz,” its debut album on Atlantic Records, became the best-selling hip-hop album of 2002 and garnered two Grammy nominations.
Tisdale’s voice, reminiscent of Notorious B.I.G. with a tinge of southern twang, was a focal point of the group. His barreling baritone, recognized by XXL Magazine as one of the top 10 rap voices of all time, comes to the forefront of some of the group’s most popular tracks, such as “Po Folks” and “Aw Naw.”
“‘Aw Naw,’ I wrote that,” Tisdale said. “You know how you do something and don’t really believe you done it. Grandpa will look you up and down and say ‘Boy, you went up and done it, hell naw.’”
Nappy Roots offered a voice for the common man. The songs paint a portrait of small-town life, delivered with a down-home vibe and a southern drawl.
“It’s clichés and putting simple thoughts, simple processes, everyday living, everyday people together,” Tisdale said. “We began to make records like that. It was more of people living, a working class story. I don’t know how to talk around a rich man.”
Tisdale left Nappy Roots in 2012, but still pursues his music solo. Nappy Roots still performs today, but as a quartet and without its two founding members.
Tisdale, now living in Bowling Green for the first time in more than a decade, has noticed a culture shift in his neighborhood.
“You got skateboarders riding past a big black man with tats, and comfortable,” he said. “White folk wouldn’t walk through this block when I was born. When this was my street, if he pulled up with a white woman you’d say, ‘white woman!’ because it was bizarre.”
The past decade has been a blur for Tisdale. During the 12 years Nappy Roots rose to overnight fame, the group also experienced a dip into irrelevancy in the Hip-Hop arena. Tisdale has experienced incredible highs — meeting pop icons Prince and Michael Jackson, and touring with artists like the Dave Matthews Band and Alicia Keys. He collaborated with Kanye West and even ate pot brownies with comedienne Sarah Silverman.
“She was like ‘V, I know you’re fat, boy, but about a quarter’s worth is all you need,’” he said with a laugh.
He’s also endured his share of sobering lows. Tisdale battled with “Molly” abuse, an addiction to the drug called MDMA, also known as “Ecstasy.” And during his time away from Bowling Green while he busied himself pursuing a music career, a growing detachment developed between Tisdale and his family.
“I really crapped out with the kids and the woman,” he said. “I came home from tour, and they had a man living in my house. Wow, you grow after something like that.”
Tisdale accepts his mistakes, and now focuses on the responsibility of fatherhood.
“I’m a good dad,” he said. “I wasn’t a great spouse. Once you in love with music, you’re gonna cheat on everybody. If you’re in love with music, you’re not going to cheat her.”
Although Tisdale spent the past 12 years away from Bowling Green, it’s still home. He embraces his role as “the town’s uncle,” especially among the community of musicians in Bowling Green. Whether offering up his opinion of Cage the Elephant’s latest album or collaborating with Shultz himself, Tisdale embraces the camaraderie of the Bowling Green music scene and seeing it continue to flourish excites him, he said. He’s sticking around.
“I love the energy,” he said. “I love everything about Bowling Green. It’s ready to blow. I see a lot more musical things with WKU growing.”
Phillip Douglas knows about sticking around.
Mementos of Douglas’ career adorn the walls in the office of his Bowling Green home. Commemorative records from partnerships with some of Nashville’s most notable stars, from Billy Ray Cyrus to Clay Walker to Aaron Tippin, are evidence of a fruitful career as a country songwriter. Douglas is also the owner of any songwriter’s wildest dream: a No. 1 single.
Douglas co-wrote “Kiss This,” Tippin’s third and final No. 1 single on the Billboard country charts. Released in May 2000, the song spent two weeks at No. 1, and peaked at No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Douglas wrote the song in 45 minutes, inspired by the mononucleosis-nature of songs dominating airplay on country radio. “Mono” or the “Kissing Disease” causes chronic fatigue.
“The day we wrote ‘Kiss This’ I went up to Aaron’s house,” Douglas said. “Faith Hill had ‘This Kiss.’ There were so many ‘kiss’ songs on the radio. I’m so tired of all these kiss songs, and I’ve got an idea called ‘Kiss This.’ Him and Thea, his wife, was over there, and they were messing around arguing and everything. She was telling Aaron to ‘kiss this.’ I said, ‘Look there, everybody says it.’”
