Friday, June 11, 2010

Kid Rock-style country makes me hanker for Lefty, ET & Shel

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.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

CMA Fest triumphs by leaving Fan Fair's sideshow feel in the dust (but I miss Tammy Wynette)

The quadriplegic from Pennsylvania coal country was one of my favorite acquaintances back during what they used to call Fan Fair here in Music City, USA.
I’m not complaining about the newer, sleeker CMA Music Festival at all. It actually is far superior to the old Fan Fair. I know, because I experienced both. In fact, for several years, before my life as a newspaper expat, I plotted coverage of the CMA Fest and before that Fan Fair.
For example, I’d gather Peter Cooper, Brad Schmitt and -- when he wasn’t yelling at his lava lamp -- Craig Havighurst into a conference room at the morning newspaper and we’d toss around ideas. I gotta admit, I worked a little blue in those days.
Before that grouping, I had Jay Orr and Tom Roland. And before that, when I was at the late and still lamented afternoon daily, I had Orr, whom I used to call “the professor” for no real reason. And Michael Gray, back before he got so slender. Oh yeah, I had Calvin Gilbert for awhile too. Nice man. Bad beard.
That’s a pretty good collection of talent over the years. It was an odd mix of country music scholars, a country music reporter who loved Richard Marx, a business-oriented music writer who was then considered among our town’s finest and most public intellectuals, a great and loyal friend who was and remains the king of kosher fart jokes (and some that weren’t) and another loyal friend who has gone on to become an Americana superstar who will bring the Sheboygan Elks Club to its knees (not that they need that much help, after nights of pickled eggs and warm Schlitz).
We’d talk about who should be profiled. For example: which rising star would Peter follow for the week, writing the always fun look at how this CMA Fest was seen through the eyes of, say, SheDaisy or the Kinleys.
Then Brad would pipe in that he wanted to make sure he was where the girls were. He didn’t care if they were musicians. He just hoped they were charmed by his combination Borscht Belt schtick (check the spelling) and effervescent charm and charming array of massive black shirts. He’d then list a bunch of events he’d be at, usually where Mindy McReady and Cledus T. Judd would join him at the trough.
Of course, Craig would write about the impact on Music City of 576 million tourists, according to the random “eenie, meenie, minie moe” counting technique perfected by tourism honchos and insurance adjusters… .
It was pretty much a story budget that we’d amend each year. For example, if Mindy McReady wasn’t available, Brad would spend time with Charlie Pride or, in a bizarre twist, that little guy in the annoying Big & Rich video. These kinda guys aren’t gonna be comin’ to my citaaaaay if I have any choice.
And if Peter couldn’t find a rising star, he’d find one who was all washed up, choking on the stench of Old Granddad and failure, and paint a glorious picture of resurrection.
Just kidding here. I enjoyed these planning sessions and most of you know that Peter and Brad are, to me, like two sons. Peter likes to talk music with me and I with him. Unlike many younger journalists, he knows the first name of George Jones and also knows that is different from Grandpa Jones, my old Thoreau-spouting friend. Peter and I’ve been known to share a large souvlaki platter. Gonna lick the platter, the gravy doesn’t matter.
And Brad, well, he is a man I’ve come to admire as much for being able to deal with a series of setbacks and still maintaining his level head and positive outlook as for his personal warmth and, well, large array of black shirts.
As for me, well, here I am, sitting in my living room, after my downstairs office was flooded out during the great Gurgling Water Massacree of a month ago, and I’m typing about CMA Music Festival for free, as no one will pay me to do so.
As I do this, I keep coming back to the quadriplegic from Pennsylvania.
Anyway, I do like what the CMA Fest has become and what it has done for our city. Despite my sometimes anachronistic appearance, I am a fairly progressive sort who wishes only the best for our flood-ravaged city. And I have a lot of respect and even admiration for many of today’s stars, like Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert.
And the CMA Music Fest brings in an estimated 67 billion bucks daily while the tourists are here. I think I made up those figures. We’ll see if they turn up in the local press.
It really is cool to see the newer and younger artists. I mean, Carrie Underwood does look better than, say, Loretta Lynn. Although I’d rather listen to Loretta sing. Sorry Carrie: My daughter does love you, though. And you looked swell in that softball outfit Monday night at Greer. That oughta sell a few more CDs.
And Josh Turner makes female heartbeats patter faster than Conway Twitty did in his later years.
And who wouldn’t prefer to see Kenny Chesney sing about his blue chair ponderings rather than seeing Billy Ray Cyrus do Achy Breaky Heart? (This is a hint… stay tuned).
These are all pluses of the new festival. Well, not new anymore. Just the way most of you know it because of its recent, splashy, star-spangled and well-shaved success. And I hope you support it. I know I’ll try to get down to a couple of events, mainly because I like to be around the enthusiasts who come from all over the world to get Taylor Swift’s autograph.
Oh, yeah, I like Taylor Swift a lot, even if I don’t like her music that much. She’s a good person, which to me matters a lot.
