This was my third trip to Nashville. I’ve said before that Nashville is as important to me as England. England is the font of what we commonly call “Western Democracy,” the notion of three branches of government, Habeas Corpus, and the social contract. English is my language, and language is music.
Nashville is Music City.
I have saved one old cassette tape, purloined from one of my uncles when I was a teenager: Kitty Wells’ Greatest Hits. There were many of these cassettes rolling around the truck I drove in New Mexico. Now I can listen to Kitty Wells on my phone; but the tape still has meaning.
So does the piece of paper where the words of one her most important songs, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. Wells was a trailblazer, a woman in a man’s world. While the song was written by a man, it became her response to Hank Thompson’s complaint in his The Wild Side of Life,
I didn’t know God made Honky Tonk angels
I might have known you’d never make a wife
You gave up the only one that ever loved you
And went back to the wild side of life
Wells sang back,
It was’t God who made honky-tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they’re still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong
It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women
It’s not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that’s ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame
I teared up when I saw it there behind glass and the Hall of Fame, just like I did when I saw the Magna Carta in Lincoln.
My life has been lived with a sound track from the music emanating from Nashville; I’ve often wondered, “Is my life like these songs because I lived them out, or do I love the songs because they match my life.” Maybe it’s both.
As for Magna Carta, our entire way of life originates from that document, or more accurately the effort in action and words to understand, explain, resist, or achieve the ideas in it; people should be able to pursue their own rational self interest within an orderly and predictable society governed by law.
Edward Coke, a central figure in establishing our concept of common law, said of the law in his Institutes, “first, that it is the most natural and genuine exposition of a Statute to construe one part of the Statute by another part of the same Statute, for that best expresses the meaning of the makers,” and that, “the words of an act of Parliament must be taken in a lawful and rightful sense.”
Country music is full of interpretation, intertextuality, and exposition of love, hate, passion, joy, and reflection on life’s brevity and beauty. The law tries to set a framework for that life, a predictable pattern within which we can find our way freely, alone and with others. In each case, country music and the law, the common currency is language.
I understand. It’s a stretch. But I can’t imagine life without life without words and music, without arguments with each other now and through time, without the precedents set by the lives and loves of the ones that came before, their hopes, their fears, their intentions, and their dreams.
Hank Thompson set his lyrics to the music of The Great Speckled Bird, a gospel song made famous by Roy Acuff the dean of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s opening stanza is this,
What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning a great speckled bird
Remember her name is recorded
On the pages of God’s Holy Word.
There it is, the Word. It is a strange allegorical song. Here’s Wikipedia,
“The Great Speckled Bird” is a hymn from the southern United States whose lyrics were written by the Reverend Guy Smith, and transcribed by singer Charlie Swain. It is an allegory referencing fundamentalist self-perception during the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy. The song is in the form of AA, with each section being eight bars in a two-beat meter (either 2/4 or 2/2), with these sixteen bars forming the musical background for each verse. It is based on Jeremiah 12:9, “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.”
This makes me happy. A bizarre internecine theological feud produces a tune for two great singers to have an argument about the wild side of life.
If we take the time, we can and should find great joy in our language and our heritage regardless of our race or point of origin. Controversies abound, but the music of life is the beauty of argument and debate, love and loss, and then passing the whole mess on in the memory of those who follow.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
4104 Hillsboro Pike
My first night in town was a Sunday but I got in early enough to get to the Bluebird at about 4 in the afternoon. The place opens at 5, but if you don’t have a ticket, it’s a wait in line. The Bluebird is a songwriter’s haven, having been a spot where a wide array of writers would come to work on new ideas and try new songs. It is a deliberately intimate spot. Since I was alone, I got parked at a table with strangers, one of which happened to be Tammy Rogers who was performing. I think I handled it well when she asked me if I was there to see her group. “No,” I said, “This was the first place I came to when I got to town.” We talked song writing. I asked stupid questions which she was gracious enough to answer.
The two other guys at the table were firefighters, a father and a son, from Florida. They were also friends of Tammy and her husband, also a musician. The two firefighters were also steel guitar players. Pretty much, I found myself the best spot in the house. The songs were brilliant, lots of new stuff that won’t go on the market until next year.
Mike Compton, a well-respected mandolin player, sang a song he wrote about his grandfather’s old mule, Tony that could have been written 300 years ago. I won’t forget the description of the leather harness worn by sweat and dirt. Then there was a second show that I just got into (you have to leave and wait in line for the second show). It was all good stuff. I stood around in the parking lot with one of the song writer performers afterword talking about writing. I’m grateful he took the time. That’s how all the artists are in Nashville, patient and appreciative of their audience no matter how goofy we are.
Monday, November 14, 2022
I had a speaking thing and meeting earlier in the evening. It went well, and I had a great time with the board members at their meeting. Some great stories and some progress I hope toward the future.
Robert’s Western World
The firefighter guys said that I should go to The Station Inn, but by the time I got there it was locked up, closed, it was over. So I walked over to Broadway. Robert’s has pleasant memories from one of my past trips, specifically when I met two unconnected Scottish people and brought them together for a shot of Jaegermeister and to sing Flower of Scotland.
This night though, Josh Hedley was playing. I’ll admit, I didn’t realize it at first. I discovered Hedley out at a colleague’s house in eastern Washington several years ago. He’s a brilliant song writer and a great singer. The steel player was recognizable to the firefighters (ran into them later) and all in all, for a Monday night this was some great music.
