Nashvegas, Music City, Ca$hville, Athens of the South---she goes by many names. All I knew on my first trip to Nashville was she seemed like a dragon to be slayed. It's an intimidating city for most musicians and singers and to somehow win the attention of a label or artist, or maybe write a hit song was the goal. Though the majority of us had no clue how to make that happen. We just tried to get gigs and find our niche...
Surprisingly, though I lived and worked in Huntsville(about 100 miles south)for many years and loved music, I'd never visited the city. So, my first trip was not only a scouting expedition, but my initiation. I made the decision to move shortly after my grandfather passed away. I went back home for a couple of weeks to help, after we discovered he was diagnosed with an aneurysm. It was terrible to watch him go, but I was glad I got to share in his last days.
A guitar player I'd played with a few times had recently moved to East Nashville and kept bugging me to come up. Since things were slow with the bands I played in, I decided it might be time for a big change. I packed a few things in my little pickup truck and headed north on I-65.
It was the end of winter and light snow flurries welcomed me into the city that gray afternoon. I arrived shortly after lunch and called my friend, who met me at 2nd and Broadway. The streets and sidewalks weren't crowded, as it was early in the day on a Tuesday afternoon, but the music coming from venues and bars all around me sounded like a hopping weekend night. Shifts(we called them shifts, 4 hour slots)started at nearly every venue on Broadway at 10 am. They ran every four hours until 2 am. And the musicians get no breaks, it's a four hour show! This was information I didn't realize as we walked toward Tootsie's, wide eyed as I drank in all the legendary locations. Places where Hank and Merle and Willie and Johnny played. Hallowed ground for country fans.
My buddy played some gigs on 2nd street, which is typically more rock and roll. Of course, BB King's is also nestled in those rows of buildings, if you've got the blues chops. The Ryman was just a couple blocks up, off 5th. And of course near the corner of Broadway and 5th was one of the most well known honky-tonks of all: Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.
Like any tourist, we made Tootsie's our first stop. It so happened that my friend's roommate was running sound in the top part of Tootsie's, so I could meet him, as well. We walked in off Broadway and the band was immediately to the right, on a tiny stage, all crammed together. The stage was so close to the door you could pretty much high-five the lead guitar player when walking in. The walls were covered with old portraits of country legends, signed by the many artists who'd played that same stage. It might've been a slow weekday, but the band was giving it hell. No matter how many gigs you play in Nashville, it's still an achievement to say you've played Tootsie's. It's the "go big or go home" venue and many musicians competed to keep that gig.
We met the roommate and all had a shot(I know, it's like early afternoon, but hey, it's Nashville, baby!)and discussed what I should check out first. Both the guys told me I needed to go sit in at multiple places on Broadway, make some connections and see if I could get gigs. I was instantly mortified. I mean, I just got to this crazy town and they wanted me to go sit in at someone's paid gig. But as I said earlier, the band doesn't take breaks. So, if a musician asks to come sit in on a couple songs, that gives a band member a chance to hit the bathroom, stretch their legs, grab a beer, whatever. This was foreign to me, as from my world of gigging, you didn't go up to a band and ask to sit in, unless you knew them. Even then, better if it's pre-planned.
After them convincing me multiple times that musicians actually welcomed people to sit in(I thought they might be pulling some kinda 'new kid in town' prank or something), I relented. We walked out to Legends on the corner, next to Tootsie's, where I could hear a keyboard being played.
A guy in a white cowboy hat was sitting at a Roland keyboard playing and singing a country ballad. The majority of his band seemed half-awake, or possibly hung-over. All except for one very pregnant lady in the center of the stage, full of life and energy, strumming an acoustic guitar. Yeah, she definitely wasn't hungover. The band finished the song and my friend urged me to go talk to the singer. I hesitantly approached the stage.
He got up from the keyboard and grabbed his acoustic off the stand and kissed the pregnant lady on the cheek. He moved toward the front of the stage as I slipped a couple bucks in their tip jar. He thanked me and I quickly stammered, "This is my first time in Nasvhille and I'm thinking about moving here for music. Would it be ok if I sat in?" The cowboy grinned and reached his hand down. "Sure, man. I'm Craig. What's your name?" I told him my name. "Well, what do you play?" I motioned to the keys. "Well come on and play one with the band, then we'll play one with you."
The reality set in. I'd played hundreds of gigs, in all sorts of places, but this would be my first time on a stage in Nashville. Sure, it wasn't a paying gig, but it was a milestone. I moved over to the keys, knees a little weak, and the band asked if I knew any old country. Why yes, yes I do. The band fired up some Merle and I played the best blues/country piano I knew how, throwing in my Floyd Cramer licks I'd practiced perfecting over the years. We finished the song and I looked back and thanked the band and Craig said, "Well that's pretty dang good. Ya'll give it up for the keyboard player, just in from Alabama. How about you sing us one?"
