Just before Ward Guenther, the founder of Whiskey Jam, prepares for another Monday night filled with a lineup of Nashville’s best singers and songwriters, he sat down with Marley Sherwood at Losers Bar in Midtown to discuss how a small bar jam session came to be one of Music City’s “best kept secrets, that everybody knows.”
Whiskey Jam takes place at Winners Bar and Grill every Monday night in Nashville’s Midtown bar district. The intimate bar and stage setting has quickly gained approval from artist’s like Dierks Bentley, Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, Chris Young, Brothers Osborne and even Peyton Manning.
Living in Nashville, everyone knows you never stay in on a Monday night.
I know Whiskey Jam is getting started shortly, so I appreciate you taking the time to get a drink. Cheers!
Cheers! We are drinking the Whiskey Jam 4-year-aged bourbon tonight. Ya know, I am excited for this. Nobody has really asked me about Whiskey Jam in the media and we have so many stories to tell. It’s gonna be really fun doing this.
That’s funny to hear because everyone in Nashville knows who you are, but I am not sure if everyone necessarily knows how you got here and how Whiskey Jam came to be what it is now. How did you come up with the idea?
It was a Monday night in early January about seven years ago. I was hanging out with Frankie Ballard a lot back then. His guitar player, Eddie, and I just wanted to go play music somewhere one night. We went to Tin Roof and said, “Hey, will you give us a beer tab if we play music for 2-3 hours for fun?” We had a blast, drank a bunch and there were a few people there. The next morning I tweeted out something like, “Thanks @FrankieBallard and everyone else who came out to the first ever Whiskey Jam.” Josh Hoge saw the tweet and minutes later texted me, “Dude, what is Whiskey Jam? There is something in that name and we need to make that something.” I have always credited Josh for the growth and development of it for the first 4-5 years. I have been doing it solo now for two years but that was the initial scene where it all started.
Who else was part of the original crew?
We took the next few weeks just writing down lists of songwriters and artists… people we wanted to just come jam with us. At that point, one of the newer guys on the scene was Brett Eldredge. We had Kip Moore, Billy Currington and Frankie Ballard. The same guys who still come hang at Whiskey Jam on Mondays now. The first night we just did a text message promotion telling all of our friends to come to Winners, and we had over 300 people show up! Everyone from Lady Antebellum, Easton Corbin, Love and Theft, Frankie… it’s so funny to hear that now. It evolved very quickly into making sure we were keeping track of who was playing and keeping it at seven a week, to make it a solid jam session.
Why a Monday night?
I was still on the road with David Nail a bit back then. We were usually gone Wednesday through Sunday. That is a musician’s road schedule. We were trying to get people to play and everyone was in town on Monday. For the outsider coming to Nashville, I always try to convince them to stay just one more night past the weekend because you are sure to see something special. The artist you may have just seen playing a stadium show is probably chilling at the bar now. Monday for Nashville is like a Friday or Saturday for the rest of the world.
Whiskey Jam has gone from inside Winners Bar in Nashville to the parking lots of mega shows, to Chicago to Las Vegas. Is it crazy to see the impact from seven years ago to where it is today?
It is crazy. We have always tried to keep it small and family oriented, for sure. The musicians, singers, workers, supporters… I want everyone to feel welcomed every time, forever. It has been unique for it to grow into a bigger family. I have people come to town saying, “Hey, we saw your show at ‘Country in the Park’ in Chicago a few years ago.” Being on the road has been an important feature for us, too. We want people to feel like they are not only witnessing something cool, they are a part of something cool. One of our catchphrases early on was, “It’s the best kept secret, that everybody knows.”
For those who live in Nashville and are constantly working and missing their family and friends to live their dream in this town, Whiskey Jam on Monday night allows you to see your ‘Nashville family’ each week. It’s a little home away from home.
It’s crazy how true that concept is. We tried to take Whiskey Jam to other cities on Monday nights, but you can’t try to do what Nashville does. It is magical.
What was one of the greatest nights?
