Month <span class=June 2015" src="https://www.tonyjamesshevlin.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/08/cropped-1900x500-1.png">

Month June 2015

Rockin’ in the USA 4

Uncategorized No comments
featured image

Once again, I set my Sat Nav to avoid going on the Interstate and I headed for Omaha.  I think the navigational device is annoyed at having to work so hard.  It’s probably used to saying, “drive straight for 300 miles”.  At one point, it suggested I take a left turn which would have taken me in to the Missouri River;  another time, if I had not questioned it, I would have crossed some rail tracks and gone in to a ditch.

The radio station I’m listening to issues a tornado warning for southeast Nebraska.  I pull over and consult my large map of the US to see exactly where I am.  I am in southeast Nebraska.  The tornado does not materialise but rain like I have never experienced before does.  I cannot see the bonnet of the car.  I concede defeat and pull over until the rain has passed.

When I reach Omaha, I decide to check out tomorrow night’s gig venue, the Barley Street Tavern. It’s in a once-rough neighbourhood called Benson that is being regenerated.  I meet Dan the sound man.  He has just come back from gigging in Ireland and we find common ground.  He is also in love with an Italian girl;  me too, I say.  Not the same girl, I add.

I am pleased with the venue.  The stage is in a room off of the bar but where people in the bar can still see and listen to the act on stage.  There are tables and chairs in the music room, a good-sized stage, a good PA system, and Dan sounds like he knows what he’s doing. I start to look forward to the gig.

I spend the next day checking out Omaha.  My favourite part of the day was crossing a bridge over the Missouri River, which connects Nebraska and Iowa, and standing with one foot in each state.

Whilst browsing in a pawn shop  (I nearly buy a 1969 Yamaha FG10 acoustic guitar but think better of it) the storeowner notices that my wedding ring has a kink in it.  He offers to straighten it;  he takes it over to the jewellery section, taps out the kink, and polishes it, too.  How friendly is that?

First on the bill at the Barley Street Tavern that night is a very large gentleman wearing a straw boater hat.  His songs are very long and wordy.  There was one that mentioned all 43 US Presidents;  it seemed to go on longer than a term in office.  At the end of his set, he asks Dan, the soundman, if he can do one more song.  Dan considers what he has just heard and says,  “Have you got a short one?”  No, says the portly troubadour, and slinks off stage.

I consider my performance to be the best of the tour, so far.  For the first time I feel comfortable playing the Martin guitar (it has a smaller neck than I am used to).  I also think that the set list is coming together – which songs to play, in what order, when to tell a story, when to shut up and play the song.  I get a great response from the crowd, and sell a lot of albums – I may run out of them in a gig or two!  Dan immediately plays the EP over the sound system;  he particularly likes Restless Celtic Heart.

I stick around to hear the band on after me.  The Blake Byrd Band are a young indie band from Dallas, Texas – great songs and a wickedly funky drummer.  We chat afterwards and they promise to come to my show in Dallas in July.

I’m up early the next morning and drive back to Kansas City for a festival called Porchfest.  This is a neighbourhood near the Missouri-Kansas border where a number of house front porches are given over to bands playing acoustic music.  You can wander down a street and hear myriad different genres: classical, jazz, bluegrass, and several different types of country (blues, swing, americana).  By the time you come back down the street (pulling your beer trolley behind you) the bands will have changed.  The event is well supported by the locals and the hot streets are packed with music lovers.  The heat eventually gets to me and I retire to a friend’s house where the guitars have come out and a jam is in session.  It would be rude not to join in.

We head out to Knuckleheads to see The Mavericks.  The band consists of two guitars, drums, double bass, keyboards, accordion, trumpet and sax.  Everyone but the drummer sings backing vocals.  The musicianship is outstanding.  Their infectious Latin-tinged country is perfect party music and the place is swinging.  One of the best gigs I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s too early to go home, so we go to the American Federation, a club that has been hosting jazz on Saturday nights since prohibition.  I am not particularly enamoured by the modern jazz being played on the stage but I’m happy to be in a room where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker have performed.

My friend Matt seems to know every down and dirty bar in the city, and the names of the bartenders, too.  We cruise a few of them including the Shady Lady, which lived up to its name.

We call it a day at 4am with breakfast in a Mexican restaurant.