Three months later the song sat atop the country charts.
“Kiss This” was nominated for “Single of the Year” and became one of Douglas’ greatest accomplishments.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “The gold record is nice to look at, and I know I’ve accomplished something in life.”
Douglas, a Nashville native, moved to Bowling Green in 1973 at age 20 when he got word about an opening for a house band at the Red Carpet Inn. He got the gig, and his band, Liberation, spent the next 31 years as the house band at Nellie O’Bryan’s inside the Red Carpet Inn. Douglas spent six nights a week playing shows at the club, but spent his days working to progress his career as a songwriter.
“Every morning about 8 a.m., I’d go to Nashville, spend the whole day writing and making contacts to further my career in writing,” he said.
Douglas said Bowling Green’s music heritage has always been rich.
“The music scene in Bowling Green has been great for a long, long time,” he said. “I’d love to see it continue with songwriters — love to have a venue here just for songwriters — for these people to get their songs heard.”
Douglas has recently been working with singer/songwriter and WKU alumnus Rye Davis, who appeared on ABC’s reality singing competition “Rising Star” during the summer. Davis, an all-conference pitcher for the WKU baseball team during his time on the Hill, opted to pursue a career in country music despite being drafted to play minor league baseball following college.
“I didn’t get into music until pro ball,” Davis said. “There was a guitar center across the street when I was playing spring training for the Phillies organization, and I bought a mini travel guitar and started playing and singing. My teammates liked my songs and my voice and it just kind of took off.”
Davis grew up in rural Pig, Kentucky, about 20 miles north of Bowling Green, but lives in Nashville, where he writes songs with established songwriters like Douglas. But despite its rural surroundings, Bowling Green hasn’t been a consistent producer of country artists, Davis said.
“You’d think being a country town, a country area, there would be a lot more country music,” he said. “There’s a lot of other music that has come out of here. Nappy Roots and Cage the Elephant came out of here. It goes to show how much of a variety Bowling Green has.”
Within the past decade, Bowling Green has proved to be a consistent producer of indie rock talent.
Cage the Elephant paved the way, gaining legions of fans in America and abroad for high-energy performances and a distinctive punk-rock sound that fans connect with The Pixies and grunge rock superstars Nirvana. Cage the Elephant’s song “Aberdeen” is an ode to the Washington town where Kurt Cobain grew up.
Bowling Green based psychedelic rock outfit Morning Teleportation caught the eye of Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock after the band moved to Portland, Oregon. The well-received debut album, “Expanding Anyway,” was released on Brock’s label Glacial Pace Recordings in 2011. Sleeper Agent followed later in 2011 with its debut “Celebrasion,” a collection of fuzzy, fast-paced teenage rock anthems. The buzz generated by the band's first album led to tours with Weezer, Fun, Grouplove, Ben Kweller and other respected acts, as well as an appearance at the 2012 Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival.
The consistent outpouring of talent proved Cage the Elephant’s ascent to prominence was no fluke, but also left many scratching their heads and asking why this unassuming Southern town had become a consistent producer of shiny red corvettes and indie rock talent.
Many have noted Bowling Green’s potential to become the next Athens, Georgia or Omaha, Nebraska, both home to sprawling music scenes that have created long-standing cultures of generating musical talent.
Sleeper Agent bassist Lee Williams has been a part of the Bowling Green music scene since his early adolescence, and has watched it flourish. Williams was hesitant at first to compare Bowling Green with other established music scenes, but he said that is quickly changing.
“People have been saying for years, since Cage really started picking up momentum, that Bowling Green’s music scene was going to be one that people wrote about and remembered like Seattle’s or Athens, Georgia’s,” Williams said.
“For a long time, I thought it was silly of people to be writing history while it was happening like that. But now that more time has gone, I’m starting to believe that those people might be right, or at least close, and we are all really lucky to have a community like this.”
Bowling Green’s Tony Smith dreamed about a history on top of the music scene in Nashville.
Growing up in the Bowling Green music scene, Smith cut his teeth playing rock ‘n’ roll in basements and small venues in his hometown as a teenager.
But he waited for the day when he could grace the stage of a venue in Nashville. That’d be the day he knew he had arrived.
Smith said the small-town feel of Bowling Green often had him longing for something more.
