By: Ann Ravanos | Photo: Yve Assad
Local motorbikers the Blackbirds love the open road just as much as the next leather-clad rider, but this two-wheeled collective enjoys helping others more than raising hell.
When you think motorcycle clubs, I assume the first things that come to mind are leather vests, loaded guns, drug cartels, and a blonde dude that sort of looks like Kurt Cobain and goes by the name Jax, right? No? Well, that’s what I thought before I was properly introduced to the motorbike lifestyle.
A biker gang is defined as a group of motorcycle riders that share a common identity and mythology. It’s been a common misconception that these gangs engage in illegal activities, but in reality, they just got a bad rap in the latter half of the past century.
Historically, “biker gang” also included chopper and motorcycle hobbyists who traveled in packs, as well as tourists who enjoyed the freedom of exploring the highway on two wheels. Nowadays, the word “gang,” whether it be a street gang or a biker gang, typically refers to a group of individuals who use drug sales, the selling of “personal protection,” extortion, and other crimes to take over a territory in a city. But that’s not exactly it. A gang can be a group of individuals who have positive goals.
Enter the Blackbirds: Gentlemen’s Motorbike Assembly.
Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), there aren’t too many independently run motorcycle crews in the Nashville area. Aside from the Blackbirds, we have a few others, which include the 615 Boys and 1 Wheel Motion. However, there are quite a few assemblies that are chapters of larger organizations—the Outlaws, the Roughnecks, and Buffalo Soldiers, just to name a few.
Independent club or not, the spirit of owning a bike and traveling the country with it has never been expressed to me the way Robert Longhurst, JT Daly, and Josh Orr of the Blackbirds describe it.
JT recalls how the trio met. “Josh, Robert, and I all lived in the same house—it was called Warfield,” he begins. Robert then chimes in, “When I first found the house, my roommate was a mutual friend of Josh’s, and we needed one more person. So JT joined us because he was friends with the people that lived there. When a spot opened up, he joined.”
JT and Robert go back and forth discussing how they first decided to form the Blackbirds. “Robert had left Nashville for a bit to study welding in Los Angeles, and while out there, he rode with the Venice Vintage Motorcycle Club who got together every Wednesday to ride.” When Robert returned home, he talked with the guys about starting up the same thing in Nashville. JT says, “So, we meet on Wednesdays. It doesn’t matter who comes—we talk bikes and life, and we ride.” Eventually, this ritual would catch on.
As three close friends who share a passion for riding, it’s no shock that they all ride similar bikes. It’s not that they wanted to be alike; it’s that they’re all educated enough to know the difference between a good bike and a not-so-good bike.
Robert, JT, and Josh all ride vintage, British-made motorcycles that they fixed up on their own. Robert rides three different bikes: a Triumph, an Enfield, and a 1957 Matchless. JT rides a Royal Enfield, and Josh rides a Triumph Thruxton. Though they all express that their bikes aren’t the prettiest or the best on the planet, they love the stories that live inside of these bikes.
Before starting an “official” assembly, they needed to come up with a name. Josh explains, “The three of us were all texting each other name ideas. JT and I were listening to a lot of Nick Cave and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and we were trying to come up with ideas related to their songs, ‘Six Barrel Shotgun’ and ‘Red Right Hand.’” He continues, “The list goes on. But we settled on Blackbirds from a Nick Cave song, and it just seemed to fit. It was done,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “We were the Blackbirds.”
As a group, they are the Blackbirds—a mix of twelve dudes and one gal who form a very badass dynamic. Sure, they spend a considered erable amount of time building custom bikes and getting their hands greasy, but they also have day jobs. Robert builds furniture and runs the bar at Silo, while JT and Josh both tour with their indie-rock band, Paper Route.
Within the group, the list of occupations varies. While leaning back in his chair, Robert tries to remember everyone’s day jobs. “There’s a civil engineer, a record producer, a mechanic, a photographer, and a director and cinematographer,” he pauses to take a breath. “I know I’m going to leave some people out.” He continues, “And there’s a school teacher, a swim coach, a motorbike technician, a video producer, and a musician. The point is, it doesn’t matter what you do or how different you are from one another, riding brings everyone together and creates a sense of brotherhood and family.”
