Nashville’s Streets of Gold

For some people, the streets of Nashville are paved with gold — they came, they were seen and heard, and they conquered the odds against making it in Music City, USA. And once they reach glittering stardom in the country music industry, their lives become legends.

But for those few who make it there are thousands more for whom the streets of Nashville are paved with broken glass.

I’ve met them everywhere. They sell advertising. They work for eye doctors, work as waitresses, waiters, and dishwashers in restaurants and bars. They work construction jobs or as part-time clerks in record stores. They work as dental assistants. And some don’t work at all.

Almost any night or day, you can walk along Lower Broadway in Nashville and find a former backup singer or former musician who once performed you may have heard of. They’ll sing as much of a song as they can remember for a buck or a quarter. Elsewhere, you can find old timers in taverns singing for tips and selling old LPs out of their car. These are the people who are ignored by the younger, fresh-faced kids who come to town on the bus with nothing but a guitar on their back and a pocket full of dreams.

A lot of aspiring singers and songwriters can be found at events called “writers’ nights.” Many taverns around Nashville will hold a writers’ night maybe once a week. A dozen or so performers are allowed to sing three of their songs in hopes that Mr. or Ms. Big Record Producer is sitting in the audience. Usually, however, the audience is full of mostly family and friends: Mom and Dad arriving from who knows where to wish Johnny or Jane some good luck, or the smiling male neighbor of some naive starlet with sparkles in her eyes. Writers’ nights are kind of a potluck. You see almost the entire spectrum of the country music business in a condensed version of “Star Search.” There are some aging has-beens, a lot of young idealistic wannabes, and some singers and writers on the verge of truly making it, with maybe a song or two already recorded by a real live Big Star.

Sometimes professional studio musicians will walk in and say “I’ve just finished a session with (insert any star’s name) and man, I need to unwind.”

I’ve seen some really talented people at the few writers’ nights I’ve been to. I’ve also seen a few who (all politeness aside) don’t have it and never will have it. I saw one guy that will live forever as the worst performer I am ever likely to see if I live a million years. But all of them try their hardest.

Eventually, though, some just stop thinking about making it in the country music biz. A lot of them pack up and go back home. Other stick around Nashville. They slide into a normal, day-to-day routine sans the dreams of greatness. Maybe they sing in the church choir. There are a lot of great church choirs in Nashville.

And a few singers, musicians, and songwriters hang in there on the margins of the industry. They are content to sing in the lesser known bars for next to no pay. I recently saw such a group of musicians at a small bar in Nashville. I was there with five in-laws. Also present were the bartender, a waitress, two guys shooting pool, a woman sitting by herself, a couple of guys standing at the bar, and a guy asleep on a sofa. Frankly, the place was a dive.

I don’t know a lot about music, especially country music. But I’ll say this: this was one of the best bands I’ve ever heard anywhere. The lead guitarist had real command of his instrument. His big mitts effortlessly ran up and down the strings. And he sang with a smoky voice as good as any of the old pros. The bass guitarist was a woman who did justice to several Patsy Cline tunes. The rhythm guitarist had fingers that moved so fast they seemed to blur. And the drummer pounded good and loud. Their arrangements of country classics were unique but still true to the original versions of the songs. My wife, Kathleen, got up on stage and sang a number with them. She sounded good, too. It’s in the family genes. Her dad made a living as a gospel singer: Don Williams of Don and Earl.

At the end of their set I asked the lead guitarist what the name of their band was.

“Well, my name is Allen. And this is Heather,” he said pointing to the bass player.

But the band didn’t have a name.

And Allen said he worked hanging drywall during the day.

Although Allen’s band doesn’t have a name and probably doesn’t have a chance of ever “making it” in Nashville, the band members still perform like they have a dream. Nashville doesn’t have a monopoly on dreamers. But there does seem to be more of them per square foot than anyplace else on earth. And a place so full of dreamers can’t be that bad — even if you do end up with a lot of flat tires from all the roads paved with broken glass instead of gold.

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