Okay…so… I’ve designed my route so that I’ll be crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway…today, Tuesday, on my way to the French Quarter in New Orleans…
For anyone who followed my last trip, this will be a bit of a repeat. Can’t help it. I’m a big Lucinda Williams fan, and just have to drive the length of this 24-mile-long causeway across the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, just because Lu mentions it in her song, Crescent City, one of my many favorites of hers. Here are the lyrics to the opening verse:
“Everybody’s had a few…now, they’re talking about who knows who,
I’m going back to the Crescent City…where everything’s still the same,
This town has said what it has to say…now, I’m after that back highway,
An’ the longest bridge…I’ve ever crossed…over Pontchartrain.”
As usual, it’s the romantic, singer-songwriter in me that drives me to simply go somewhere for no other reason than that the place was mentioned in a song by, an interview with, or in the bio of, one of my favorite singers or songwriters. Road-trips have been built on less.
Oh! And it so happens that the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest, continuous bridge, over water…in…the…world…according to the Guiness Book of World Records. So, there’s that.
I just think it’s a cool drive. I’m sure folks drive across it every day for their commute.
I’m in Meridian, MS, tonight. My only plan for today, Monday, was to attempt a backroads, rural route from Nashville to Meridian, using Muscle Shoals, AL, as a stopping point that would “trick” Google Maps into keeping me off the Interstates as much as possible. Muscle Shoals was also a planned stop on my last Texas road-trip, since it is home to FAME Recording Studio, where artists such as Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket and many others’ music careers broke through. The area has a very cool vibe, as well as being picturesque, as it sits along a very pretty stretch of the Tennessee River. I’ve been looking forward to a return visit, since my last.
The Muscle Shoals/Google Maps trick worked like a charm. Once GPS took me off I-65, south of Nashville, I was on one of the most beautiful stretches of local and back roads that I’ve ever seen. Much of the ride was like a gentle roller-coaster, gliding over series of hills in a straight line, followed by a series of curvy hills, then back to a straight series of hills. There were also very few cars, so it felt nearly like having this stretch to myself.
Anyway, it did the trick. It was very therapeutic to be alone with my thoughts and my favorite music, while gently rolling along over hills and through curves.
In Muscle Shoals, I stopped at Champy’s Fried Chicken, a very cool/funky restaurant, as indicated by all of the “stuff” on the walls. My son, Nat, had found out about this place for me on my first trip. They have amazing fried chicken.
I chatted with the owner when I got there, explained my trip, and asked if it was okay to take a few photos. He was more than happy to let me “have at it”. I also chatted with two of the three waitresses there, including Rebecca, who waited on me. One of the other waitresses told me she had been to NYC once and loved it. I explained that driving down south was the same for me. Funny how the urge to escape the familiar, whatever it is for us, is so universal.
I also told this same waitress about my backroads route from Nashville. She said she’s taken it, and that even for her, growing up right there, it’s her favorite scenic drive in the area.
Anyway, here is a photo of the three waitresses. Rebecca is on the right, and the waitress who visited NYC, whose name I didn’t get, is on the left.
Tomorrow, I head for New Orleans for great food and photo-ops. Can’t wait!
I love the use of “place names” in songs, like Emmylou Harris’ use of the city name, “Meridian”, (Meridian, MS), in her achingly haunting and heart-breaking masterpiece, Red Dirt Girl. Here’s the first verse:
Me, an’ my best friend, Lillian…an’ her blue-tick hound-dog Gideon,
Sittin’ on the front porch…coolin’ in the shade…singin’ ev’ry song…the radio played,
Waitin’ for the Alabama sun to go down…two red-dirt girls in a red-dirt town…me an’ Lillian,
Just across the line…an’ a little southeast of Meridian.
Since songwriting, like poetry, is partly an exercise in conveying emotions and stories with brevity, the selective use of place-names in songs, in concert with other songwriting elements, has the ability to instantly immerse the listener in a specific place, drawing with it all of the listener’s own images, references and impressions of that place, real or imagined, without ever having to go into a description. Place-names can instantly personalize a song. If done right, the songwriter simply places the listener right there, inside the songwriter’s story…without the listener even realizing it. It’s a bit of a magic trick.
