Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee

I wasn’t sure what to expect at The Downhome in Johnson City when I visited last weekend, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a grandmotherly woman gingerly sipping a Budweiser to be working the door, not that it was an unwelcome surprise. On the contrary, I was delighted by this revelation. 

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Johnson City in general.  I don’t know much about Johnson City, except that it’s the next destination of the Philadelphia trucker the narrator of Wagon Wheel shares a toke with in Roanoke. Despite being just under an hour from Asheville, and despite driving through it anytime I head north to visit my family, I’ve never been to Johnson City, which is weird because I think nothing of going down to Brevard or the Smoky Mountains, not to mention my allegiance to an hour and a half trips to Fonta Flora out near Lake James. It’s not far, but it seems far, maybe because the drive to Johnson City up 26 involves going up and then down a very steep (and seemingly endless) hill. 

I was heading to The Downhome to see Caleb Caudle, a singer/songwriter whose genre can be described as American, a term an interviewer of Caudle from The Bitter Southerner defines as “a catch-all genre that was designed to support country, blues, folk, bluegrass, and rootsy rock artists who didn’t fit any existing radio formats.” Spotify introduced me to Caudle’s song Tuscaloosa last summer, which I immediately became obsessed with, so much so that Carolina Ghost—the album Tuscaloosa is featured on—became my second most listened-to album in 2022’s illustrious Spotify Wrapped and Tuscaloosa itself became my number one listen in 2023. I’ve been passively watching Caudle’s tour dates and happened to catch this one two weeks before it happened, so bought tickets. 

The Downhome is different than the many music venues dotting Asheville, and though I’m probably not southern enough to make the following claim, it seems much more natively southern and more natively Appalachian than the Asheville venues, which carry stronger hipster vibes. There was nothing pretentious about The Downhome. It reminded me simultaneously of a past-its-prime dinner theatre, a southern-themed restaurant designed by someone who understands the south but hasn’t been there in years (and has a limited budget), and a church basement. I think I mostly got the church basement vibes because the crowd was decidedly—and I say this with respect—verging on geriatric. 

I imagine there was room for maybe 100 or so people at The Downhome, but there were probably 40 there for Friday’s show. We arrived a few minutes before they started, so we ordered a round of drinks, helped ourselves to some of the complimentary sweet tea (I love this perk), and ordered some nachos. I wasn’t sure about the food situation at The Downhome, so had eaten beforehand, but they had a small Mexican-themed menu (quesadillas, tacos, etc.), which is good to know for any return trips. 

I liked the orchestration of the show too. Everyone was seated, the room was dim, and it felt more like a show or showcase than a concert. Caudle came on stage with a three-piece band and gave some quick insights into the story behind most songs he sang. The show was brisk, lasting just an hour and a half, and I found it all terribly relaxing. The older I get, the more I dislike concerts, if I’m honest. I hate how they’re scheduled, how late they start, and how long they sometimes go. This was on time at 8:00 and over by 9:30, which was perfect. Apparently, The Downhome is mainly known for more straight-up bluegrass offerings, and though I’m not well-versed in the bluegrass genre, I want to go back and check it out again for sure. 

I want to check out Johnson City at large more as well. The Downhome was on (what I’m presuming was) a residential side street that, in the dark, looked like it had seen better days. I didn’t feel uncomfortable by any means, but it had the air of a once-industrialized town on the decline and, compared to Asheville, was very quiet for a Friday night. It reminded me of where I grew up (specifically, I wanted to say to my friend, “This reminds me of Carbondale for some reason,” knowing obviously, that means nothing to him and probably nothing to most of you readers, but as the kids say, IYKYK). 
Before heading back to Asheville, we stopped at The Watauga Brewing Company, a three-story brewery which a great roof deck that has to be awesome in the summer (we took the elevator up to check it out but stayed for a total of a minute because…it was cold). According to my Yelp, Yee-Haw Brewing was just a few blocks away, and there were 6 more in the city limits and a rather bustling downtown we passed through getting back onto the highway. Overall, I was impressed with The Downhome, Caleb Caudle’s show, and Johnson City. 

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