When acclaimed Nashville-based songwriter Lera Lynn stops at The Burl for a 175-capacity show April 12, the Lexington venue will be one of the smallest rooms she plays on her tour. Venue co-owner Cannon Armstrong is confident, however, that in addition to the intimacy, the venue’s hospitality will make the performer’s evening memorable.
“We made this show just for Lexington and this scene, and wanted it to reflect the artistic mix and mixed media we strive for at The Burl,” said Armstrong. In addition to Lynn, who gained national exposure for her moody Americana music with her appearances in the second season of the HBO series “True Detective,” the evening also features a reading by Louisville-born essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, a creative nonfiction writer whose work has been published in GQ, The New York Times magazine, Harper’s and The Paris Review. After working with the University of Kentucky creative writing department to bring the author to town, Armstrong wanted to add a music component to the show, which is billed as “Electric Words.” Specifically, he was looking for an artist who was both lyrically adept and could pull off an intimate show. A personal favorite of Armstrong’s, Lynn was one of the first artists who came to mind.
Despite the fact Lynn typically plays at much larger venues, Armstrong said the special, intimate nature of this event helped convince her to get on board. While the venue typically fits up to 300 people, the room will be reconfigured to hold just more than half that capacity for this show, with a blend of seating and standing room.
“Even though Lera is used to playing [much larger] venues, she knew John was reading before she went on and wanted to keep that small, seated feel,” said Armstrong. “This is something the artists are looking forward to in their tour – a unique event with someone else who loves music and literature.”
It’s exactly the type of event Armstrong, who was an English major and has background as a musician, wants to see more of at The Burl. After renting the Distillery District space for five years as a practice venue for his band, Armstrong teamed up with bandmate Seth Bertram and Jomo Thompson (who serves as the head coach for the UK cheerleading team) to purchase the land and develop The Burl in 2016. As it approaches nine months of business, the music venue continues to carve out its niche as a leading entertainment destination among the ever-expanding culinary and nightlife offerings of the Distillery District.
“There were already great places to eat and drink in the Distillery District, so when we saw our opening to do something down here, we tried to fill it with something that complemented [what was already there],” said Armstrong.
Named after a growth or deformity in trees caused by knots in the wood, The Burl has become a significant Lexington locale over the past nine months for touring and local musicians, who have praised both its hospitality and sound quality.
L-R: The Burl partners Seth Bertram and Cannon Armstrong with bar manager Eddie Purdom and general manager Will Morgan. (Venue co-owner Jomo Thompson not pictured.) Photo by Estill Robinson.
“We really lucked into how good the sound is – we knew how good it sounded from practicing in there,” said Armstrong of the 2,500-square-foot building located just across Manchester Street from the Pepper campus, which is home to Goodfella’s Distillery, Crank ‘n Boom dessert lounge, Ethereal Brewing, Middle Fork Kitchen and other businesses. The building dates back to the 1920s, when Texaco bought the property and built a gas station; since then, it has been a railroad station, a mechanic shop and a clubhouse for the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in the 1980s.
“These floors have seen some life,” he added.
The sound quality might be partially due to luck, but superior hospitality is something on which the venue has worked hard.
“Bands remember the places that treat them like s*** and they remember the places that treat them great,” he said. “We want to be on the latter end of that.”
The Burl offers accommodations that bands don’t necessarily always encounter when they play smaller venues – for example, the venue’s “green room,” located in a separate building behind the main venue, features a ping-pong table, Super Nintendo, showers, three couches and two double beds, where touring bands often stay overnight. This summer, the owners plan to transform that space into a fully functioning “barcade” – a throwback to traditional video game arcades of the ’80s and ’90s but with booze.
In a mid-sized city with a market that often struggles to support live music seven nights a week, offering alternative forms of entertainment – including regular comedy and story-telling nights, and all-ages brunch shows – is something the owners hope will continue to set their venue apart.
“Anything that helps the town and brings more music to the city, I’m all for it. The more music and venues the better,” said Armstrong. “I can live with our little piece of the pie, and I feel like we will survive off of everything that is happening in the Distillery District.”