So where were we? Oh yeah, enjoying global warming in New England. Mmmmm, wild blueberries. It seems like so long ago.
Because it was. I’ve fallen months behind on chronicling my travels for a number of reasons, most of them stemming from the fact that a) I am incredibly lazy and b) I’d rather be drinking beer than writing. (Every editor I’ve ever had is confirming this with a knowing nod of the head.)
The Traipsemobile is essentially a diesel-fueled Procrastination Device, the kind of technology that could change the world, if only we would let it. You give the North Koreans a Traipsemobile and I guarantee they would be too drunk and nap-craving to ever test another nuclear device. If you were Kim Jong-un would you prefer, hanging out with your dad’s friends who are all secretly laughing at your haircut behind your back or saying, “Fuck It” (in Korean, of course) and driving up to Vladivostok, heading to Bezdonnaya Bochka and then passing out in the parking lot? Exactly.
So, basically, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last six months. instead of Vladivostok, I was in upstate New York and the mid-Atlantic coast, drinking beer and listening to music from the Catskills to Blue Ridge mountains. I hung out with Brave Combo in Lake George (where they played at a lakeside park so idyllic it looked like the background had been photo shopped) and Cambridge, Mass. I saw Mose Allison, who’s 85 and frail, but still seductive and subversive and hilarious, at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. I saw Joan Osborne, who it turns out I have a crush on, at the World Café in Wilmington, Delaware.
I hung out with friends in Battery Park (before the flood) and northern Virginia. I went to Asheville and Nashville, Knoxville and Louisville, pretty much any place with a ville at the end of its name. I saw The Sheepdogs (who have the best hair in rock and roll) in Louisville and Dead Can Dance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
I was there for nearly two weeks – Nashville, I mean, not the Ryman – because the Traipsemobile had a couple of breakdowns and I was working on a story about the “Nashville” tv show for the New York Times. I’d been to Nashville for interviews a few times and once applied for a job at the Nashville Banner, which I didn’t get. But they gave me a one-day tryout, during which I interviewed Al Gore over the phone. I have no idea what we talked about. This may explain why he’s not President.
I thought of Nashville then as a pretty-enough place, with all the hills and brick buildings and college campuses, but not particularly interesting. Like most people, when I thought of Nashville, I thought of Music Row and mainstream country music, which I really hated. It seemed like just another big southern town to me, a larger version of Shreveport. When I didn’t get the Banner job, I didn’t feel like I was losing much.
I don’t know whether Nashville has changed momentously in the last 30 years or whether I just wasn’t paying enough attention. Probably both. But this time through, it struck me as one of the coolest, most vibrant places I’ve seen. I used to think Nashville was Dallas. But it’s really more Austin. Except with less traffic and different barbecue.
East Nashville is as funky as South Austin used to be and there really is music everywhere. And not just stuff with pedal steel. There’s indie rock bands and alternative country bands and funk bands and soul bands and – I’m sure, even though I didn’t run into any – hip hop bands. The town is lousy with songwriters in the way Austin is lousy with guitar players. Every waiter and bartender has a set of lyrics in their pocket that can probably break your heart.
What’s happened, I think, is that Nashville, like Austin before it, finally realized what an asset its music legacy and community represents. So they’ve been embraced and touted. The biggest crowds still go to Opryland, the high-gloss theme park home of the Grand Ole Opry (which used to be at the Ryman). But even there, things seem less cheesy. They’ve found the right balance between glorifying their tradition and welcoming new blood. So I stood in the wings and watched a parade of old and new talent walk out into the spotlight to play for the tourists and then wander backstage and hang out in the glorious one-of-a-kind dressing rooms and a green room that looks like a country club, which it is. But now you don’t have to put on a Nudie suit or a cowboy hat to get in. Beards and flannel are perfectly okay. If this had been true 30 years ago, Mike Nesmith could have gotten in.
This is kind of what the “Nashville” tv series is about, the contrast and tension between big-money Nashville and underground Nashville, the conservative church-inundated southern town that’s also crawling with all these creative bohemian types and how they’re slowly finding things they have in common. Sort of like the redneck-hippie convergence that fueled Austin in the 70’s. Okay, maybe not.
My point is that I really liked it there, which is something I didn’t expect. I liked the Ryman and The Station Inn and 3rd and Lindsley, this big converted-warehouse-of-a-bar where I saw World Party. I LOVED the Loveless Café, which is famous for biscuits and showcasing up-and-comers and where I thought we were all gonna die because there was a thunderstorm that knocked out the power and left us all just sitting there in the dark for 10 minutes, while we listened to what turned out to be a small twister knocking down pine trees all around us. Then, as if nothing had happened, the lights came back on and the show picked up where it left off.
But the place I loved the most – and this was the centerpiece of my Times story – was the Bluebird. If you’ve watched “Nashville” you know the Bluebird is a recurring character. They shot the pilot in the actual club, but the logistics of filming in a working nightclub precluded them from shooting there every week. So they built a full-scale down-to-the-glossies-on-the-wall copy of the club on the “Nashville” soundstage. I spent most of the day on the set, at the “tv” Bluebird. And then, that night, I went to the real thing.
The Bluebird is so small that its impossible to walk in during a performance and not feel self-conscious. It’s a strip mall-storefront joint and the stage is tiny and if you open the door when somebody is playing, every head will turn and you get the sense that everybody is thinking, “Hey, asshole, hurry up and sit down. We’re trying to listen to music here.” So you scurry, head down, to the back of the room and pray there’ll be a seat at the bar. There was.
And that’s when I realized that the performer I was interrupting was in fact, Ray Stevens. Yeah, “Gitarzan” Ray Stevens. What’s more he was at the piano singing “Everything is Beautiful” because, it turned out this was his daughter’s 40th birthday party . Suzi Ragsdale is her name and she was the actual scheduled performer. But it’s Nashville and the Blue Bird and you never know who will show up. So I stumble in and come close to ruining Ray Stevens singing “Everything is Beautiful” to his daughter. This is not the sort of thing that happens in Chattanooga.
I traipsed to Knoxville from there and managed to get roped into addressing a couple of journalism classes at the University of Tennessee by my friend and sometimes-adversary Chris Wohlwend, who saw my presence as a way to get out of lecturing. My advice to the students was twofold. 1. Kids, don’t be like me.. 2. If writing is easy for you, then you’re probably not very good at it. These lessons went over surprisingly well.
From there I veered towards the Midwest, for my friend Gary Childs’ funeral in Peoria (the highlight of which was my friend Nick stealing one of the magnetic “funeral procession” pennants. This will surely come in handy down the road.) There were visits to St. Louis (where I went to Chuck Berry’s club, The Duck Room, and waved to the cameras I assumed were in the restroom) and Indianapolis and Chicago. But these were just way stations. I was on my way to Iowa, where I would save America from itself.