Bringing such an eclectic mix of people together to form a solid and united group isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world, but with the vision and heart the three leaders laid out, it didn’t take much work to establish the Blackbirds’ identity. Robert explains, “I can’t say there’s this deep meaning behind who we are. Our motto is basically that we’re a group of friends who like to ride, love exploring our city on motorbikes, and who all form this inner-connection with the road.”
And even though anyone is allowed to join on Wednesday night rides, it takes a little bit more to be patched in (biker slang for inducted, see Caleb’s patching ceremony on page 48). As the guy who leads all of the rides, Robert explains that it’s not a members-only weeknight get-together. “We meet in 12South every Wednesday, go for about a thirty-mile ride, then we bar hop. Anyone is welcome to come along if they want. We’re all friendly guys.” Josh adds, “We’re completely open to people joining us, but when it comes down to becoming a patched-in member, we’re a little particular.” He explains that to become a Blackbird, you must ride with the gang for at least a year, but it’s more than just riding. “There has to be a connection with everyone,” he explains. “It’s a fairly natural and organic process, but we are open to anyone who wants to hang out and give it a go.”
Rolling with the idea that anyone is able to ride, their one female member, Yve Assad, and her husband, Will, jumped at the chance. “No one makes a big deal out of her being in the club,” says Josh. “She’s a badass.” To Robert, JT, and Josh, she’s one of the guys—gender has never really been a factor.
Robert continues, “The only time I brought up the issue of her being a girl was to her husband when we were about to patch them in because the patch says ‘Gentlemen’s’ on it, and I wasn’t sure how she was going to feel about it.”
Sharing their passion is just part of what they give back to Nashville. “I love this city,” Robert says. Although he admits that the scene here is still pretty small, the sense of unity between the different bike gangs is what makes it so unique. “There’s something special about living in a city where there are backroads without any traffic. You’re able to have it all to yourself.” Despite his love for the underground nature of Nashville’s motorcycle community, he adds, “I do hope the scene here grows—I want other people to experience this, too.”
Aside from riding, Josh, JT, and Robert tell me that most of the Blackbirds are extremely creative. “We participated in the Art Crawl last year. We all ride vintage bikes, so we rode them into this old warehouse and put them on display. It was really cool to see everyone’s reaction,” JT shares. They also brought a giant blank canvas for everyone to paint, and it became something of a community art piece. JT remembers, “People that hadn’t touched paintbrushes in decades were painting and loving it.”
When it comes to other community projects, the Blackbirds also like to ride for a cause. He adds, “We did a Toys for Tots ride last year around the holidays.” According to the three, they definitely have plans to continue with community activism, but since Josh and JT have been touring since September, JT admits, “It’s been a slow start.”
Whereas shows like Sons of Anarchy depict hustling, substance-abusing, violent gangbangers, the Blackbirds are different. Robert sets the matter straight, saying, “Our perspective on things couldn’t be further away from that whole scene, and we try to keep our image away from that.” But apparently, their patches, leather jackets, and overall rugged look get them stares every once in awhile. But he maintains, “We’re a group of guys who roll up on these fifty-year-old bikes. Do we look that intimidating?”
Luckily, JT doesn’t pay much attention to what people think. He adds, “Personally, I got into bikes to get away from everything. Get away from the noise and be by myself. There’s something pure about being on a bike alone. It’s an iron horse. You feel incredibly mortal, and you have to be in the moment.” He’s not interested in being part of any hip movement, either, arguing, “I’ve never really gravitated towards stylized things.” Again, he stresses, “Our patch represents a community of riders: a group of different personalities sharing the common denominator of just motorcycles.”
With an open road ahead of them (literally), the guys and gal of the Blackbirds have one plan—and that’s to always enjoy the ride.
“The connectivity you feel with the road—the smells, the bumps—there’s nothing else like it,” Robert says, satisfied with explaining the joy of riding to someone who has never once mounted one.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t meet JT, Josh, and Robert with the assumption that I may not come out of my interview alive. I’m happy to announce, however, that I was proven wrong and look forward to what the future holds for the Blackbirds: Gentlemen’s Motorbike Assembly.
Through their rides, connections within Nashville, and positive outlook on life, I think it’s safe to say that the Blackbirds are golden proof as to why the definition of the word “gang” doesn’t entirely make sense.