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From Lady Gaga to The Killer, intimate ‘secret’ shows from major acts are a Nashville tradition

It’s been a high-profile-secret-show kind of week here in Nashville.

On Monday, the most mega of country megastars, Garth Brooks, went back to where it all began, and took the stage at the Bluebird Cafe in Green Hills, joining songwriters Pat Alger, Tony Arata, Kent Blazy and Victoria Shaw inside one of the city’s best-known and most-cozy venues.

Then on Wednesday, word started getting around that the Mother Monster herself, Lady Gaga, would be kicking off a tour of dive bars in support of her new album, Joanne, by taking The 5 Spot’s tiny East Nashville stage. (Video above.)

Our city’s long had a reputation for regular only-in-Nashville moments, and these latest events only underline the fact that, even as we’re growing and changing, that part of our culture isn’t going away.

So, naturally, Gaga and Garth are far from the first crazy-big artists to take crazy-small stages here in town for small, lucky crowds. Off the top of our heads, here are a few other major-artist/cozy-venue shows that have happened over the past few years.

Some of our favorite secret/small Nashville shows from major artists

Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock and The Wailers at Tootsie’s

Tootsie’s is probably the most famous of the honky tonks on Lower Broadway, but like the others, it’s an elbow-to-elbow space that you could pack out with about a party bus and a half’s worth of people. So in 2008, when country superstar Kenny Chesney popped in for a secret show, and brought along both reggae legends The Wailers and rock mainstay Kid Rock… suffice it to say those guys’ entourages alone would probably have a club that size at capacity.


Metallica at The Basement

We get really lucky a lot of years, since having the Bonnaroo festival in our backyard often entices huge acts to play small shows here in town before or after they head to the farm in Manchester. Such was the case in 2008, when metal titans Metallica packed into The Basement — maybe 100+ capacity — and gave a small crowd of fan club members, staffers and friends something of a practice Bonnaroo set.


Elvis Costello at Station Inn

If you love bluegrass and traditional country, the tiny-but-might Station Inn in The Gulch is a must. While you’ll hear exceptional roots music there just about any night, you also catch some wild surprises — like Elvis Costello dropping in to sit in with The Time Jumpers and Vince Gill in 2010.


Jerry Lee Lewis at Third Man Records

Record Store Day — an annual celebration of independent shops — ends up being responsible for many only-in-Nashville shows. One of the coolest, figuratively and literally: Rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis’ stop inside the snug Blue Room at Third Man Records in 2011. The initial plan was for a big outdoor block party performance that Saturday in April, but blustery weather forced a postponement. It still went down on Sunday, but inside on Saturday, a small invite-only crowd got to watch The Killer run through a set with some fellow legends, including guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Jim Keltner. Among that crowd: actors Edward James Olmos, Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, and Third Man’s captain, Jack White. You’re probably not gonna find a video capture of that one, but Sunday’s outdoor extravaganza is around on the Internet (and on CD/LP from Third Man).


The Black Keys at Springwater

In March of 2012, Nashvilla-via-Ohio blues-rock band the Black Keys played its first sold-out show at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. A few months later, they took the stage at what’s probably Nashville’s truly diviest dive, Springwater Supper Club. The occasion was a video shoot for the duo’s song “Little Black Submarines,” directed by famous rock photographer Danny Clinch. But the lucky 50 or so fans who got in didn’t just play audience to repeat performances of that song — they got a full hour set at the tiny (and then very-smoky) venue.


Steven Tyler at the Bluebird

Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler’s spent a fair amount of time in Nashville, what with making a country album and all. But it was still a pretty big deal when he decided to sit down in the middle of the Bluebird in 2013, and give the small group of assembled fans an intimate experience with massive hits like “Dream On.”


Paramore at Grimey’s

This wasn’t a secret show, but certainly small confines for a huge band. Locally bred rock band Paramore spent Record Store Day here at home in 2013, playing a stripped down set in the backyard at beloved Nashville record store Grimey’s.


Alan Jackson at the Station Inn

Country star Alan Jackson released his first bluegrass set, fittingly titled The Bluegrass Album, in 2013. Makes sense, then, for Jackson to introduce the songs to Nashville at The Station Inn, even if he’s usually playing to the rafters. About 100 guests got to catch the intimate show that August.


Dave Grohl at the Bluebird

While his band the Foo Fighters were taking a country-wide road trip and recording new songs in 2014, frontman Dave Grohl dropped into the Bluebird, cameras in tow, and gave a crowd of about 100 a nine-song acoustic set. Unlike a lot of secret shows in town, this one really stayed hush-hush, pretty much until Grohl dropped in.


Kesha at Springwater

There’s something about Springwater that draws in the secret shows. Pop star Kesha, generally accustomed to packing arenas, decided to introduce her new band, Yeast Infection, with an intimate 2015 show here in her hometown. About 100 fans packed into Springwater to check out the singer’s more psychedelic side.


Joe Walsh, Glenn Schwartz and The Arcs

Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach is apparently a fan of surprise shows. This year, his newer band The Arcs popped up at Broadway honky tonk Robert’s Western World and shared the stage with The Eagles’ Joe Walsh and James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz.
Are there some key secret/intimate shows that we’re forgetting? Please remind us!

And if the only-in-Nashville qualities of our town are making you think about moving to Middle Tennessee, please let us know if we can help you find a new place!

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