Grand Palace Silkscreen Co-owner talks about GP history and five years of helping keep the Murfreesboro music community alive.
Bingham Barnes is drinking a beer in a window booth at West Main brewery 3 Brothers. Where he’s sitting isn’t far from the place where he spent years silk printing with his friends, hosting shows and holding band practice with Glossary.
Now the bass player/screen printer is saying goodbye to Grand Palace, an aging hideaway at 128½ North Church Street, right on the downtown Square, that was part recording studio, part venue, part record shop and part silkscreen business in its prime.
Since it opened in October 2005, Grand Palace has churned out flyers and T-shirts, recorded for local artists and offered up a creaky haven for local kids to come hang out and listen to music.
The record store shut down two years ago. The last of the live shows took place in March, and now the recording studio and silkscreen business are relocating. Though it’s time to part ways, Grand Palace has become a piece of iconography within the Murfreesboro music scene and will be missed.
In 1999, Barnes was bartending and booking shows at the now-defunct Sebastian & Diana’s Brew Pub, formerly at North Maple Street, when he met Alex Norfleet, the head of Grand Palace recording studio.
Norfleet, as Barnes describes him, was “this character” who came into the bar every night, and eventually the two got to talking. Norfleet lived in Cleveland, Tenn., but rented the place at North Church.
Barnes says the building was built in 1843 and was the first church in Murfreesboro. The place was horrible and rundown; the roof leaked, plaster was falling down, the carpeting was grody—it was heaven.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is amazing,’” Barnes says.
He moved in with Norfleet and another friend. Barnes’ bedroom was later used as the venue and Glossary’s practice space.
After a two-year stint managing coffee house/venue Red Rose, Barnes moved out temporarily and began silk screening in the basement of his new place. Wanting to make T-shirts for Glossary, he first took it up in 1997 while studying recording industry management at MTSU.
“I discovered screen printing through my friend Nick Butcher,” he says. “He made Glossary’s poster. When I saw Nick’s work, it just blew my mind. I thought, ‘Dude, that’s what I want to do.’ And I never considered myself an artist, but I was just drawn to that medium and I wanted to change my major, but it would require probably another one-and-a-half years in school. At that point, I just stuck with what I got into. I was going to finish college, but I took the quickest way out.”
Friend Chuck Bruner, co-owner of Grand Palace Silkscreen, helped out with Barnes’ out-of-the-basement business, and the two began collecting clients. (Nashville-based American Songwriter magazine is among their clients.)
Then Barnes purchased his first press, a hulking contraption from Kentucky that wouldn’t fit through the door of his place.
Barnes asked Norfleet if he could move back in.
Business was rolling by 2005 under the moniker Tennessee Textile and Show Print. It wasn’t until friend Monique Morvant offered up the name of her own silkscreen business that Grand Palace became what it was. Considering the location, the name was fitting.
“In our minds it was a grand palace, but to most people it wouldn’t be,” Barnes says.
Using the label on his beer bottle for reference, Barnes stops to explain the silkscreen process, which sounds simple, but meticulous. Barnes exudes a Patterson Hood vibe with a slow and conversational manner, and he seems to have the patient personality needed for screen printing. It’s clearly something he loves to do.
While Barnes was printing with his partners, Norfleet was recording a slew of local artists including Ocelots, The Mattoid, Hands Down Eugene, Turncoats and Ghostfinger, as well as buying vinyl for the shop. Rather than single albums, Norfleet hunted for collections, purchasing primarily from eBay and Chad’s, a Chattanooga-based record store in business today.
“The truth of the matter is, we did everything from scratch,” Barnes says. “None of us are from wealthy families or anything. I never had any startup capital.”
In-store shows were just another gift to the music community, and another business boost. Though the venue portion of Grand Palace was probably the most secretive aspect of the business, the GP group has played host to a wealth of both local and nonlocal favorites over the years. Hush-hush as the shows were kept, they merited some of the best stories.
When pressed for Grand Palace live show tales, Barnes pauses.
“Like when The Ponys didn’t show up?”
