Bill Laviolette’s first foray into the barbecue business was a midlife crisis that ended in failure. The Houston native had moved to Nashville in 2008 with his then-wife, Sara. The recession dried up the business coming into his commercial real estate marketing firm, so the couple turned to food and introduced Nashville to kolaches.

After their divorce, Sara continued running Yeast Nashville, and Laviolette sunk his finances and energy into a barbecue truck. “I should have traveled the world or whatever,” he said, considering the money he burned through. He called his place Shotgun Willie’s BBQ after his favorite Willie Nelson album, and as a cheeky way to get his name in there too. But Laviolette couldn’t build a following and closed the trailer in mid-2017, just a year after opening. It was devastating.

The alt-weekly paper Nashville Scene doles out awards to businesses annually. In October 2017, several months after Laviolette had closed his food truck, he picked up a copy and saw something unexpected. The staff created a “Best Brisket, RIP” award to honor the late Shotgun Willie’s BBQ, calling it “the closest thing to Texas that this city’s ever gotten.” Laviolette said he broke down and cried. “It validated the fact that I was good enough to do this,” he said, and made him think he should maybe try again. “That’s what kinda kept the spark alive.”

By late 2019, Laviolette had found a space for rent just down from his house in the Inglewood neighborhood of East Nashville. The renovations dragged on into March as the COVID pandemic became a reality. Laviolette raced to get all of his inspections completed. “My fire inspection was scheduled literally for the last day [the city government was] going to be open before they shut down for COVID,” he said. The space passed the inspection, and a couple months later, on May 17, 2020, the new brick-and-mortar version of Shotgun Willie’s BBQ opened. Laviolette said even with the new building, they were operating as nothing more than “a walk-in food truck.”

Laviolette had met his wife, Jaime, by then, and she was part of the crew that got the place up and running. There were just five of them that operated the place five days a week, and it started off as a struggle. “There were Wednesdays that we would do $300,” Laviolette said, but they pushed on. “I never laid anybody off, I never bounced a check, and I never missed a payroll,” he said proudly. When Nashville Scene published its Best of Nashville issue in 2020, Shotgun Willie’s BBQ was named best barbecue, followed up by best brisket the year after. In March 2022, Laviolette said the business finally felt stable as tourists returned to the city. “It hasn’t really slowed down since,” he said.

The interior is simply furnished with a few wooden booths and picnic tables. A large printed menu hangs on the wall with few surprises to any Texas barbecue fan, save the four-bean baked beans. A white board below the menu displays sold-out items. Orders are placed with the meat cutter and plated as customers look on. If it feels familiar, that’s the point. “If you’ve never been to Texas, this is what a little Texas barbecue joint looks like,” Laviolette said.

Shotgun Willie's Brings Texas BBQ to Nashville
Shotgun Willie’s owner Bill Laviolette (left) with Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

He grew up loving Goode Co. Barbeque in Houston and has fond memories of road trips to City Market in Luling. Attending college in Abilene meant many trips to the late Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q, and many servings of Harold’s hot-water cornbread. “I still think of it in reverential terms,” Laviolette said. He has a buttery jalapeño cheddar cornbread on the menu, but no fryer on site to replicate that hot-water cornbread.

The sliced brisket is indeed praiseworthy. A stout bark with plenty of black pepper gives way to soft beef beneath. The fat is well-rendered, and that good dose of smoke comes from a five-hundred-gallon, oak-fueled Primitive Pit smoker that’s run by Brian Geltzer, Dalton Padgett, and Jay Newman. A link of juicy beef sausage from San Antonio–based Kiolbassa is a fine accompaniment to the brisket, as is the heavily rubbed half chicken. Peel back the smoky skin to reveal the incredibly juicy poultry.

Tennessee is pork country, and Shotgun Willie’s does that well too. The dollar surcharge for a locally baked bun is worth it for the pulled pork sandwich, which is dressed with a slightly spicy barbecue sauce and crunchy slaw. The whole table loved the peppery and sweet-glazed pork ribs so much there were some negotiations for the last one. The creamy mac and cheese stars queso made with a proper duo of Rotel and processed cheese, and those baked beans weren’t half bad.

After a few years of struggles, Laviolette said his current challenge with the restaurant is meeting demand. He closes at 3 p.m.—earlier than he’d like—and often sells out before then. He’s hoping to fix that with a new location double the size that should open this fall. Laviolette will also add a thousand-gallon smoker to triple the cooking capacity. Now pushing 55, Laviolette is over his midlife crisis but is happy it got him on the barbecue path. And now he’s given Tennessee’s capital a place where long-lost Texans can feel at home.