On the Road in Nashville with Face The Music (Kero-whackian)
I first came to Nashville after bouncing back and forth to California the month before. Calif had just helped me get over the late Winter Catskill funk that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with wind, snow, cold, and the feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of the Nashville trip, it was still cold, with brief feints of warmth, and we were ready to go back on the road. I'd often thought of going to NashVegas, to see the history of country, replace my made up mental images with something tangible—always vaguely planning and never taking off. Work, a gig, music to play somewhere, is the perfect reason for me to visit new places. Ticket paid; strictly speaking, not a tourist, a purpose that is not purely abstract—the M.O. has gotten me to some great spots. (For a slideshow of some of our favorites:
"The plane roared out of Newark that day, 3 hours late—wind. Blowin' into Nashville with all the force of the coming Spring. The sliver of a moon just setting as we circled around the lights of the city to come in for a landing. Pick up the rental—we're gonna need wheels on this trip.
The late arrival quashed plans to do something the first night; St Patty's Day in Nashville. Not that I considered it an Irish town per se, but it's everyone's excuse for a mid-March party, coming out of the one-day-break-from-Lent tradition. We opted to walk to dinner and regroup in the morning.
Once back in the hotel, I was restless. "At least go for a walk. You're 5 blocks from Music Row!" Hit the pavement with the Sun well down, considering all the land and miles between this street and the rolling roads of home. The raw lands, the bumpy carpet of the Appalachian Mountains, the Tennessee river valleys, houses with lights on and children getting ready for bed. The stars drooping and shedding sparkler dims on the surface of many waters, and nobody knowing what's really going to happen to anybody; live and see.
St. Patrick was in evidence as I approached Music Row. The first bit a surprise—an in-the-street rap concert. A few thousand people I suppose; streets closed, a boom-boom-booming, and lights flashing. As that scene faded behind me I saw groups of revelers (that's a word, right?) going down Division St. from bar to bar. One man carrying his girlfriend in circles as they wait for their friend to finish barfing in a parking lot. Then the naked statue, a selfie in front of ASCAP (I think they owe me $3.46), and a lone abandoned guitar leaning against a tree in Owen Bradley Park—abandoned, forgotten, poetic statement?
I woke up as the sun was reddening; a strange moment, of not knowing where I was - I was away from home tired with travel, in a hotel room I'd never seen, hearing sounds of morning outside with a potent end of sleep dream quickly fading. The sensation didn't last long. Then: yes, a day for romping around Nashville. Discovery, and taking video for an unknown project with no script or theme yet, but how can we go wrong armed with cool shots of the Music City and our warped creativity? I had found the name of a coffee shop in an old part of town that sounded like it might have good espresso. Into the rental and hit the streets under old rail bridges and past many empty lots that reminded me of rust belt cities; the old towns that drove the industry of the early 20th century. The shop itself was in an old Marathon Motor Works building, the red bricks of the Studebaker complex of my childhood. The espresso was good. Rebel Without a Cause playing silently on the wall, cups and t-shirts for sale.
Early on I had decided that the new home of the Grand Ole Opry was too Disneyland for my taste, but the Ryman Auditorium, now that had potential. I wasn't enough of a Country music buff to regard it as a sacred pilgrimage, but as I've gotten older, I've developed an appreciation for Hank Williams, Jerry Jeff, Willie, and Earl Scruggs.
It seemed like a matter of minutes when we were rolling down Broadway, the old downtown, looking better than a lot of these ole cities due to Nashville money. Advancing rows of shops, stores, churches, and the obligatory cluster of skyline. "Park this thing, and let's go in."
There was the stage, the barn Hee Haw backdrop, old pews of the Church of Country, crazy rhinestone cowboy outfits behind glass—and a recording studio (of sorts). Visitors can make their own track. We decide that I'm going to do an ad lib. Sometimes that goes well... Into the booth, camera rolling despite the "No video" sign outside, preset Ryman reverb on the vocal. I do it. Vague references to a dream I had last night and various non-connected Nashville images. Sometimes this goes well...
Well, we got a gig tonight, and we should start thinking about getting ready. Want to catch a look at the old RCA Victor Studio B before we hit the hotel, and get some video of 16th Avenue, which I knew about from recording a friend's girlfriend singing the Lacy Dalton song in their living room decades ago—"God bless the boys that make the noise on 16th Avenue."
Gig time: at BB King's Blues Club downtown. We're in the basement, and it looks like a blues club—brick and cement and old black velvet backdrop; could use some stale beer incense cuz it smells too good. Sound ready to go, set our stuff up, start making some soundcheck noise after all the bustle, and then music even. The people come, voices and faces burning with their own flame. Here we are together to make some music. We play, they write, they sing with us. A burst of energy and fun in the room that seems like it was just silent just moments before. Enjoy this. Soon it will be the 1000 miles back home again and just a memory.
Two guys talk about music biz in Nashville
"You know, these kids come down here and say it's too hard to break into the business and they turn away and go home to mommy and daddy." I was intrigued and he continued, "You ever heard of Rick Hall? Rick grew up in a house with dirt floors, but man, he had drive. He learned music, moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and started FAME recording studio (FAME became especially well-known for launching some of the most important black artists of the 60's, including Aretha, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, and Wilson Pickett. Hall went on to produce thousands of hits (including songs by the Rolling Stones.)."
It felt as though the maintenance guy whom I just met at the Hertz car rental center at the Nashville airport had given me life advice that I should have gotten long ago.
The next day I met a veteran Nashville recording engineer (due to reputation asked to remain nameless) who had given me his insights into the question that is at the heart of the county music business.
K: What happened to country music?
RE: It died on Music Row or it was killed on Music Row, should I say.
K: How did that happen?
RE: Everything changes, music changes everything changes. I was part of the old country music from the 50's and 60's and it all evolves. All the old guys are gone; the new bloods are in, which is fine there's room for both. I'm part of trying to keep the old stuff alive.
K: Are you from Nashville?
RE: Yeah, mhmm. I'm one of the few people from Nashville who works here. I'm a dying art form, there's no one here from Nashville who works here anymore.
K: What about country music today?
RE: The new radio, they play the top 10 songs over and over and they all sound exactly the same way. Same bridge, same guys writing the same thing. It's not like the old days when they used to tell stories, now it's just junk. That's my opinion.
The above opinion is shared by many. Old verses new. I believe this has been going on since the beginning of time, but one thing is
: country music is the most popular it's ever been in this country and Nashville is its thriving music capital. Thanks to my two new Nashville friends for their time. I guess it's time to turn up my amp up to 11.