Monday, December 8, 2014

Nashville, 2014

Hold on tight, it's going to be a long one.
First, synopsis. Last year, we came to Nashville for five nights and four days, and it was absolutely magical. We left feeling like we'd gotten just the very tip of the (amazing) iceberg, and we wanted MORE. So, back we came, hoping that the magic wasn't a fluke, hoping that, though we'd gained some familiarity, the element of surprise would be as present as it was the first time. We knew it was a tall order, but still, we hoped.
And we were rewarded with a week (seven nights, six days) that was absolutely full of serendipity, surprise, and magic. Like, did this really just happen-type magic. 
Our journey began at about 9am, the day after Thanksgiving, when we folded ourselves into the car and embarked on an eleven-hour drive down 81. It was not fun, but it was uneventful, and when all was said and done, we were able to check in, unpack, shower, and be downtown by 9pm. Plenty of time to rock.

Last year, when we came, it seems like we hardly left Robert's Western World all week. It's the ONLY good honkytonk downtown, the one where they still play real country music, and it's special. This time, we told ourselves, there's more to Nashville than Robert's Western World. We made up our minds to see more of the city. And we did. But we also spent a LOT of time at Robert's, because there is no other place like it. The back door leads right out into the alleyway behind the Ryman, and in another time all the greats would wander over after their show at the Opry. The faces are on the wall. The boots are on the shelves. The magic is in the air.

Saturday afternoon, we were back. This is Rachael Hester and the Tennessee Walkers, probably my favorite band that plays Robert's regularly. Lots of Patsy Cline.
Then we saw Chuck Mead playing at a record store called Grimey's. Anyone know who Chuck Mead is? If you like hillbilly music as much as I do, make it your business to know Chuck Mead. He basically set off the whole downtown Nashville revival back in the 90s, playing at Robert's with a band called BR5-49. And there he was, in a tiny space, doing his awesome hillbilly front man thing, and after I bought the new vinyl he was there to promote, I went up and he signed it. I told him it was nice to meet him, and apologized for being the drunk chick at his Oneonta show (back in the spring, when he came to play just 20 minutes away!) screaming for "Ramona." And he was courteous and funny.

Later that night, we went to the Bluebird to see four songwriters play in the round. Last year we had a terrible experience (mostly due to a song with a refrain of hey y'all hey y'all) but this year we decided to give it another shot and it was wonderful. Marshall Chapman, Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, and Matraca Berg (who wrote "Strawberry Wine"). So we got to see Matraca Berg tell basically her life's story in song, and she sang Strawberry Wine, and then her husband Jeff Hanna from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band got up and sang "Mr. Bojangles." 

Oooooookay. No biggie. It's just Nashville. It gets better.

The next day, we were back at Robert's seeing Rachael Hester again. There is something to be said for exploring the city, but there is also something to be said for doing the comforting, sure thing. Watching her band, with Chris Scruggs on guitar and her dad on fiddle, drinking a $2.50 PBR at Robert's on a Sunday afternoon is about the best way to pass time I can contrive.

At a set break, Chuck Mead walked in. And then Rachael invited him to sit in, and he sang one of Hank's. Oh right, no biggie, we're in Nashville. I put my camera to use.

That was incredible. Then, we went to see the Time Jumpers, a ten-piece country swing outfit featuring three fiddles and one Vince Gill on lead guitar. That's right.

Ohhhhh man. But oh right, no biggie, we're just in Nashville. This is just the kind of thing that happens in Nashville.

From that point on, it was like, did we really just see Chuck Mead at Robert's? Did we really just see Vince Gill last night? Dream-like and crazy. But then it got even better. How? Well, we spent some more time at Robert's.

Of course. But then we had to go get ready. We had tickets to see chef Sean Brock talk about his new book with his buddy Jason Isbell. So: sit and watch a sweet Virginia boy and a sweet Alabama boy talk about what their grandmas cooked for Sunday supper? Oh, yes please.
As luck would have it, we made it out to East Nashville with just enough time to... eat fast food before catching the event. Oh, the irony. So painful.

Topics of conversation included: cooking cornbread on a car door, Sean's quest to cook the perfect brisket, and Jason's wife's first biscuit attempt, which did not end well. ("So I picked it up and dropped it on the table, just to see, you know, how loud it would be. It turns out that was not a good idea. That was not something that I should've done.")

And then I got my new cookbook signed by Sean. And then I stood there hyperventilating for a minute, and then I met Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires.

Just go ahead and add that to my list of Peak Life Experiences. They were both totally sweet and accommodating, and I managed to not say anything stupid. 
And then we walked out and to the car and my feet were not touching the ground...

We went to Robert's for the rest of the night. We sat in the balcony and met a really nice couple from Indiana, and I tried in vain to get a decent picture of the two of us...

Sigh. The never-ending quest.

Then it was Thursday morning: Our Last Day.

We went to Percy Priest Lake. We walked around in the mud. I picked up rocks. Patrick let me sing him lines from the Jason Isbell song with the chorus that goes:

Girl hang your dress up to dry 
we ain't leaving this room
Til Percy Priest breaks open wide 
and the river runs through
and carries this house on the Stones
like a piece of driftwood
Cover me up
and know you're enough
to use me for good.

Finally got a good picture.

And then? Well, maybe you can guess.

Yup. And then we walked on the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge, for what's becoming our traditional Last Night in Nashville swansong experience. Someone was kind enough to ask if we wanted our picture taken, and Patrick couldn't even make funny faces or give the finger.

He was less well-behaved when I tried to take a selfie.

We got back to Robert's in time to see another set from a different band.

And for a picture out front. Best, sweetest place on earth. Friendliest place. Then we walked to the car. I'm not to going to say I didn't have tears streaming down my face, because I did. Mostly happy tears. Smile-because-it-happened tears. Smile because this incredible happy kind comfortable little bastion exists on Lower Broadway in Nashville, and we can go to it when we need it, and Lord willin' it will always be there to take us in. (That's right, I just said Lord willin'. But I just spent a week in the South, and I figure it's justified.)

We capped off the night in fine fashion by going to see a real bona fide rock show at the Mercy Lounge. We wanted to see the Mercy Lounge-- a pretty iconic little venue-- and we wanted to see the band, Centro-matic, because they're good. And then I heard rumors that Jason Isbell would be sitting in, and that sealed the deal. 

It was so good to rock out all the we're-leaving-Nashville angst, and to hear all that glorious guitar work. I got to meet Amanda again-- she remembered me-- and for an encore Jason sang No Matter What by Badfinger, which was about as awesome and unexpected a cover as could be imagined. 
I decided the song was Nashville singing to me:

No matter where you go
There will always be a place
Can't you see it in my face, girl,
Ooo girl, want you.

No matter where or what, there will always be this place. I think that's what it is, more than anything. In Nashville, the fourth wall comes down, and you can meet and greet people without a pretense of fame or separation or other-ness. That's what I love. It's a warm, friendly bubble where the barriers are erased and we can go just sort of hang with the most talented people out there-- the ones who make the music we cherish.
I am absolutely full of gratitude. I am going to try as hard as I can to hold on to that feeling.

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