NASHVILLE — Carl Gatti's mustache has Wild West-style flair. The 30-year-old isn't old enough to have been slinging drugs and toting guns during Broadway's rough-and-tumble '90s era, but the brown caterpillar on his upper lip would have fit right in.
"The honky tonk district was literally Vegas with guns," Gatti says with a friendly grin. "It was like the Wild Wild West."
Today, Broadway — Nashville's storied direct shot from 16th Avenue to the Cumberland River — is a revamped party district that, for the most part, steers clear of highly illegal activity.
Gatti wasn't here when things looked dim, but he's heard about the dark days.
"This was the '90s, when Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks were doing stadium tours," he says. "And at the top of their game, Nashville was people getting shot, murdered, prostitution, gambling happening the second floors of honky tonks. It was dirty."
After years of re-branding, the area is now a tourist magnet, with the aforementioned honky tonks pushed up against one another, and streets that stay friendly well into the wee hours of the morning.
Gatti is the program direction and talent buyer for the Acme Feed & Seed, a multi-purpose gem overlooking the river on First Avenue that opened in August.
His boss, co-owner Tom Morales, was partially responsible for rejuvenating Broadway two decades ago with Dancin' in the District, an all-ages outdoor concert series that eventually brought music fans back to the strip with free shows by artists such as Foo Fighters, John Mayer and Kanye West.
A food caterer to the stars, Morales' heart has always been on the culinary side of things, and he had a unique vision for the four-story building on Lower Broadway.
"At that point on lower Broadway, it was either porn shops or pawn shops," Morales says. "I wanted to do like a really nice restaurant. That was the whole idea, to build name recognition."
Morales — responsible for the world-class technological overhaul at Nashville's Loveless Café — had inquired about buying the Acme farm stop since 1993, but the previous owners rebuffed him until two and a half years ago.
"I was able to basically win a competition to get the building, because we had done the Loveless Café," he says. "That had been there 60 years, and we completely renovated it and brought it back to life."
Now, Lower Broadway has a star. Locals can enjoy a signature list of cocktails while taking in an atmosphere framed by 400-year-old pine, handpicked artwork and walls decorated with old retro feedbag insignias. The second floor has several pinball options, with a shuffleboard to boot.
The food here is elite; Top local chefs Matt Farley and Sam "The Sushi Nazi" Katakura helped Acme recently earn top billing on Thrillist's The 21 Best New Restaurants In America.
The fourth-level roof provides more cocktail options with a beautiful view of the Cumberland River and Nashville's pro football stadium, LP Field.
But don't get it twisted; music is the centerpiece.
Morales is busy admiring a mullet. His own, to be exact.
Currently sitting one booth over from Gatti, he's sorting through old photographs from the set of some early '90s flick. He pauses when he sees one featuring himself and Jodie Foster.
"That's when Billy Ray was a star," Morales says. "Everybody in town had a mullet."
The Acme co-owner has graying hair and a kind smile, but a quiet intensity remains from years of waking up at 2 a.m. every day to feed 1,500 people on the set of A League of Their Own, or whatever movie was in the midst of filming.
He climbed his way to the top of that world by making things up as he went, deviating from the norm with a combination of ignorance and genius.
Now 60 years old with several reclamation projects under his belt (including a contemporary reincarnation of Dancin' in the District as Nashville Dancin'), the early success of Acme is mostly due to wisdom.
"Our mantra here is there's more soul on the streets than there is in the studios," Morales says. "Nashville's always been a very close-knit, studio musician driven, record-producing city. The same guys play on every album. Therefore, it locks out a lot of talented, talented people.
"So our idea was: we're gonna build a brand that takes advantage of the iconic history of Nashville, and we're gonna create a brand, a lifestyle, Acme 101. We're giving local musicians platforms to play on. We don't want bands to come in here and play Garth Brooks covers. We want them to do original music. What they want to do."
That might not seem like a novel concept, but it's the antithesis of Broadway, a tourist-addled strip that sticks to the hits and nothing else. Musicians that haven't "made it" yet are playing the honky tonks and doing Garth Brooks covers to put food on the table.
Musicians playing Acme are playing with Garth Brooks.
"A lot of guys are on his tour right now, playing that stage," Morales says. "But when they play our stage, they play what they want to play. So that's the difference. If they want to play Garth, they can play Garth. If they want to play Hank, they can play Hank. They're playing what they want to play.
"And it's good."
Gatti and Morales play perhaps the two most important roles at Acme, but they work as a trifecta with noted Nashville guitarist Guthrie Trapp, who runs a weekly Trapped Above Ground series featuring him in the self-described role of "executive producer/host/curator/house band leader/guitar player."
Much of Acme's action takes place on the first floor (aka the "funky tonk"), with Trapped serving as the weekly highlight on Wednesdays.
In the span of two months, the series went from 20 fans a night to more than 200, with some events now pushing near its 300-person capacity.
"I played downtown for four years when I first moved here," Trapp says. "What's going on down there is a lot of cover music. A lot of bad rock n' roll. You've got the tourists who are just getting drunk and wanting to hear all the same old shit all the time down there.
"Then you've got this place, which is keeping the level of music high. It's bringing in the real Nashville to downtown. That's the first time ever that people from out of town can have been able to come and hang out on Broadway and see what we go see in Nashville."
