Pete's Blog

Nashville #2

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On one level Nashville reminded me of Hartford, a mid-sized commercial city with lots of insurance companies and lawyers. The problem for those Nashvillians who wish to enforce a surface conventionality is that the music business is too successful to be completely ignored. So in the center of town, surrounded by soaring new office towers, there is a lovingly preserved strip of fleabag souvenir stores, bars, and the Ryman Auditorium, whose front declares its origins as a church and revival center and whose rear backs onto Tootsie's, the Broken Spoke, and Jack's. All of these, along with every single public establishment in town, feature a near-constant flow of musicians, banging away at original songs, usually on guitar. There is music everywhere: some of it hopeless, some of it trading on the performers' good looks, some of it as good as you're ever going to hear. Being a songwriter in Nashville is about the best gamble in show business. You invest little more than your time, which means you have not much to lose (except your self-respect) and, if you hit, a huge amount to gain. My favorites were the old guys. Nashville is a bit like a world-class ski resort, filled with talented bums. When I lived in Aspen, Colorado I saw how much the local economy depended on people who had dedicated their lives to skiing and nothing else. They worked odd jobs, slept where they could, and spent as much of their time as the season would permit honing their skills. There are plenty of pickers in Nashville with the same mystical attachment to music - and you can keep doing it long after your ligaments get too stiff for Rocky Mountain mogul fields. These guys (all the women I saw were young) had huge repertoires, an encyclopedic knowledge of the form, and a Zen-like disregard for material success. It was great to watch them work. One other note, having little to do with what I just got through saying: at the Country Music Hall of Fame I saw a video of Wanda Jackson, an artist I had heard of but never heard. She is generally described as the first female rockabilly singer, which gave me the mistaken impression her work was the province of record collectors, obscurantists, and other Brits. Well, I'm here to tell you. Wanda Jackson was the first female rock STAR, the female Elvis, a dark-eyed spitfire who knew how to pick them up and lay them down. I don't know if she "went country" later on but the clip I saw was rock and roll you could put beside Little Richard, Elvis, or anybody you'd want to mention. If all male performers need to study Elvis, then all female performers definitely need to watch Wanda Jackson. She slew me.

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