The next day there was a blues jam down at Knuckleheads. The musicianship was so good that I couldn’t resist getting involved.  Once again, the bemused crowd’s interest was piqued when they heard my English accent.  Whilst they are rooting for me, I always feel there’s an element of, ‘okay, show us what you got’.  The band knew both my blues staples of Unchain my Heart and Before You Accuse Me, and the crowd got behind me.  I was thrilled to have played on the stage where only the night before I’d seen The Mavericks.

I head north for the gig in Des Moines, Iowa.  I knew two things about Des Moines.  One, it is the insurance capital of the US. Two, it’s home to rock band Slipknot. I like to think that the two are related. I think that’s why the band wear masks – by night they are rock stars but by day they are middle management loss adjusters for one of the big firms and want to keep their identities secret from their bosses, and keep their job options open just in case this rock star thing doesn’t work out.  While I’m not a fan of their music, I admire their prudence.

My gig in Des Moines was a house concert – a gig in someone’s house.  They are very popular in the States (perhaps because they have bigger houses) and work like this:  the host books an artist they like and invites friends to come and see the artist perform, for which they pay an entrance fee.  They get to see the artist up close and personal, and interact with them before and after the show.  The host gets the kudos of having introduced friends to a new artist;  the artist gets to perform to a new audience, is paid the entrance money, sells merchandise, and is also fed and watered and put up for the night.  It’s a win-win situation that, in the fractured business model that is the music business, can be the difference between a tour losing money, breaking even or actually making money.

My host was Scott Stillwell, a songwriter I’d met in Nashville last year;  we wrote a couple of songs together.  When he heard I was touring the US, he insisted that he put on a gig for me in Des Moines.

There was no PA amplification; just me and my guitar sitting in the living room of Scott’s apartment, in front of about 20 people.  It was very intimate.  It was very laid-back.  The audience listened intently.  During certain songs you could feel the intensity heighten.  As an artist you respond to that and your performance of the song builds and the audience responds to that; it’s very organic.

I also enjoyed that I was able to take my time telling the stories that set up certain songs.

I played two 45-minute sets with an intermission of 20 minutes.  I only usually play one set, so I had spent a long time mulling over the set lists.  I like to think that I got it right, in terms of light and shade, different keys, major and minor, happy and sad, fingerpicking and strumming, fast and slow.

I loved every minute of it.  Thankfully, Scott’s friends did, too.  I insisted that Scott play a couple of his new songs he’d played to me earlier.  He’s writing the best songs of his career, and his friends hadn’t heard them, so it was nice to shine the spotlight back on him.

The people were very generous;  not only did they pay a minimum of $15 dollars admission, but everyone present bought either an album or an EP as well.  It was my best payday of the tour.  And I didn’t even have to drive to a motel.

I spent a couple of days in Des Moines.  Scott invited me to a meal his son was hosting because it was Father’s Day.  I am far away from my own children and was missing them terribly, so it was nice to spend some time in the warmth of a family environment;  we toasted fathers everywhere.

The next day, with thoughts of the intrepid pioneers of long ago, I set out for the west.

 

 

Rockin’ in the USA 3

Uncategorized No comments
featured image

I drove west out of St. Louis, heading for Kansas City.  I knew nothing about Kansas City other than that the Beatles covered a song titled Kansas City on their 1964 album Beatles for Sale.  And I knew that there are two Kansas Cities – one in the state of Missouri (the one where I was playing) and another in the state of Kansas.  The two are separated by the great Missouri River.  I was warned not to get on stage and say “Hello Kansas” – I was in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Missouri River eventually flows into the Mississippi, but for over 2,000 miles it is very much its own entity, starting its journey in the Rocky Mountains in Montana.  There is a scene in one of my favourite Clint Eastwood films, The Outlaw Josey Wales, where the river has a starring role.  I pull over to contemplate the importance of this body of water and try to put myself in the place of explorers such as Lewis and Clark and try to imagine how they must have felt when they first traversed its length.

I’m staying with photographer Matt Mayfield on the 7th floor of a converted warehouse.  The living room is massive.  There are four motorbikes in it – one of them is a Harley Davidson, another is a 1970s Honda.  There is also a canoe and some guitars.  Oh, and some guns.  Lots of guns.  Coming from the UK this is something of a shock.  Matt and his amenable roommate, Anders, note my discomfort at seeing so many guns and try to reassure me that they are not loaded.  Well, apart from the handgun they each keep by their bedside in case of intruders.  I make a mental note not to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.

