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Iconic Jimmy Kelly’s is a Nashville tradition, both a product of and a witness to its history. So is the man who runs it, self-described historian Mike Kelly, descendant of James Michael Kelly, who came to America after the potato famine of 1845 and the Famine Rebellion of 1848. If the walls of Jimmy Kelly’s could talk, its stories couldn’t be more vividly drawn than those found in Mike’s book A Generous Pour. It’s a history of the restaurant and the Kelly family. It’s also a fascinating behind-the scenes story of Nashville.

A conversation with raconteur and author Kelly follows. Mike has been running Jimmy Kelly’s for forty years, but his life with the restaurant started at age nine.

Nfocus: How’d you get started in the restaurant business?

Mike Kelly: One of the chefs hadn’t shown up, so Dad called mom and told her he needed me to fill in so others could cook dinner. There wasn’t much discussion! I’ve never really left, except for the years when I was [in college].

Nfocus: Why write this book now?

Mike K: Three of my very best friends, Tom Ingram, Robert Davidson and Andy Daniels—and my cousin Scott Hunt—absolutely beat me up over it. They said you have to write these stories down for your kids, for Nashville. So I started trying to write these stories before I got run over by a beer truck. 

Nfocus: One interesting character was Mayor Hilary Howse, elected in 1909. By then, the sale of alcohol was prohibited throughout most of the state. 

Mike K: The most fun in writing the book was to take the perspective of people at the time. I delved into the particulars of the era. Howse was called the Red Fox; he owned a furniture company downtown. We’re so spoiled today—nobody had vehicles [then] that could pick up the furniture they bought, so Howse would deliver it. He rode in the back of the truck in his waistcoat and top hat greeting people and waving. He was a natural politician and did wonderful things for the city. I could have written a lot of chapters on the things that he did. He’s an unsung hero.

Nfocus:Mayor Howse’s platform was that he wouldn’t enforce the prohibition laws that would close the saloons. Did Nashville take enforcement of Prohibition lightly?

Mike K: The whole country did that! You could go to your physician and receive a prescription for a pint of whiskey of week for everyone in your family for medicinal purposes—or pick it up at Walgreen’s. Between the time Prohibition started and ended, Walgreen’s went from 78 stores to 230-something stores. Prohibition is what made Walgreen’s!

Nfocus: You’re a terrific storyteller. What was your writing process?

Mike K: I just wrote the stories I wanted to. I wrote in the mornings because there’s no time at night when you run a restaurant. I’ve always loved history so it was interesting to write about how my grandfather made a living. In 1907, he bought the ice company that delivered ice to the Gentlemen’s Quarter downtown. People today think that our downtown scene is wild and wooly. The reality is in 1905, there were 353 saloons operating in downtown Nashville. Downtown encompassed a small area, the core of the city, and it ended at the loop, where NES is today. We were a riverboat town. Second Avenue was bustling where the steamboats came in. We didn’t have interstates—commerce was all about the river.

Nfocus: Your family’s history follows the path of Nashville’s development.

Mike K: My great-grandmother was a Cartwright whose family came down the Cumberland River on flatboats with the Donelsons. It was the first city in the United States to legalize prostitution during the Civil War [in 1863].

It’s hard to believe you can go back that far and see the influences that changed Nashville. One of those forces during the Civil War was that we were fortunate to have been occupied very early by the Union Forces. The Confederate forces were 4.5 miles from here. But during the war, we were occupied, so they didn’t burn the city down like they burned Atlanta, Savannah and Chattanooga, destroying the railroads too. 

Nfocus: The birth of the Watauga Society is riveting. Does it continue today?

Mike K: It does! I should not reveal more than that. People who care about our city are still [organizing]. Many people have spent time and fortune to do what’s best for the city. That’s why we’re the It City. It was not for selfish gain, it was because people love Nashville and want to do what’s right for the city. 

Nfocus: Jimmy Kelly’s has stood the test of time. What was the toughest period?

Mike K: Three years ago—with Covid. I thought I was living the last chapter of Jimmy Kelly’s. I didn’t write about it. We got through it, but it was a very difficult time in my life. I’m too mean and ornery to quit! I come from a long line of stubborn Irishmen who keep moving forward, no matter what.