“It’s boring,” he said. “If you’re not in a band, if you’re not creating some kind of idea or doing something, you’re probably going to school or working a job. I think the creativity comes from being antsy and wanting to do something.”
Smith spent his formative years fronting bands like Such Tall Buildings, The Decade of Experts and Assassins and Downtown Handshake. He was immersed in a Bowling Green music scene that includes the likes of Cage the Elephant, Morning Teleportation and the emerging Buffalo Rodeo.
“As a teenager, I always wanted to play Nashville — it was everything to me,” said Smith, a 2010 WKU graduate with a degree in advertising. “If you’re going to make it, you have to play Nashville. They wouldn’t book my band or anything.”
Smith said attending shows in Nashville inspired him. He’d try to channel the energy he saw.
“We’d go to a lot of shows in Nashville, and we’d take it to Bowling Green and we’d try to duplicate it,” he said.
Despite the rejection, Smith trudges ahead in his creative endeavors.
Smith said the Bowling Green music scene he grew up with had been hungry for attention in regard to its musical talent for some time.
“Maybe Bowling Green feels a little shunned,” he said. “We’re important too. We’ve got music and ideas and we’re gonna do it, ‘So fuck you.’ That’s kind of the mentality.”
Daniel Shultz, the youngest brother of Cage the Elephant’s Matt and Brad Shultz, has continued the family tradition and now fronts local rock band, Maélle.
Shultz said playing in Nashville is an essential step for a Bowling Green band trying to gain exposure. Maélle’s first show in Nashville was at the High Watt on Cannery Row. He said while some bands are unfamiliar with Bowling Green, often people are aware of the town’s musical roots as “a little fantasy land for musicians.”
“It’s a big thing like for a Bowling Green band playing Nashville for the first time,” Shultz said. “But once you eventually keep going and you’re playing like Atlanta or whatever, Nashville is still always there and in your heart.”
Shultz, 18, has already played popular summer music festival Lollapalooza, playing bass for his cousin Kane Stewart’s band Plastic Visions in Chicago in July.
Watching his brothers find fame with Cage the Elephant was influential for Shultz, but he said he isn’t interested in trying to ride his brothers’ coattails to find a career of his own. But he does intend to carry on the family’s legacy of musicianship.
“It’s a good kind of pressure,” Shultz said. “I can’t just be some shitty band and be like ‘Oh yeah, my brothers are in Cage the Elephant, sign me!
“My brothers want me to work for it, and I want to, too. I want to experience everything there is to experience when you’re working for your music, your craft.”
Shultz cannot offer a definitive answer as to why Bowling Green developed into a musical hub.
“I think about that every day,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Why Bowling Green?’ You know I don’t understand it, but I love it.”
Shultz remains focused on making a lasting impression on the local music scene like his brothers have, but most important, he wants artistry in Bowling Green to continue to prosper.
“I just want this to thrive,” he said. “I want there to be something for generations and generations. I just want this town to grow musically and as a community and everything.”
To longtime Bowling Green residents disconnected with the local music scene, the bar at 522 Morris Alley is still sometimes referred to as the old Parakeet Café building. However, the two-story brick structure is now home to Tidball’s, one of Bowling Green’s few live music venues, and one considered by many to be the epicenter of the local music scene.
John Tidball and his business partner, Brian Jarvis, both Springfield, Tennessee, natives, opened the bar in 2001. In the 13 years since, the venue has developed a loyal, local following and a reputation for consistently showcasing and promoting local talent.
Jarvis said that Bowling Green wasn’t the Southeast music hub it has developed into when the bar opened.
“When we opened, we were just trying to find someone that was not going to run people off,” he said. “We also tried to base this place off of original music, not covers, not like every other place you would go to. We wanted bands to bring their material, put a lot more heart and effort into it.”
Tidball’s draws acts from across the Southeast, but Jarvis said giving a platform for local music to thrive is always at the forefront.
“Every night we have live music we want to have a local band, because that’s really what we’re all about,” he said.
Jarvis said regulars of Tidball’s are extremely faithful to local artists.
“This city and its patrons are very loyal to the Bowling Green music scene,” he said. “They are more in tune to listen to that local band and give them their attention a lot quicker than they will somebody from out of town. We always try to include local bands on every bill or gig.”
