Friday, October 14, 2011

October Letter from Nashville

By Peter Rodman

Some people hibernate in winter.
Me, I'm just waking up. 
Because there’s no time more vital to the soul, than autumn...when the night dips its toe into the chill, and spiders think you’ll stop using your front porch, if they just swoop down and scare the crap out of you.  Even the trees sprinkle their leafy reminders, that they too, are part of the family--and wouldn’t mind a little admiring glance, now 'n' then.
So, okay…that’s a bit lofty, I know.
Put another way?

My girly arms look much better in sweaters, than t-shirts.

Anyway, on one particular October evening in Music City, there were (as always) a myriad of great choices, if one wanted to go out. You could always go ‘high end,’ and vie for position, in the world of the 'tried-and-true. '
By this I mean, the “Americana Music Conference” has been in town all week--lauding the virtues of its own self-consciously, supposedly  genreless genre.
In truth though, there is perhaps a stricter orthodoxy to that whole thing than most of its backers wish to admit.
And while it’s not yet required that you live in trendy 'East Nashville' to participate, that most certainly would seem to be a plus.
To wit: 

Last year’s ‘Americana Awards Concert’ was held at the Ryman Auditorium.  It included Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Emmylou of course, and surprise guest Robert Plant.
This year’s ‘Americana Awards Concert’ was held at the Ryman Auditorium. 
It included Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Emmylou of course, and surprise guest Robert Plant.

Robert Plant (either last year or this year)
Photo by Peter Rodman
Many years ago I popped into Al Bunetta’s Music Row office, on the day after one of their earliest awards shows--and just the night before, his client (John Prine) had (most deservedly) been given the “Artist of the Year” award--or maybe it was the “Legend of a Lifetime,” I’m not sure.
Neither was Al.
I excitedly congratulated him on this achievment, and from across his desk, John’s lifelong partner-in-crime, career guidance-counselor, record company president, and one of Nashville’s (and music’s) greatest all-time characters leaned toward me and said (jokingly):

“Artist of the Year!  Americana??  What the fuck does that mean!??  It’s like, 'Oh, thank you very much!’  I mean, it’s niiccccccccce….but…?”
He raised his open palms and shrugged, the way only true Italians if to add, “We’d rather have a sandwich named after him, at Savarino’s!” (Which, incidentally, Al himself has...and by the way, it's quite tasty.)

My point, and I do have one, (c.1990 Ellen Degeneres) is that on this particular Thursday evening in Nashville, I could have attended the 'Americana Awards' show…or even the ‘Mummies on the Courthouse Lawn’ concert, or any number of high-profile musical events.
That's what makes this town so great.
I'm sure in 40 years, I'll be wishing I'd gotten my pitcha made, with the 'Here Come the Mummies' group.  I have no doubt their impact on music will be monumental.  (I'm being facetious; it won't.)

I don't mean this as a put-down at all.  I just can't picture remembering their name (or even my own!) ten years from now.  
Anyway, it wasn't my thing--but it was another great choice, and a free one at that--something else to do, in a town with a whole lot to do, musically, on any given night. 

I don't tend to favor concerts on lawns (or in fields), myself.
I love lawns, don't get me wrong--in fact, I obssess about my own lawn...but I do hate being on a lawn....or in a field...without a seat...watching a concert, from afar. 
Always have, always will.  
This is scary enough, thankyouverymuch.
 Case in point?  I gave away my Woodstock tickets, and have never regretted it.  This is in no small part (pun intended) because I am s-h-o-r-t.
I hold no hard feelings, for those who love to mingle...but maybe there should be a maximum age limit, for these types of shows.  Think of the risk we seniors pose, in this situation: Someone like me, who's well over 50, just might reflexively holler "Down in front!" in angrily earnest nursing home tones, even though it's a 'standing' show.  I'm tellin' ya, they shouldn't risk it!

The truth is...I want a SEAT, man. 
Preferably one with arm rests (read: boundaries) and most certainly not with other peoples' half-eaten chicken bones in boxes (or worse, out of boxes) next to me, on the ground. And this goes double, if people are wearing any kind of "costumes." 