Peyton Manning singing “Rocky Top.” Hands down. I went to the University of Tennessee and I knew all of the words to “Rocky Top.” I knew how to play it. Peyton was in there with Lee Brice just having fun. Lee Brice had gone up, sang a few songs and Peyton wanted to get up there and sing. He loves to sing. When he said he wanted to sing “Rocky Top” I got up there and said, “I will play guitar!” It was right after he won the Super Bowl and retired. He was the most famous athlete in the world at that time. That was for sure the coolest night.
And the worst night?
Whoa, that’s a good question. I don’t want to say any, but there were some nights where I would get up there and play and I can honestly say I was not prepared enough. Some people forget that I was a musician before any of this came along. I just knew it was disrespectful to the other artists getting up there unprepared. I told myself I wouldn’t do that anymore. I try to focus on what I am good at now ― keeping Whiskey Jam going ― not necessarily getting up there and singing anymore. I think I can still hang with the boys… but gosh everyone has gotten so good now!
After all these years, do you still have ‘pinch me’ moments?
Peyton Manning for sure. OneRepublic showed up — randomly — and sang. The Fray came to sing “Cable Car.” We had Melissa Etheridge pop in a few weeks ago and sing “Come to My Window.” She was pretty spectacular. Even though her crowd isn’t your typical country demographic, she has these classic songs. You saw every person in that crowd singing every word with her.
Do you ever have a ‘proud father’ moment when you ask these artists and songwriters in town to play Whiskey Jam and next thing you know they have No. 1 songs and record deals?
I look back at one of the biggest Whiskey Jams we ever had a few years ago on St. Patrick’s Day in 2015. We had A Thousand Horses, Maren Morris, Ryan Hurd, Travis Denning, Joey Hyde, Goodbye June, Jonathan Singleton, Randy Montana and more. We will have some people pass through who I can tell their time is coming. Some of my favorite artists, might not have huge hits right now, but are waiting on their time to come. We get so lucky being a stepping stone for a lot of Nashville artists to get noticed. I see people in town waiting tables and serving coffee who have some of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. I couldn’t be more proud to offer them a place to showcase their talents on Monday nights.
You have a beautiful wife, two of the cutest daughters in Nashville and a brand new set of twins. As a father of four young children, how do you balance work and family?
It’s hard. I was making dinner before I came over to do this interview. It is really, really busy right now. The twins are 6 months old, we have a 5-year-old and an almost 3-year-old in addition to it, so they require constant all-day attention. My wife does the most amazing job; she was home so much last week by herself due to the craziness of CMA Fest. I don’t know how we keep it up sometimes with our schedules and the atmospheres we are around. I come to Whiskey Jam from 8 p.m. to midnight every Monday passing out shots and popping beers. Then the next morning I am up at 7 a.m. making bottles for my babies.
Props to you and your wife for keeping it together.
It is a crazy balance. If I had not met my wife and did not have my family, we would not be having this conversation right now. I would have ruined Whiskey Jam. There would be no responsibility with it. I look at the early days and we found out we were pregnant a month into the first year of Whiskey Jam. Really early on, I didn’t even keep track of who played for a few months. There was just a big blank spot of where I thought I didn’t need to keep records anymore. It was about that time I was married, had a baby and was thrown into situations that made me responsible. My 20s in Nashville were my ‘research years’ and now I know what it takes to make this whole thing happen.
I think it’s amazing that you fully credit your wife and family for making you and Whiskey Jam who you are today.
Absolutely! The best moments of my day, year and life have been getting to know my daughters as they grow up. My girls are clever, smart and funny. We were lucky enough to get our only boy. They keep me going that’s for sure!
So, Ward Guenther, what is your best hangover cure?
Ya know, Pedialyte definitely helps. It is convenient now because I can go to the store and buy Pedialyte and other baby goods without being judged. I am no longer the 25-year-old I used to be, getting Pedialyte and a pizza at the checkout. Buffalo chicken is another good one!
