New York to Kansas City (2015)
Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 3
It’s laundry day today. I’m heading into my last week away so I want to wash everything possible, while comfortably commando in jeans and my favourite rag-tag purple jumper. It’s the one that ought to have been thrown away years ago, but hasn’t. It makes me feel like Carole King. There’s no piano here but I have my guitar over my shoulder trying to push a few starts of songs a little further down the line while making oatmeal and a pot of coffee – which boasts to be Seattle’s Best. It’s a respectable hour in the morning in Nashville for songwriting to begin. Needless to say, I feel pretty at home here now.
It’s wheels-down for a whole week here in Music City. I’ve actually seen the bottom of my holdall and chosen the clothes I’ve wanted to wear, as opposed to the ones that I can get to without upsetting the tetris block packing and starting off a new frustrating all-consuming game. Not that it matters much – temperatures here are dropping and people are talking about snow, storms, snow storms, winter storms and – a new one on me – ice storms. All jumpers on deck.
Skipping back a few days; it’s night time when I arrive, skipping down the hydraulic steps of my last Greyhound chariot. The cold air smacks sharply and serves as an acute reminder that it is still winter here in the northern hemisphere. A cab gets me to South Nashville, faithfully delivering me the customary electric shock that I’ve learned to cautiously expect when getting in and out of cars on this side of the Atlantic, at this time of year. The air is dry and my hands are starting to feel like sandpaper. Static electricity sparks between fingers and thumbs at a fraction’s notice. It’s pretty at night.
I’m the last to join the party, but I’m welcomed in from the cold at Jon’s house. It’s a whistle stop tour of the house while the kettle dances. Someone suggests that maybe we play a few songs and before I know it, we’re doing an impromptu ‘in the rounds’ night except with an open fire and tea. If I didn’t know I was in Nashville, I do now. Barb puts in a call and sets me up with a gig for the next night. I can’t believe my good luck.
On my way to Joseph’s house in Little Mexico I’m doing a bit of a head shuffle of all the separate motivations for my being here in Nashville. I’m here – and in truth, I’m not really sure what I’m going to make of the famous Nashville. Infamous Nashville, so legendary that it inspired its own TV phenomenon in fact. I know so far that I’m here in the industry HQ for country music and subsequently the place where the rising stars, particularly in the genre of Country, would come to seek their fortune. They say there are more songwriters here per square metre than anywhere else in the world. That’s even today; in a day in an age where most people can write and record a song and a demo from anywhere and then send it onward to anywhere with just a few mouse-clicks. I can guess at the things that draw musical people to a place like this – I do get a taste of it for myself as I get out and see the sights.
But take away the history and the heritage and filling your boots, and what are you left with? It’s got to be the writers – right? Like minded people… even I know, that’s gold dust. I’m on the right foot it seems because I’m headed for a co-writing session, my first one actually. I’ve been hooked up by a friend from London and it’s my assumption that you’re always pretty safe with a friend of a friend. Temperatures are above zero so we’re out on the deck, in coats, but outside. We have a full pot of coffee to begin and by the time the dregs are decanted we have the measure of each other – upbringing, politics and God. We are ready to write.
I was warned with regard to co-writing that it’s very rarely a 50/50 situation. Somebody usually takes the alpha position and it’s accepted and cool to run with it as long as the ideas are flowing, apparently. I’m not sure how this compares but Joseph is leading with a chord progression and I seem to be at the helm with the lyrics. We’re treading lightly and sporadically on each other’s turf but there’s an informal understanding of who has the final say on what. No one’s going all Patrick Swayze about the dance-space. I’m truly surprised at how much I’m enjoying co-writing.
We break for Mexican food in a sweet place just a few minutes away and then Joseph drops me off at a guitar shop on 8th. The next day we push to finish the song. It’s with a sudden and unexpected bout of red-light jitters that I go into the ceremonious cutting of the first demo. Between Christmas and now I must have forgotten what performance nerves can do to a person. I feel like a completely different person. I hesitate to entertain the idea of out of body experience, yet I’m aware that something has come over me. I’m dearly hoping the atmosphere shift is only internal, whilst supposing that if I use up all my nervous energy right now… just maybe it’ll be plain sailing for the gig tonight.
Browns Diner is famous for its cheeseburgers, grilled onions and its very humble beginnings. It stands as an institution now on an unassuming corner of Blair Boulevard, Hillsboro way, and decked out in bright lights outside, bright lights inside, tall stools around the bar and plenty of drunk strangers to talk to with more units consumed than teeth. I have the opening slot at 7.30pm and the crowd is small but appreciative. The nerves haven’t gone but they’re making like understanding parents at the school disco and they aren’t showing me up too badly. It’s my first gig in town. If it were the disco we’d want the cool kids to like us and to not stuff up the moves to Saturday Night. I have the offer of a gig for next time, and I’ve made a friend out of the bartender. Well nee-dee-dah-dee-dah… that’s a result for me.
On Friday I’m elated to spot a mahogany travel-sized-guitar for a steal of a price but brought back down to earth when I find out that my airline would charge me £100 to take it home with me. I settle for six packs of guitar strings (at gloriously American prices) and a copy of Fretboard Journal which I reckon is nerdy guitar-magazine meets Wallpaper or other aesthetically yummy rag. The aeroplane luggage situation is forcing me to keep my souvenir buying on the conservative side. I’m sticking to paper keepsakes and feeding my laughably vanilla addiction to postcards. At The Country Music Hall of Fame I opt to take the tour of RCA’s Studio B. They have an incredible photo of a young, skinny Elvis Presley hanging in their first room – in a shirt and tie with his hair up but maybe a little bed-sprung. They don’t have it in the gift shop – but I do find a nice black and white of Willie Nelson for a buck.
In the live room at Studio B, we sit in chairs along the length of the room while the tour guide dims the lights and changes the colours as they might have done during Elvis’s favoured 10pm recording slot. Reds for rock and roll, blues for gospel and pitch black for that wonderful one-take (bar one splice) of Are You Lonesome Tonight. It’s hard to believe that the little cross marked out on the floor in blue electrical tape is where so many great men and women stood… and sang their guts out. No time or money back then for red-light jitters.
The tail end of a busy weekend brings me to Nashville’s answer to Hoxton Bar and Grill, though there are enough micro beanies and beards in here for me to better twin it with The Cereal Cafe… in a way, it’s comforting to know that no matter where you go, the hipsters look the same. Anyway, it’s a great turn out tonight to see the man The Nashville Scene once called ‘The Duke’.
It’s been seven years since I saw Chris. The first time he was up on stage with the late (great) Don Helms who was at that time possibly the last surviving member of Hank Williams’ original band. It was in downtown, in a bar on Broadway, though I don’t member which. We’re in The Stone Fox in East Nashville for a healthy dose of classic country from Chris Scruggs and The Stone Fox Five and it certainly is most excellent medicine. It’s a lovely thing to be back in touch with old friends – bizarrely sharing our table with the editor of The Newyorker.
Between night and next morning the snow falls and lays turning the neighbourhood immediately to me into something like a bobsled course except with Chevys on it. My co-write is cancelled due to the tricky weather and I have an at-home day working on songs, chain-tea-drinking and thanks to marvellous technology I’m able to listen with a tap of a touch screen to more of the musicians I’ve met and become fast friends with this week. Streaming is keeping me in good ears and helping me to cement some excellent memories made, but somehow my two-step with Spotify feels rather like a candle-lit slow dance with a stranger that’s not quite a friend of a friend…
When evening comes we pass a bottle of port and light a real fire, just to be safely old fashioned.