Grant Peeple’s boots made first tracks in the snow leading up to Barbara Cloyd’s front door the morning after Nashville’s Most Sudden Snow Dump In Memory.
“Here he is, He Who Refuses To Co-Write,” said Liz in her Philadelphia accent, teasing-but-not-just-teasing Grant about the argument they’d had the day before when they were supposed to be co-writing a song.
“You guys have fun last night?” he said, stomping his boots. It was the second day of Barbara Cloyd’s invitational seminar. This special in-her-house gathering consisted of people she’d asked to previous “Ready for the Row” sessions, people she thought seemed serious about makin’ it.
The blizzard had stranded some of us, and we’d had a sleepover.
“We had a blast—me and Jamie worked on the song,” said Liz.
“Hey,” Jamie said to Grant.
Grant was looking for someplace to throw his coat. He left his stocking cap on. Living in Florida after owning and managing a Nicaraguan hotel for several years, Grant knew as much about snow as you know about worm grunting.
Am I wrong? Perhaps you’re familiar? Have you seen worm grunting on TV?
Worm grunting is when you stick a wooden stake in the ground near Sopchoppy in Apalachicola along the Forgotten Coast of Florida and rub a “rooping iron” across it. This brings worms to the surface, where you can grab them and go fishing.
That’s what most people know about Sopchoppy, thanks to the Nature channel.
Someday, though, worm grunting may be eclipsed by Grant Peeples as Sopchoppy’s most significant contribution to American Culture.
I met Grant in Nashville a few years ago. One’s first impulse when one meets Grant is to behave reassuringly, sensing that Grant responds decisively to perceived threats.
He’s bald. He has a goatee. His eyes burn as if fired by some old-fashioned furnace that requires the hardest, blackest coal—anthracite!—and he doesn’t let a comment pass casually: he listens, considers what’s been said, and responds in an steady, sometimes disconcertingly earnest southern voice that fills a room even in conversational tones.
You’d like him.
We met on what I believe was his first trip to Nashville. He was sniffing around, seeing if he could find a way into the Nashville scene, or if he wanted in at all.
Currently, I don’t think he wants in, unless it can be on his terms.
1. That he not be condescended to;
2. That his songs not be unnecessarily jimmied with (my phrase, not his);
3. That he not get a bunch of wimpy reactions from people whose music he considers watered down and sanitized;
4. That he retain some control over the songs he writes.
He might have other terms. These are just the first four inferences that come to mind from having spent time with Grant.
I’m a Facebook friend and subscribe to his emails—he’s touring, getting great reviews, recording with name-brand producers, making his living as a musician.
He doesn’t really need the Nashville approval stamp.
And yet one of the most memorable moments I’ve had in Nashville was his. It was at a post-seminar guitar pull. Barbara had introduced him to all of us at the seminar in a characteristically blunt way: “I didn’t know what to make of Grant’s submission; I figured he was either brilliant, or he was a murderer. I almost didn’t invite him. But here he is.” He played us a song called “Real Country” off his self-produced first CD. The first lines are, “Well, the house trailer smells like (slight pause) cat piss…”
At the guitar pull that night, Grant happened to be sitting next to Connie Mims. Connie is a Houston music scene tent pole: a central figure. She was part of a popular band there before she had a family—now she’s moved to Nashville as an energetic, enthusiastic songwriter who’s always the first to start clapping or singing along.
Connie handed Grant the guitar after performing an up-tempo crowd pleaser.
Grant looked at her. He smiled, a smile of mischief. A smile of mystery.
He began singing in his rich, large voice—directly to Connie.
At first it was romantic.
He was proposing a date, of sorts. He detailed how he would come around to her house. He’d bring a bottle of Crown. They’d go out. To a lonely spot.
It was a mesmerizing scene. Two lovers. He was in the moment. It seemed like it was really happening.
Wait, though: it’s going wrong. It’s going wrong! Oh God, they’re at some railroad tracks!
Grant was sober. Calm.
Menace hides in measured behavior.
Too late, Connie! Too late—she’s drunk on Crown! He’s bound her to the railroad tracks!
Grant described the train.
The ground began shaking.
Grant leaned in nearer to Connie and sang, soooo quietly: “I’ll ask you one question/And you can answer any way that you please…”
Connie was looking up at him, into his coal-fired eyes, waiting to discover her fate as the ground shook and the train roared close.
“… Did ya cheat?” Grant sang, as soft and light an ending to a song as you’ve ever heard.
And the room exploded with release—we applauded and let our communal breath out.
I felt like I had witnessed murder. It was marvelous.
Was it a song that Tim McGraw could pull off?
And there you have it: the nut of the argument that Grant and Liz had the previous day, when assigned by Barbara to co-write together with the young singer, Jamie.
Should a song be separated from its writer?
Isn’t every great song a personal vision?
Liz’s position: we’re here for one reason, and that’s to hone our country songwriting skills. One of the tenets, the very foundation stones of Nashville songwriting is that two heads are better than one. Co-written songs are the songs you hear on the radio. It’s a skill, it can be learned with practice, and it requires give-and-take as well as a certain amount of trust that the other person can both make your song better, and prevent you from making it worse.
Grant’s core belief: starting long before Dylan but finding its first most crystalline modern example in the works of Mr. Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota (where, incidentally, a snow like this Nashville fluff-up would merely have been the subject of idle chit-chat at Bob’s parent’s clothing store), singing songs you yourself wrote is a personal art form.
“That’s not why we’re here!” Liz said, losing her temper when Grant refused to make tweaks or improvements to ideas their team was coming up with.
“There’s a reason you said that idea in the first place! Who am I to change it? Who am I to tell Jamie he shouldn’t do something one way or another? It’s just my opinion. The song should be your song, it should be what you want it to be,” Grant said.
From the next room we could hear them.
Liz was angry. This was an opportunity she’d travelled far to have. She wanted to co-write with a talented person in Nashville, Tennessee.
Grant was angry. He feels the whole mechanism of the biz is based on a false premise; he believes songs should be the expression of a personal vision, The End.
They’re still friends. Good friends.
But they never resolved the argument.
Maybe there’s no resolution.
Maybe there’s only sides.
When the weekend was over, I was the next to last to leave the house. I usually stick around till the last dog is hung. I hate to miss anything. That’s why I fear death.
The street department hadn’t gotten to Barbara’s street, which is at a pretty steep angle—we’d all parked facing up the hill. Being Mr. Big Man or at least the only guy left (it was Liz, Barbara and me) I went out into the snowy morning with a snow scraper and dug out all the cars.
It was so icy none of us could go anyplace without a shove.
We pushed and pushed and rocked and pushed Liz’s rental to park it at the crest of the hill. Her flight wasn’t till mid-afternoon. Then we pushed and pushed and rocked and pushed Barbara’s car, and got it unstuck.
My turn came to be pushed and rocked.
I put the Jeep in four-wheel drive (which didn’t do much more than spin all the tires instead of just two). Liz and Barbara pushed and pushed. After much whirring and sliding sideways (which always squirts adrenaline into everyone’s veins) my tires got a little traction.
Slowly I pulled away, launched on my trip home.
Liz and Barbara waved in the snowy street, puffing visible breath into the air.
I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t helped me.