After months of planning and talking about it, it’s finally here – the Tony James Shevlin US Tour 2015.
My flight from Heathrow was due to leave at 8.30am so I was at the airport for 6am. It’s a great time to drive through London; the city was calm but I was very excited!
I had a couple of hours’ stopover in Newark. In the airport bar, you can see the big cranes that Tony Soprano drives by in the opening sequences to The Sopranos. If I’d had more time, I would have paid a visit to the Ba Da Bing Club but ‘what you gonna do’ (shrugs shoulders).
I chat with a local who is flying off to Florida. When he hears my accent, he shakes me by my hand: “Da Bridish are the only ones of our so called ‘partners’ who have always stood by us.” He slags off most of the European Union and a few other countries. On behalf of the nation, I gracefully accept his commendations as though I were personally responsible for British foreign policy for the last hundred years. “Yes, we’ve always stood together,” I say, piously. He thinks about this for a second, and says: “Well, there is the little matter of the Revolutionary War but we won’t go into that.” No, let’s not.
I arrive in Nashville at 6.30pm but my body is telling me it’s half past midnight.
I’m greeted by two beautiful Southern belles who whisk me off to dinner in downtown Nashville. I’d been to Puckett’s before so I was very wary of the portions that would be served up. They didn’t disappoint – my plate of Southern fried chicken could have fed a family of four.
From there it was a short walk down to Broadway; the girls had some friends playing a bar called Honky Tonk Central. Downtown Nashville – especially Broadway – is a party town on a Friday night. I was content to sit back and watch the amazing musicianship on display. There are so many great musicians in Nashville – drawn from all over the US.
The music starts in Nashville at 10am and runs till 2am. Bands work in 4 hour shifts; the first band will play from 10am – 2pm; the second from 2pm – 6pm; the third from 6pm – 10pm; the last band from 10pm – 2am. On my first Saturday night in town, I spoke to a bass player who told me he’d done eight gigs since Wednesday night – that’s two gigs a night! Two of the gigs were consecutive, so he had to hotfoot it from one venue to the next; fortunately, all the venues have a house bass rig so all he had to do was pack up his bass … and run!
I had elected not to travel with a guitar but to buy one in Nashville; there are many music shops to choose from. For no other reason than it was the only one open on a Sunday (and I missed not having a guitar to hand, feeling I couldn’t wait till Monday!) I went to The Guitar Center (their spelling, not mine!). A sales assistant named Barrett treated me like I was the most important person in the world. He sat me down in a soundproofed booth and brought me guitars in (and just above, I noticed!) my price range. I tried Martins, Taylors and Gibsons. I must have tried a dozen or more. I narrowed it down to two Martins. At one point, a young lad came in and started jamming along with me; no matter what I played (and I was playing my own songs) he played along. Never said a word – just played guitar; it was like something from Deliverance!
Having made my choice of a mahogany Martin (000.15M), I needed a pickup fitting to it. Barrett swore that a Fishman Matrix was the best to have. While guitar tech Taylor fitted it, I looked around the store (check out the video on my Facebook band page). A grizzled old (and, quite frankly, crazy) ex-roadie offered to tour with me – and also to send me a gun – piece by piece – back to England, so I could “take out any ‘mofos’ who want to mess with you and yours.” I declined both offers.
I am in love with my Martin guitar.
It was three days before I felt like I was on Tennessee time. This was just in time to play at the famous Bluebird Cafe. It’s a very intimate venue with a listening audience. I was very pleased to debut a new song there called Nashville State of Mind that I had written after my trip to Music City last year (you can hear it on the Oh Mercy Records Soundcloud page). I’m pleased to report that it was very well-received.
I had been invited by talented singer-songwriter, Annemarie Picerno, to play at the Spring Fling Festival at Smitty’s Bar and Grill in the town of Lebanon about 30 miles east of Nashville. It was something of a shock when I walked in; I was the only male in the place who wasn’t sporting either a stetson, bandana, beard, tattoos, cowboy boots or a mixture of all five. If you remember the scene in 48 Hours where Eddie Murphy walks in to a redneck bar, you’ll know how I felt.
Once on stage, my English accent silenced the crowd. I thought it best to flag up my Irish ancestry, saying that the early Irish settlers brought their folk music to the fledgling US and it eventually became country music. Thankfully, there were some heads nodding in the crowd. I played Restless Celtic Heart from my new acoustic EP which salutes the need of Celts (and in particular my Grandfather and my Dad) to travel the world. It has a bit of a Johnny Cash feel to it, which got feet tapping.
I reminded myself that the clientele in Smitty’s were no different to the people I used to play to in the working men’s clubs back home where I cut my musical teeth as a young man; ordinary people looking to be entertained after a hard week’s work. I chastised myself for my initial fears. Some very good musicians came up and complimented me on my performance.
On the way back to Nashville, Annemarie suggested we call in at Papa Turney’s Smokehouse Restaurant in nearby Hermatige. The barbecued ribs were reputedly the best in the State. There was also a blues jam going on. The house band led by Kevin William Ball was as good as the ribs. Papa Turney himself turned out to be as good with a guitar as he was with a cooking pan. Annemarie got up and belted out some old blues tunes. She has a powerful voice and is a consummate professional.
When the band heard that there was an English musician in the house they were keen to get me up to perform. Now, I am no blues player but I have a couple of blues songs in my musical arsenal that I keep tucked away for just such an occasion. Kevin kindly lent me his lovely old Gibson semi-acoustic. I joked with the audience that I had travelled 4,000 miles just to play at this jam. I sang and played the Ray Charles / Joe Cocker classic Unchain My Heart, and the blues standard Before You Accuse Me. The crowd loved it, and there were high-fives all-round from the band.
As great as the shows at Smitty’s and Papa Turney’s were, the gig I was most looking forward to was my slot at the Commodore back in Nashville. The Commodore is a regular hang-out for Nashville songwriters so I knew there would be a few in the audience. Plus, many of my Nashville friends had never seen me performing my own material, so there was a lot riding on this particular show. I kicked off with Nobody which had served me so well in the past. I was also keen to perform Nashville State of Mind because the Commodore is mentioned in the lyrics, so that was a must.
After my set, I received lots of good comments from members of the audience. It’s always good to get positive feedback from the crowd but knowing the talent in this town, it’s doubly important. Comments such as “great songs,” “very professional,” and “good stage presence” were all gratefully accepted but my favourite was from songwriter Tucker Bouler who said of Nashville State of Mind: “You nailed that one brother!”
I finished off my stint in Music City with an impromptu performance with the house band down at Tootsie’s. The bar is famous for being where Hank Williams Sr would sneak across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium whilst playing at the Grand Ole Opry, and where Willie Nelson sold the rights to his song Crazy to pay his bar bill. All the kings and queens of Country Music have frequented Tootsie’s. In honour of Hank I sang a rocking version of Your Cheating Heart, and because I wanted to sing an English song, Honky Tonk Woman.
I have enjoyed my time in Nashville immensely; the kindness of strangers and the warmth of friends, but it is time to move on and see some new places. Next week it’s Chicago and St. Louis, the week after that it’s Kansas City and Omaha. Further down the line there’s Des Moines, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Amarillo, Dallas and others.
So long Music City; till next time.