Jordan Reynolds, keyboardist and vocalist for Bowling Green progressive rock outfit Buffalo Rodeo, said Tidball’s is the go-to hometown haunt.
“Tidball’s is the staple,” Reynolds said. “You can go there any night of the week and hear live music and play some pool and get a good drink and talk to Tidball or Jarvis or whoever’s working, and it’s kinda like the hometown place.”
Tiger Merritt, lead singer and guitarist for Morning Teleportation, said Tidball’s is an integral part of the scene.
“They have been consistent in bringing music from all around for many years and also providing a venue and space for local musicians,” he said. “Also, the open mic nights have been pretty awesome over there. That’s pretty important for local music.”
Jarvis vividly recalls Cage the Elephant, then “five kids that had long stringy hair,” playing their first show at Tidball’s.
In the beginning, Jarvis wasn’t exactly a fan.
“When they first played their music it was so different, so in your face out there,” he said. “They would do crazy shit. Climb on the speakers and play, climb on the balcony and hang from the chain.”
Jarvis said it wasn’t long before Cage perfected captivating, high-energy sets.
“Looking back on it now, it’s like these guys kind of knew what they were doing,” he said. “As soon as they would start to play the crowd was zoned in. Whoever was here, their eyes were on the stage. People were just crazy over them. Eventually, you would see why. Their stage presence is just amazing.”
Jarvis said Tidball’s is extremely appreciative of the exposure they’ve gotten since Cage the Elephant has found fame and name-dropped the venue in numerous interviews, including with Rolling Stone.
“It’s funny how the roles change,” he said. “In the beginning, we kind of put them under our wing, and now they’ve always kind of looked out for us. Sent us people, spoke well of us.”
Jarvis said Tidball’s has far exceeded expectations since their 2001 opening.
“We had a goal when we opened — we want to do this for three of four years and get our money back,” he said. “We saw that there was something kind of special here.”
Tidball’s has no intention of closing anytime soon, but the venue will leave an indelible impression on those who frequent the space, Jarvis said.
“We love Bowling Green and we’re here until we decide not to be here,” he said. “We’ll be here until John and I decide to call it quits. Before, everyone always knew it as the old Parakeet building. Well, in five or 10 years, or however long, they won’t know it as the old Parakeet. It’ll be known as the old Tidball’s building.”
With a scarcity of music venues in Bowling Green, bands, especially those with members younger than 21, have to take matters into their own hands to get their music heard.
Often times, that means finding a basement and a group of willing listeners.
Burke, outside of her duties at 91.7 Revolution, has spent a lot of time nurturing local music by putting together house shows.
“There aren’t a lot of venues around Bowling Green, so to be able to see those bands sometimes you have to find other ways,” she said. “So whether that’s opening up for your living room and saying, ‘Hey guys, let’s get together this day and have a show,’ that’s pretty cool.”
Chris Rutledge, a Nashville native and 2013 WKU graduate, is the lead singer and guitarist for Bowling Green punk-rock band The Cartoons. He said house shows are crucial for his band because it means underage fans can attend.
“The most important thing about house shows is that they are all ages and they’re our only chance to play to the younger fans,” he said. “For my band, a lot of fans are underage. When we play those house shows we see a better turnout than we do at Tidball’s. I love the house shows. They’re great. They’ve kind of been the lifeblood of this town recently.”
Rutledge said his band recently played shows at The Manor, a longtime house venue behind Fairview Plaza Shopping Center, and at Maélle keyboardist Spencer Wood’s house, known to those who’ve attended shows there as the Gnome Home.
At a pre-Halloween show in October at the Gnome Home, Rutledge smashed a pumpkin following The Cartoon’s set. He said there is a raw energy palpable at house shows that make them some of the best to play.
“House shows are the most fun shows for bands to play,” he said. “It’s like you’re right there with the audience. They’re right in your face, and there’s this energy and this lack of pressure, just this wildness that is great about them. It’s really untamed, sometimes it can get borderline scary.”
Merritt recalls a November 2009 house show at The Pirate House, a now defunct house show venue that Cage the Elephant, Morning Teleportation and Sleeper Agent frequented often, that got particularly unruly.
“Everyone was pretty loopy, the crowd was packed to the walls,” he said. “We only got like halfway through a song, everybody was jumping at the same time and it just crashed. Amps started rolling down from the back corner. The floor landed on the hot water heater and all the electricity went out.”
