TNAG Notes #17 by Stephen Bennett
There are plenty of “music cities” in America; Detroit, obviously, will always be Motown, Chicago is all about the Blues, Memphis, Seattle, Austin, New Orleans, of course - each has its particular musical identity. But for all the magic they’ve conjured in their own unique way over the years, there’s only ever been one ‘Guitar Town’. Ask Steve Earle.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Nashville, Tennessee, home of…well…we’ll get to that.
Nashville’s ever-burgeoning fortune is built on America’s most contentious, cut-throat and profit-oriented industry – healthcare (see what we did there?). Not far behind that come banking and insurance. There’s no storied, bohemian ‘quarter’ in Nashville that casts its romantic spell over musical dreamers. Despite what goes on behind the facades, ‘Music Row’ is, well…a big row of buildings that looks like a row of big buildings. Even the fabled Bluebird Café is squeezed between a barber’s and a bridal store on an unglamorous strip-mall on the way out of town. Or maybe, into town. It was publishing, not playing that formed the basis of Nashville’s claim to the ‘Music City’ monicker. And yet…there are more brilliant guitar-players per square foot in Nashville than in any other city on the planet. For every gas-pumping actor-between-shows in Hollywood there are a hundred ambitious, uber-talented pickers in Nashville waiting for a break. And inevitably, a swarming of working guitarists had led to an instrument-based supply-and-demand economy that now offers the best guitars available on both the new and vintage markets. More of which anon.
Recent TNAG developments notwithstanding, Britain already plays a (very small) role in the development of Nashville’s musical heritage and not just via country music’s appropriation of Celtic balladry into the (both black and white) Gospel traditions of its rural and old-time musical melting-pot. The Fisk Jubilee Singers established their global reputation on a tour of the UK in the 1870s. Queen Victoria was, reportedly, highly amused and there was even a rumour that she’d come up with the notion of them hailing from a great ‘music city’. Hmm. A big zero on the credibility-o-meter, there. Still, songs like ‘Steal Away’ and ‘Go Down, Moses’ were subsequently disseminated throughout the USA via the new medium of sheet music – initially as part of a Fisk University funding project in support of freed slaves - and an industry was born.
Nashville’s musical ‘front of house’ side first appeared in 1925 with the opening of the WSM-AM radio station and its flagship music show, ‘Barn Dance’ – a weekly promo for the parent insurance company. The show became so popular that locals would crowd the streets outside the station on Saturday nights to listen to the broadcasts. Within two years, radio execs with an eye for a buck (well, this is America) decided said audience needed somewhere to go, not just to listen, but to watch the new tunes get played. They built an auditorium for that very purpose and changed the hit show’s name to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’. All very iconic, you say, but that can’t really account for the universal, bad-rash-style* spread of country music that followed nigh on immediately. That was down to technology. When, in 1932, WSM got its cash-sticky hands on the biggest radio antenna in America, their weekly broadcast literally knew no bounds. The 50,000 watt signal could reach into every household from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Caribbean to Canada. In the golden age of radio, the Opry – and country music in general – was king.
During the Second World War, the show shifted its operations into the old Union Gospel Tabernacle, by then renamed the Ryman Auditorium, and stayed there until the mid-1970s. Elvis played there only once, in 1954, banging out “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and going down like a lead balloon. He was advised by the Opry’s ‘talent manager’ to go back to driving a truck. In a classic ‘screw-you’ gesture, Elvis (the new king, after all) signed up to the rival show, ‘Louisiana Hayride’ on which he starred, every Saturday night, for the next year. He never went back to the Ryman. Even country legend Roy Acuff wanted the place levelled, having described it as a sweaty, uncomfortable dump for both audience and performer alike. But who remembers all that in a world where the mythology far outweighs the fact?