The warehouse is located in an industrial area of Kansas City MO.  There are train tracks very close by.  As I was exploring the area the next day, I saw a train approaching.  I took refuge in the shade (it was 90 degrees – a very humid heat) and watched it trundle by.  There were two engines pulling and two pushing;  I counted 135 trucks.  It took 15 minutes to pass me, blowing its evocative whistle to warn drivers that it is coming through.  That night I wrote a song about trains whistling and rivers flowing.

Kansas City (Missouri, don’t forget) has a great musical legacy.  During the prohibition era of the late 1920s and early 1930s, political boss Tom Pendergast (an Irishman, I note) allowed alcohol to flow into KC.  As far as Tom was concerned, it was as if prohibition wasn’t happening;  the city was seen as “wide open”.  And where there was drinking, there was music, and musicians flocked to the city.  It was blues-based swing that would eventually be called jazz.  For many of the jazz greats such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, KC was where they honed their talents.  Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus would follow in their footsteps, taking jazz in a daring, different direction.  I spent a couple of hours in the splendid American Jazz Museum.  They have Charlie Parker’s saxophone on display;  I stare at it in awe, wondering what events it was a witness to, and was a part of.

Housed in the same building as the Jazz Museum is the Negro Baseball League Museum.  It tells the story of a time in US history when black athletes were not allowed (and in some cases, wanted) by teams in the major leagues, so they formed their own.  This situation only started to change after World War II when it was pointed out how absurd it was that blacks and whites could stand side-by-side to fight and die (to combat racism) but couldn’t play sports together.  By the mid-1960s there was no longer any need for a separate league.  I think it’s good that there is a museum like this where the country can come to terms with its own dark past.

Two floors below the apartment where I’m staying, there is a public attraction dedicated to a well-known American poet, famous for his tales of the macabre.  It’s closed for the summer but I’m told that it is quite a scary walk through, with ghostly noises and theatrical effects such as a blood-spurting guillotine.

I was returning to the building one evening, and the lift (sorry, elevator) wasn’t working, so I took the stairs;  the lights were out on the stairwell and unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and wandered deep into this museum of mystery.  It is pitch black;  I am stepping forward, gingerly, for fear of coming to some stairs.  I am already sweating profusely.  I have my phone with me, which has a pitiful light on it, but it is all I have so I fumble in my pocket and light up the phone.  Close to my face, I see the contorted skeletal face of a wax woman who has had her throat cut.  I let out some choice words that I’m pretty sure the poet, himself, did not use in print.

Matt’s roommate Anders has the ability to retain an amazing amount of information.  I’m pretty sure that when Google doesn’t know something, they come to him.  He tells me about the speed of bullets and ratios and something or other.  He sees my blank face and decides that I need to go shooting with him.

I accompany Anders to a gun range.  On the way there, we stop to buy ammunition.  In the shop there are more guns than I’ve ever seen in my life.  A salesman is telling a prospective customer the merits of a certain pistol in the same manner as a washing machine salesman.  I balk slightly when the customer reveals he is purchasing the firearm for his 10 year-old daughter;  it comes in pink – my little pistol.

When the owner hears I’m English, he gets a kick out of showing me all manner of weapons:  an AK47, a Tommy Gun as used by gangsters in the 1930s, and an Uzi.  I can’t resist saying, “Come with me if you want to live,” in an Arnie voice.

At the gun range, Anders lets slip that I have never fired a gun before.  The Range Master (he’s carrying a pistol just in case someone goes renegade in the range) looks Anders sternly in the eye and says:  “I did not hear what you just said.” Anders corrects himself: “Tony is very experienced in the use of hand guns.”  We proceed to the range.

Anders very carefully instructs me in range etiquette and how to behave around loaded guns.  Only when he feels that I am ready does he hand me a gun.

He deliberately starts me off on something small;  it’s a Ruger Mk II .22 calibre.  I aim at the target, breathe in, breathe out, and gently squeeze the trigger.  Despite wearing ear protectors, the noise still startles me, and the kickback surprises me.  The target has a hole very close to the bullseye.  Nine out of ten shots are all on target.  Anders high-fives me:  “Way to go,” he says.  I grin at my beginner’s luck.