I do feel badly that I did not get the recession special, a fried bologna sandwich, a Moon Pie, a bag of Lays potato chips, and a PBR. My plan was to go back, but I didn’t make it. Damn! Next time. After all 2023 is going to be rough.
I went next door to Tootsie’s, another famous songwriter haunt. Check this out, from an excerpt from Willie Nelson’s memoir:
“I started hanging out at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. The more I drank, the further I fell into the depths of despair and jealousy. Even though I might go off with a willing woman, I couldn’t stand the idea of Martha with another man. To her credit, she didn’t put up with my hypocrisy, but our fights were brutal: one time, she bit my index finger to the bone. I worried about what that would do to my guitar picking.”
There you go. Wille was selling encyclopedias and writing songs. Tonight, on Tootsie’s tiny stage, some kids were have a great time entertaining a rowdy crowd. And the band was as rowdy as the audience. I kept thinking about what I would request. They had a fishing rod with a bucket; “fishing for tips” was written sloppily on the side.
“Would you guys be offended if I requested “Keep Your Hands to Yourself?” The answer was instant. “Hell no!” They played it and the crowd loved it. So did I. It was perfect. Meanwhile, there was a different band out back, upstairs. I was watching them and there was the guy from from the band downstairs standing next to me.
“You think I should ask them to play Georgia Satellites?”
“Shit, they taught us that song!”
I asked, and they proceeded to do a kick ass version. And finally, the kids downstairs raised $100 to do Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Nudie’s is pretty iconic but mostly down to the bitter ends when I got there. The bright light was a lady celebrating her 80th birthday. I had spotted her at Robert’s earlier. She was having a great time. Her grandsons had decided to take her out. She never stopped smiling. Now I know what I hope happens on my 80th birthday. Take a note. I asked for her number but she said, “Maybe next time, pal.” Sad!
Tuesday, November 15
Rolf and Daughters
700 Taylor St, Nashville
I’m pretty sure that my fraternity brother Chris Kenny and I once almost got into fisticuffs over some bullshit event the frat was trying to pull off. It wouldn’t surprise me as I was just as much of an asshole back then as I am now. In any event, Chris is a man of the world, really dialed into the kind of thing I’d like. He had lived in Nashville and so I pinged him on social media for ideas and boy he nailed it with Rolf and Daughters. I think we’re even now. The place is elegant. The service is perfect; I called in because online reservations were booked and got the best seat in the house.
I could rhapsodize about the pasta and the rib. I won’t. You’ll just have get your ass to Nashville. But I will tell you the profound importance of the trout; it is served skin side up. This is critical. Eat the skin, dammit. I love the fact that skin avoiders just have a challenge, eat it or work around it. Otherwise, it’s the best part right there. Totally impressed by that presentation and said so. One of the best meals I’ve had. Thanks, Chris. Almost all is forgiven. I still think the house owes me a case of Henry’s.
402 12th Ave S
“Imagine us being in line behind this guy,” I heard a voice say.
It was the firefighter guys from the Bluebird. Some people doubt that there is a God and would say, “that just happened.” Yeah, that just happened. I had been talking to a couple in line for The Station Inn when these guys showed up. Coincidence? Maybe. But I introduced the couple from Kentucky to the firefighters from Florida and we talked music and life and all sorts of stuff. When we got in, we landed some chairs at a table and shared a couple pitchers of beer.
Sitting at the table across from me was a couple from Minnesota. The guy was from Wisconsin, an architect, and the woman was from Minneapolis. Of course, I told them how much I loved the Midwest and the guy couldn’t believe I’d spent a night in his home town, Marshfield, several years back. We had a great time talking about brandy and supper clubs.
Then the music started. I fantasize about singing old standard country songs in a little roadhouse. This was it. The music of 45 RPM was like a dream. They did some of my dearest favorites, like Johnny Paycheck’s A-11. The song is a classic and perfectly constructed juke box song, a song about a guy playing the juke box. I said at the outset of this post that it’s all about language, and music, and life, but the juke box song is central to the narrative. They did it! And I didn’t even have to ask.
Afterward, I asked the couples how they met. What stood out was the guy from Wisconsin (on the right) said he knew when he saw her the first time they’d be together forever. She was an intern at the firm they were both at and she seemed surprised. They were good enough to let me take a picture of them together. I imagine their politics and expectations are radically different, but for that night we shared music, beer, and stories. This is the only way we’re going to make it.
Wednesday, November 16
Heading for Asheville
The coins in my hand are three kopecks given to me by a Russian Lyft driver who sang me songs on the way back to the hotel. Everyone is trying in Nashville, and everyone benefits. And this is my takeaway. When opportunity is created and maximized, creativity thrives. Country music was born in the south from immigrants largely from the British Isles. Their music was burnished by black influences, sounds crafted in furnaces of suffering, and then refined by poverty and hope.
Today, our country is on the precipice of another feud. I didn’t feel that with the people I met, the food that I ate, or the music I heard. Instead, I felt the deep common bonds that hold people together, music, food, and love. Strangers in strange lands have a way of getting along; they have far more in common than might seem at first. Words and music.
The morning I left, I stopped by the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy man from the north who supported the effort to squash the southern rebellion. He founded a great university in the south with this purpose,
“Strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.”
That’s why I love Nashville. Words and music. That’s what has kept us together, and if we try, will keep us together.
Kitty Wells, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
Johnny Paycheck, A-11