I’ve never been to or through Meridian, until now. I am only passing through…spending the night…and have no plans, except for maybe dinner at Weidmann’s, a local landmark I found online. But in planning this trip, I thought of Emmylou’s song, and decided I just wanted to at least pass through Meridian…despite “Red Dirt Girl” taking place “Just across the line…an’a little southeast of Meridian…”, if by chance that experience might get me a little closer to Emmylou’s inspiration for the song, as well as to be able…in the future…to sort of own the use of this place-name, or nearby place-names that I’ll also be passing through, in my own songwriting. Meridian is only one of many cities and towns I’ll intentionally either be passing through or spending time in, on this trip, for exactly this reason.
I’m just this ordinary guy who happens to love playing with words, rhymes, chords and melodies, and happens to seriously-enjoy attempting to write songs…the best songs I possibly can…mostly for my own enjoyment…but, typically with the hope that others might like them, too. I have no right to even be talking about songwriting, really. But, I am pretty much obsessed with this, and do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about lyrics, working on songwriting, reading interviews with my favorite songwriters, gleaning insights into their process, watching my favorite songwriters up close in intimate concerts, and dissecting some of their songs to try to figure out how and why they work.
That said, this is one of the crazy ways that the divergently-thinking part of my mind works…drawing on the sound of a place-name…a place where I’ve actually been…its rhyming and rhythmic potential, the images a place conjures and my personal experiences in the place, itself.
There is a common saying about Country music: Country music is “three chords and the truth”. Simplicity and honesty are the bedrock of any “Roots” music, I think. They are what draw the listener in…this very plain, transparent, subtle or raw honesty that is so instantly relatable and universal.
I live in Connecticut…New England. And as beautiful as it is here, I find it virtually impossible to draw any musical inspiration from this place, where I have lived my entire life. I have no idea why that is. For example, we have “Meriden” Connecticut. Why not use “Meriden” in a song? Sadly, Meriden connotes nothing to me, emotionally or musically. I wish it did. It would save me driving thousands of miles through the South and Texas to find inspiration (Who am I kidding? I love these drives and these places.).
But, despite the spelling of “Meriden” being so close to “Meridian”, that they could have been twin cities separated at birth…musically and artistically for me, anyway…they are on different planets. I have absolutely nothing against the city of Meriden. I’m sorry, Meriden. I guess I owe you a beer.
But, this is how my mind works. For whatever reasons, for many years, I have been subconsciously drawn to my musical heroes’ use of place-names in their songs. And now that I have some opportunities to go to some of these places, and many others (that for now, happen to be in the South and Texas)…I’ve decided to go…in order to see and feel these places…whether only passing through, or spending more time in them.
I am finding that, in this way, I at least feel like I’m getting closer to things that may have inspired some of my favorite singer-songwriters…whether that’s true or not…and am filling my own songwriting reservoirs with truthful experiences and memories to draw on, down the road.
I don’t know if this explanation makes any sense…but, this is one of the myriad ways this mysterious process of songwriting seems to work best for me. Crazy, I know.
Suffice to say…that once I actually got to Nashville (approaching Nashville, I encountered a bit of a weather-issue on the Interstate, in heavy traffic. You could see a long ways off, and it appeared as if we were heading directly into the path of what looked like the beginnings of an enormous funnel cloud. I was honestly scared. There was nowhere for any of us to go…stuck in traffic. But, as we got close, it turned into a heavy downpour. Inconvenient, but not life-threatening)…and once I actually found reasonably-priced parking near Lower Broadway/Music Row (another story)…I found myself quickly immersed in a state of photography (and music!) nirvana.
I really only had a few hours on Music Row (and that included finding dinner), and really wanted to go to the historic, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, so I headed there. Three floors…three bands…and a rooftop patio-bar…all packed to the walls with locals and tourists (like me). Mind you…this is a typical Sunday afternoon on Music Row.
I checked out the bands on each floor, beginning with the first. Each band was really good, but the band on the top floor quickly grabbed my attention, as much for their music, as for photographic potential. The members of the band were all photogenic…they were all super-fun…and I could get right up to the stage at various angles (not always an easy proposition on Music Row).