The next gun I shoot is a Walther P99 .40 as used by Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  My jaw tightens as I aim it.  The kickback is substantially more than with the Ruger and I feel my heart racing.  My first 10 shots are fairly wild, my second 10 are a little better, and by the third 10 I’m getting close to the bullseye.

We finish the day by firing a replica Colt 45 “Peacemaker” (no one seems to know how it obtained this moniker).  Firing one of these is completely different (I really want to fire it from the hip!) and my shots are all over the place.

As with the other two guns, Anders shows me how it’s done – and proves he is a very fine shot.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at range, and found the experience very exciting.  I’m still not sure, however, that I could fire a gun at another human being;  I hope I never have to find out.

My gig in Kansas City MO is at a venue called Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club.  As I am setting up, the soundman informs me that Stevie Ray Vaughan once played this room.

Matt and Anders have put the word out about tonight’s gig and I’m pretty sure that between them they know everybody in the room.  I think Matt is more nervous than me.

As it happens, his nervousness is unfounded and the gig goes well.  People are coming up to buy copies of the album and the EP.  Matt is pleased that he has introduced his friends to a new artist but confesses that just before I started, he was worried.  “What if you’d been shit, man?”

We celebrate by hitting a few bars on the way home.

I spend a couple of days visiting museums and seeing the sights of KC.  I really like this town.  Matt takes me to a great venue called Knuckleheads, a sort of outdoor club, which has hosted acts such as John Prine and Steve Earle.  Despite me having to leave the next day for a gig in Omaha, Nebraska, on the Friday, we drunkenly purchase tickets to see The Mavericks on Saturday night.  “Now, you have to come back to Kansas City,” says Matt smiling.  I’m smiling, too.

 

Rockin’ in the USA 2

Uncategorized No comments
featured image

I left Nashville in a big old Buick La Crosse and headed north for Chicago.  I had programmed my Sat Nav / GPS to avoid the Interstate highways.  I figured that if I wanted to meet and interact with the good people of the US, it was better to go through the small towns and counties, stopping at diners and cafes along the way.  I meandered through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, taking in the countryside.  I saw quite a few barns.  At one point, I passed a wind farm that took an age and 20 miles to pass; there were hundreds of blades, twirling away like a nightmarish collaboration between Philip K Dick and Busby-Berkley.

In Huntsburg, Indiana, I got talking with two guys in a diner.  They were fascinated with my story and bought an album each.  I felt like this validated my reasons for not going on the interstate.

It was dark as I approached Chicago and the night-time skyline looked amazing.

The next day I went out to explore Chicago.  It’s s a bold confident city; there’s a bit of a sassy swagger to its manner;  but the people are friendly and eager to assist.

I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan.  You can’t see the other side;  it’s not so much a lake – as a small ocean!

Chicago has been used as the location for so many Hollywood movies.  I think it’s safe to say that Chicago is Gotham City.

Some locations have appeared in more than one movie.  The bank that The Joker robs in The Dark Knight, is also where Ferris Bueller’s Dad worked.  I also spotted locations from Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive and John Cusack’s Hi-Fidelity.  And of course, The Blues Brothers – it’s everywhere.  I just had to pay a visit to Richard Daley Plaza where the authorities chasing Elwood and Jake finally catch up with them in spectacular style.

My Chicago gig was at Reggie’s on South State St.  As I pulled up outside, my heart sank.  There was a line of about 30 young men, all in black, sporting mohawks, and with more metal in their faces than a car scrapyard.  I wondered “what have I been booked into”?  Turns out, there are two Reggie’s – the Rock Club (where the young men were headed) and the Music Joint (where I was headed).  I breathed a sigh of relief – I’m pretty sure those kids didn’t want to hear an English singer-songwriter.

It turns out that local ice hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks, were playing in an important game that night, and Reggie’s was showing the game on a large TV just above the stage.  The owner called all the bands together, saying: “Listen guys, if I turn the TV off, there’ll be a riot.”  The bands agreed that it would be sensible to each cut our set short and go on later. So I ended up watching the game, rooting for the Blackhawks; not because I have any affinity with them – but if they were to win, I knew I’d be playing to a happy crowd.  Thankfully, they won.

