Former Songbirds spaces finding new life in Chattanooga

Documentary tells the former museum's story

Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Grayson Strickland, 10, watches as Taylor Moenning, an instructor with the Songbirds Foundation, teaches chords Monday, Feb. 19, 2018 at Grace Pointe Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. The foundation gives kids guitars and lessons and will be moving its operation into the former Songbirds Guitar Museum space at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

The Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga closed for good in mid-August last year, but it continues to be a topic of conversation for many.

That's thanks to a documentary made by a local filmmaker and a flurry of activity in the former museum space downtown in preparation for the Songbirds Foundation moving its nonprofit operation there in late summer.

Also, a new bar that will be run by WGOW radio personality Brian Joyce will go into the front area of the former Songbirds South. The museum, which also operated as a live music venue called Songbirds North, and its sister venue, Songbirds South, closed during the pandemic. The more-than-3,000 guitars in the collection have been returned to their owners and, while those places are no more, the brand and the spaces live on.

The former museum space, for example, is a beehive of activity, according to Songbirds Foundation President Reed Caldwell.

"We are rocking up here with designers and builders and we are starting to book shows," he said.

He said work has shifted from planning and design to actually building the cases and exhibits that will hold the nearly 300 classic guitars the foundation owns and the educational and hands-on exhibits that will be part of the space.

Caldwell said the foundation will have a rotating series of exhibits, with the first being a history and tribute to The Impressions, the Rock & Roll Hall-of-Fame R&B group that got its start in Chattanooga. Members Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, who have continued to call the city home for the last several decades, worked with Caldwell and his team to create the exhibit.

It will be on display for about a year before moving to the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and then, perhaps, going on tour.

"It's amazing they are here in this community, and this will let people know just how important they are to music and the Civil Rights Movement," Caldwell said.

Other exhibits will focus on other well-known and important Chattanooga musicians such as "The Funky Drummer" Clyde Stubblefield and guitarist Norman Blake. There will also be a hands-on section that will use the guitar as a way to teach sound and how it works.

Another component will be the live concerts the foundation will host.

"We are booking those now," Caldwell said.

The main purpose of the Songbirds Foundation is its Guitars for Kids program, which provides guitars and free lessons for young players. Caldwell said the foundation gave 1,000 guitars away last year and provided more than 100,000 hours of free lessons to 3,500 children.

"Everything we make here, whether it's from ticket sales, beverage sales, donations, whatever, goes back into Guitars for Kids," he said.

Joyce and his partner in the bar, Jody Bruns, are working to remodel the front space of the old Songbirds South and hoping to open in the summer or fall. He has not announced the name of the bar or the exact concept, but said his plan is to bring a New York or Boston "kind of nightlife to Chattanooga. We envision it being a late-night place.

"We have lot of great bars and restaurants here, but there are a lot of tried and true concepts out there in big cities and we want to bring that big-city flair here," Joyce said.

He said he will keep his morning show job at WGOW and will open the bar on Friday and Saturday nights only until customer demand warrants opening during the week.

"This is something I've always wanted to do," Joyce said. "I actually really started thinking about it about three years ago."

Chattanooga Choo Choo President Adam Kinsey said that while Joyce will be running the smaller 1,800-square-foot space across the breezeway from the Comedy Catch, he is looking at options for the 4,000-square-foot space that formerly was home to a live music venue.

"Brian will run the bar area, and we are open to what might go into the other space," he said.

Kinsey said that likely will be a restaurant that fits into the mix not only in the Choo Choo complex, which is home to American Draft, Backstage Bar, Gate 11 Distillery, Frothy Monkey, Stir and Nick & Norman's, but in the Southside neighborhood as well. He said he believes the area, and the downtown area in general, could use a high-end ethnic restaurant, but he is in no hurry to fill the space until the right business is found.

"We are very patient and always have been," Kinsey said. "We turned down several chain restaurants that wanted to go into the Nick & Norman's space. We try to add a layer to what is already there rather than put in something that will compete with what we have."

He said the two spaces will operate separately and that a wall already has been built between the two.

Before the museum closed last August, Dagan West Beckett of Beckett Media Productions approached Songbirds Executive Director and Songbird Foundation board chairman Johnny Smith with the idea of documenting the space, the guitars and the people who worked there.

"I'm a musician, and like everybody I was devastated when I heard it was closing," Beckett said. "And, I was thinking, 'This is the largest collection of rare and unique guitars in the world, and nobody is documenting it. Before I even finished asking my question, [Smith] said, 'Yes. You have one week.'"

Beckett was given full access and spent hours on his own dime filming each guitar and getting staff members such as curators Irv Berner and David Davidson and music booking specialist Mike Dougher to talk about the guitars and what made the museum unique. He did some interviews after the museum had closed, and Beckett has spent the last 10 months editing the hours of footage he shot into a nearly 60-minute documentary. He said some weeks he spent 10 hours on it and some he spent 40.

photo Screen shot from Beckett Media Productions / David Davidson is shown during filming of "Songbirds: A Documentary Film" at his Well Strung Guitars shop in Long Island, New York. Davidson was responsible for finding and securing many of the guitars in the Songbirds collection.

"I funded it by doing corporate jobs, but really it hasn't been a lot of out-of-pocket expenses. Just my time," he said.

Beckett said he is considering several options to get the film in front of people.

"I don't know yet what I will actually do with it, but this was such a rare collection of the guitars and a place, I wanted to document it."

The film also includes commentary from guests such as guitarist Joe Bonamassa and musician/actor/producer John Schneider.

Berner said he was impressed with Beckett's willingness and understanding of the importance of documenting the guitars and the museum.

"I told him there is no real record of this and I have no budget and no money, but would you follow me around from front to back and create a video record?" Berner said. "And, I kept bringing him back. I think what he did is pretty incredible."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.