This band must have had a name, but they didn’t announce it. Whoever they were, they were all good musicians…particularly the female fiddle-player (She was aMaZiNg. And she seemed to like having me photograph her, as she looked long and hard, directly into my lens a couple of times, while she was playing. Too perfect.). And three or four of the members were really good lead singers. So, that combination packs a wallop.
I’m also playing with this new camera lens, which is fast and sharp. The “fast” aspect allows you to create great background and foreground blur that makes your subjects pop out in the image. You can also add one of the camera’s own features of choosing one specific spot, like a person’s face (or even a person’s eye, in a close-up) to focus on, which allows you to further capitalize on foreground and background blur.
Long story, short…here are just a few of the best of the images from Tootsie’s where I try to capitalize on these features. Suffice it to say…I had a blast.
Then, it was on to Debi Champion’s Songwriter Rounds and Songwriter’s Open Mic at the Commodore Grill, in the Holiday Inn, just a couple of miles from Music Row.
I love Debi Champion. She is a very sweet, and extremely supportive host. The main event, the “Rounds” are by invitation. Three performers at a time take the stage…each with their own microphone and stool…and each introduces and plays one song at a time, until they’ve each played three songs. Then, the next group of three is invited up, and the process repeats. There were four rounds last night, I think, so that is a lot of songs.
At the end of the night is the Songwriter’s Open Mic, again, where three performers at a time take the stage. Open Mic participants are only allowed one song each, which is fine. It’s already been a long evening, at that point.
Here are a few of the best photos I took of the performers (I didn’t take many):
And, as on my last trip, Debi was more than happy to take photos of me with my camera (and this new lens). I gave her a crash course in how to use it, and she did an amazing job. As I was performing, I noticed that she seemed to be having a blast with it, moving around in the audience to capture a variety of angles. This lens is very addictive.
Here are two of Debi’s best images of me:
I don’t have video of my performance, but I think I did well. I definitely had a blast playing…even just one song…and afterward, with her warm smile, Debi volunteered that, “You did good”. I can’t ask for more than that.
Today I’m heading to Meridian, MS, basically a little more than midway between Nashville and New Orleans, my next real stop. I’ll be taking some local routes through Florence and Muscles Shoals, AL, where I’m hoping to stop and revisit a photo-op from my last trip.
All I can do is try “stuff” and see how it works out. Wish me luck!
Okay, so…Prelude to Nashville…a/k/a Music City. Tomorrow’s destination.
I heard a Nashville joke that goes, “How many Nashville musicians does it take to change a lightbulb?”
Answer: One to do it…and twenty to stand around saying, “I can do that.”
That’s a good description of the per capita concentration of musicians in Nashville, as well as a reflection of just how competitive it is to be a musician in Nashville.
On the one hand, there is the massive and diverse recording industry…from big-name record companies, recording studios, artists and producers, down to DIY home-recording studios and everything in between. These music activities happen mostly behind the scenes, away from the casual resident or visitor.
And then there’s the very public, live music scene, that seems to be everywhere you go, which is not confined to night life, as it is in most other cities. It’s going on all day.
On Lower Broadway…Music Row…where most visitors start to explore Nashville, the bars and honky-tonks begin to open at 10:00am or 11:00am, which also happens to be about when the live music starts…seven days a week. These bars stay open all day and half the night, some ‘til 2 or 3:00am, featuring live bands playing back-to-back sets. Most bars are free to get into. The Stage On Broadway, Robert’s Western World and Legends Corner (all of which I visited on my first trip three years ago) are some of the best-known venues on “The Row”. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a historic venue, is another, and one that I hope to visit tomorrow, or on my return drive home from Texas.
Some of the bands performing on Music Row are purely cover-bands…generally really good, entertaining, cover bands: they have to be…to get…and keep…these coveted gigs for any length of time. Some bands perform a mix of covers and original material. I don’t know if there are any bands performing on Music Row that play primarily original material. I guess I’ll just need to spend more time there to find out.
One of the bands that I saw, last time, and was captivated by, was Eileen Rose and the Silver Threads, at Robert’s Western World, which is a venue known for featuring more traditional country music. This band was so good, I could hardly tear myself away to wander further up the Row. Eileen Rose and her band support their independent projects in part through performing cover material…really amazingly-performed cover material…on Music Row. I believe she and the Threads currently have a standing gig at Robert’s Western World.
