By Fleming Smith
This fall, Shenanigans looks a little bit different. The downtown restaurant unveiled its new upstairs space at the end of August, fully furnished with a bar, a collapsible stage for musicians, and plenty of room for private events.
This second floor of Shenanigans, accessible through the stairs on the outside of the building, will be open during the restaurant’s regular hours. The entire menu can be ordered from the upstairs space, and the addition of a full bar adds a new dimension to the beloved downtown eatery.
Bill Elder, owner of Shenanigans, said the idea for the new space has been brewing since he first re-opened the restaurant in 2014 after it was closed for a year and a half. The project began construction in early 2017. A musician himself, Elder hopes the room can create a new music experience in Sewanee.
The music venue aspect of the space will be officially christened on September 20 when Boy Named Banjo will play at 8:30. The doors will open to the public at 8 p.m. with a cover charge of around $15-20, Elder said, to compensate the band as well as to support Karl Dean, who will be hosting a fundraiser for his campaign for Tennessee governor in Shenanigans that night.
For Elder, having a space that can easily transform into a music venue with the addition of a 10-foot collapsible stage brings him back to his musical roots. Elder toured around the world with his band The Dynamites for around 10 years before becoming the “steward” of Shenanigans, as he calls it.
“I spent a lot of time in music venues and really wanted to make that a part of Shenanigans that didn’t really exist yet. Because there’s always been music down here, even when I was growing up coming here,” he explained.
Elder grew up in New Orleans, but he came to the Monteagle Assembly every summer, and his wife attended Sewanee and graduated in 1994.
“I got to know Shenanigans from a very early age, and all through high school and college, this was the go-to place,” Elder said. “Never considered in a million years that I would one day own it,” he added with a laugh.
As the seventh owner of Shenanigans since its opening in 1974, Elder has enjoyed his time as its steward, though he never expected to find himself as a restaurant owner. However, he was spurred into action after Shenanigans closed in 2012 and remained vacant for a year and a half, as reported by The Mountain Messenger.
“It was a big blow to the community,” Elder recalled. “It closing really had a tough effect on the whole Sewanee deal, to the way of life, because this was such a cornerstone, such an institution, for so long.”
Due to his Sewanee connection, Elder hated the thought of Shenanigans remaining closed, and after making some calls, he decided to put himself forward as the new person to run the Sewanee icon. Shenanigans re-opened in 2014 and has thrived ever since.
Elder modelled the new upstairs space on two music venues close to his heart. One, d.b.a. in New Orleans, heavily inspired him, and he took measurements from the venue and talked to their sound manager to add his favorite elements to Shenanigans. His other inspiration stemmed from a Rotterdam, Holland venue that The Dynamites played at years ago.
Elder said he admired the way the Rotterdam venue could transform itself from a restaurant into a fully capable music venue, and he’s envisioned Shenanigans as playing the same dual role: restaurant and venue, all in one.
A key motivation in the upstairs space lay in creating a place separate from the main restaurant that could allow for cover charges for fair compensation of bands. Now, music-goers will pay a small charge in order to attend the music events; Elder believes this will be a good incentive to draw more musical talent to the restaurant.
Elder’s own music career has informed the creation of the space and how he hopes the music scene in Sewanee can grow. His band The Dynamites began roughly 10 years ago, when he was working as an in-house producer in Nashville and suddenly discovered a new genre of music that excited him.
“In ‘05 I heard Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings,” he explained. “I was like, oh my God, what is this music and how can I be a part of it?”
Elder became good friends with the band that inspired him, and he soon brought together his own group The Dynamites, which he described as a “nine-piece soul R&B funk band, all original music, literally like James Brown meets Wilson Pickett kind of stuff.”
The Dynamites are still an active band, with their last album coming out in 2014, just before Elder took over Shenanigans. He also belongs to another band, Slim Wednesday, and still plays with them. Elder plays guitar, sings, and writes all of the music for his bands.
“I kind of live a double life, if not a triple life. It’s really been interesting, because at first Shenanigans really took me out of music a lot more than I would have wanted it to. And honestly, that was the main reason for saying, well, we need to have a music venue here,” Elder said. “You have to feed that passion part of you.”
After rising costs and an intense period of construction to get the upstairs space ready by the beginning of September, Elder said he “couldn’t be happier about how it all turned out.”
Elder hopes that the new space can attract outside talent on a regular basis as well as showcase “the very real talent that’s all around us here,” he emphasized.
“It remains to be seen, will Sewanee and the valley show up? So I guess I’m going with the Field of Dreams mentality. If you build it, they will come. So hopefully, that’s what will happen,” Elder said. “I still think over time, it will really be worth it.”
As to the “ultimate goal” of the new space? “More Shenanigans,” Elder said with a smile.