Watching Kid Rock emcee the CMT Music Awards the other night, I had to struggle for a moment to remember just why it was I fell in love with Nashville back in 1972. Or was ’71? Long time ago. I was making water heaters by day and roaming the streets of the city by night.
One reason I fell in love with this city was the guitar player who took the “stage” nightly at … well, I can’t remember the name of the joint. It was right across from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, because on occasion Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, one of the Cash boys or some other Grand Ole Opry stalwarts would come in to sing along with the house band.
They may have been trying to kill time between the end of the Grand Ole Opry -- which then was in the Ryman Auditorium regularly and not just as a refuge from the flood -- and the Midnight Jamboree down at ET’s Record Shop.
Hang around long enough on a summer night and you’d see Loretta Lynn or Little Jimmy Dickens perform for free and for the joy of music. There were times that I took a nap after my shift on the line and got up just in time to go down to see those shows. So much older then, much younger than that now.
There was no such thing as a suburban Donelson ET Record Shop or a Grand Ole Opry House – submerged or otherwise -- at that time. In fact, Lower Broadway was a place of bars, honky-tonks, sticky-floored peep shows and other “night shift” workers who would openly proposition day and night. Their clients apparently were led to rooms above what now are souvenir shops. Suppose they all -- or at least those who picked up that trade -- eventually moved to Dickerson Road or Murfreesboro Pike.
Sure, some visitors may have found Lower Broad a little seedy. I relished in it. I’ll have to look up the name of the guitar player sometime. I do remember that they found him dead, dreams of glory dashed, in the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Can’t remember if he was reaching for some needle arm that drove him down to hell or if he was just expired. He was a big guy. Man he would play.
Lower Broadway was not the neon lit, family friendly Disneyesque district it is today. I’m sure tourism officials are pleased. And, for the most part, I guess it’s good. It wasn’t more than a year or so after I first hit town that the Old-Time Pickin’ Parlor opened on Second Avenue North. Now a booming restaurant an club stretch, it was a warehouse wasteland there, reminding me as much of the ghost towns I used to explore during my long pursuit of the secrets of Joshua Tree and the non-existent American Dream. First time at the Pickin’ Parlor, I saw Doc and Merle Watson. That was before Merle got run over by a tractor. Guests may have included the likes of Vassar, Dawg, Hartford. Perhaps even Garcia. You never really knew. I was fortunate in that Vassar became a dear friend in his later years. It was a privilege.
Yes I still go downtown, or rather to Lower Broadway, occasionally. In fact, I likely will go back down to the fancy tourist district this weekend, if only because I love the city and I love the fans who come to CMA Fest. Although I guess more of them come in from Brooklyn and Bonn than Defeated Creek any more. Most have never stopped at Wall Drugs, in other words. If you don’t know what that means, it matters even less to me.
But I do lament the old and sometimes seedy ghosts at times.
Rather than recreating “classic country” with new-fangled music-goosing machines and the like, the real stuff played down there on Lower Broad in that bygone era. There was the jolt and joy of listening to the weeping steel and the occasional visit with Lefty or ET, either in a bar or while sat in Tootsie’s back room. Boot heels hooked under the tabletop, they’d lean back in those suds-soaked chairs, armpits stained dark after leaving their spangles and such across the alley in the Opry while they sought refreshment.
Sometimes I’d hang out in the alley, and talk to those guys. Sometimes I’d sneak in the alley door and catch the Opry’s last few segments. Or perhaps I’d go down Fifth a few steps and watch someone swampin’ them tables down at Green Gables. Yep, Waylon fans, there really was such a joint.
It escapes me right now the name of the restaurant where I’d drop in, down Broadway, where I’d have coffee, trying hard not to succumb to the urge to bother Roger Miller reading the first editions of the morning newspaper. Or perhaps it was the last edition of the afternoon paper. He smoked a lot. So did I back then.
I’m sure Roger was just twisting the words around for pleasure. “Dang me. Dang me…” What rhymes with that? Of course that song predated those nights, but you get the idea. “Woman won’t you weep for me?”
