FERRIER FILES: Nashville's complicated history with liquor-by-the-drink

(Fox 17 News)

Lower Broadway might be the heartbeat of the Nashville nightlife, but hillbilly bourbon street is a newcomer.

If you want the history of the Nashville party life, you have to go to Printer's Alley. It was sin street for decades that included two different secret passageways.

“There used to be ladies of the night upstairs with a secret passageway that emptied out on 4th Avenue during a raid," said David Wileman, owner of Skull’s Rainbow Room. "And then there was a bootlegging tunnel down to the Cumberland River. Al Capone was involved in bringing booze up from the river."

You could find anything you could imagine on Printer's Alley. It was a magic place for a young liquor runner named Mike Massey. It had such an impact that he remained in the liquor business for more than 50 years, right up to this day.

“Fantastic, a wonderful place to be,” said Massey, owner Hillwood Village Liquors. "You had to know somebody to get in the places, but the clubs were unbelievable. Great music, great service, good food."

The one thing it didn't have was legal liquor by the drink because it was against the law back then. While it was gleefully broken on Printer's Alley, the city was not getting any tourism or conventions.

So 50 years ago, liquor-by-the-drink went to a countywide referendum with some interesting allies.

Mayor Bev Briley was tired of losing tax revenue to the illegal activity. The police department was tired of the raids. Surprisingly businessmen, including some who didn't drink, just saw it as necessary.

It met resistance in the religious community, who urged its church members to vote no.

"To think you couldn't walk into a restaurant and buy a drink 50 years ago," said David Briley, current Nashville Vice Mayor and grandson of former mayor Bev Briley. "Look at lower broad now and see how that honky tonk industry has brought a stream of tourists. It is pretty unimaginable that you could not buy a drink the the capital city of Tennessee."

But of course it wasn't unimaginable. In early 1967, Memphis had voted down liquor-by-the-drink by 10,000 votes. Nashville took notice.

That's when Mayor Briley and Metro Nashville Police started closing clubs all over town, even the Belle Meade Country Club, 30 days before the election. It was nigh impossible to get a drink in this town.

“It was the only way they knew to get it passed was to make everybody thirsty," Massey said. "When they closed the men's bar at Belle Meade Country Club, there was no place to get a drink anymore."

Liquor-by-the drink passed overwhelmingly. Within a year, Nashville had its first convention hotel. Less than five years later, Opryland opened and liquor-by-the-drink opened doors, changing everything.

The only place it hurt was Printer's Alley which slipped into irrelevance. Now approaching the 50th anniversary of liquor-by-the-drink, Printer's Alley is making a comeback.

“We wanted to reproduce the glory days and the sophistication that was down here," said David Wileman, Skull’s Rainbow Room general manager. "I think we are doing a pretty good job."

The next big thing in Nashville is a very old thing, but this time it's all legal.

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