What gives Nashville its claim to being America’s #1 ‘Music City’ is the sheer quality of what’s going on in its clubs, bars, cafes and concert halls. If you’re not top notch, chances are, you won’t get the gig. The aforementioned Bluebird is a kill-for-a-ticket, 90-seat venue that showcases the very best; this month’s ‘Tribute to Doc Watson’ gig, for example, featured Brian Sutton, David Grier and Chris Eldridge among others. The Time Jumpers - Kenny Sears and Ranger Doug Green’s studio-elite ‘pick-up’ band that regularly boasts the likes of Vince Gill on stage - play Monday nights at 3rd & Lindsley. That’s two small bars out of hundreds and the ‘season’ is all year round.
And as we mentioned earlier, a guitar-players’ paradise soon becomes a guitar buyer’s paradise. Maybe that’s why Gibson shifted its operation from Kalamazoo.
Perhaps the two most familiar store-names to UK guitarists are Gruhn’s and Carter Vintage. Most British guitar emporiums (emporia?) can only dream of the kind of stock that lines the walls of these two venerable institutions; pre-war Martins, banner Gibsons, pre-CBS Strats and Teles, ‘59 Les Pauls that Les himself probably rattled off ‘How High The Moon’ on. And that’s just the old stuff. Chances are, too, that if you linger long enough in either – and who wouldn’t - you’ll come across a famous name, checking out some vintage gem or other. The downside – or upside, depending – is that hearing them play will probably leave you so rattled you’ll end up ‘just looking’ and save a fortune.
Just south of the Cumberland River and less than half an hour’s walk from Carter’s, Cotten Music has been ‘finding your next great guitar’ since 1961. Now, as you’ve no doubt seen on email and newsletter, this favourite spot for so many great musicians has been re-vamped and re-launched as TNAG Nashville. Well…who’d’ve thought It? Yee-haw. As they say.
Richard Cotten set the place up and ran it until his untimely death in 1995. His wife, the musician and publisher, Kim Sherman, runs it to this day, now in partnership with TNAG. The question for you (us), the UK customers, is…so what’s new – what’s in it for us? Well, quite a bit, and as a veteran of the art of not-getting-too-excited, this column finds itself, albeit in very British, Austen/Thackeray fashion, somewhat a-flutter.
There’s some serious gear in there. Vis: (enough with Regency writing references – Ed.) some very tasty and, importantly, affordable Collings electrics – not something we see too often on this side of the Atlantic. There’s an actual Stahl/Larson Brothers 00-12 in amazing nick that not only looks fabulous, it sounds as rich, powerful and perfectly balanced as we’d all like to be as we approach a hundred years old.
There’s a Henderson L-OO (gulp…) at one end of the price scale and a Guild Bluesbird (yours for a measly 600 quid!) at the other. Both beauties. Then there’s a handsome 1966 Gibson Johnny Smith, a fabulous 1937 Gibson HG-OO and even, for those of an eight-string persuasion, a raft of vintage mandolins. Again, this is only the pre-owned stuff and, what’s more - thanks to the magic of modern shipping – it’s only two days away from either London or wherever you happen to be as you’re reading this. Check out that website, forthwith!
Ah, yes. The unmistakable call of the lesser-spotted B-Bender. Actually, that’s pretty much ‘never-spotted’ in acoustic circles - though there was a reported sighting of one disastrously cobbled-together monstrosity built on the mad whim of a demented, Byrds-obsessed country-cowboy in East Anglia. And some set-up lines can only be followed by the fateful words… ‘until now’.
Anyway…normally, we imagine those country-cool Parsons/White pedal-steel licks to be the province of a customised Tele or similarly adaptable, solid-bodied electric but it seems that high-end, Oregon builders, Preston Thompson, are starting to install them as an acoustic upgrade. Though Gene Parsons himself is behind the scheme (so it’s as authentic as it gets) it’s a bit of a stretch, getting your head round the idea of that most electric and…yes… Nashville-esque twang coming out of an acoustic guitar, especially a top-quality one. For anyone unable to conjure the sublime (when sparingly used) noise of which we speak, think of the solo from the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” and that lovely, otherwise impossible, modulation half-way through. That’s the bender, working at its Clarence White-inspired finest.
