Photo of Tommy Womack by Gregg Roth ©2013
At the right place on the right night, you can walk into a nightclub in Nashville, start recruiting at one end of the bar, and by the time you’ve reached the other end you’ll have a band that sounds like they’ve been backing you for years. I know because I’ve done it. There are many other cities with vibrant music scenes, but for the sheer volume of world-class talent packed butt to elbow, and for the benevolent vibe that goes along with it, nothing touches Music City.
Like any freelance job, making music is both frightening and exhilarating, and it’s not always lucrative; most musicians put up with relatives asking when they’re going to hang it up and get a “real job.” Nashville is the place to make it real.
In my twenty-one years here, I’ve stood at Rotier’s in front of Randy Travis, waiting for a table like everyone else. I nearly sideswiped Ricky Skaggs on West End Avenue one day, and Ryan Adams cut me off at the same intersection several years later. John Prine and Steve Winwood have both opened men’s room doors in my face. I sat next to Emmylou Harris at a Ray Davies show, her hair hidden under a scarf that knotted under her chin—Dylanese for “not now.” I saw Garth Brooks perform solo at a private banquet. I even stood at a salad bar next to Grandpa Jones. In Nashville, the proximity to greatness is constant and intimate.
Besides my brushes with fame at the salad bar or local busy intersection, I’ve kept fairly clear of anything having to do with the mainstream country music industry. In my two decades of living in Nashville, I’ve enjoyed a rich and satisfying musical life, and never once have I been aware of what the number-one country single of the week might be—nor did I feel like I was missing anything. The members of Lady Antebellum or the Band Perry could jump me in an alley and I wouldn’t be able to ID them in a mug shot. But I know my corner, and the people who hang out on it—mostly middle-aged survivors like me.
Nashville has two kinds of folks: music industry people and civilians. Many of the civilians are so inundated with all the music thrown at them that they don’t pay attention anymore; some are churchgoers who don’t go to bars anyway, no matter who is playing. So bands will often find themselves playing for other musicians, songwriters, and industry people, most of whom are broke. Bands will almost always play for door money or tips, and if they get thirty dollars apiece at the end of the night, they’re in high cotton. As Mike Grimes—he of the successful record store Grimey’s—points out, a low-paying or free gig in Nashville, in front of the right person, can translate into paying gigs out of town down the road.
Nashville is a songwriter’s town. You would be forgiven for thinking of us as a bloodless exporter of songs about cowboys—written by people who aren’t cowboys, sung by people who aren’t cowboys, for an audience of people who aren’t cowboys. There is some truth in that. But Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have knocked on our door for hits before, and some of our most successful songs bypass the Music Row production line entirely. “We’ve been banging our heads against a wall for forty years, trying to get the world to see that we do more than country music here,” says my friend Bill Lloyd of the Long Players. “People from all over the world come here to record.”
And hope springs eternal for anyone with a tune in his or her head. It’s a new day when you sit down to write another song, and who knows? This might be the one. Nashville is a city of possibilities. Now, say you play or sing really well. If you’re good enough to back somebody up or play in the recording studio, then this is the town for you. That’s not enough, though. Everybody plays and sings great; that’s a given. But you get jobs because you’re a good hang, relaxed and easy to deal with. Charlie Watts once described his career in the Rolling Stones as “five years of work and twenty-five years of hanging around.” That sounds about right. Easygoing people who can master “the art of the hang” are the ones who carry the day. You’ll find bigger jerks in a small-town rock scene than you’ll find here. To feel camaraderie with like-minded artists, just to hang out with them, is the sweetest of spiritual diets. It sustains me.
With all the competition, it’s a challenge to get ahead in Nashville, though it does happen. I don’t consider myself a very good musician compared to others around here, and my songwriting is idiosyncratic (to put it kindly), but I’ve put in my time; I’ve learned what not to play; I’ve done Leno and Letterman in backing bands, played some sessions, had my songs recorded by artists like Jimmy Buffett. That one was a co-write with prodigious guitarist Will Kimbrough; Jimmy likes Will, and I just happened to be there. Regardless, the money was green and I got a check that bought me the laptop I’m typing on now, and it enabled me to re-roof my house. I can honestly say that my musical pursuits have put shelter over my family’s head.
