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A Music City Reunion

October 15, 2019 (2,130 words)

There were six of us little ones growing up, four boys and two girls. Our younger sister, MaryAnne, was the proverbial baby of the family, and over time she proved to be the glue that held the rest of us together.

As one-by-one we moved out and embarked on the young adult portion of our lives, Mare was the sibling who managed keep in touch with everybody. There was no bad blood between any of us, per se, we were all just pre-occupied, I guess. Looking back, in our mixed-breed Irish-Italian brood it was the youngest child who became largely responsible for coordinating family gatherings and holiday get-togethers.

So when she up and died of melanoma in August 1998, at the tender age of thirty-four, it left the other five of us at loose ends. With MaryAnne having moved on to bigger and better things, the last two decades here on earth have been pretty slim pickings, in the maintaining-sibling-connection department. Years have passed when the only thing we’ve exchanged is the odd birthday card.

In fact the last time we were all together in one place was our parents’ respective funerals: Dad in December 2012 and Mom in August 2013.

In recent years we have made a concerted effort to do better, but syncing up schedules continues to be a challenge. So we have settled for partial reunions whenever the opportunity presents itself, like the one a couple brothers and I managed last month, in Nashville.

a purely serendipitous destination…

The selection of this destination was purely serendipitous. It had been suggested to me by a complete stranger I bumped into at the Miami airport back in June, while making my way home from that special week spent in Guatemala with Cross Catholic Outreach.

In one of those casual “where are you coming from – where are you going” exchanges, this personable young gent recommended Nashville as a lively place worth a visit.

Once home I emailed the suggestion out to the troops, but only my Arizona brother and my Tampa brother could work such a trip in for this year. Then my Arizona brother, a bit of a musicologist, mentioned the city hosts something called the Americana Music Festival every September, and so the game was afoot.

What a fun time it turned out to be. There were a few evening-long concerts featuring big-name acts (aka, “legends”) during the course of the week. But the real highlights were the many showcases offered at twenty different venues around town, all presenting original music from people you mostly never heard of (aka, “rising stars”).

finely crafted songs by largely anonymous artists…

What we in the audience were treated to were the best songs these anonymous artists have ever written. And let me tell you, they were all pretty darn good. Actually, they were all exceptional. There were lots of great melodies, great lyrics, and great vocals, with top-notch musicianship all around.

Each act I heard during the course of my visit deserved to be on the radio. Each act deserved to be a household name. A situation that reminds me of an old song…

Nashville cats, play clean as country water
Nashville cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville cats, been playin’ since they’s babies
Nashville cats, get work before they’re two…

John Sebastian

You couldn’t possibly see and hear everything, since these different showcases were happening simultaneously, every afternoon and evening. Luckily, some performers did appear at different places on different days, which gave one a chance at a representative sampling.

In addition to all these scheduled “showcase acts” playing their own stuff, every bar and restaurant had a stage, and you couldn’t walk down the street, let alone sit down for a meal, without encountering another incredible male or female voice, usually singing cover tunes.

This little visit started off as a solo adventure. I flew in Wednesday afternoon, and the first showcase I attended that night, in an upstairs lounge at a nearby hotel, was phenomenal. The opening act blew me away, as did each following act. By the end of that first night I started to worry that maybe the rest of the week would be all downhill from there.

that concern proved to be unfounded…

But that initial concern proved to be completely unfounded. After a couple of days and nights happily operating under my own steam, going wherever the wind took me, my two brothers flew in on Friday, and arrived just in time for the evening showcase at City Winery.

This is a beautiful, ten year-old venue that looks and feels brand new, done up in an urban rustic theme – high ceilings, exposed timber beams, etc. It’s got two performance spaces, along with a full kitchen and a wine list they are quite proud off.

We were in the main space that night, a large room with tables for dining arranged perpendicular to the full-size, proscenium-arch stage, instead of the conventional parallel-to-the-stage rows of seating.

The opening act was a long-time favorite, Shawn Colvin, who was in town to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her first recording, Steady On. She appeared at a few different spots during the week, but this night was given over to performing the entire record, start to finish – with only her own solo guitar-playing as accompaniment. Worth the trip, as they say.

But there was still a lot of music ahead of us. A young Nashville-based singer by name of Sean McConnell followed Shawn, and he paid tribute to her influence. Lee Hinkle was next. He bills himself as a “modern day vagabond currently living on the road.” Which means, he explained, he lives out of his van.

Lee was joined on stage for part of his set by a female singer whose name I did not get, and an old Nashville hand by the name of Buddy Miller.

