The first time I darkened the door at Exit/In was more than four decades ago to experience the Southern-style, prog/jazz/funk-isms of the Dixie Dregs. The face-melting paroxysms of guitarist Steve Morse’s chickin’ pickin’ jazz-on-moonshine riffs were mind-blowing, especially up close and personal.
Prior to that, most of my live-music adventures had involved concerts at Municipal Auditorium. While amazing for a ’70s stoner kid, they weren’t as intimate, and the sound could be iffy. The Dregs’ show was a revelation.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but the Dregs’ show came at the tail end of Exit’s first iteration – it had already been renovated and expanded. Throughout most of the ’70s, the scene on Elliston Place centered around a new crop of up-and-coming singer-songwriters. It was a breeding ground for the likes of Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, and John Hiatt, with more of a listening-room vibe than it had when I first visited.
Things began to shift by 1980 or so, as a new crowd began making its voice heard. An alternative rock scene emerged seemingly overnight, fueled by Zeppelin devotees turned punk rock aficionados. Birthed in Phranks-n-Steins and nurtured at Cantrell’s, a new army formed and set its sights on the stage at Exit/In.
By the time X rolled through town for a show in 1983, the die had been cast. The packed room was rewarded with a set for the ages. There was Billy Zoom, standing stationary, perfectly coiffed blond hair and Gretsch Silver Jet guitar, peppering the crowd with punk-infused rockabilly riffs. Exene Cervenka and Joe Doe with their trademark harmonies conjuring up woeful spirits trying to escape a kudzu-covered graveyard. And behind it all, drummer D.J. Bonebrake driving it like an amphetamine-addled trucker doing 90 down the interstate at 3 a.m.
Lilly Hiatt with her band backstage prior to their headlining slot during the final week of shows at Exit/In. (l-r) Nick Harley; Hiatt; Josh Halper; Luke Fedorko. Photo by Chuck Allen
The scene grew throughout the ’80s, and many local bands eventually made it to the coveted stage at Exit/In. The ’90s ushered in a fresh crew with fresh ideas to join their more established forebears. As more live-music venues opened, things became a bit fractured. Where once there was a handful of go-to bars, there were now dozens. People grew up. They moved on, had kids, and pursued professional careers.
And so it goes.
Music scenes tend to have about a 10-year shelf life. Blink and you’ll miss it. There was a point in my life when I spent more time on Elliston Place than I did at home, and Exit/In was integral to that experience.
Who among us doesn’t occasionally pine for the days of carefree youth? The physical structures we associate with those times hold a special place in our hearts. But I always try to remember that it’s the people who make the place, not the other way ’round.
So, here we are. Changing again.
I think it’s entirely appropriate that artists who made their marks over the last decade would perform during the final days of this version of Exit/In: Jeff the Brotherhood, Diarrhea Planet, and Lilly Hiatt. And to have them preceded by artists from scenes of different eras: Carlene Carter, Emmylou Harris, Jason Ringenberg, Walk the West, and Government Cheese.
Lilly’s dad, John Hiatt, first played at Exit/In more than 45 years ago. It’s amazing to contemplate the rise and fall of all the different scenes across that span of time. The amount of music, of connections, of nights out with friends, of living that was done within those walls is staggering.There’s a Disneyland version of CBGB in the Newark Airport. It’s a far cry from the Lower East Side circa 1977, and it’s in Jersey. If, someday, a sanitized version of Exit/In pops up at BNA, it won’t piss me off, though. I’ll just smile as I walk to my gate, thinking, “If they only knew.”