Will’s a quietly intense fellow who works hard. He’s backed up Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Buffett, and a slew of others. In 2012, he played sixty gigs in Emmylou Harris’s band and did about a hundred of his own solo shows. Throw in travel days, and that makes something like two hundred days when Will was away from home. “It’s wonderful and horrible,” he says of that life, having recently said goodbye to the gun-for-hire role to concentrate on his solo career. It’s been a long slog to get to the point where he could do that. He has a new record titled Sideshow Love, and he just did a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to release and promote it.
“If you are still doing good work, after all these years—as a writer, a producer, a session man, and a solo artist—it all eventually adds up to where you can reach out to people and raise a lot more money than you thought,” Will says. “And it’s not about the money so much as the fact that people are coming to the shows in slightly bigger numbers than in the past. If you’re a singer-songwriter, the rise in your career will be either meteoric or glacial.” After fifteen years of putting out solo albums, the glacier has moved enough that Will can see success on the other side, though he concedes that these are still troubled economic times for musicians.
In the wake of plummeting record sales, playing live has become a lifeline for big names. For some of us, house concerts are a good performance outlet. Hundreds of singer-songwriters now pull in most of their bacon by playing in people’s homes. It’s an economic staple for a stream of Nashville artists like Will, Rod Picott, Amelia White, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, Dave Olney and Sergio Webb, Kevin Gordon, Lisa Oliver-Gray, and me. The money is usually better in people’s homes—often as much as a twenty-dollar “suggested donation” per person, most or all of it going to the artist—and you’re performing for people who came to hear the music, not folks who just stumbled on a show at a bar. It doesn’t hurt that this crowd buys merch and there’s almost always a mighty potluck nosh.
For an industry town, Nashville is remarkably bereft of cliquishness. Maybe that’s because it’s full of expats. If you feel like an outsider, you’ll likely find someone at a party or over a barstool to talk to anyway—someone who just moved here as well. Take Paul Griffith, from Algiers, Louisiana. I’m from Madisonville, Kentucky, but I met Paul over a late breakfast at the Nashville Biscuit House, and Paul has brought his drumming to bear on hundreds of recording sessions and thousands of gigs. He can adapt and play whatever is required of him, but he’s most at home whacking out a loose and swinging Big Easy feel. He just got back from playing a Todd Snider tour of amphitheaters in zoos (yes, zoos). Paul’s been on the road with Todd for most of the last two years. “If you embrace the chaos, it’s the best gig in the world,” he says. In more than twenty years of living in Nashville, he’s done tours with Lee Roy Parnell, Carlene Carter, Jo-El Sonnier, and many, many others.
Twenty-odd years ago, Paul did a short-lived stint with Hank Williams Jr. “Did a whole gig with him,” he says. “Never met the man. I rehearsed with his band for a week and I was so excited. Then we did the first gig. It sounded great. Thing is, Hank does this bit in the show where he goes around and plays each person’s instrument for a moment. I’m left-handed, so my drums are set up differently. Hank’s right-handed, so he sits down at my drum kit and goes, What the hell? Later that night the bus rolled past Nashville, and Hank phoned the road manager and said, ‘Drop him off.’ So that was my Hank Jr. experience.”
More than gigs, Paul loves the recording studio. “All I’ve ever really wanted to do is work on records. When I was a kid, I remember listening to music and pretending I was playing that song in the studio, not on the stage. I find audiences distracting sometimes—with the pretty girls, I’ll get an ego thing going, and the next thing I know I’m playing my instrument instead of playing the song. For me the great stuff is playing in the studio with like-minded people.”
“I’ve tried doing other things,” Paul says, “but like John Prine said, ‘If you think breaking into the music business is hard, try breaking out.’ I went back to graduate school, I became a freelance writer. I tried to get out. Didn’t work.”
Like so many people in Nashville, Paul wears multiple hats to fill in financial cracks and set something aside for the future. “I get work as an editor and a proofreader. I see a sedate future concentrating more on that. Playing drums as I continue to get older has become more and more a physical challenge. Still, I’m so lucky to live here and be able to find a whole other thing to do.”