Buddy and Shawn sing a lovely duet…

Then, and I don’t remember just how, Buddy Miller was alone on stage, and was eventually joined by a re-appearing Shawn Colvin. We learned during between-song banter that Buddy hired Shawn way back in 1980 to be a female singer and guitar player in his then New York City-based band. The affection that flowed between these two on stage was palpable.

In fact, “affection flowing from the stage” was pretty much the dominant theme of the week.

And no one exemplified this joy and affection more than the closing act on this Friday night at City Winery: Steve Poltz.

Part troubadour, part comedian, part space cowboy, his was the single most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud show I have ever attended. Steve hoped around the stage tirelessly, freed, as he enthusiastically told us, by his recent purchase of a high quality head-mounted microphone. This guy was a complete gas.

He had the entire audience guffawing throughout. Everybody around us was hurting from smiling so much and laughing so hard. If Steve Poltz ever comes anywhere near your town, by all means go out and see him perform.

a good time getting caught up with two brothers…

It was great to spend the weekend hanging out with my Arizona brother and my Tampa brother. We saw more good music together, and got caught up by lounging around after meals, and walking between certain venues instead of taking Uber.

(Note to self: As much as I wanted to also spend time with my NJ [soon to be NC] brother and my Plymouth Meeting, PA sister, it turns out the smaller the group, the firmer the connection that can be made among the participants.)

All three of us flew out Monday morning.

The overall level of musical talent on display last month In Nashville during the Americana Music Festival is something I have never experienced before. And, as I’ve just mentioned, there was no discernable line of demarcation in talent level between the legends and the rising stars.

The joy and affection all this talent expressed from these various stages puts one in mind of that famous aphorism, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Certainly these performers all seemed to epitomize this philosophy.

But how long can such a high last? After all, stage time represents only a small fraction of each day. We in the audience should enjoy and appreciate these enchanted moments for the gift they represent, rather than take them for granted as just another commodity to be consumed indiscriminately.

the legends and the rising stars…

In surveying the broad terrain that separates the legends from the rising stars, a few thoughts occur. What happens in the life of a legend when they can’t continue to crank out the hits year after year? Does that undermine the value of the undeniable gems they were able to produce, early in their careers?

Does a legend ever resent the limelight and want to be left alone? Do they ever run out of steam along the way, and want to be regular people, if only for a little while? Probably far more commonplace is the fate of so many one-time legends that see their fame fade with time, forcing then back into near-anonymity.

And what of today’s rising stars? What if they never break through, and tire of the grind of just getting by? If an artist, in this case a musical artist, never achieves broad appeal (aka, fame and fortune), does that in any way diminish the quality of their art?

My own feeling is that having the music in you is something to be cherished, even if you only end up singing to yourself. Getting other people to listen is a bonus, not a pre-requisite. In fact, sometimes too much outside attention can actually be an impediment to authentic expression.

But of course we all do have to make a living. And it seems there are multiple ways to earn a living in music, for those who retain a determination to do what they love, despite never breaking through on their own.

One way is to write a song that a more popular artist can turn into a hit. This is what the now no-longer-young Steve Poltz (b. 1960) was able to achieve back in 1995, when the fetching young singer Jewel took his “You Were Meant For Me” to number two on the charts.

Another way is securing steady work as a reliable recording session player. Or, if you don’t mind the road, steady work as a member of a tour band that backs a better-known act. Some can remain independent indefinitely, I suppose, carving out a living playing smaller rooms. And some may decide to teach.

all is not lost, regardless of your circumstance…

For the legends who must deal with the inevitable loss of name recognition, or the rising stars that may hit a wall in their ascent, take a job in the civilian world, and relegate their art to part-time status, all is not lost.

Both can continue to experience the same level of engagement they once did, or they still aspire to, if and when they find a way to love what it is they have been given to do in their non-musical life.

Which of course is exactly where the rest of us already find ourselves.

If we – musicians and non-musicians, alike – can find a way to embrace our messy and mundane responsibilities, and execute them with attention and care, then we, too, are living the artist’s life. By which I mean what we do for a living, no matter how pedestrian it may seem to us or be judged by others, can be a form of art.

And it’s not too far-flung to think that if we are able to approach our work in this manner, it can – and should – make that work not only art, but also a form of worship.

Regarding the lack of broad artistic appeal, when we hear painters and such say they are creating for themselves, rather than for the general public, doesn’t that really mean their work is meant to express their unique humanity? And in so doing aren’t they essentially communicating with their creator?

Isn’t that what all of us are doing all the time, whether we think of our daily activity in such terms, or not?

As you might be able to tell, this was a very engaging and productive little trip, on many different levels. (Oh and by the way, did I mention some of the world’s friendliest bartenders, and bar patrons?) If the fates allow, I would certainly hope to find myself back in Nashville again, come next September.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
October 15, 2019

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