The other week we were in Nashville at the renowned Bluebird Cafe listening to the singer-songwriters do their thing. Mostly this was my songwriter-girlfriend's idea, though admittedly I rather enjoyed the show. The Bluebird is a venue for serious fans of country music, though you'd never know it from looking at the place, set down in a nondescript strip mall next to a hair salon and a dry cleaners. Not exactly the Metropolitan Opera House, or even the Ryman Auditorium. Maybe that's apropos, considering how commercial and nontraditional country music has become. Or had become by 1995 when Robbie Fulks first sang what many of us were thinking:
Hey, this ain't country-western
It's just soft-rock feminist crap
And I thought they'd struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie Milsap
Now they can't stop the flood of ***holes, there ain't a big enough ASCAP
They serve food at the Bluebird, though dining is frowned upon. You wouldn't chomp on a taco salad at the Metropolitan Opera House during Rigoletto, would you? Try and order nachos at the Bluebird and you are likely to get dirty looks -- from me, anyway. Drinking, however, is mandatory there being a seven-drink minimum (that's what I told my girlfriend, anyway). And where else will one find waitresses who wear T-shirts that read "Shhhhhhh!"?
On the evening we were there four songwriters -- Jamie Teachnor, Kerry Kurt Phillips, Kevin Denney and Tim Johnson -- performed in the round surrounded by more than a hundred appreciative listeners. Performed is not the right word. These were songwriters, not performers, but they sang well enough, I thought, to make their own recordings. Apparently it takes more than a good voice and great songs to make it in Nashville. It takes pizzazz. And I don't mean Nudie suits and rhinestone dresses. It takes whatever Keith Urban's got, and I don't mean Nicole Kidman. We were most impressed with Jamie Teachnor, from Fagus, Missouri, an unincorporated area on the Arkansas border, who doesn't look old enough to drink, but writes and sings like someone who's lived several lives, none of them happy.
AFTER THE SHOW we spoke to Tim Johnson, an Oregonian of all things. He was over by the bar, not surprisingly, giving hugs to Kerry Kurt Phillips. My girlfriend wanted some free songwriting advice. Johnson asked where we were from. "St. Louis?" he cried. "What are you doing in St. Louis? You've got to move to Nashville!" Sure, and once you move to Nashville, you have to move to Austin or New York. There's always somewhere more happening.
I know lots of struggling local musicians. Many of them are middle aged and have accepted, albeit reluctantly, that they will never make it as professional musicians, that as artists they are mediocre at best. I have followed their careers, rooted for them, attended their shows when I could, bought their CDs, and wished them well. But by the time they reached 40, Father Time had pretty much knocked the illusions out of them and most were grateful they had kept their day jobs as senior regional managers or music teachers. They are now able to write and perform their songs because it is what they enjoy doing, not because it is how they hope to make a princely living or because they'd hoped to achieve some kind of low-rent immortality as an inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Like a tired swimmer, they have stopped struggling and accepted their fate. This couldn't have been easy for them because we are so often fed that old line about "holding on to your dreams." Fortunately Keith Urban wasn't appearing at the Bluebird that night (as if!), so we didn't have to sit through his treacly version of that cliche:
'Cause someday baby
Your ship is gonna come in, so
Hold onto your dreams
'Cause everything ya see
Comes true if you believe in holdin'
On to your dreams
Oh, God. If you drive outside of Nashville to the suburb of Forest Hills you can see one of Urban and Kidman's many palaces high up on a hill, paid for by writing doggerel like that. Amazing.
Today, Nashville feels like a museum, haunted by the ghosts of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Minnie Pearl. Only at the Bluebird do the city and the music come alive.
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