Shoot me now, please. 
So for me, this "Mummy" show...coming as it did, a couple weeks before Halloween?
Out. of. the. question.

And while I'm at it, I have an additional confession to make-- one which is slightly embarrassing: 
Halloween costumes actually scare me.
But it's not everybody who wears them, that I fear--only the adults, who seem to love them the most. 
These folks---y'know, the ones with the black lipstick, the so-called 'sexy' witch outfits, the tacky 'drag,' the ersatz "goth," fishnet stockings--I am scared, yes...but not "scared," in the classic sense.
I'm just scared to get close to these people at all.
( OR out of costume, now that I think of it...)

So it was kind of shocking to me to run into a couple I sorta know at the Sunset Grill, on this same night...who are actually getting married on October 29th, and encouraging everyone--bridesmaids, groomsmen, everyone--to (gasp!) come in costume!!!
Now, these are otherwise very charming, engaging, intellegent folks.  I honestly have no idea why they would do this, except that now that I think of it, wedding planners--and all of the details surrounding weddings--are such a nightmare, that they must have decided, "Hey, what the heck, let's just let this be everybody else's nightmare, instead!"
To me, any costumed event is almost as bad as that moment in some churches, where they make everybody turn to each other and grab both your hands, and say "God bless you." 

Sorry, I came to pray, and be peaceful...DON'T TOUCH ME!
I know, I know.  Isn't that awful?
But that's how I feel.  And God knows (at least I hope she does) I do love my fellow man--especially my fellow women.  But it's just...all this touchy-feely, 'in-your-face' business, I can't abide.
What restores my faith in God is Hand Sanitizer.

AnywayI was actually planning to stay home Thursday night, and watch two apparently 'midwestern' baseball teams (Milwaukee and St. Louis) battle it out in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
Ho- hum...
I follow mostly the American League.
Yawn....and I...yawn again...felllllll.....................asleep.
(I’m a Yankee fan.)
(My phone rings.)

It’s Tom Hampton.
The guy's a classic road warrior.
Nashville is another night on the road,  for Tom Hampton.
Despite having a baby and wife at home---or maybe because of it--he’s out on the road (not in airports, mind you--actually on the road) 300 days a year, driving from his native Pennsylvania, through New England to Maine one day, and down past West Virginia, overnight (with three hours sleep) to Nashville, the next.
Luminaries as diverse as Poco, Foster & Lloyd, and Jackson Browne know him well--as a fan, a professional, and a utility player, who can ‘fill the holes’ on lead guitar, mandolin, steel, or what-have-you--all in the service of lifting a show, from one level to a whole ‘nother.
That is who Tom Hampton is.
And whether it’s John Denver or Dan Fogelberg, he zealously protects the legacy of his heroes, too.

Jack Sundred (of Poco) on bass,
off the beaten path in Music City. 
 So much so, that Hampton recently schlepped hundreds of miles in his weather-beaten van on a single weekend, from eastern Pennsylvania to Peoria,  just to honor Fogelberg’s 60th birthday, at two different concerts, 500 miles apart--in separate states, for separate bands, playing separate songs, and all for the love (and if the truth be told, the compulsion) that Fogelberg’s music signifys to his career, his life, his art, and most of all...his heart.
There are lots of wildly successful road musicians, in Nashville--lauded for their craft, and basking in adulation, from Norway to Tokyo, tonight.

Tom isn’t one of those.
He’s just a guy you call if you need to get it done, and get it done right.
On time, in tune, ego-free, done right, and well tempered.
That’s Tom Hampton.

So when Tom called tonight (and woke me from my pre-game nap), I jumped at the chance to go see him, at the amazingly transformed ‘3rd and Lindsley,’ here in Nashville.
He seemed almost apologetic, at first.

“It’s not an ‘official’ Americana Conference booking,” he said sheepishly, “but we did try to book around that series of events. And by the way, we‘ll be at Douglas Corner, Friday night.”

They'd driven all night Wednesday to get here, and by Saturday morning, they'll be on a 12 hour bus trip back to PA, for yet another series of gigs.
This is 'the life.'

