The kid with the Brad Paisley Stetson caught up just as I stepped past the statue of Elvis on the sidewalk and kept going straight, glancing, as I usually do, up the hill at the Ryman and remembering when I used to sneak in the alley door into the Opry every week.
“Man, they won’t run over both of us, I hope,” said the kid as he and I stepped --- with the little green-dude walk signals – in front of disobedient traffic and across Fifth Avenue. We both were bound uphill. He for the Masonic Lodge parking lot – where his band’s van was parked – and me to the old white Saab parked on Broadway in front of that monument.
“Me and my band are playing at Cadillac Ranch and I gotta get the van with the instruments in it and pull down there for a minute,” said the kid.
“We been playing together awhile. Mostly down in Alabama, but now we’re working hard to make it here,” said the kid.
I stopped so I could turn to him and extend my hand, introducing myself. After all, he and I had just completed a death-defying act in the middle of lawless Nashville, where red lights are mere bothers.
Stewart Halcomb laughed, easily, and met my firm handshake with his own. Sensing he might be a musician, though – although not just musicians wear cowboy hats on Lower Broad – I didn’t tighten the throttle on my hand-grip.
I reserve a slightly softer shake for guys who use their hands to play guitars and for prizefighters. I remember one of the times I hung out with Muhammad Ali, he winched when I shook his hand. Course he’d spent the prior evening beating up Leon Spinks. All I’d done was write about it and hang out with Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier and the really pretty woman who’d stepped into the ring naked.
The young cowboy and I began the gentle uphill stroll in front of the urban atrocity that is the convention center. If this one’s bad, what’s the next one gonna look like? Anyway, he went on to talk about the hard life he and his band mates in The Springs had chosen, but how they were chasing the dream that had lured so many country acts to Nashville over decades.
Yep, Hank done it this way, after all, I shrugged.
Stewart added that his band was still smoothing its edges and that, while there’s a CD out, I shouldn’t judge them by that. “We like to play live and we really don’t know yet how to record right,” said the affable kid, the leader and songwriter of a band that is aged 19-22 and that plays most nights down in Nashville’s Disney World.
I call it “Nashville’s Disney World” because it’s not the Lower Broadway that I first fell in love with 40 years ago. Course I had dark hair and a less-firm grip on reality back then. This was going to be a town that I’d write about for life. The musicians, the dreamers, the whores.
It was in a time when Roger Miller still could be found sipping coffee in an all-night diner and Shel Silverstein and Bobby Goldsboro would stop to help a young guy rescue old bricks from a road that was being “resurfaced” to asphalt. I’ve told you about that. They even helped young guy load the bricks in the trunk of the ’65 Falcon.
Same car took me all over the country for awhile. Spent a lot of time sleeping in it in the streets of New Orleans, San Francisco, San Antonio, Kerrville or next to it out at Joshua Tree. Course Wizard traveled with me. I wonder what happened to the Falcon after the engine blew? Sought out Wizard once on the internet a year or so ago and made contact. Realized then there was a plenty good reason we weren’t friends any more. No need to go into them here. Too many a--holes in the world would be offended.
But then that’s a side story for another day. Right now, I’m talking about Stewart, the nice kid with the dream. He didn’t talk just about his dream, though. He asked about mine. Yes, I still have some, even though the booger-eating Ghadafis of Korporate Amerika tried to beat them out of me… but failed.
Anyway, we talked about songwriting and people writing, about guitars and Tennessee Titans while we walked to our vehicles. I told him I’d hit his bar one night. I don’t drink nor do I ride mechanical (or even real-life) bulls anymore, but I’d like to see this kid. It’s nice when hope and optimism brighten a young guy’s face.
I had gone to Lower Broadway as a part of a magazine assignment that has taken me to music venues all over the city in the last week or so.
As I’m old and don’t drink beer, I tried to hit the places relatively early, before busy bartenders tired of offering up icy glasses of free water to the guy with the pony-tail and wearing a 25-year-old Bob Dylan concert T-shirt. That came from when he was touring with G.E. Smith. Horrible show, but I love Bob.
I actually go to Lower Broad fairly frequently. Sometimes it’s just for a walk. Sometimes it’s to relive memories. Sometimes it’s simply to wonder where I been since the days when this was my turf.
Back then it was sticky-floored peep shows and propositions from working women to join them “upstairs,” someplace above the row of neon buildings and souvenir shops that now offer up a G-rated version of Nashville for mass consumption by tourists and hockey fans.
Before the city’s real flesh was covered by Chamber of Commerce boosters and the like, a cigarette smoking writer could easily jaywalk from the Wheel to Tootsie’s, as long as I didn’t trip across some stoned loser or Willie Nelson sprawled in the middle of the street.
Tootsie’s back then was a favorite, because the Opry stars used to hang out upstairs, near the back door. I’d get there early enough to drink beer at the table next to Lefty, ET, Cash, Porter and even old Mooney.
Now, of course, it’s different. City planners helped the once run-down area get “pasteurized.” Souvenir shops and Elvis statues. A huge hockey arena and a convention center. Family restaurants even. Wouldn’t have taken a family down here 40 years ago, I laughed as a group of Japanese smiled at me when I rubbed the nose of one of the Elvis statues.