What is one thing that nobody tells you about starting your own business?
What I have learned over the years that nobody really told me about is to guard your brand like a child. If you start a desirable brand, it is like a child. You are going to get people who are interested in this brand thinking, “Man, this is cool.” No fault of my own or Josh’s, but we have had people in the past come in and want to attach their name to our brand and we made that mistake a few times. Letting some people drag us down, in no way hurt us long-term, but it just wasn’t the right fit for our brand. You just really need to be careful. We have been so thankful to work with the brands and sponsors we do now, but for every good one there are a few snakes out there. I’ve learned you need to protect your brand with everything you’ve got.
You have your own Whiskey now called Whiskey Jam. Was this always the goal?
It was on my mind since the beginning and blackberry was the one ‘jam’ flavors that would resonate with a whiskey the most. My friend Patrick Davis is good friends with the owners of Firefly. He was on a flight with them from Charleston to Nashville and he was wearing a Whiskey Jam shirt. They asked him, “What is that?” and he said, “It’s a music event in Nashville every Monday my buddy runs.” The Firefly guys said “Is it liquor? Because it should be.” When they landed he called me and said “Ward, I have some news that is going to change your life.” Within that month we were up at the Firefly distilleries in Charleston, S.C. tasting it and honing in the flavor. The rest of the year we were designing the labels, contracts and strategies and getting to the launch point. Now, it’s available across the city at liquor stores and bars in Nashville. With the help of Firefly and Sazerac, we have the ability to have this available in all 50 states. I am so excited about it. It has been out for only a couple of weeks and it has had the greatest response so far.
I will personally vouch for this whiskey. What makes a great party?
Everyone feeling involved. If you witness a great show, it’s fun, but if you go and are a part of a great show, it’s amazing. You learn that through the years. I remember years ago I saw this Jolie Edwards show at Exit/In in Nashville. She looked at me in the crowd and it was like she was looking only at me. I try to do that every week at Whiskey Jam with the people who come out. I ask, “Is this your first time at Whiskey Jam?” Getting people involved, inviting them up on stage, giving them shots of whiskey… just making people feel like they are at a fun party with a bunch of people with the host noticing them personally or inviting them to come back. That is going to be invaluable for that party. It is everything. Whiskey Jam has never been about Ward. It’s always been about learning how to be the best host. Being the human face of the brand has been a really great experience for me and I like to make everyone feel included.
Who do you credit for this quality?
I credit my parents for that. They are excellent hosts, role models and from the earliest social experiences I can remember they always made sure everyone was included. We have people who want to sing, people who are shy but want to sing and it’s really been awesome to have our Whiskey Jam crowd feel like they are all a part of it and not just showing up.
Speaking of your brand, your T-shirts are your staple. Dierks Bentley, Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell and more major country stars are always wearing your shirts at shows and promoting you. Is that wild to see?
It’s surreal! They are wearing them in front of thousands of people every night and sharing on social media. I started making the shirts and merch after things I would personally wear. Shirts that look cool, comfortable and a little vintage. It evolved into, “What would the artists wear on stage?” and then it evolved into, “Things The Cadillac Three would wear on stage.” There were so many different designs and limited editions that I couldn’t keep up with the process. I had boxes filling up my house. It was a lot of fun to be creative with the design for sure. We have so many cool designs now, it’s hard to pick one Whiskey Jam logo. I think it has evolved into more of a lifestyle brand than just a music event shirt, which is so cool to see.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Oh wow, this is telling. I like any of the big-time branding guys that built empires out of ideas like Phil Knight who started Nike. I am a big Nike guy. I would like to chat with him about his story. I would also like to chat with John Mayer. Guys like Jay-Z, Russell Simmons or anyone from Shark Tank. Everything we have done with Whiskey Jam was built from an idea up and there’s a lot of room to continue growing. To see how they did what they did and how they made it happen, that would be so interesting to hear.
How about instead of choosing one person, we just invite all those people you just mentioned to Whiskey Jam one night?
That sounds like a plan!
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