In a hard luck motel near Vanderbilt University, I went to a seminar hosted by a woman named Barbara Cloyd. She’s the friendly, generous, clever, somewhat blunt mentor to many Nashville writers, and calls this seminar “Ready for the Row” (she’s since moved it to a much nicer venue). I’ve attended thrice since I began my Tennessee Odyssey.

One particular time, the meeting room tables were arranged in a large rectangle. This created a center space in which Barbara had set up an electric piano.

Twenty-five or thirty of us gathered in the meeting room. Its stucco walls were (and presumably are) cracked, and each little stucco swirl had dust on its topside.

The dark blue carpet was torn and unraveling.

Much of the metal in the room was rust-pocked.

Fluorescence emanated weakly from the ceiling, and each afternoon one of the seminar’s more bold, assertive types would rise to screen out glaring sunlight blinding the songwriters sitting along one side of the table-rectangle. Wide, white, plastic, modern-in-the-1970s vertical blinds would then make little plik-plik-plik sounds for several seconds as they tapped each other: plik plik, plik plik, plik, plik . . . plik . . . plik . . .

“Rachel?” Barbara said, picking up a lyric sheet that was not rubber-banded to a CD. Rachel was planning to sing and play electric piano for the publishers.

It isn’t unusual for people to open their mouths, draw a breath, and sing—solo—at these seminars. For me it’s a strange moment, always. As a group we transform from a muddle of seminar-goers to a live-in-person audience, with very little time to assume appropriate facial expressions.

Until you’re suddenly a few feet away from someone Giving It Their All, you don’t realize the Nickajack Lake-sized difference between politely listening to a co-attendee’s demo CD, and assuming an audience’s responsibility to give-and-take.

I was introduced to this moment a few months previously, at a BMI seminar I went to: having been called on, a blond girl failed to smile benignly. The Benign Smile is the official expression of any seminar attendee whose CD is being loaded into a CD player for the room to hear. Blond Girl had no CD. She wasn’t like the rest of us. In fact, she had dressed bravely, with a plunging neckline; somehow her clothes seemed better laundered than those of the people sitting near her. Briefly crinkling her eyes toward the seminar leader to acknowledge her turn, she suddenly adopted an expression of longing, or possibly transcendence. Her eyes defocused and she gazed at an invisible spot in the middle distance. She opened her mouth, drew a breath, and sang: “La!” (Or whatever the words were.) “La la la!!” Loudly. Emotionally. With nothing but her voice, her ambition, and the guts it took.

Astonishing, really.

And, it turns out, normal.

The three publishers sitting next to Barbara in the hard luck conference room showed no sign of discomfort when Rachel stood, or even seemed aware that someone was about to sing for them, to them, near them. I began to get nervous for her. She was like somebody you would know at work—casual, quiet, droll.

And she was about to sing!


She nodded toward the publishers.

Just then it struck all of us, at once, that there was no way for Rachel to get to the piano.

The piano had been set up when there was nobody sitting in the room, when it was easy to move the tables apart at the corners and slip in. Now all the tables had six or seven people sitting at them. It was possible to slide them apart but it was going to create a kerfuffle.

Obviously unwilling to create a kerfuffle, Rachel gamely pulled back her chair, knelt, and crawled on her hands and knees, shuffling under the table. Once inside she stood, brushed herself off in a self-effacing, grin-forming-at-the-corners-of-her-mouth way, and walked to the piano: an excellent solution.

She played a nice song, facing the table of publishers and fixing her eyes, of course, on the middle distance. After the third and final chorus and a few chords of resolution, she brought her gaze back into the room and smiled to show that she was through. We all clapped politely, and she sat for her Critique—an act as prescribed as any religious ceremony. She listened calmly and welcomed the mostly critical remarks, as the ceremony requires. Each publisher spoke, then Barbara wrapped it up. Rachel’s turn had ended.

“Thank you,” she said. She stood, turned, and walked back to her place at the table.

But Rachel was trapped.

If she bent down and crawled, reversing her entrance, the publishers—and the rest of the room—would be viewing her exit from an angle any Victorian Lady or Southern Belle would have deemed unacceptably, outrageously unflattering.

Should she? Should she just moon us?

Alarming: Rachel was too nice to be humiliated.

Yet it was kind of funny.

She paused. Some chuckled, seeing the puzzle presented her.

With a gleam, she turned and faced the publishers again. Silently and quickly she lowered herself to her hands and knees, and, with an air of having outwitted an adversary, she shuffled under the table backward until her head cleared the edge. She rose, pulled up her chair, and sat down.

We all clapped again.