I wonder if anyone’s heard the news that Elvis actually was from Memphis? He just recorded here. His last few visits to Nashville, he stayed at the old Sheraton on Harding Place at Trousdale – about a mile from my house.
What used to be a top-quality hotel and small convention center became a seedy Ramada before being torn down to make way for a CVS. “Nashville: Where there’s a church on every other corner. A CVS or a Walgreen’s is on the other.”
A part of my mission the other night was to check out an old friend and his outfit. The Don Kelley Band is, for my money (freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…) the best country cover band in a city overpopulated by country cover bands.
But while guys like Stewart in the Springs are busy writing their own material and trying to bust into the bigs and outlive Luke the Drifter, Don is not following that dream.
Decades ago he began playing at Robert’s, not singing his own songs but the songs made famous by ET, Cash, Waylon, Tom T., Willie, Marty, Roger and even Patsy.
A good soul, he always surrounds himself with the best musicians, many of whom advance into the ranks of elite touring bands or session pickers.
Don’s not that kind of guy. He likes a steady job, a good girlfriend, his house way north of the city and his motorcycle (although he tells me he’s getting too old to ride it).
“I’m not a great singer,” Don will say. “But people kind of like what I do. I can do those Tubb and Cash songs pretty good.”
His current lineup … or really, the lineup during my visit, because it has changed … was him on the bulk of the vocals and rhythm, JD Simo on lead guitar, Dave Roe on slap bass and vocals (have you ever heard a better version of “Pretty Woman” since Roy Orbison died?) and Artie Alinkoff on drums and vocals.
It was among Roe’s last performances with the band. “I’m going to start having the weekends off,” he said, between sets, after he passed the tip jar around the house and sold and autorgraphed CDs
“I like this job, but it’s every Wednesday through Saturday, 6:30 til 10 and it’s time I did some other things. I’m gonna freelance. Like you, Tim,” said Roe, who used to play slap bass with John R. Cash.
I first met him back then. I told him he’d probably have more luck in the freelance world than I, as he’s a much better bass player. But it was good for the ego – and I admit I enjoy a nice stroking now and then (but that’s another story, too) – when Artie, Don and Dave all bragged from the stage about my writing.
“You’re brilliant man,” said Artie. “Really cool.”
Kindred spirits, I’m sure. They must toil hard to make a living out of tips and CD sales – I did buy a copy of their "best of" album. It’s not John Lennon or Johnny Cash. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s a great cover band singing other people’s songs. It makes me smile while I sit here and think.
After a couple of sets, I had to move on. I was going to a bar in East Nashville, where my favorite squeezebox player and Earl Scruggs’ grandson were playing with Paul Burch. Great show there too, though the highlight for me was – again between sets – standing out in the cold and semi-dark of East Nashville and talking to that squeezebox player.
Very few people try as hard to stay solemn when playing, only to bob their heads and smile like Jen Gunderman, who handles accordion and keyboards by night and teaches rock ‘n’ roll at Vanderbilt by day. “I used to think I needed to be, you know, a surly rocker chick,” she said. “But I really love playing. I’m so lucky.”
I wound my way out of East Nashville, trying not to run over crack dealers and prostitutes on Main Street, and pondered the evening.
Pretty enjoyable, thanks to the kid with the musical dream and the band that never stops and the squeezebox queen
And that’s despite the fact I spent a good part of the evening in Nashville’s Disney World, the now brightly lighted section of town that’s featured on Chamber postcards and marketed on "Monday Night Football" and the like.
Tootsie’s long ago was a treasure. Now it’s just a joint. And Tootsie herself is long dead. (I’ve paid my respects at her suitably simple and modest grave before, as she was an interesting woman.)
Sure, I love this new Nashville, even though I can’t find an orange neon glow proclaiming “Possum Holler” – Jones’ old club – anywhere on the skyline. But I guess I’m a relic. I kind of liked it better when a guy could buy coffee and chat with Roger Miller, turn down the advances of the whores and scoot past the peep shows for fear of catching some sort of air-transmitted sexual disease before dodging into a club where Tom T. Hall was singing for beer and laughs with the house band.
Shel Silverstein’s dead and Bobby Goldsboro moved to Florida. And the bricks, well they got displaced during the storms of life.
Still I felt energized, by the kid. Stewart Halcomb. I don’t have his CD yet, as I haven’t been to Walmart since that night.
But after a life of writing about those who chase dreams, whether as musicians, athletes, women and men of the cloth or just plain old church janitors, I’ve often had to chronicle how those dreams fell short or ended tragically.
Here’s a kid who says, with a lot of work, he’ll make it. And Nashville’s Disney World will have a brand new star.
I had the urge to go back down to the strip on my way home, buy a pack of smokes and go back into the bars.
Course I didn’t . First of all, I quit smoking 11 years ago. Besides that, I think smoking is illegal down there in Nashville’s Disney World.
It’s just running red lights and almost killing old guys with pony-tails and young cowboy singers that’s still legal.