No one was seriously injured, but it marked the last show at the residence.
Stafford, Virginia senior Doug Kay started hosting house shows in January 2014 at his house, jokingly referred to as the Kim K Hole. The music scene he grew up with back home in Virginia was rooted more in hardcore and screamo genres, and he wanted to showcase that style of music, rarely heard in Bowling Green, Kay said.
Kay has hosted newly formed local bands like Porchlord and Yeti-Jr, bands with a punk rock sound reminiscent of the music scene he grew up with.
Kay said house shows bring out the tight-knit nature of the local music scene.
“It’s a community idea, all my friends coming together to play a show in a small room for no money basically, just for the love of it,” he said. “The people there are just there for the love of it as well.”
Many locals are watching Bowling Green band Buffalo Rodeo closely, as the band’s progressive rock sound has gained a legion of fans in Bowling Green and throughout the country. The group started to garner attention while the band’s original four members were freshmen at WKU. The group added Reynolds, whose energy evokes Stevie Nicks, when she moved back from Michigan in 2012.
The band also has a penchant for covering Fleetwood Mac. Reynolds said creativity serves as the key.
“Everyone in the scene inspires us to do great things,” Reynolds said. “Everyone comes out to support fellow bands at their shows in Bowling Green and even some will drive down to Nashville to support a Bowling Green band. We definitely feel a strong connection to other musicians in Bowling Green. Basically all of our friends have a connection to the music scene in one way or another.
“Not only is there Cage the Elephant and Sleeper Agent and Morning Teleportation, bands that have kind of gotten some national recognition. There are so many bands in Bowling Green that you might never hear about on the Internet that are so good. Bowling Green really does have something special.”
Reynolds said the pride successful bands take in their hometown is remarkable.
“Even the bands that have broken out, they still all come back to Bowling Green and hang out and watch shows,” she said. “I think that’s really special to note because a lot of bands might never come back, or might not ever want to be back in their hometown. And that’s totally fine, but the fact that everybody does come back is special.”
Shultz said the camaraderie within the community of musicians in Bowling Green helps create an environment for growth.
“There’s a sort of driving force in the music scene in Bowling Green,” Shultz said. “It’s not competition at all, but it’s like you play these shows with your friends and your friends will be like, ‘Come on dude, you need to get it together and start playing shows.’ Artists here push each other for sure. Like in a good way. Like let each other grow, and it’s definitely a good, friendly environment.”
Williams said the sense of community among artists in Bowling Green is something that sets it apart from others.
“Cage was the first band to get real momentum in the industry and they genuinely brought as much of that back to other bands from here as they could,” he said. “And I really believe that any of us who are working to achieve what they have achieved would do the same if they got the chance.
“You truly do not see that camaraderie in very many places. Beyond that, the scene here is so varied, musically speaking. These bands aren’t just peddling the same sounds back and forth between us. There is so much good music here from so many different directions, and it really is kind of mind-blowing when you begin to consider our population and how startlingly high our ratio of great musicians to average persons is compared to most places.”
Rutledge, a Nashville native, said the local music scene is extremely welcoming.
“There’s plenty of room to be a valued part of this music scene,” he said. “It’s not because we’re small or insignificant, that’s just the kind of place that Bowling Green is. That’s the charm of it all really.”
The honest musicianship that defines Bowling Green artists is something that distinguishes it from other music scenes across the country, Rutledge said.
“There is a southern sense to it,” he said. “At its worst it’s a bunch of underdogs trying to succeed, and at it’s best its like some truly brilliant songwriters coming from a unique, unexplored place.”
Womack said it’s no surprise Bowling Green emerged as a hotbed of indie rock talent.
“Bowling Green has always been a very fertile musical town,” he said. “It’s like you have to turn over a wooden board laying in the ground and all these little things scurry from underneath the board. That’s the Bowling Green music scene. It’s not advertised big on billboards coming into town. You kinda have to be there and get to know people and figure out where the places are and what the scene is. There’s something in the water in Bowling Green. There’s always been great music in this town.
“There’s a certain Buddhist grace to Bowling Green. It’s in the quality of life, not just in the music. It’s a certain mellow, enjoyable vibe. It’s Kentucky’s own Mayberry on mushrooms.”