Speaking of roller skating through buffalo herds or, more to the point, twisting words for pleasure, there was Shel Silverstein.
I’ve written before of my first encounter with one of my heroes. Shel one night, likely well-oiled but precise of diction, coaxed his late-night buddy, Bobby “Honey” Goldsboro, into helping me load up my 1965 Falcon’s trunk with the bricks that Metro was tearing out of Fifth Avenue South. Metro was modernizing by tearing out the old bricks and replacing them with asphalt that would help spawn potholes and please the tow truck drivers who still claim that stretch, although I understand there is still a seething border war. Again, another story.
Most of you don’t remember the brick streets. Heck, I was sure not going to forget them. So for some reason, at 2 a.m., I decided it was a good time to take a few souvenirs. Shel and Bobby came up to me from the vacant lot where they’d parked their car, a lot that decades later would be buried someplace near the special Jack Daniels entrance into the Bridgestone Arena. I liked the smile and the friendly tone that approached me in that humid early morning.
If you don’t own it yet, Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein came out Tuesday on Sugar Hill records. Guys like Prine, Kristofferson, Bare Sr. and Jr. and Ray Price sing the great words of the poet. If you ever heard Shel sing, by the way, you’ll know that he made Kristofferson seem like Caruso. Ever see the footage of him doing “Boy Named Sue” on the old Cash show from the Ryman?
But if you ever spoke to Shel, you came away feeling better. Like the easygoing conversation we had when he did more than his share of loading bricks. I think the absurdity of helping a long-haired young man load his trunk with apparently obsolete bricks while guitars – electric and steel – echoed through streets of Guitar Town suited him just fine.
Done, he and Goldsboro bounded, or at least, vanished into the night. I told Shel I loved his songs and such. Can’t remember that I praised anything Bobby had done, although I sure thanked him for helping with the brickloading. After all, he was a pretty big crossover star back then.
And there were the nights spent at the Tally-Ho Tavern – the site I believe now is occupied by a Curb building – on Music Row. If you were lucky, Kristofferson was in town. Don’t bother him, but catch him and Billy Swan, Charlie Daniels, Funky Donnie Fritts, Arthur Alexander, Billy Ray Reynolds and Bobby Bare out on the picnic tables, swapping tunes. The Rev. Will Campbell, who lived downstairs from Kris in the rotting tenement a few feet away may be there too. Likely not preaching. Captain Midnight, a renegate radio outlaw, also a friend I acquired along the way, may have been challenging Waylon to a knife-throwing contest.
I told Kris about those memories once, when he and I looked for what once was the Tally-Ho and he just smiled that grizzled movie star smile. He'd not been back to those sites in three decades when I took him. He was curious, but shared my melancholy that all "the old stuff" was gone.
Anyway, memories like those guided me into something teeteing between respair and wild, ribald Johnny Russell-style laughter while watching the CMT’s -- what used to be called the Flameworthy Awards… Or what I dubbed back during my days at the morning newspaper “the Spongeworthy Awards.”
I like Kid Rock. And there are some great musicians in the likes of Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. But the Nashville I fell in love with is as much in the past as whatever bars or pawn shops stood where the Predators play hockey or the happy Detroit “rock-rapper” emcees a show that is supposedly a big night for country music but instead is some TV programmer’s nightmarish vision of what fans want. Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and my old friend the late Carl Smith likely slept right through it. If they watched it, it may have been one of the few times when the others considered Carl lucky.
I’ll be back on Lower Broadway, either Saturday or Sunday. I’ll look for Roger Miller. I’ll look for Lefty Frizzell, who actually was an affable sort. Maybe ET will show up, at least in spirit, in front of the record store.
More likely, I’ll gawk at and give directions to the tourists. Maybe I’ll talk with my pal Mandolin Dan, who likely has had a good week.
I’ll think of other down-and-outers I knew who have died. I’ll remember when the joint named Possum Holler blasted orange neon into the night somewhere near where the Hard Rock is today.
I love Nashville and what it has become. There is no better city. But it’s not what it was 38 years ago. Course neither am I.