It seems like there's always a theme song running through my head, no matter what we do or where we go. That, in itself, is not too surprising, as music has always been an important part of me, whether I'm playing it, writing it or just sitting back and listening.
So there's almost always a song of some sort providing a subtle soundtrack.
Recently, one of them went like this:
"Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed;
A poor mountaineer, hardly kept his family fed."
That's right, it was the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" that echoed through my brain as we prepared to hit the road last week. Not just because we were headed for the hills and mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, but because of the overcrowded, junked-out condition of our car. Usually, I consider myself a pretty canny packer, efficiently using the space in the back of our 3-row vehicle to put the things we'll need--like clothes and camping gear--within easy reach, while even leaving room for a passenger or two.
But not this time.
"About all you need is a rocking chair with granny sitting on the roof," noted one witty pal after seeing our overloaded state on the morning we left.
It was true. But I've got an excuse.
First off, we were heading back for an extended stay on the North Carolina shore. The seasons will change while we're there this time, with the distinct possibility that my t-shirt-and-shorts-only wardrobe will need to transition to something more substantial, though equally unfancy, like sweatshirts and jeans. Moreover, our load included boxes of stuff bound for both son Patrick's house and the son of some Galva friends who now lives in eastern Carolina. Of course, there was all the camping stuff we'd need for a couple of woodsy stops along the way.
And then there was the middle part of the trip...a 3-day "Big Chill" weekend in Nashville with my wife's lively high school class that would require all the clothes and accouterments needed for a couple of group dinners and excursions to both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, not to mention some determined, middle-aged forays up and down the music club district of downtown Nashville. This year, one of her classmates, a guy named Lon Helton, who is a well-known country music radio personality and music industry mover and shaker had a weak moment and agreed to host the self-inflicted invasion of his city and his home.
I don't know what he was thinking, but it was nice of him and his saintly wife, Anne, all the same.
I didn't really know what to expect in Nashville. But, It turns out that for us, at least, it was equal parts of entertainment, education and flat-out fun. It was kind of inspiring, even, for a well-worn music veteran like me.
Soon after we hit the streets for the first time, bits of yet another song began to filter into my brain.
"Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin' since they's babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they're two"
John Sebastian knew what he was talking about when he wrote those words.
And like the old Lovin' Spoonful song says, there really are at least "thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville."
But unlike many cities where most musicians also work as waiters, bartenders and cabbies while waiting for a break and a chance to play in public, the Nashville music scene seems to be able to offer enough work for a big chunk of them in its zillions of clubs, bars, restaurants, parks and downtown street corners.
The music is live. The music is loud. And the music goes on all day and well into the evening and early morning hours. We listened, danced and laughed and sang to the tunes of old-time twangers, new-country bangers and even a few traditional pickers, all hustling like mad to keep up with a crazy work-pace that sees the busiest among them moving from band to band and club to club as the long day and night progresses. Like one guy, with an uncanny resemblance to a younger Jim Cary, who, in one afternoon-into-evening stretch, showed up as part of four different bands in four different joints, including back-to-back gigs that must have had him zig-zagging his upright bass through the crowded sidewalks like an anxious hubby hustling his wife to the maternity ward. I was impressed and amused, too, by one young commuting crooner, who hopped off a bus, guitar case and amp in hand, before rushing to work in his own town's version of an uptown Manhattan exec with a briefcase and Armani suit.
We saw the other end of the spectrum at The Grand Ole Opry one night, when country-pop stars Rascal Flats were inducted as full-fledged Opry members. It was a study in contrast and a great example of the ages and styles the country genre spans, as one of the presenters was 90-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, a member of the Opry for over 60 years.
"I never heard anybody say anything bad about you boys," said Dickens, whose age, 4-11 stature, sequin-studded suit and easy way with a one-liner made me a wannabe from the get-go.
And while his remarks to the band might have sounded like faint praise, 'nothing bad' in a tough field like the music business is probably pretty darn good.
But the best experience of all came when we toured the hall of fame museum and got a chance to attend a workshop where a pair of singer-songwriters shared some of their tunes and fielded questions from the audience. One was a nice-looking, good-sounding younger fellow who said he knew back in high school that he wanted to make music his life's work. So, just as soon as he graduated, he packed up his guitar and headed for Nashville where he's already making a living and living his dream.
The other speaker was a little older, a guy named Tim Buppert who's had a long career that's featured stops in clubs all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Along the way, he's put together a nice book of original songs that even includes a couple of hits. He's got a great voice, plus a sweet way with a love song that contrasts just a bit with the twinkle in his eye.
Probably his best-known tune is called "She's sure Taking it Well," a bittersweet love song recorded by Kevin Sharp that made it all the way to number three on the charts in 1997.
I bought a CD from Tim that included that hit song, along with another dozen or so tunes. Listening to his words, music and voice, it was hard to imagine a life spent working the clubs by night, pitching songs by day and waiting for a break and the fame and fortune we all imagine every singer-songwriter hopes for. Then we heard the last cut on the album, a quirky little piece that told about a day when he played his hit for a young lady and she revealed that it had once been her favorite song.
"That was my one Elvis moment,
My day in the sun.
I was so much more cooler than anyone
...If I could relive just one day in my life
It'd be that one Elvis moment of mine."
I listened and heard the tongue-in-cheek words. And underneath it all, I heard the longing and the special moments his life has provided from time to time.
I knew I had met one true Nashville cat.