“Sean Maloney—he writes for the (Nashville) Scene and American Songwriter—he was working up there and he put the show together,” he says. “The band’s van broke down, but their booking agent never got in touch with us. Everybody was fucking jacked up about The Ponys coming to town. Celebration Castle had just come out. We kept waiting, we kept waiting, we kept waiting. Then Sean made a sign with the booking agent’s phone number and posted it and got everybody up there calling and leaving these nasty-ass messages, like, ‘Where’re The Ponys? This is bullshit!’
“Finally he woke up and answered his phone. Sean talked to him and he was like, ‘We left a message.’”
Or the time Joe Jack Talcum, frontman of Philadelphia punk band The Dead Milkmen, came to play.
“I was utterly star-struck,” Barnes says. “He was up in our place, sitting on my couch in my shop and I was just like, ‘Holy shit, I’ve been a fan of this guy since 7th grade and now he’s sitting right here!’”
Building codes put the live shows on hiatus for a while, though Norfleet has an archive of the recorded shows that may be released one day, most likely online.
“We went a long time without shows,” Barnes says. “We did private recording sessions with audiences. But toward the end, we just thought, ‘Eh, let’s have some fun before we all move on.’”
The end crept up slowly. The record store closed first. Barnes realized the silkscreen business had outgrown Grand Palace’s limited space. Then Norfleet got an opportunity to make another start in Chattanooga.
He’s sharing a building in Chattanooga with Mike Pack of the Future Virgins and a couple from folk-punk band This Bike is a Pipe Bomb who own legendary Pensacola, Fla., venue, Sluggo’s.
The new recording studio is an old, 20,000-square-foot textile mill which very much embodies the Grand Palace spirit. Barnes would be coming along, but he does not want to compete with Chattanooga screen printers Young Monster.
Now Barnes is searching Murfreesboro, Nashville and surrounding areas for an ideal industrial space for Grand Palace Silkscreen.
“We were just a little speck in that building’s life,” Barnes reminisces.
Had they bought Grand Palace when it first got started, things may have been different. But now the building’s price is through the roof. He speculates what will become of it; Murfreesboro sure does like its law offices. Either way, another decent Murfreesboro venue has come and gone.
“It’s sad because the right thing in this town could be huge,” he says. “The scene doesn’t have anything to rally behind to call their own since Red Rose, and I’m not just saying that because I ran it. It was fair with everybody and transparent with its business transactions and put together solid shows, and in return the entire community identified with it and rallied behind it.”
But Barnes hasn’t migrated to Music City after graduating at MTSU like many of his friends. Going to Nashville is like a college reunion for him. As he says, he’s one of the last few holdouts.
Part of what keeps him in Murfreesboro is crowd response. He notices a lot of crossed arms in Nashville, as opposed to rushing the stage.
Grand Palace’s final weekend of shows was a rowdy attestation to Murfreesboro show energy. March 11-12 brought Ascent of Everest, The Gold Room, Seafood Hotline, The Only Sons and Glossary to the upstairs room to raise a final bit of hell. Though the shows were kept traditionally quiet, they were packed out nonetheless.
“Most nights were what I’d call a sweet bro hang,” Barnes says.
The last hurrah qualified as such.
“People let themselves go and had fun,” Barnes says. “People these days are so conscious of what everybody thinks and a lot of people just don’t want to let themselves go. Every time we had a really good show, we’d see all our friends who’d have a good time without any drama. It was awesome.
“Murfreesboro has always been a town where the kids will stand up, walk up to the front and get in and watch a band.”
In a sense, Grand Palace Silkscreen is somewhere between Nashville and Murfreesboro right now. Barnes’ temporary shop is up and running, but he has yet to find a permanent space for the business. All Grand Palace folk have officially vacated 128½ North Church.
Fortunately, half of the Grand Palace enterprise is merely relocating. But the venue is difficult to leave behind, even though it isn’t the first to close up shop in Murfreesboro. Barnes is just happy to have helped leave a positive mark on the scene and on the building’s history.
“The energy of that building was just good,” he says. “All of us collectively put so much work into making it our cool space. We all grew a lot out of that process. There’s nothing but good memories. I’m sure I’ll be 70 and be like, ‘Aw, yeah, me and my buddies had this place . . .’”