As for 60 year old me (who gets tired just going to and from the refrigerator), I hadn’t quite planned to emerge yet, from my summer’s slumber.

But after a shower and shave, soon enough I was standing before “J.D.Malone and the Experts,” as they were called on this night, and there he was--Tom Hampton--off to the far left of the stage, playing steel guitar, behind Poco’s Jack Sundrud, Malone, Don Henry, and several others whose names I can’t recall, all good.
His grey hair almost looked like he'd slapped it on top of his head at the last minute.  His belly (like mine) gave away too many nights and mornings that morphed together, eating roadside diner food and room service specials. His silver goatee said, "Don't look at my chins, look at my instruments.  I'm busy here, and I'm serious about making this show fun!"  

He almost never looked up from the instrument, but proudly exchanged guitars, from a rack to his right, whenever necessary--totally at peace with his contribution to the proceedings, but never seeking--not for a moment--any recognition, whatsoever.
Although it looked sparsely attended, that was at least in part due to the newly expanded room itself, which would now require a couple hundred people just to seem half-full.

At some point I thought about all the people at the Ryman, just a few blocks away, seeing essentially the exact same show they (and I) saw last year. I thought of the outdoor concert on the courthouse lawn, and all the merriment...and ...uh oh...scary costumes!
But tonight, I got to see the music.

This band stayed onstage without a break for three hours, backin' up everybody from Henry to Sundred, to sub-groupings (like Idlewheel, another of Tom's projects) and more. 
As each act stepped up to the plate, these disparate gypsies--some from the north, some from the Carolinas, some from who-knows-where else--snapped into rythmn, as though they'd never played anything else.
THAT is music.

At the merch table, an array of CDs by the various acts were splayed for your perusal. "Have you got anything by Tom Hampton?" I asked. 
"Well, not exactly," said the merch guy. "But he played on this one, this one, and uhhh...this one."
I left the club glad to know someone doesn't mind all that work, just to entertain us.
He'll be out of Nashville by the time most of you read this--but thanks to our own Dave Pomeroy (head of the local musician's union), next time he comes through town, there'll be "MUSICIANS' LOADING ZONE" signs here, to help 'im out.
I like that.
A lot. 

I next headed down towards Hillsboro Village, and landed at a nifty nook called the Belcourt Taps and Tapas, where another sparse-but-adequate crowd was diggin' on the music of an incredible new band, The Barren River Trio.
Tending bar was Jimmy, the bass player from 'Everclear.'
"Only in Nashville!" I thought.
The trio consisted of three young men with accoustic instruments, and the kind of detailed harmony that would have made David Crosby himself blush.  Then again, David tends to blush a lot, when he's happy. 
They call their sound 'American Folk' opposed to Americana? 
It didn't matter.  
Here on the other side of town, their sound was so professional I immediately thought, "Wow!  These guys should be opening for the Ryman!!!"
Then I remembered what was actually goin' on tonight, at the Ryman. 
An old hard-rock legend (Plant) was the top name. Middling-sellers of country and country rock, spanning 40 years or so, were the only veterans that need apply, at the 'Americana Awards' show.  
Other than a mere few token 'new' acts, not much changes from year to year, at this so-called dynamic new format's deification ceremony.
I'd dare say the CMA's are actually more exciting now, or at least somewhat less rigid, in their criteria...and that's a slightly damning statement, from one who was there at the inception of this whole 'Americana' concept.  This is not to take away from the show itself; just the orthodoxy that has grown on the format, like moss.

This city remains a music lover's delight--full of nightly choices, in the fresh crack of autumn's night air. 
I guess you could say I missed two big shows, last night.
But last night, in the very same town...I saw two great shows.
For my tastes at least, I had made the best choices, from among the many available to me.  
Reminds me of a lyric I wrote when I first got here, some 20+ years ago now...
"Every weathered lover
knows the leaves must fall...
but what they don't know is,
you can't collect them all."

That's the latest from Nashville, this October.

The above column and photographs are Copyright 2011 by Peter Rodman, except the 'Halloween Sluts' and 'Musicians Loading Zone' images.  All Rights Reserved.

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