With Nashville in the Rearview, Artists Thrive Elsewhere
Don Forgey was in his mid-20s when he met 18-year-old Kathy Ackerman at Washington state’s Whistlin’ Jack Lodge, a Depression-era hostelry in the woods east of Mount Rainier that’s named for a giant, noisy squirrel (the hoary marmot). Forgey, now 62, had just finished touring Canada with a band called Bazooka Joe and was playing solo in Whistlin’ Jack’s bar for tips as he plotted his next move.
“She walked in the door and I was like, ‘Whoa!’” Forgey says of first encountering Ackerman. “I was still young and didn’t want to get married, but I couldn’t let her go.”
The pair wed when he was 28 and she was 20. Five years later, in 1986, Kathy gave birth to a baby girl, Tiffany. Rather than settle down on the Naches, Washington, farm Forgey grew up on and had purchased from his father a few years earlier, the young family high-tailed it for Nashville, with Forgey intent on making it as a country-western songwriter.
Upon arriving in Tennessee, Forgey landed a regular gig playing a Holiday Inn lounge. “I’d work all week for $175,” he recalls. Don also performed sets at famous venues like the Nashville Palace, The Bluebird Café, and Pee-Wee’s Place, where he encountered an up-and-comer named Alan Jackson.
“He was very sure of himself, and it irritated me,” recalls Forgey. “I was jealous because he was so good-looking. He was like a peacock.”
Jackson wanted to write with Forgey, but Forgey forgot his name and failed to track him down later. “My bad,” he jokes now, with a “mighta been” look in his eyes. (Jackson’s publicist declined to make him available to corroborate Forgey’s account.)
At Pee Wee’s, backroom gamblers would roll in around midnight and tip Forgey in $100 bills if he’d yodel for them. He’d typically be graced with such good fortune – often generated by George Jones getting taken for every dime he had by opportunistic sharks – just as his family was down to its last few dollars.
“I had people respond to my singing, but my songwriting was what I was there for,” says Forgey of his inability to generate adequate income. He then adds that the powers-that-be in Nashville “really liked my voice, but [they] had friends that needed to make a living. I guess I’m not aggressive enough to really make that work. I was going broke.”
Conversely, Jay Brunswick boasts the sort of innate hustle and resilience that’s necessary to succeed in Nashville. He was in his late 20s when he moved to Music City from small-town Pennsylvania some 10 years ago, a migratory pattern he has directly in common with Taylor Swift. After three years of freelancing, Brunswick landed a coveted publishing-house gig as “a lunchbox writer,” which entailed heading into an office five times a week for up to 12 hours a day and writing approximately 175 songs per year in hopes that one would top the charts and change his life.
Brunswick had tunes recorded by the likes of Josh Thompson, The Roys, and Air Supply frontman Russell Hitchcock, and Jason Aldean almost included one of his tracks on his last album. But in 2013, the publishing company Brunswick was employed by sold its catalog and shut down. Without a deal for 10 months, he had to revert to bartending for a spell.
Yet Brunswick persevered, and Clay Walker and Parmalee are considering releasing songs of his as the debut singles off their new LPs.
“I can’t do anything in life as good as writing songs,” Brunswick maintains. “It’s too late to turn around and try and do anything else.”
Unlike Brunswick, Don Forgey did turn around. Faced with the prospect of losing his family farm, he moved his family back to Naches in 1988. It was a decision he’d never regret.
A Rather Gritty Chore
The amount of full-time songwriting slots in Nashville has fallen by 60 to 80 percent since 2000, a dynamic which led The Tennessean to publish a multi-part series this past January titled, “Nashville’s Musical Middle Class Collapses.” There, Nate Rau wrote, “In fawning national publications, Nashville has emerged as a glamorous place populated with music celebrities. But in actuality, making a living at music is a rather gritty chore.”
“It requires a very specific kind of drive and a willingness to sacrifice almost everything in your life to try and make it,” says former Nashville resident Laura Curtis. “I just wanted the experience of seeing what it takes financially to make it if that’s your full-time job. It’s an incredible amount of work. You have to explore it from so many different angles. Getting a publishing deal where you write in a room for five days a week for other people – some things like that were surprising to me. I wasn’t trying to write hits, but there were definitely people I wrote with who would do that. There’s not a lot of artistry behind it.”
Curtis grew up in tiny Sisters, Oregon, due south and across a state line from the small mountain town where Forgey was reared. She was at a local songwriting workshop when the folksinger Amy Speace heard her and invited Curtis to stay with her in Nashville. Curtis managed to record an EP while there and developed what she calls “a great community of friends and songwriters.” But after nine months, she moved back to Oregon.
“I loved the experience I had, the friends that I made, and the songs that I wrote,” she says. “But I also love the Pacific Northwest. So I don’t regret going down there, and I don’t regret coming back. I imagine that for someone with a young family, it would be incredibly difficult.”
Forgey put his young family first, and headed home. Back in Naches, with a son now in his brood, he tried his hand at farming. But after years of writing off losses and losing crops to a pack of indefatigable elk who would roll down the foothills, his accountant told him, “This is a hobby now.”
Undaunted, Forgey took to almost singlehandedly rebuilding the dilapidated log cabin on his property from the studs up. Once that was completed, the Forgeys began renting it out, and visitors asked about the possibility of getting married on their picturesque acreage. That led to the refurbishment of an old barn and the creation of a lush wedding venue, American Homestead, which is now pretty much booked solid six months out of the year.
