COLUMBIA — Justin Conrad looks like he walked right off the streets of Nashville — ripped jeans, flannel shirt, cowboy boots and a trucker hat.
Conrad loves honky-tonk and always has. He's even dabbled in it himself. Now, he's bringing Nashville to Columbia.
Conrad is relying on the popular Western sound and style to shape a new bar on Broadway. He calls it Nash Vegas, a country-themed bar with Vegas flash that opened Tuesday. The official grand opening will be April 27.
The Nashville-Vegas experience
The bar will occupy the location at Tenth and Broadway that was recently vacated by the Italian eatery Bambino's.
In the past five years, that corner has also been home to Village Wine & Cheese — which closed in 2008 — and the Mississippi Fish Shack, which moved back to Boonville in 2011.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of The District, said the challenge to building a successful restaurant in The District is finding a niche that separates it from the competition.
Conrad plans to offer a mash-up of honky-tonk music, neon lights and a hometown vibe.
He has modeled his place off country bars on Lower Broadway, an area in downtown Nashville often referred to as “Nash Vegas” because of the bright lights, big acts and non-stop party atmosphere.
He took advantage of Bambino's setup and kept two separate rooms. One will have a dance floor, stage and jukebox; the other, pool tables and dart boards.
The menu will offer happy hour specials and country-inspired dishes. A variety of beer will be on tap, along with distilled beverages and wine.
The place will be open for ages 21 and up, but Conrad said he hopes to draw from an audience wider than the college population.
“I want it to be a destination,” he said.
Music will be a mix of live performances of country, classic rock and Southern rock. He hopes to bring in bands he knows from his own music career across the country.
In Nashville, most every bar has its own live music, and bands cover the same country songs. That allows patrons to sing and dance along, no matter where they land.
“I want to bring that atmosphere to Columbia,” Conrad said. “I just want to make it fun and let people have a good time.”
Country from the very start
While guitar and music have been a part of Conrad’s life since he was a boy, he just recently started to get serious about it.
In 2008, he began to hit open mic nights at the former Tin Can Tavern and Grill at Eighth and Elm streets. After watching the crowds that Columbia country musician Clay Cumbie drew, Conrad was hooked.
As a musician, Conrad started small and contacted just a handful of venues, landing gigs at Hard Rock cafes, Tootsies in Nashville and The Blue Note in Columbia. He jammed with different musicians every weekend, without ever rehearsing.
“I decided it would be worth my time to learn the songs because I’d always be playing them,” Conrad said. “I'll never outgrow country.”
He has played weddings in Colorado and worked as the nightly house musician for bars during summers in the Ozarks. He travels to other smaller towns on the weekends and has played several times in Nashville.
“I never have to work,” he said. "I play for a living."
Laying the foundation
The notion of a Vegas-inspired country bar in Columbia arose during a conversation between Conrad and a friend who owns a club in Warrensburg.
Conrad then spent months talking to bar owners, who consistently warned him not to pursue the hectic business.
“After five or six months of trying to figure out why I wouldn’t want to do it, I decided I did want to do it,” he said.
Once Conrad admitted he was serious, he looked at all kinds of venues to learn what worked and what didn't.
“I researched everything," he said. "If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right."
Based on Facebook, radio stations and word of mouth, he said reception for the bar has been well-received.
Conrad plans to incorporate different events each week. Instead of a karaoke night, he wants to do a star search and involve the audience in voting and choosing the winner.
By relying on honky-tonk and engaging the customers, Conrad believes he has a winning combination.
“It’s gotta be fun every time,” he said. "I intend to provide that atmosphere."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.