Nashville: “After the Storm”
Arthur Nead illustration
Not that we haven’t our own water-based crises to contend with, but the news of the tragic flooding of the Cumberland River and the damage done to Nashville reminds me of what a great experience the South’s other musically important city can be.
On a Saturday night, several years ago, I was alone on lower Broadway Street in Nashville. The street jumped with the sound of bands performing inside the many honky-tonks that line the way. Their music is country, a sound that plays to the heart and that totally relates to being alone on a Saturday night – especially in Nashville.
Some honky-tonks are too crowded to enter, but that night I squeezed myself into Robert’s past the band at the entrance, then weaved near the tables and alongside the bar. My strategy was to hope that a bar stool would open, claim it, order a cheeseburger and a longneck (always a longneck on Broadway) and then hope that the service would be slow so that I could have more time to hear the band.
Honky-tonk bands play for tips, but a band passing the hat on Broadway Street in Nashville is better than headline groups elsewhere. For dreamers, Broadway in Nashville is like the other Broadway – if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.
My strategy was working: A bar stool cleared, and I had ordered a cheeseburger and a Bud longneck, now if only the counter lady, who was working several orders across the crowded bar, could take her time.
Robert’s is owned by a Brazilian country singer named Jessee Lee Jones. He and his band perform there many evenings. Jones specializes in the songs of the late Marty Robbins, who had a sound that few people could duplicate. I requested my all time favorite country and Western song, “Don’t Worry Bout Me,” and Jones sang it perfectly. It was as though I had closed my eyes and Marty Robbins walked in from the Grand Ole Opry to sing the song.
Across the street is the Ernest Tubb record shop where, on my first visit, the guy behind the counter had been from Shreveport. The upstate town was once the home of the Louisiana Hayride – a Saturday night radio broadcast, like the Grand Ole Opry, where the careers of Elvis and Hank Williams were boosted before they became stars in Nashville.
Down the street and around the corner is Printer’s Alley, a strip known for its more avant-garde nightclubs – including a place called the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar. It was there that a waitress named Gretchen Wilson was urged to sing a few songs. She was so good that she was encouraged to get a recording contract by two of the bar’s customers, song writers/singers Big Kenney and John Rich. The three would become part of Nashville’s hottest movement, the Muzik Mafia. In 2004 the MM had three super hits, Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” and “Here for the Party,” and an unbelievable country/rap number by Big and Rich called “Save A Horse Ride A Cowboy.” Incredibly, the words “Bourbon Street” and “mafia” remain linked – sometimes even in a positive way.
My favorite spot is Robert’s where, since the events of last month, Jones might want to consider “After the Storm,” another one of another one of Marty Robbins hits:“After the storm comes the sunshine. The clouds are gone and the world is tame Into each life there will be showers But don’t the world look brighter, after the rain” I nursed my longneck while waiting for the cheeseburger that, as I had hoped, had been backlogged by other orders. Robert’s interior decorating motif consists of Western boots with pairs on display from the walls. For the price of a burger and a beer, plus a few dollars in the tip jar, I had an hour’s worth of entertainment. Now, like in a good country music song, it was time for the heartbreak. I had to leave. Here is some advice from one city that has suffered a disaster to another: use it as an opportunity to come back even better, but never lose your character.
Outside, Broadway Street had become even busier and the beat spilling from the nightclubs had grown louder, just as the city will no doubt quickly regain its rhythm. The night was in full motion, a perfect setting for being lonely again.