When local entrepreneur and music fan/supporter Jonathan Kiersky returned to Memphis in 2004 after several years of traveling, he was looking for a new career opportunity. And, as luck would have it, inspiration came in the form of a disappointing night out.
"The Hi-Tone Café has always been a great music venue, but I thought more could be done with it," Kiersky says.
"One night I tried to go to the bar early, around 8 p.m., before a show I was going to attend and was turned away because the show hadn't started yet. I just thought that was crazy to turn down my money when I wanted to hang out there."
And so, when Kiersky heard the club was for sale in early 2007, he jumped on the opportunity and immediately set about making significant changes.
"I want the place to be more than a music venue. I want people to feel as comfortable coming here in the evening just to get dinner or drinks or watch a game as for a late-night show," he says.
Aside from some new tables and chairs and fresh coats of paint, the most impactful immediate upgrade Kiersky made was to the drab bar menu, which was expanded to include a diverse selection of pizzas, sandwiches, and specials made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
He also opened the Hi-Tone for Sunday brunch (which has become a popular destination for local scenesters coming down from the weekend) and partnered with the Memphis Grizzlies and Goner Records to host a series of watch parties for the team's road games.
"I didn't want to change the Hi-Tone exactly, because it was already a cool place. I just wanted to make it better, more inviting," Kiersky says.
Kiersky made another big change this December, when he and longtime talent buyer and bar manager Dan Holloway decided to end their professional relationship, thus clearing the way for Kiersky to fully take the booking reins himself.
"I plan to keep up the head of steam we've built," Kiersky says.
"We have tons of very big national-act shows in the works and plan on working more on community projects and developing local and touring bands as well. I'm excited."
The parting of ways seems to have worked well for Holloway as well. After fielding several job offers both in and out of town, he has signed on to be a talent buyer for a group of venues in Austin, Texas, including the city's premier underground music nightspot, Emo's.
"It's bittersweet, for sure," Holloway says. "It wasn't an easy decision to leave Memphis. I owe so much to the people I've worked for and with here over the years. I wouldn't have this opportunity if it weren't for Memphis, but it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up."
"I think he'll do well there," Kiersky says. "The job should be right up his alley."
Over the years, the vinyl mastering lathe owned and operated by esteemed local engineer Larry Nix (housed in a small wing of the Ardent Studios complex) has cranked out hits and influential recordings by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Big Star, Al Green, and ZZ Top. By 2005, however, the lathe had fallen almost entirely out of use after decades of service due to the decline in vinyl production and Nix's waning interest.
But in 2009, fellow local producer/engineer Jeff Powell stepped in and approached Nix about getting the business and the lathe going again, and Nix agreed to teach him the craft.
"It has been wonderful," Powell says. "I am still reading Audio Engineering Society white papers, a couple of old reference books, and even the original equipment manuals. Most importantly, Larry and John Fry have taught me the most about the craft by just talking about it and answering my million questions."
After two years of apprenticeship and observation, Powell is now working the lathe on his own — most recently cutting projects to vinyl for Greg Dulli's (of the Afghan Whigs) Twilight Singers and locals The City Champs. Still, Powell feels his skill at this delicate engineering art are still developing.
"It will be an ongoing education. I learn more every time I make a record," Powell says.