Letters from America – A U.K. Americana Artist Experiences Nashville (and I Start a Record Label)
I thought I’d share some of the experiences of Tony James Shevlin, one of the artists signed to my label, Oh Mercy! Records. He’s been in the industry since the 1980s and has worked with some household names in the industry. In late 2012, when he heard I was setting up a record label, we met in the Swan — a great pub in Ipswich for live music of all genres. We talked for hours about our love of music and how our paths had crossed in the past. He was the first person to ever write a review of my band, Hayze. He was very positive about our sound and it was down to encouragement like his that I continued my musical adventure at all. Tony and I had also shared the same bill at the odd acoustic nights, so I knew his music very well.
By the time we left the pub we’d agreed that Oh Mercy! was the perfect label to release his Nashville-inspired 10 track album which he was about to record. The tracks on the album span Tony’s entire career and have been recorded, finally, in the way he’d always wanted them.
Part of the promotion of the album was a whistle-stop tour of Nashville, which Tony enthusiastically blogged about. Below is the first of these blogs….I hope you enjoy it:
The flight from London to Detroit was eight hours long. Eight long hours. I was sat next to Jim from Detroit. I suppose it was something of a cliche that he worked in the automotive industry. Well, he was from the Motor City. We found common ground talking about Southern Rock — he had seen Lynrd Skynard when he was 16.
In Detroit, I had to go through immigration and Homeland Security. There was a scary moment when the official said my visa had the wrong number on it. I held my breath while he tapped away at his keyboard. Just as I started to picture myself in an orange jumpsuit, he said he’d found the error, corrected it and welcomed me to the United States. Phew!
I spent the four-hour wait for my connecting flight in a bar, sipping budwieser and watching American football on TV — I haven’t a clue what was going on. Except that it is extremely violent. It’s like rugby played by psychopaths dressed as Robocop.
The flight to Nashville was an hour and a half but the clocks went back another hour; so now I’m six hours behind. I arrived in Nashville at 10:30 p.m. but my body knew it was really 4:30 a.m.
The first sight to greet me in the baggage waiting room was an advert for Gibson Guitars, with a picture of Paul McCartney playing one. Does he really need the money that much? Was Garth Brooks not interested?
The cab ride into town was interesting. Every signpost had me singing a different song: Memphis (in the Meantime); Chatanooga (Choo choo); Clarksville (Last Train to); Knocksville (Girl).
Excited but extremely tired, I fell in to bed and was asleep in seconds.
Surprisingly, I woke up quite early the next day and looked around for a diner to have breakfast in. A policeman recommended Puckett’s, saying it served “the best country breakfast in Nashville.” If the breakfasts on offer were part of your regular diet, you would die of a heart attack within months, but I had to try certain foods at least once. I can now reveal the mystery of what “grits” are. They/it is basically a porridge. A porridge which some diners put cheese on. Imagine Quaker’s Oats on the same plate as your full English breakfast and you’re nearly there.
And what the locals call biscuits, Brits would call a scone. Whatever breakfast you order, it is served up with incredibly attentive service and a smile — and the famous bottomless cup of coffee (I managed six refills before I felt guilty!); when will we adopt this policy in the U.K.?
Rather than travel with a guitar, I had decided to hire one in Nashville. Carrying a musical instrument has long been a money-making excercise for airlines. There is also the chance of your beloved instrument being damaged in transit (not to mention having to lug it around). There are many outlets in Music City offering a hire service, which makes it a very reasonable option.
My rental company SIR were situated out of town. I could have taken a cab directly to it but I took a bus instead. Buses show you much more of a city than cabs can. Cabs go direct; buses go where the people who do all the work live. Cities are the same the world over — on the margins, you will find disadvantaged communities, where the rest of society don’t go. Passing through what I was later told are referred to as “the projects,” it did feel like a scene from The Wire.
I had to walk a few blocks from where the bus dropped me off but I never felt threatened, and I even asked for directions. I was given courteous, very precise instructions by everyone I encountered. I have walked at night through rough areas of London, New York, Belfast and Moscow; the secret is to not look like a tourist or a vctim, just a working guy making their way home. The guys at the hire shop were amazed that I had taken a bus — something they said they had never done. I think they were more nervous than I was, that I was taking a thousand dollar guitar back in to town on a bus.
I was told that most of the original material is played further out of town. The centre of Nashville, like any city, is for the tourists, so it was wall-to-wall cover bands all the way. As Saturday was the only night where I wouldn’t be playing, I decided to check it out. The music starts at midday and continues well into the small hours. The same band doesn’t play right through, but the comprehensive set lists and the stamina of the musicians when they did play, amazed me. Likewise, the musicianship. Every venue boasted great players — all male. I didn’t encounter one female muso all night. I didn’t recognise every song being played but the crowd did. There was some crossover with U.K. set list perennials (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Summer of ’69”, to name but two) but the addition of a fiddle makes them sound so fresh.
My favourite venue of the night was the Whiskey Bent Saloon. Imagine the bar in Coyote Ugly but with better looking bar staff and you’re there! And not only can these gorgeus gals spot someone wanting to buy booze at 20 paces, they also have the ability to lip-read above the loud music without getting an order wrong, and do the maths (math?) before they go to the till. Can the fact that they are paid mostly from tips, and that not one of them wears a wedding ring, be related?
I wanted to stay and chat (to the musicians, not the bar staff) to find out how it is making a living from music in Nashville but I could feel my jetlag kicking in. I called it a night.
I wandered back down Broadway, but the city was just getting going — live music coming from every bar and buskers on every street corner.
This really is Music City.
Tony James Shevlin – www.tonyjamesshevlin.com