Lest you think Forgey gave up music for civilian life, he didn’t. Almost as soon as he returned from Nashville, he paid a visit to Doug Williams, an old high-school acquaintance who’d assumed the reins of his family’s business – Whistlin’ Jack Lodge – shortly before Forgey met his future wife there. Forgey soon began playing the lodge’s Fireside Lounge every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and he hasn’t stopped since.
Rednecks and Hippies
When you live in Naches, you will hit a deer. It’s just a matter of how frequently. Both Don and Kathy have totaled cars as a result of cervine collisions, so Forgey now keeps a deer-destroying snowplow permanently affixed to the front of his white pickup truck as he makes the 10-mile trek to Whistlin’ Jack on a Saturday night.
Forgey reckons he knows how to play about 300 songs, which, in his estimation, isn’t enough. In order to force himself to learn new tunes, Forgey’s made a deal with his fans: If they make a donation to the children’s hospital of his choosing, he’ll learn whatever tune they ask.
“I gave him $100 to learn ‘Comfortably Numb,’” says Noma Hudson, a middle-school principal from west of the mountains who spends weekends at her cabin near Whistlin’ Jack. “He played it and people were like, ‘Yeah!’”
Hudson’s not the only west-sider who braves dodgy road conditions to hear Forgey. “My wife will tell me, ‘Oh, I gotta get my Don fix,’” says Al Barem, another cabin-dweller who spends his workweek in Puyallup. “So we load up and head to the other side.”
Adds Tammy Jorgensen, whose son, Cody Beebe, is the most successful musician ever to emerge from Naches: “People call from Yakima or the other side to make sure Don’s gonna be there before they book [at Whistlin’ Jack].”
They don’t stay for traditional amenities, owner Williams is quick to admit. “We don’t have a swimming pool, we don’t have a fitness center, but we have Don Forgey,” he says. “He takes the boredom out of everyone’s persona. If you can’t enjoy Don Forgey, you ain’t gonna enjoy nothin’.”
“He’s the only thing that keeps this mountain going, really,” adds Jorgensen.
The flannel-favoring Forgey, a mellow man with a healthy head of white hair and a neatly trimmed beard, is fond of love songs, and his self-penned oeuvre reflects such cuddliness. “Daddy’s Little Man” and “Daddy’s Little Girl” are about his son and daughter, unsurprisingly, and “Explode” is Forgey’s “steamy” song about his wife, Kathy explains.
But Forgey the songwriter is far from one-dimensional. “The Chewing Song” is a hilariously simple ode to Naches teens’ predilection for chewing tobacco (Ooh, ooh/Have a chew, have a chew/What’s the matter with you?), while “Leave Us Be” is the sort of libertarian anthem one can imagine Eric Church recording. Forgey was inspired to write it when he noticed an unseemly litter accumulation near a local swimming hole. The line, “Don’t mess with our girlfriends, they’ll kick your ass,” is based on an actual incident in which a female Fireside bartender pummeled a soused out-of-towner in the parking lot. Fittingly, the male victim had to officiate a wedding on the Forgeys’ property the next day, swollen nose and all.
You’d think a musician charged with playing eight to midnight three times a week would take a mandatory meal break, but not Forgey. For him, it’s not unusual to barrel right through a four-hour, 50-song set, fueled only by the occasional tequila shot. If the crowd keeps growing, to stop would squander all momentum, as there are more pressing matters than a forkful of steak.
A one-man band in the truest sense, Forgey records his own backing vocals and adds instrumentation to augment his guitar-playing from the web. But it’s when he simply accompanies himself on acoustic guitar that his AM-Gold voice shines its brightest.
“Don is so talented and so humble that it’s hard to give him a compliment,” says Hudson’s partner, Tod Rossire. “He’s so much improved on his lead guitar styles and his singing and his creativity that it just blows me away. You try to compliment him and he’s like, ‘Oh no no, it’s not that good.’”
“He just gets better and better,” says Kathy. “I wonder what he’s going to sound like when he’s 70.”
Forgey’s range is stunning, and he’s a master at reading a room. Early on, he sticks to country standards, which draws a smattering of line dancers to the Fireside’s dance floor. He then segues from Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” to “Chicken Fried” from the Zac Brown Band, followed by Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands” and several Forgey originals. “Love Me Do” gives way to tunes from Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton, which gets a corner table of twentysomethings up and boogying. “Danny’s Song” inspires couples to contemplate copulation, while Alabama’s “Mountain Music” makes them feel proud of where they’re from.
Pee Wee Johnson, owner of the eponymous bar where Forgey yodeled for gamblers’ gratuities in Nashville, died this past October, which reminded local scribes of a lyric Jerry Lee Lewis once sang about his establishment: “Rednecks and hippies, both are right at home; politicians, truck drivers and factory workers too. You can be a cop out here; don’t matter what you do.” Similarly when Noma Hudson is asked to encapsulate the atmosphere at a Don Forgey show, she says, “We’re all so very different. There are a lot of people like us who come up here a lot, there are people who’ve retired here, then there are people who’ve lived here all their life like Don. We probably wouldn’t have anything in common otherwise, but there, none of that matters. You just sit there in your sweats or jeans and are loving Don.”
Almost nobody’s as durable as Forgey, but there’s a Forgey-like figure in many towns, someone who’s either rejected Nashville or been content to ply their trade at home. They don’t require a radio dial for you to hear them, just four wheels or two boots to get you to the bar where they’re playing. In this sense, Music City’s every city, even if the chore is rather gritty.
Jay Brunswick’s songs can be heard at his Reverbnation page. Laura Curtis’ music is on her website. Don Forgey is at Whistlin’ Jack’s every week . Great songwriters are in your backyard. Photo of Don Forgey courtesy of himself.