Trapp has recruited several prominent songwriters and session players that have formed house bands -- Music City Toppers, The Mule Kickers -- and routinely support legendary artists such as John Oates, Alan Jackson and whoever else wants to try their hand on Acme's first floor.
"Trust me, John Oates is not gonna hang out on Broadway and play any of those clubs down there," Trapp says. "The people we're bringing down to this show are not going to be seen on Broadway. It's giving a reason for the locals to come downtown and hang out and support something cool, and it's also giving the tourists a chance to see something they're not going to see unless they ask locals where to go."
Guthrie built up a solid reputation around town as an excellent guitar player, and has played on hundreds of recordings, his favorites including projects by Oates and Ashley Monroe.
After visiting Acme a few times over the summer, the 35-year-old was approached by Morales, who asked Guthrie to host his own weekly bill. He's still doing plenty of songwriting and session recording, but this is much different.
"I wanted to start something and be apart of something in the community," Guthrie says. "I wanted to bring people together. I want to do a lot of different genres and a lot of different, exciting things. Let's take it to the limit, you know?"
"Feed & Seed" is not just a name. The title is derived from the building's former purpose: a one-stop supply shop built after the Civil War, with a fully operating chicken hatchery on the third floor.
"They would throw down a shit-ton of hay and a shit-ton of chickens, and then just let 'em go at it," Gatti says. "When you came here to get your farm supplies, you'd order three chickens and they'd throw 'em in your buggy."
Now, the third floor serves as a neatly wrapped metaphor.
"Back in the day, they'd hatch chickens," Gatti says. "On that third floor, I'm hatching bands."
Acme features music seven nights a week, every week. Besides Trapp's Trapped Above Ground series on Wednesdays, Gatti is responsible for booking every musical artist that comes through the building.
Most nights, he lies awake until 3 a.m. with ideas and budgets running through his head. Last week, he was out with pneumonia, and he can't stop coughing.
Gatti doesn't seem troubled by any of that, though; he's more worried about the suffocating nature of Nashville's music scene. The former manager of several groups, he has plenty of horror stories to share.
"I would see these amazing local bands come up overnight, try to play around town and gain momentum, but then not be able to support themselves financially or emotionally because it's oversaturated with musicians and industry, and you're missing the music fans," Gatti says.
Remember, this is Nashville; one of the fastest growing cities in the country, with a sizable chunk of that growth related to the music industry. In other words: Throw a stone, hit a songwriter.
"It's all musicians, and they want to judge, or get onstage, or figure out how to do what you did, better," Gatti says. "It's good, friendly competition, but at the same time, it is competition.
"It kills growth. It doesn't allow growth to happen. Here, we want bands to grow naturally by getting them in front of the music fan, and then letting the music fan develop their own tastes, opinions, whatever. That's why we offer such diversity."
Gatti then outlines a typical night at Acme: patrons find a barstool in time to see an Americana singer/songwriter open for an award-winning blues artist, an up-and-coming East Nashville artist, and a headlining Cuban salsa band made up of Jeff Coffin from the Dave Matthews Band, Manny Yanes from the The Neville Brothers, and Roy Agee.
Oh, and all of this is free.
"Not to compare us to anyone else in town, but it's really hard to get people out to venues because there's so much music," Gatti says. "Especially if it's ticketed. So that's why we try to eliminate tickets altogether on the first floor. Take that competition out of the game, and that competition doesn't exist.
"I've lived here 10 years, and no locals I know of go downtown. Now, I'm starting to see locals come downtown. And I'm starting to get told by locals, 'Hey, we love Acme.'"
Trapped Above Ground, along with the other nightly "programming," is taking off, and Acme is built to keep the brightest groups in house.
The third floor Hatchery is a multi-purpose venue that's hosted everything from wedding receptions to corporate fundraisers. An array of mobile equipment allows Gatti and the rest of the Acme staff to rearrange for the occasion, whether it's an LED-infused rave or a traditional stage show with room for 500 concertgoers.
"It's a blank slate 24/7," Gatti says. "We can conceptualize your vision into 7,000 square feet."
When bands begin selling out the first floor, Gatti will move them to the third.
"We're fulfilling a demand we didn't even realize we wanted ourselves," he says. "The Field of Dreams concept of, 'If you build it, they will come,' has totally proven itself. Now, it's a matter of, how do we sustain it, grow it and continue to offer more?"
Guthrie doesn't remember Broadway being like this, ever.
"It's always had a great feel," Guthrie says of the city. "But in the past five to 10 years, it's grown so much, and it's changed so much even in the past year. It's growing faster than anywhere I've ever been."
The growing city has plenty of issues to address in the near future -- public transportation currently being one of the most divisive -- but Broadway is no larger part of the problem. In fact, with its Times Square neon and crowded sidewalks, it's become the city's cash cow as far as the economy is concerned.
On Dec. 31, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve will broadcast a special live concert featuring Lady Antebellum and Gavin DeGraw right outside Acme.
It's the same street where Morales hosts Nashville Dancin' during the summer, a coveted gig that Gatti will offer to bands that earn degrees from both the first floor and the Hatchery.
"When we put a band on Broadway, it no longer just affects Nashville," Gatti says. "It affects the world."