Music Row bands play for tips, so bring some cash and don’t be shy about contributing. They will pass a hat or a bucket around.
The live music scene in Nashville is not nearly confined to Music Row. In addition to some of the large, well-known, historic venues, like the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry House, there are more-intimate live-music clubs, dive bars and restaurants all over the city. After experiencing some of what Music Row has to offer, it’s a great idea to begin to stray from the Row and explore live music venues in other neighborhoods.
Online searches will quickly yield many other very cool live music venues. Douglas Corner Café, is literally a hole-in-the-wall, funky dive, just a mile or two from the Row that you’d never even notice, unless you found it online, or if a local told you about it (both of which were what brought me there, in my case). Douglas Corner is where some big names, like Garth Brooks, performed when they were first starting out, and it still hosts great live shows. It is where I met, chatted with and bought a drink for Earl Bud Lee, co-writer of Garth Brooks’ hit, “Friends in Low Places”. So, you just never know where a Nashville music adventure will take you. Family Wash, in the neighborhood of East Nashville, is another cool venue that is also on my list for this trip.
Oh! So, why am I going on and on about the Nashville music scene…other than for the obvious “Music City” reasons? Some Nashville venues offer “Writer’s Nights” and “Songwriter Rounds”, which are by audition/invitation, and “Songwriter Open Mics” where anyone can just show up, sign up, and get to perform usually up to three original songs for a mostly quiet, attentive crowd, through a good-quality sound system. Debi Champion’s Songwriter Rounds and Songwriter Open Mics at the Commodore Grille in the downtown Holiday Inn have been a Nashville fixture for many years.
Three years ago, on the first of my “Texas” road-trips, I had the opportunity to listen to other songwriters and to perform at one of Debi’s shows. Debi is super-professional and super-nice and accommodating to the musicians. She creates an extremely supportive, nurturing environment for performers to work on an extremely difficult craft…trying out original material, live, for an appreciative audience.
When I last performed, I brought my camera to the open mic, hoping to find either another musician, or an audience member who might be willing to take a few photos of me as I performed. When I introduced myself to Debi, she matter-of-factly offered to take photos of me, so I handed her my camera and showed her briefly how to use it. She got some great shots. That’s how thoughtful she is.
So, although I have a few daytime plans while in Nashville for this one night I’ll be in town, performing again at Debi’s Songwriter Open Mic, later in the evening, is my main goal. Wish me luck getting on the list!
As usual…despite rigorously planning this trip for the past six months…getting pretty much everything in place at least a couple of months ago (or so I thought)…I’ve still been spending the past few weeks going seemingly non-stop to tie up all of the loose ends. Most of this has been technology-related…setting up this blog…buying a very cool new lens for my camera (a last-minute decision) and spending time beginning to get used to what it can do…and re-learning how to use my camcorder. And then there are the last-minute errands. Ay yay yay!
So…word to the wise…little adventures that have a lot of moving parts, take a lot more time than you would think to plan and prepare for…so…start as early as you can, and keep working the problems until you get everything in place, as best as possible. Once you are on your way…you’ll be glad you did.
It’s Friday, and about 9pm here. I’m basically all packed and ready to hit the hay, before my 4am start tomorrow. I’ll be in Roanoke, VA, tomorrow night, with no plan other than to get an early start on Sunday, with the hope of getting to Nashville by early afternoon.
In a little over two weeks, I’ll be heading out on this little road-trip adventure of mine. It will be mid-October…the height of the fall foliage colors in Connecticut. I took the above photo two years ago, in early November, just a little past the peak, while on my usual health-walk near where I live. Just quickly snapped this shot with my cell phone camera, as I was about to pass through this naturally-formed tunnel of brilliantly-colored maple leaves.
For anyone who stumbles onto this travel blog, and is not familiar with New England’s fall foliage, scenes like this are what surround us for a few short weeks. We don’t have to travel anywhere in particular…but, that doesn’t stop us from driving distances in search of the “best” of what is already pretty amazing, almost anywhere you look.
I am only mentioning this, because autumn in New England is arguably my favorite time of year. But, I am making this little sacrifice of leaving New England at the height of our fall foliage season, in order to visit some equally beautiful places “down South”.