Playing with the band was cool and all, but now it's the moment of truth. Lead the band with the piano and sing well or fail at your first real performance in Nashville. I'm happy to say my train didn't derail like at my first vocal competition a few years later and I sang and played "Hey Good Looking" convincingly enough that I think Hank woulda been pleased. The crowd was small, but their big applause indicated they were appreciative of the rendition. Craig left the stage for a bathroom break and he was at the bar grabbing a beer as we ended. I turned and thanked the band again and started to stand up. "Hey man, give us another one. Something blues-y!", I heard Craig yell from the bar.
I have an old Ray Charles song I love to do that I actually learned from a live Ben Fold performance, called "Them That Got". I asked the band if they knew it(it's lesser known), so when they didn't I told them the chord progression and asked if they'd be willing to try. In retrospect, you probably shouldn't ask a band to play a song they don't know at a live show, but hey, we're in Nashville and they were good musicians!
So I did my song and the band nailed it, of course. The crowd really enjoyed it and I sauntered off the stage with my head in the clouds, to the sound of applause. I walked over to the bar where Craig was chatting with my buddy. "Hey man, you did real good. If ya'll got time, stick around until were done. We've got a few more songs and then we can talk." I was so amazed at how down to earth everyone was; I guess I expected more ego or arrogance, but it was like we were old fishing buddies. I learned later his baby does love to fish...
I sat at the bar, reveling in my first real taste of being a musician at Music City, feeling like one of the band. A guy from the crowd bought me a beer and a couple patrons shook my hand or clapped me on the back as they left. The band finished up and I waited for them to talk to the crowd and do their PR work before I walked over to the stage.
I thanked the band again and started shaking everyone's hand. The drummer asked if I had a card, but I told him I'd just come for a visit, thinking of moving. He told me to make sure I got some cards when I moved. He already knew I was hooked. Craig introduced to me to his beautiful wife, who was eight months pregnant! I'll bet their kid turned out to be musical. Craig said they'd just got off the road early that morning, promoting their new album, which explained the tiredness. Craig and I chatted a minute as they broke down, but I didn't want to wear out the welcome, so to speak, so I shook his hand again, prepared to leave.
"Well, how long are you in town." I replied two or three days. "I've got a big production show at The Stage Thursday night, if you're still in town why don't you come sit in and sing one?" I was floored. Sitting in with the band on a slow Tuesday afternoon versus a packed Thursday night show were two different things entirely. "Wow, uh, that would be great, uh, thanks!" I couldn't believe I'd made such an impression; I was ecstatic. My buddy shared in my excitement as he extolled "I told you so's" regarding moving to Nashville. Yeah, I definitely was hooked.
I sat in a few more places that afternoon, but after all the excitement I was ready to meet the other roommates, to see if we'd mesh well and could live together. Things worked out on that regard and I ended up getting a paying gig on 2nd at Big Shots the next day! My first paying gig in Nashville on the 2nd day there?! Wow, maybe this will work out...
I was nervous when I arrived to The Stage that Thursday night. The venue is one of the largest on the Broadway strip, with an upper level that allows it to hold more people. I got to the show about thirty minutes before starting time, because I wanted to see the the band's performance and watch how they set up and did sound check---the behind the scenes stuff that's cool to a musician, I guess. Craig spotted me after a few minutes and invited me over. He told me they'd get me up a couple songs into the second set. The place started to fill up as I nursed a cheap domestic at the bar. The band kicked up and it was quite the production. Lots of lights, good sound, energy all through the room---I was seeing my first real Nashville show! I tried to keep my nerves at bay as the band wound down the first set. Craig and all the musicians were busy talking to staff and selling CDs and merch on break, so I didn't try and bother them. A small part of me was hoping he'd just forget I was there, because at this point the place was about 300 people strong! I was excited to get on that big stage and try my hand at it, though.
Sure enough, a couple of songs in Craig says on the mic, "Got a treat for ya. Guy I just met that's moved up from Alabama is gonna come do a song. Get up here, blues man!"
I'm uncertain why he gave me that moniker, maybe the Hank song or the Ray Charles or maybe he just thought I had a blues kind of voice. Either way, the nickname was pretty sweet, I'll take it.
I shook off the nerves and bounced up the stage, to some tentative applause. I thought I'd be more nervous, but the greetings and welcoming I got from the band made me feel more in my element. Hell, I'd done this so many times before. Get up there and show 'em what ya got, Stephen.
I asked the band if we could do "Easy", a song I'd done for years and one I hoped I would have a hard time screwing up. As soon as I played the intro and the bass and drums came in, backing me, I got out of my head and started singing from my heart. The photographer was moving all around the stage snapping photos and I occasionally glanced at the crowd and saw smiling faces pointed toward me. But mostly I closed my eyes and played and sang like I was born to do it. When I got done the crowd applauded and as I left the stage, thanking the musicians, I got claps on the back and thumbs up from the guys. Craig got on the mic, "Ya'll give it up again, for SteveO, the Blues Man!"
The band was soon out on the road again and the next time I saw Craig was on CMT. About six months after the show at The Stage, Craig Campbell's debut single, "Family Man" started climbing the charts and the next summer two songs from his debut album charted. I hope he continues to find success and I hope one day on this journey, I'll get to see him and his wife again. And thank him for being an awesome dude and making my first week in Nashville one of the most memorable I'd have in that bright, but blurry city...