Lots of musicians find other ways to make ends meet. A cottage industry has sprung up around musicians forming tribute bands. Call them cover bands if you must, so long as you acknowledge that they’re the best damn cover bands you’ve ever heard in your life.
The Long Players formed in 2004. The core of the band is Bill Lloyd and Steve Allen on guitars, Steve Ebe on drums, John Deaderick on keyboards, and either Brad Jones or Garry Tallent (from the E Street Band) on bass, although the ranks will swell to whatever it takes to reproduce the music they’re covering.
These aren’t just covers like you’d find in any lounge: the Long Players will perform a classic album from top to bottom for the first set, with a different lead singer for each successive tune. (I performed on their debut. The album was Let It Bleed, and I sang the title track.) The second set includes greatest hits by the featured artist of the night. In nine years, the Long Players have covered upwards of sixty different classic albums, and the format has served them well; they sell out local venues and find themselves in demand for private shows and even some roadwork.
“It’s almost like we’re curators of a museum of albums,” says Bill, a man much loved in Nashville for his talent for writing both country tunes and jangly power pop. (He estimates that he’s written over a thousand songs since he was eleven years old. When I ask him how many he’s published, he has to think a while. “Six hundred, maybe?” he offers. Of those, a “good many” have been performed by other artists, like Trisha Yearwood, T. Graham Brown, and the Forrester Sisters.)
“A new generation has come along that doesn’t know the format of an album like what we grew up with,” he says. “We serve to remind people that full-length collections of songs by an artist can make a more complete statement to a listener than just hearing the single.” Bill also plays with Cheap Trick when they do their own tribute shows. He fleshes out the guitar parts whenever they perform the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in its entirety. He’s done that gig at the Hollywood Bowl and for two stints in Las Vegas. Nice work when you can get it.
The Long Players aren’t the only game like that in town. For eleven years, the Guilty Pleasures have been selling out local clubs with a diet of ’80s music. A band called AquaVelvet does smoother cocktail-party fare, and Twelve Against Nature celebrates the music of Steely Dan. East Nashville’s Sons of Zevon concentrate on one year at a time during their themed performances, like when a long line of guest vocalists sings the songs of 1971.
“The covers thing helps me be in charge of my life,” says Steve Ebe of the Long Players, who performed on the road until his son was born in 1997. “I’ve also found that I can give about forty-five to fifty drum lessons a week without losing my mind. There’s a full-time salary right there. Gigs and sessions on top of that are gravy.”
In the past, he’d been able to rely on studio sessions. “There was a time twenty years ago when a lot of publishing demos were still being done downtown in the big studios,” Steve says. “I would get three or four sessions a week just doing those. Now that’s almost gone.” Thanks to technology, pro-level recording capabilities are in the hands of most anyone, and major studios are hurting. It’s not uncommon to do sessions in someone’s house now. And not even a house converted into a studio—just a house.
Many would agree with Steve’s assertion: “Music’s healthy. It’s the industry that’s sick.” It’s harder than ever to sell songs now that every artist with access to a computer is putting music out into the ether. “I miss radio,” Bill says. “A lot of very talented people are writing really important songs, but nobody gets to hear any of it.” At least, not a sizable enough chunk to imprint itself on a generation like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” did in 1964 or “Teach Your Children” in 1970.
In spite of the changes that have hit our business, musicians still relish in celebrating tunesmiths and their creations. Audiences listen remarkably well in Music City, whether at the Bluebird Café, a singer-songwriter landmark known for shushing noisy patrons, or at a small neighborhood venue like the Family Wash, where practiced ears can appreciate a performer amidst clanking forks and the sounds of diners enjoying a shepherd’s pie. I wouldn’t believe this could happen if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of the audience’s sharp attention.
Being in a Nashville band is a little different than being in a band anywhere else. Here, a band is a group of people who get together to play a specific gig, and they may or may not rehearse. The gig might be backing someone up, or it might be more of a collective thing—though the same standards apply: everyone gets the material ahead of time and does homework.
