More than three decades after burning to the ground in late July 1985, the Rusty Nail in Sunderland MA, just north of the Hampshire/Franklin County line, is still lovingly remembered as one of Western Massachusetts’ iconic musical venues. During its run beginning in the early 1970s, the Nail drew music aficionados from the Albany, Brattleboro, and Hartford areas as well as from much of Massachusetts, including nearby UMass Amherst. Tom Waits, the Neville Brothers, Los Lobos, King Sunny and His African Beats (all 17 of them!), Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Spector, the Ramones, Les McCann, the Gary Burton Quartet, Yellowman, Bruce Cockburn, Joan Jett, Root Boy Slim, Gil Scott-Heron, the Go-Go’s, the Joe Ely Band (for $1), Billy Idol, George Carlin… they’re just a handful of the greats who played the Nail to crowds ranging from several dozen to several hundred appreciative, often rabid fans.
Talk about appreciative, when personal issues made it impossible for The Envoy-era Warren Zevon to begin his February 1983 show at the designated hour, the crowd, many of whom sat cross-legged on the packed wooden floor, waited politely as word came from the stage that the Excitable Boy would be performing… just not for a while. When he finally came on stage, well after midnight and solo in what was billed “a recital concert,” he transported the crowd. Just a few weeks later, on St. Patrick’s Day 1983, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown, was appropriately dressed in green, and with his stage-filling entourage, whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Advance tickets were $10.50!
“So many top national and international acts played the Rusty Nail while traveling between New York and Boston,” says Dangerous Pete, former guitarist for new wave favorites Paper Dolls, and these days plays with flashy neo-rockabilly champions Flathead Rodeo. “I can only imagine what went through James Brown’s mind while driving Route 47 to this gig so far off the beaten path. The Dolls played the Rusty Nail many times on our own and with various bands of renown. When we opened for the Buzzcocks, they refused to move their drums for us, leaving us hardly any room on stage. In fact, they nailed them in place.”
The club was a magnet for blues greats and their appreciators. When James Cotton or John Lee Hooker or Stevie Ray Vaughan or John Mayall or George Thorogood and the Destroyers (while their first Rounder album was burning up the charts) were rocking the Nail, the vibe was as incendiary as at any big-city music emporium.
Local VIPs Fat, Clean Living, Mitch Chakour and the Mission Band, and reggae champions Loose Caboose were all virtual house bands at the Nail. Felix Cavaliere-produced country-rockers Deadly Nightshade, one of the early all-female bands to land a major-label recording contract, and the wonderful Jim Kaminski Band with Pam Bricker played there. NRBQ, also with deep roots in Western MA, played there a lot, regularly packing the place to capacity with their classic 1970s and ’80s lineup of Terry Adams, Al Anderson, Joey Spampinato, Tom Ardolino, and the Whole Wheat Horns. You’d never know who’d show up when the Q played there. The Nail ad for upcoming shows that ran in the May 21, 1980, issue of the Valley Advocate contained this impassioned plea: “Anyone who was at the NRBQ concert last Sat. nite and took pictures of Bonnie Raitt and/or the Allman Bros. with NRBQ, please contact the Rusty Nail so we can have copies, too!”
In promoting several upcoming concerts in the October 13, 1982, issue of the Advocate, that week’s Nail ad read: “If you missed the Go-Go’s, Joan Jett, or Hall & Oates at the Nail, don’t miss Billy Idol from Generation X on the 16th, the Bus Boys on the 23rd, [and] Marshall Crenshaw on the 28th.”
RCA and Atlantic Records recording artist Peter J. Newland has fronted Fat since before the release of their now highly-collectable self-titled 1970 RCA album. Newland, who also performs solo and with RadioX these days, recalls the Rusty Nail as “an amazing place to perform, and the bands and musicians of Western MA were lucky to have it as ground zero for the music scene that exploded simultaneous with its inception.” Newland, who played the Nail dozens of times, predominantly as a headliner, remembers the Nail as more than a musical hotspot. “Equally as powerful as the music that happened there was the business model that grew organically between the musicians, bands, and club owners,” he recalls. “There was a flexible and balanced risk/reward template. It shared profit and risk between club and musician and provided a windfall for bands when things were good. That gave them sustainability and the opportunity to devote their time and resources to creative endeavors rather than splitting their time with non-musical jobs in order to pay their bills.
“It also gave local bands high-profile high-visibility dates so they could promote themselves in ideal, prime-time circumstances,” Newland continues. “At the same time, it mitigated risk for the club. It nurtured and developed a constantly renewing stable of high-quality acts that were affordable and, once again, did not expose the business owners to financial peril. One could make the argument that as long as this model remained strong, so did the Western MA music scene.”
Esteemed Western MA-based musician and soundman Chris Dixon worked dozens of shows at the Rusty Nail in the 1980s. “I spent many a night there, both as a player and soundman, “ he recalls. “Our band FX played there in the late-’70s and early-’80s. As a soundman I worked some truly legendary shows: James Brown, Dixie Dregs, Ramones, Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of the loudest I have ever done!), Robin Trower, Ventures, B.B. King, Link Wray… The list of acts that graced that stage is endless, and for every big name there were countless nights in the trenches with local and regional bands. Equal parts learning/listening lab for me and a crucial hub of the regional music scene for everyone, The Nail is sorely missed.”
On February 12, 2012, nearly three decades after the Rusty Nail’s demise, a concert billed Rusty Nail Revisited was held at the stately Academy of Music in Northampton. Reuniting members of four legendary Western MA-based bands, all Nail staples—Fat, the Mitch Chakour Band, Real Tears, and Clean Living—the Academy was packed and stories abounded with shared, indelible memories.
(By David Sokol)