The main issue would always be the weight, we assume. The electric originals are fairly chunky bits of kit. Word has it that the acoustic version is as light as a feather so as not to compromise the instrument’s natural tone and operates from inside the body via the ‘traditional’ strap-button pulley system. Weird. There’s a recording (and film clip) on a recent Fretboard Journal podcast for anyone harbouring a horrible fascination with the sonic potential of such a hard-to-imagine hybrid creature. Initial verdict? Gimmicky for sure, but as gimmicks go, fairly awesome and definitely something to help you focus on, yes, Nashville!
This Fortnight’s Fab Five…
In keeping with this Guitar Town-themed edition, we’re zooming in on a bunch of behind the scenes wizards who, unlike their Oz counterpart, had no difficulty emerging from behind the anonymity curtain to produce genuine magic under their own steam. So, it’s with apologies to the mind-boggling six-string prowess of Paul Yandell, Brent Mason, Jerry McPherson, Tim Galloway et al that we trumpet the talents of the all-time greats listed below. And okay, trumpeting guitarists is an odd concept, but, shameless as ever, we just don’t care.
- First up, Chet Atkins, who, along with producers like Owen Bradley and Bob Ferguson just about defined the sound that came out of Nashville throughout the second half of the 20th century – ‘outlaws and highwaymen’ apart. Having revived the Carter Family from within, as a player, he went on, having landed the top in-house job at RCA, to produce and accompany every major Nashville star of note from Willie Nelson to Waylon Jennings to Dolly Parton, Perry Como, Elvis and the Everlys, all while churning out a constant stream of hits of his own. Gretsch never had a better advert and that old Travis-picking thing never looked so easy.
- Probably the most ‘old-timey’ practitioner on our list is Norman Blake. Never really the starry type, Blake remains, nonetheless one of the essential pillars of American roots music. Since the early 70s, he’s made a pile of superb albums in his own name (and with his wife, Nancy) but it’s as a long-time studio and stage sideman for Johnny Cash that he’ll be best remembered. That and being all over Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’, of course. Then there’s the Kris Kristofferson albums and his work with Joan Baez, among others. That’s Norman’s chiming acoustic on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, Baez’s 1971 greatest hit.
- Jerry Reed penned – and played on - the Elvis classic, “Guitar Man”, when he wasn’t playing up his loveable rogue persona as Burt Reynolds’ sidekick in a few great films and a lot more bad ones. Best known on the Nashville scene as a songwriter, he was also a phenomenal guitar player, noted for an elaborate and idiosyncratic picking technique that graced the albums of the maestro Chet Atkins himself (who considered Reed the better fingerstyle player), as well as the work of a raft of early 60s touring bands and recording artists. He might well have languished in obscurity, though, if Gene Vincent hadn’t picked up on a song Reed wrote called ‘Crazy Legs’. From then on, the studio doors were always open.
- A true virtuoso in a range of styles, Hank Garland was a star in his own right until a car accident in 1961 ended his music career. He lived on for another forty-three years but never went back to stage or studio work again. Before tragedy intervened, Garland’s playing had adorned the records of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline and more. Usually a Gibson man (he helped design the Byrdland) Hank was more about getting the sound than advertising the model. In 1961 he’d already been experimenting with tape echo on Cline’s smash hit, “I Fall To Pieces” and opted for a Strat on Elvis’s “Little Sister” because it ‘had more twang’. He was also a bit of a handful, apparently. No doubt in good company.
- Finally, born in Nashville and a prolific session player (all over the place, admittedly) prior to earning guitar-demi-god status fronting his own band, let’s not forget Duane Allman. As if. 1969 tracks by Boz Scaggs (the 12-minute, slow-blues work-out, ‘Loan Me a Dime’), Wilson Pickett (‘Hey Jude’), King Curtis and Clarence Carter were all hugely enhanced by the subtle ornamentations of Duane’s Les Paul. As was Aretha Franklin’s mighty, brass and slide-heavy take on “The Weight” a year later. And apparently, some ‘Derek & The Dominos’ thing...
See you next time. Or in Nashville, perhaps.
*a colourful but harmless metaphor, of course. We love country. And western.
by Stephen Bennett