Riding over the tree-shaggy tops of stony hills just north of the major caves of Kentucky, a moon as thin as a fingernail and its cold companion stars came into perfect focus in the darkening sky, rivaling my iPhone as a distraction.
Simultaneously I glanced at the moon brushed by the ridgeline, avoided a semi with “shark teeth” on its radiator grill, turned the radio down, and pressed on Scott’s name.
I got his voicemail.
“Scott! It’s Charlie. . . Hopper. . . How are you?! I’m. . . rolling along in Kentucky here. . . it’s a last minute call. . .”
You’re supposed to plan your trips to Nashville carefully: it’s standard advice for outsiders. ‘Make sure to map out your visits to Nashville well in advance to take advantage of every minute. Schedule publisher meetings, demo sessions and co-writes. Find out about possible Writer’s Nights if you’d like to perform at local Nashville bars. . .’
“. . . sorry I didn’t call before right now. I’m in the car. I’m coming down to do some demos with Olivia tonight. . .”
I’d met Olivia through a seminar. I assumed Scott knew her; everyone seems to. Olivia’s not shy. Also she can sing, really belt it, and she’s good at quickly finding country-style harmonies. Tonight she was kindly helping me record a couple songs I’d written that were close enough to finished (no song is ever actually finished).
“I don’t know if you have time, but tomorrow I’m sort of . . . well, I’m around. I’m supposed to go to a Publisher Roundtable. . . .”
Suddenly the message had reached the length Midwesterners feel is long enough for a voicemail, so I said my number then goodbye. The sky was that night-spectrum, yellow at the horizon on up through jeweler’s-case indigo.
My favorite words are all twilight words: gloaming, crepuscule, vespers.
I was losing Louisville NPR. In Kentucky, most of the stations your auto-scan finds are country. Soon I had a Brad Paisley song.
Often I reflect, passing a truck with some version of the pitch “More Miles, Better Pay,” that I would be a pretty decent over-the-road driver—herding an eighteen-wheeler around the Eisenhower interstate system deciding my favorite words and finding new radio stations.
A big rig was at my window, noisily downshifting puhpuhpuhpuhhhhhhhhblurt blurt puhhhhhh on a steep grade and anxious to pass my Jeep, so I was riding in the “Watch for Falling Rock” lane. Another semi was creeping downhill in front of me, so I had to maneuver out into the speedy left lane and then back. No ticket, no wreck: this is my prayer. Either would make the already expensive trip more costly. Even budget-rate demos cost a fair amount.
So had the Publisher Roundtable that on a whim I’d agreed to attend.
At my day job, which is advertising, late nights are inescapable. You plan the work, you work the plan, and you’re still there all night before a big pitch.
Weeks ago, after midnight, an e-mail popped up—I was invited to play songs for publishers. First ten applicants would be accepted.
Awake at work in the middle of the night I could probably land a seat at the figuratively round table (it turned out to be a U).
And I did.
So here I was. Bound for Music City.
Ollabelle’s version of the Rolling Stone’s “I Am Waiting” began to play: Scott was calling my phone. I turned down the country music.
Scott, like Olivia, is an enthusiast I’d met at a seminar. He said, “Hey man! Hi! Great time to come down! It’s awards week in Nashville. Went to a number one party today, going to Kenny Chesney’s number one party tomorrow. Bunch of friends and I are playing out at [name of bar I didn’t catch] then we’re going to Loser’s.”
I said, “I don’t know how late the recording will go. It starts at 9:30 at some guy’s house that Olivia knows.”
“Pfft. We’ll be up.”
At that point, Olivia texted me. She’d meet me in the parking lot of Nashville Songwriters Association International. I glanced at her text while listening to Scott talk.
Scott was telling me about a Tennessee Songwriter’s Association pitch-to-publishers at Belmont College that would cost, like, fifty bucks, he said. We made plans to connect
Cool. A plan was forming.
Scott is from Indiana, too, a small town called Milroy, but works in some capacity as a banker in Nashville. Often he wears a cap with “Milroy” on it. A signature.
I pulled into NSAI just as Olivia’s meeting was letting out. The building is an erstwhile Music Row studio that looks like a log cabin. Jo Dee Messina, with several hit songs to her name, had been addressing a Women In County Music meeting, entertaining them with injustices perpetrated by her label and hoping she wouldn’t get in trouble for talking about it in public.
Olivia hugged me, as people in creative communities tend to do. I returned a I’m-a-friendly-yet-married-person hug, then followed her car quite far into suburban Nashville. We wound around in and out and through housing subdivisions until finally we stopped at a home that, from the outside, you would not suspect of having a bedroom converted into a recording studio.
Inside was our demo maker, Steve. His wife was using a laptop on the couch, in a homey den by a fireplace that had a pleasant dribbly plug-in fountain in front of it—the kind of interior you generally see on America’s Funniest Home Videos. I was greeted by a friendly dog named Bandit. The cat, Smokey, had died recently.
