Living in Nashville back at the beginning of this century was my first experience in a place where public transportation was not a real option. So my memories of my time there – me and Hazel in a sweet Victorian house with front porch swing; publishing deal; songs written; records made, shows played; friends and boyfriends, ups and downs – are punctuated with instances of car trouble. The Pontiac wagon that broke down on the move to town and died soon after; the Aerostar left behind in Virginia mountains; the Lumina, the Astrovan (for a brief period I drove a BMW but that’s a different tale).
There was one evening in Nashville early on when Hazel’s dad was living on the other side of town and driving a similarly ratty car. Me and Haze broke down out by Opryland and when the AAA guy arrived he took one look at my eleven year old daughter and said, “Hey, I already saw you once today.” She hadn’t told me about her dad’s car dying that morning. “Dang kid, you get around. Or try to.”
So when I visited Nashville last weekend it was a treat to breeze into the airport and pick up a rental car. No worries! It was pure muscle memory walking from the Southwest gate around and down to baggage claim – I’d forgotten how often I’d flown in and out of this airport. “You have a nice visit, now,” the Hertz lady said and it felt genuine, warm and familiar in a way I hadn’t expected.
The whole trip was sort of like that. I think I’d gotten it in my head that my time in Nashville had been if not a failure then a failed experiment, a sidetrack or foolish attempt to make something of myself, and that it was best to put it behind me and move on. Being there, I felt nothing but love – it was weird.
My pal David Eason met me at this great little Greek diner around the corner from my old house – I had never set foot in the place, it’s strange how living somewhere blinders you in a way. At the same time, the landscape of endless drab shopping strips has changed, there are now huge blocks of shiny new buildings everywhere that are horrible but serve as contrast to the charming old stuff they haven’t bothered to knock down yet. A lot of times I honestly couldn’t tell which direction I was facing there was so much development. Then I would look up and see a familiar old supermarket or liquor store I used to frequent and find myself rooting for the old trashy place for the very reason I used to think the town was homely.
David and I went in through the special guest entrance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for a tour of the “Dylan and Cash & the Nashville Cats” exhibit. Signing in on the guest register, I couldn’t help but notice the signature above mine: Michael Nesmith. Yes, that Mike of my wooly hat childhood dreams. The ole Nashville magic was already at work. Great exhibit that made me want to go home and listen to every record referenced from Blonde on Blonde to Junior’s Farm. Curator Michael Gray and writers Peter Cooper and Michael McCall who all work at the museum came out to say hi and it made me feel welcome in town the way I’d always felt welcome but had forgotten.
I was pretty shocked by East Nashville. It’s full of restaurants and bars now alongside the cute little houses. I stayed at an airbnb just around the corner from a house my late friend Duane Jarvis and his wife Denise lived in when I first came to town to write in the 90s. Back then this part of town felt like charming but on the edge of nowhere, now it seems like a cozy haven from the glitziness.
I took in Tim Carroll’s blazing happy hour show at the Five Spot and ran into Amelia White, another old pal. We clinked our $2.50 cocktails and toasted each other for hanging in there. It felt like Nashville was musical boot camp or even purgatory sometimes when I lived there, but I’ve come to realize if there’s anywhere in this world where people know my name and are happy to see me, it’s actually more like heaven.
Saturday I drove downtown and parked in the great big downtown Nashville library parking garage. I used to spend a lot of time in this place (the library itself, not the parking garage). There’s nothing like a comprehensive public library, especially one that validates for cheap or free parking. I was tagging along on Bill DeMain’s Walkin Nashville tour and I knew it would be good because Bill’s a great writer and fan of cool old stuff but he really blew my mind with his skills, taking a group of 30 visitors around various spots of musical interest. I was delighted to see Pat Sansone on the tour and meet his lovely girlfriend Mae and their friend Sanae, perfumer to the stars. At one point Bill gave Pat a shoutout for playing sold out shows at the Ryman and the young women in the group whipped out their phones “OMG, one of Wilco is on this tour” and then Bill sweetly mentioned me but my only Ryman story was having one of my songs covered by Laura Cantrell on its stage when she opened for Elvis Costello and the phones went back in the pockets.
I’d been suffering for a few days from a tick bite I’d discovered earlier in the week and was seriously starting to think I might have Lyme disease, I know it’s fashionable now but…I tried to put the thought out of my head and we all went out to eat after Bill concluded outside Hatch Show Print – honestly, if you’re going to Nashville be sure and take this tour. It reminded me why I fell in love with country music and all its fascinating lore in the first place.
I had a nice walk with Joy Lynn White the next morning, she’s another super-talented friend who I met years ago as a fan when I first came to town and couldn’t get over how people who sang like her actually got coffee in the morning and drove beat up cars like mine.
When Eric arrived I showed him my old house for the tenth time and we had coffee at one of the many good new coffee places sprinkled around. There were two when I lived here, now there are dozens. The array of good places to dine and drink is really something, I thought it would bother me because Nashville was always about “meat and three”, the lunch places where you’d get say fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, collards and sweet potatoes and I still love that food in concept but it’s a once in a while thing and so bring on the arugula, the more fresh and healthy choices the better.
Now I was really hoping people would turn out for Eric’s show, and even when we arrived for soundcheck they were already showing up. It was all going so well. Then I went out to his well-traveled Buick to get some merchandise and –
“I’m just going to get a clean shirt out of the car,” Eric said, crunching out into the parking lot of the Basement.
“Uh, that’s a good idea but – I locked the keys in the trunk,” I said. With rental car keys in one hand and Buick keys in the other, the dreaded thing had happened. Blame it on the tick bite. Eric was astonishingly calm.
It was like old times greeting the AAA guy who arrived immediately to open the locked car so we could get the keys out. But it turned out the trunk lock was on so a locksmith had to be called and meanwhile Eric played a mesmerizing show and I got to see some more old friends who’d turned out. The locksmith came just as Eric’s set finished – a little touch of downhone Nashville he had his young son in the truck at eleven on a Sunday night and it occurred to me how AAA guys and locksmiths have gotten closer to Hazel’s age now whereas I’m still the same as I was before.
A little later after drinks and sandwiches at another good nightspot in East Nashville we stood in the shadow of Woodland Studios (owned now by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) and I remembered being in awe back when, attending a session there and feeling the magic atmosphere that created hits like “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro and “Comes A Time” by Neil Young, I got chills and warm at the same time and it wasn’t just the Lyme talking.
The Doxycycline’s working fine and I can’t wait to go back.