The musicians will listen to the tunes and “chart them out” using something called the Nashville Number System, a marriage between sheet music and shorthand developed in studios here in the ’50s. Most people use one sheet of paper per song, but others are adept at making shorthand of the shorthand, squeezing multiple songs onto one page. (Dave Jacques, whose regular gig is with John Prine, is known for his ability to put an entire set of material on one diary-sized sheet of paper—and being able to read it!) Musicians use music stands to hold their charts if they absolutely have to, but for aesthetics they prefer to set their papers on the floor. Steve keeps his charts on an iPad and has rigged up a drum stand to hold it in place where he can see it and play at the same time.
Bands come together and drift apart like clouds in the sky. And because practically everyone knows one another, we all learn who plays naturally with whom—to the point where sometimes it feels like the entire city is one big band. Musicians wind up playing with one another in so many different permutations that any ensemble becomes a comfortable fit no matter who is in the lineup that night. Of course, certain drummers and bass players just fit better—like Paul Griffith and Tim Marks, Marc Pisapia and Kevin Hornback, Keith Brogdon and Mike Vargo, or Justin Amaral and Dan Seymour—which makes it easier to get the best sound when you’re forming groups. A couple of months back, Mike Vargo and I found ourselves thrown together in a band Lisa Oliver-Gray created for a weekend of private parties. We met onstage at the rehearsal, and the next day we rode three hours to the gig. Practiced as we both are in the art of the hang, we got along famously. When we rendezvoused at 11:45 a.m. on the day of the show, Mike had already been to work at FedEx and come home; he’d clocked in at 3 a.m. By the time we finished the gig and found our hotel rooms that night, he had been awake for twenty-two hours and was still functioning and making sense. This brings up a very important aspect to making it in Nashville: good health. Mike is forty-two years old. A man of that age who unloads trucks in the wee hours then goes off to a gig must be conscious of the fact that his body is a temple.
There’s a popular myth that musicians treat their bodies like laboratories—and in some non-professional circles, that’s certainly the case. But among those of us who make a living playing music in Nashville, nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re going to produce music that’s pleasing to the ears, you’ve likely also got your humors in balance, both mentally and physically. Drinking is generally considered an after-show indulgence. Pot smoking is kept discreet and minimal. Hard drugs are virtually unheard of. There is a tacit understanding that, no matter if you’re playing in a live band or in a studio setting, someone hired you. And that someone has the option of not hiring you next time.
Steve Ebe offers some words of wisdom for people wanting to make it in Nashville: “If anyone ever asked my advice about moving here, I’d say, ‘Save your money.’ Have something to live on for a while, because it’s not going to happen for you overnight. It takes time. Putting money aside is not only vital; it can enable you to say no to the gigs you don’t want to do.” (A month of one-nighters on the dusty county fair circuit comes to mind.) Mike Grimes suggests you have a Plan B. “If the performing dream doesn’t pan out, you still might find a niche in something music-related. I’m fortunate to be as passionate about record stores as I am about playing music, so my transition into running a store isn’t something I look on as a sacrifice.”
And what to do when you get here? Well, many years ago I was told to “hang out.” That’s right: hang out. Nothing more complicated than that. Like every other business, music is all about forging friendships. Will Hastings is a twenty-three-year-old songwriter from Nashville who has returned to his hometown after going away for college. “I came back to a growing town I barely recognized, full of people I don’t know.” Will waits tables and tries to write songs with as many people as he can, and whenever he’s not working, he’s in the clubs. He’s hanging out.
The competition is fierce here, but the community is empathetic. “No matter how much of a hotshot you were in your hometown, there’s somebody in Nashville who’s better than you,” Steve says. Or as Will Kimbrough puts it, “Whenever I think I’m some genius songwriter, I just need to look across the street at David Olney’s house. There’s a genius songwriter.”
As for me, I’d tell you not to worry about making it big. Concentrate on making it real. If you come to Nashville to be a musician, a songwriter, a singer, a producer, or an engineer, it doesn’t matter if you have to do something on the side to make it work, like Paul Griffith and his proofreading or Mike Vargo with his FedEx job. Whatever it takes is whatever it takes. If you’ve made it to town and made it into the ranks, you’ve arrived.