Nashville, TN – Every Sunday morning church service is held in the unlikely venue of a downtown Nashville honky tonk. From WPLN in Nashville, Kevin Bouldin invites us into the Gospel Hour at Robert's Western World.
There are two main reasons to go honky tonking: alcohol and live country music. At Robert's Western World the music is free; there's never a cover charge. Any day of the week you can walk in, order a beer, listen to a show. But on Sunday mornings, the rules change slightly. For one hour, the bar closes, the music onstage turns gospel and the entertainment turns to testifying.
"Three words from the Lord. I heard them in 1978: I love you. That set me free," Father Ron Blakley preached.
Father Ron Blakley is the ordained priest who officiates the Gospel Hour at Robert's. Four years ago, Father Ron began holding services at the honky tonk, full liturgical services, replete with a gilded chalice for sipping Communion. These days, the weekly service is simpler. The tithe is collected in a plastic pickle jar, for instance, the same jar used to collect tips during normal hours. But as casual as it is, the sound of a priest conducting church in a bar still confuses some tourists who wander in unknowingly. Father Ron tells one story about a young man who stepped into the bar unaware.
"I don't think he realized what was going on. He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down right at the time I said Let's pray." And he went, Oh, damn.' He had no idea. What did I get into?'" Father Ron explained.
Like the prayers, the music of the Gospel Hour also sneaks up on some visitors.
"They listen to the music and it sounds country until somebody says Jesus," John Sheperd said.
Shepherd has played the honky tonks on Lower Broad for 37 years and he's seen plenty of tourists shocked by the language of the Gospel Hour. They hear Jesus and have to decide if they'll stick around or move on.
"They either settle for it and sit down and enjoy it or they go back out, look for a drink somewhere else. Cause they're probably needing a drink, they've been hungover. Stayed up till two or three in the morning," Sheperd said.
And they can find a drink if they want one. Some of the other honky tonks, like Tootsie's, start serving at ten. But not everyone strolls Lower Broad in search of alcohol. Take John McTigue III, a Gospel Hour regular. He arrives outside the door of Robert's in search of coffee and a good word.
"You come down here once a week and kinda feel your spiritual gas tank up for the week," McTigue says.
McTigue is the former drummer of Brazilbilly, the house band at Robert's. So he knows the nature of the bar, the laid back vibe the bar has on a Tuesday afternoon or a Saturday night.
"It's the same thing on Sunday morning, but just maybe a little bit less on the sin scale and the alcohol, you know what I'm saying."
For those, like McTigue, who walk in and stay long enough to hear Father Ron preach, his sermons provide calming assurance. His style is simple and it often sounds pastoral in the literal sense of pastures and fields.
"The best thing to do, sometimes, is to look outside yourself. Look up at the beautiful skies, the mountains, the trees. Forget about yourself for a while and shut that thing off inside of your head," Father Ron says.
There's no forgetting the fact that Father Ron's pulpit is a performance stage. Instead of standing beneath a Cross or a statue of the Virgin Mary, like he would in a church, when Father Ron enters the pulpit, he steps into the shadows of a five-foot-tall wax mannequin of Marty Robbins. And if the bar had a patron saint, it would be the late cowboy crooner. Photos of Robbins line the walls of Robert's and there's not one picture of Jesus anywhere. But like the Gospel Hour singer Butch Wax says, "You can worship the Lord in a cardboard box if you want to." This congregation happens to worship Him in a bar.
"We play gospel music in a honky tonk downtown. We sing the words that Jesus said that'll get you heaven bound. At twelve o'clock we close the Bible and order up a round. We play gospel music in a honky tonk downtown," Wax says.
And just like the song says, at twelve o'clock the Gospel Hour ends, the bar opens, and things go back to normal at Robert's.