By Sean Titone
August 29, 2016 (updated)
Opened in 1973, The Double Door Inn, one of the country’s oldest and arguably finest music venues is scheduled to permanently close the doors on January 2, 2017. That means there will be one less home in Charlotte for touring and local acts specializing in blues, country, jazz, rock, and zydeco.
Over the last year, two mid-sized music venues in Charlotte, The Chop Shop and Tremont Music Hall, have gone out of business. The Double Door Inn is closing at the start of the new year, and Amos’ Southend recently announced they will close in March 2017 (reopened in March of 2019). The World Famous Milestone, a club as old as the Double Door that has seen bands like Nirvana, R.E.M. and Fugazi grace its stage over its 46-year history, is in danger of closing if they can’t raise enough funds to make necessary and vital repairs. We’ve heard rumblings that the Visulite Theatre could shutter. This feels like more than just a casualty of progress; it feels like an epidemic. There seems to be a profound lack of understanding about the value these places provide to our local community, as well as how they contribute to Charlotte’s national perception when it comes to music and the arts. As a fan, the inability of these smaller places to remain open is troubling. The arrival of The Underground at NC Music Factory will help pick up some of the slack for mid-level touring bands, but it’s not enough. The beauty of a rock club is in its grimy, well-worn character. At the Double Door, it’s the creaky, beer-stained floorboards, the walls adorned in posters, the chairs covered in band stickers, and the portraits of artists who once performed there and are now sadly deceased. It will take a while for The Underground to build its own unique character, although we’re happy they are already booking interesting and diverse acts.
Change is inevitable, especially in a city that is growing as fast as Charlotte. But when each one of these clubs disappears, a piece of the city’s soul and personality goes with it. In regards to the Double Door Inn, memories of Eric Clapton sitting in with The Legendary Blues Band on a Thursday night in 1982, Junior Walker playing his classic soul tune “Shotgun,” Levon Helm jamming with his band The Barn Burners, or the Avett Brothers playing a weekly residency in their formative years will soon be relegated to ink on a page. With the help of potential donors, maybe moving images in a documentary. We recently had a chance to speak to Jay Ahuja, one of the creators of an upcoming documentary on the Double Door Inn and Nick Karres, the longtime owner of this historic venue.
Why make this documentary now? “It’s now or never really,” Jay says. “Nick told me he was selling the place and I suggested we should preserve and document The Double Door Inn’s history and the upcoming performances. He encouraged and endorsed the idea after meeting with Kim Brattain, Rick Fitts and I. He’s opened up his Rolodex, sent e-mails on our behalf to friends and family, and allowed us extraordinary access to rooms at The Double Door that most people never see,” Jay told me.
Led by an Emmy award-winning team, the documentary is currently raising money on Kickstarter and as of this writing, it has reached just over $16,000 of its $50,000 goal with a deadline set for Tuesday, September 13. Funds raised will go towards post-production costs, music licensing, digitization of archival footage and much more. It’s clearly a labor of love for these filmmakers who feel compelled to express how much the Double Door has meant to them and so many others over the years. But what makes this venue so special?
“First and foremost, the people who work there, play there, and go to see shows there,” Jay says. “The staff has been there for decades. I like seeing Todd and Robin as I walk in. Mike and Reed know I want a Maker’s Mark on the rocks and they have a pretty good idea what my wife wants to drink. The bands will all tell you that the room has a warm, sonic quality that is unique. They’ll also tell you that the soundboard operators are great to work with. And, the crowd is different. It’s diverse – old and young, black and white, male and female. More importantly, they respect the music. They are there to see a band play. They don’t hold up their phones all night, trying to take photos or video. Although, I’ve noticed a little more of that now that the place is closing in January. They don’t talk loudly to each other to the point of distracting from the music. And, while the place had a rough reputation, I find it to be a very friendly and accepting crowd. People who were put off by the gruff exterior truly missed out on something special happening inside almost any given evening.”
He continues, “Most importantly, it helped keep the Blues alive, providing a place for touring musicians to play on the all-important Eastern seaboard. It was a reliable stop between D.C. and Atlanta where Dixie Dregs, J.J. Cale, John Hammond Jr., Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Junior Walker and others knew they were going to be treated like superstars.”
When Nick Karres opened up the Double Door back in 1973, he always knew he wanted it to stand out from the crowd and provide a one-of-a-kind music experience for both the performers and the audience.
“We’re a small place that’s had top entertainment. I just hope that we created great musical memories for people. The run that we had in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it won’t be duplicated. It’s happened, it’s history, and it won’t happen again. Because things have changed, “ Nick says.
He continues, “This whole recent building boom is a new chapter in Charlotte. That’s what happened with Amos’. They lost parking. If we didn’t sell to the school (Central Piedmont Community College), we would have lost parking too. It’s really just about escalating real estate prices. Right now, I don’t think there is a large enough space that somebody can go in and get at the right price to do a live music venue. I think live music is in a battle with a lot of other entertainment. Being here 42 years, I knew what was happening to the property around me. If they want you, they’re gonna get you. Honestly, I’ve been here longer than I thought. We pretty well knew that time was up.”
Jay hopes the documentary will help truly capture the essence of the Double Door Inn. “More than anything else, we want to preserve and document the place’s unique qualities that can never be recreated. Beyond that, we’ll show all the great music, the wonderful people, the fun times had with friends there and the friends we made while we were there because we all shared that love of live music. We also want to interview people who were at those legendary shows. We’ve already identified a few folks who were at Dixie Dregs, Eric Clapton, etc. Those oral histories need to be told and preserved.”
“What’s next for me is most certainly retirement. I’m 67. I’m going to spend more time with my granddaughter. I don’t know what exactly will happen with the Double Door. Down the line, something may open and we may be associated with it. Maybe some of our stuff will be in that place. I just don’t know yet. I’ve had a couple people talk to me about buying the name, but quite honestly, it’s got to be the right person. It’s gotta be somebody whose number one reason for continuing the name is that they love music, not that they just want to make money.”
Nick Karres is ultimately at peace with the decision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy.
“I’m dealing with a lot of emotions. Starting this place, being here all these years…a lot of blood, sweat and tears were put into this. It’s going to be hard for us to get out of here.”
He concludes with a message to the fans of the Double Door Inn. “To the people of Charlotte, we couldn’t have done it without you. We’ve also had lots of people come from surrounding areas and all along the Eastern seaboard to see shows here. So I’d like to thank them too. Charlotte needs more of that.”
Watch the Live from the Double Door Inn short documentary and check out details on the Double Door Inn reunion on Sunday, December 15.
*This article has been edited from its original version published on August 29, 2016*