So had Steve’s Dad. We chatted—his Dad had been a beloved deacon near Louisville, whose final act was one of kindness: he was mowing a handicapped neighbor’s yard, unasked. He’d sat down in the backyard swing to rest between front and back yards, looked up to heaven, and died. They found him there, later, the mower by his side.
Sympathy was felt, expressed.
Attention turned to the task of recording my crudely self-recorded songs. I’d recorded these on my laptop, sitting on my bed.
Steve’s bed-less bedroom was a much better place to record.
Someday someone will buy Steve’s house and convert the studio back into a place to sleep, and they’ll be wondering whether to keep the window in the closet. Through that window Steve and I watched Olivia sing the songs I’d written. There were at least fifteen guitars in the room, expensive ones that Steve could pick up and riff dooblydooblydoo all up and down. He and Olivia made two great-sounding demos.
Greatness takes time.
At 1:15 a.m. I texted Scott: Still recording (!). . .
Scott: All good. It was dead at loser’s. get ahold of me tomorrow afternoon. :-)
Around three in the morning Olivia and I left Steve’s house. We wound through the subdivisions (one of which Olivia turned into, her hand out the driver’s window waving as I drove past) and I puzzled my way back to the interstate. I’d booked a night for $45 in the bedroom of a house—"The Writer’s Room"—of people that I have never met.
I was very quiet, creeping up to their front door in the moonlight.
Mid-morning I awoke in the strangers’ house and pulled myself together. They were gone. Another lodger was mixing a hip-hop song on a Macintosh in another bedroom. I thought it was weird not to acknowledge each other. “Hi,” I said, on my way to the turquoise sixties-tiled bathroom. The guy removed his earbuds. “Hey,” he said.
I met an advertising art director for lunch, a guy with whom I’d worked twelve years ago in St. Louis: now he happens to work in Nashville. A non-musical interlude. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon at Kinko’s figuring out how to make CD labels.
Suddenly it was too late to go to the Chesney party at ASCAP—the CD had eaten up too much time and I had to split for the Publisher Roundtable. “Why Can’t I Plan These Trips Better?” I formally scolded myself, waiting what seemed like an enormous chunk of time for the clerk’s attention so I could wrap it up.
I texted Scott I’d meet him after the Roundtable.
It was supposed to end at 8:00. At 8:29 I texted: Only five out of twelve writers have gone so far. Yikes. . .
Scott: Sounds like a tough crowd. :-)
(When texting I tend to include the ellipsis, because that’s how I speak, with lots of random pauses. Scott opts for the emoticons.)
I’d been assuming I could get to the second of two rounds at that Tennessee Songwriting Association thing where Scott was, the one that started at 9:00.
At 9:41 I texted: Okay. Just now leaving. . . Too late?. . .
Scott: Yep. just ending the last round. :-(
None of the publishers at the Roundtable bought any songs that night, and none of us should have expected them to, really. You can always hear what’s wrong with other people’s songs, even as you’re blind to your own song’s shortcomings.
I drove a guy from Scotland to the bus station. He’d Greyhounded up to the Publisher’s Roundtable from Atlanta, where he and his wife had emigrated. He’s had songs on Swiss radio—was once driven from the Zurich airport in a taxi as his song played within his first few minutes of arriving in Switzerland. Tonight the publishers had all explained in detail to him why his song wouldn’t be worth anything in Nashville.
About a half hour later I stood at a Shell station, deciding whether I should try to catch up to Scott or just head north. For some reason—probably one of these number one parties around town—fireworks were going off a few blocks away down by the river over the skyline. I stood there listening to the gas tank gulp money, watching the explosions. A moment after a burst I’d hear it: (Flash, 2, 3. . .) Boom! Cracklecracklecrackle. (Flash, 2, 3. . .) Boom! Sphrizcracklecrackle.
I pulled out my iPhone. Maybe Scott was going to play out somewhere. My crappy guitar was in the back of the Jeep. Maybe I’d even sign up to play something too, if it seemed like a low-intensity room.
At 10:15 I texted: Soooooo. . .Calling it a night?. . . Or. . . .
Scott: Yeah. i’m beat. are you in town in the morning?
Me: At the Shell station getting set to speed through Kentucky. . .
Scott: Good luck. how did your pitch go?
Me: Like they all do. Polite but. . . you know. How was yours?
Scott: She took two songs. She gave me her email. i met her a few years ago and she remembered me.
Me: Wow! Congrats.
Scott: Yeah, i gotta follow up and get in there to meet with her. Thanks.
Me: Are these fireworks down by the river for you, then?
Scott: I wondered what that noise was. :-)
On my way home I put the two new demos on constant repeat and just drove, lost in thought, glancing up now and then at the slightly-thicker-so-I-suppose-it-must-be-waxing fingernail moon.
I am dependent on serendipity. This trip contained a medium-to-low level of serendipity. Unless I had used it all up on the highway.
No tickets, no wrecks.