But as much as I love the CMA Music Festival, and as much as it brings back fond memories of planning out coverage while Brad Schmitt did his old police reporter best to shoot holes in every story anyone was planning – including his own, which usually had the most holes, as it were – the quadriplegic from Pennsylvania always returns to my heart when CMA Music Festival gets going.
You see, before the makeover – and like I said, it’s generally very good – the thing was called “Fan Fair” and was held in the sweaty barns, mule stalls and near the manure pits at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Of course, we all have a way of remembering the charm and grace of things in hindsight. The charm of Fan Fair was in the wide array of pawn shop glory and claustrophobic sweat and panic attacks.
I don’t lament its passing. But I do miss some of the seedy Joshua Tree roadside snake show flavor of the old Fan Fair.
Everyone was jammed in those little stalls. It didn’t matter if you were Garth Brooks – who once did 24 hours straight of autographing in his booth – or Jimbo and Jim Beam, leaders of the Starcrossed Cattle Ranchers Swing Band and Bowling Team from some coal town in Pennsylvania. If you had a CD to sell or a pin to sell, you were there.
And sometimes there were guys, like the kindly and cool quadriplegic, who followed the band from the coal town to Nashville as they took their shot at the big time in this cow manure scented section of 110-degree Nashville. I can’t remember if they were wearing their bowling shirts. They may have left them in the swelter of the adjacent trailer park.
I would go most years, even after it became CMA Fest, to check things out. And, as I hate heat almost as much as I despise floods and that creep who chose to rub against tattoos instead of Sandra Bullock, I relished the air conditioning of the venues in the modern era.
But sometimes I can’t resist the sort of melancholia that sweeps over me when I remember Conway and Loretta on the stage at the side of the race track. Or the big reunion between George Jones and Tammy Wynette, back when she was still alive. I still love George and I miss Tammy a lot. I wish she was still around. Although no one would recognize her.
Heck, if I remember right (I may be right, I may be crazy), the Beach Boys were there one year. I believe Brian Wilson brought his sand box and Dennis Wilson was still dead. Mike Love was there and I think maybe that guy from that stupid TV sitcom that produced the phenomenon known as those sexy and sometimes lightweight Olsen sisters. I can’t remember his name, other than the fact he dumped a supermodel wife or vice versa. But that has little to do with Fan Fair, anyway. And he wasn’t a good drummer.
OK, you ask me where the quadriplegic from Pennsylvania coal country comes in. I wish I remembered his name. He was a great guy, full of life-affirming philosophy. I spent more than an hour with him as his friends made sure he made it to the various shows and booths.
I was there as features editor of the old Nashville Banner. And while Jay Orr and either Calvin Gilbert or Michael Gray were studying the serious acts and pontificating on the joys and sorrows of Fan Fair, I was always going out there in my role as a columnist, seeking human interest stories.
I chose this one day back in 1992 to go to the Fairgrounds because I had been reading about the “Cyrus Virus” spread by a pelvic-thrusting singer who was capturing hearts in backwoods Kentucky, which is much of the state. I wanted to see what this guy was all about.
So I made my way to the big stage and stood in awe as this mullet-headed mother nature’s son sang and danced to the almost unforgettable (unfortunately) song with its gripping lyrics: “Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart / I just don’t think it’d understand/And if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart/ He might blow up and kill this man.”
The crowd – mostly 57 years old with pig-tails and stretch, pink and yellow clothes held up by elastic American flag suspenders (and we’re talking all genders here) – screamed wild approval.
“So this is country music,” I said, as I watched the twitching, seemingly good-natured guy begin his skyrocket to stardom that would spawn Hannah Montana and a slutty looking Miley Cyrus. Put some pants on, kid.
As for me, well, I wasn’t all that impressed. I mean, I thought he was talented and all. I later found him to be a really nice guy. But I had come for George Jones. And I thought I’d seen Skeeter Davis someplace back in the barns/exhibition halls. She was the one who brought the Byrds to the Opry and I always loved to speak with her.
So, as I walked out of the grandstands and down into the potholed pathway back to the halls, I saw this guy in his wheelchair. He was laughing. He was happy. Billy Ray Cyrus, he figured, was pretty good.
It all didn’t matter, because instead of sitting back in his home in a Pennsylvania coal mining town making small talk with Bob Barker, he was here, in Nashville. And maybe he’d see George Jones or Loretta Lynn. Heck, this Garth Brooks kid was pretty darned good, even though he had by then begun his Peter Pan act, he reckoned. For the record: Garth always has been kind to me, so I had to agree with my new friend.
I found much joy in talking with this guy. It made my trip to the Fan Fair grounds worthwhile. And I climbed back into my crappy red Saturn with its peeling impenetrable clear finish and drove back to the offices of the afternoon newspaper.
I began to sing. No it wasn’t “Achy Breaky Heart”, that would be too good an ending. I think I was singing “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”
Course, I really can’t remember if any of the above is true. It was a long time ago, in an era that will from now on be known as a time not only before the flood but before Hootie became a country superstar.