On stage, I made a big thing out of it being my first ice hockey game, saying that I would now forever be a Blackhawks fan.  The crowd cheered.  They were a good audience – and they were up for the cup – in more ways than one.

I got to hear the punk-metal band playing in the club – through the wall.  I decided not to play my quiet introverted finger-picking songs.

I said to the club owner afterwards, you need to soundproof that wall.  He had a pained expression on his face. “It is soundproofed.  You shoulda heard how loud it was in the room.”

I got talking to the guitar player in The Streams, the band that was on before me.  He told me that there was a great band scene in Chicago at the moment.  Other than the tourist clubs, he said no self-respecting musician would play covers.  He told me to watch this space as it wouldn’t be long before a Chicago band hit the big time!

Of course, you can’t go to Chicago without hearing some blues so I went to see the Shirley Johnson Blues Band at Blue Chicago.  Think Mahalia Jackson and Etta James, with a hint of Ruth Brown thrown in for good measure, and you might have some idea of what this powerhouse of a woman sounds like – and with a kick-ass band to back her, it was without a doubt, the best blues I have ever heard.

The next day, I left for St Louis.

The State line between Illinois and Missouri just happens to be the Mississippi River.  And it is magnificent.  Just the mention of it makes me think of a dozen or more songs.  I savoured the moment as I crossed the bridge.  But I know our paths will cross again on my journey – this river practically runs the length of the country.

St Louis is very green.  And because the authorities want you to be able to see, from all over the city, the magnificent arch which the city is famous for, there are very few high-rise buildings, which sets it apart from many US cities.  It’s really more a collection of neighbourhoods.

The people are very welcoming and friendly.  I hooked up with Leo, a bartender from one of the many bars in the downtown area known as the Delmar Loop.  He’s a thoughtful, engaging young man, and very laid back.  He showed me round the city, where to go – and also where not to go after dark.

Unfortunately, St Louis is a much divided city, racially.  Where I was staying was about 10 minutes from the town of Ferguson, which you may remember was on the news last year, when rioting took place after the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer – who was later acquitted.  I’m told that tensions are still high.  I hope that changes.

One of St Louis’s most famous sons is Chuck Berry.  And he stills lives here, occasionally still performing at a restaurant called Blueberry Hill.  No one person can claim to have invented rock and roll but if you made a list of contenders, Berry would be near the top.  As Keith Richards has said “We all owe Chuck”.

I discovered him as a teenager, and it was his lyric-writing that first fascinated me.  The poetry, and the meter of his lyrics, and the way his words run together has always been an inspiration to me.

St. Louis has a great blues tradition.  And I was lucky enough to catch local artist Leroy Jodie Pierson playing at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups on South Broadway.  He looks like a bank manager (or how I imagine a bank manager should look – I’ve never met one!).  But the way he plays his National Resonator Guitar (that’s the steel one) and with his wonderful soulful voice, you know that he is blues down to his core.  Check him out!

My own gig was in a trendy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants in North Euclid at a place called Evangeline’s – which boasts music six nights a week – and original music, at that, as owner Don Bailey wants to give his clientele something new and different.  It can be slightly disconcerting performing to an audience of people eating but I find that if you talk to them so that they realise that you’re not background music, they respond in a positive way.  In Evangeline’s they were very attentive, laughed at my jokes and were enthusiastic in their applause.  Whenever I play my song Crazy, to prepare the crowd for my mouth-trombone solo, I explain that on the album there is a trombone solo, and I ask if there are any trombone players in the house.  At Evangeline’s a hand went up;  I ask the gentleman if he has his instrument with him.  He doesn’t.  After my trombone solo, he applauds me, and after the show he comes up to congratulate me on my performance.  He introduces himself as Jim Tyler – a retired Los Angeles session musician from the 1960s.  He has some wonderful stories.  It just goes to show that you never know who is in the audience.

I have enjoyed my time in both Chicago and St. Louis.  They are two very different cities, both with lots to offer both socially and musically.  I would have liked to have explored both in greater depth but the tour must go on.  Kansas City is calling.

 

Rockin’ in the USA 1

Uncategorized No comments
featured image

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.