My earliest memories of Emmylou are sketchy at best. Let’s see. At one point―it may have been 1972―Emmy was waiting tables at a Polynesian restaurant out on White Bridge Road at about the same time that Rodney Crowell and I were working at T.G.I. Friday’s. I can’t remember if I met Emmylou then or not. But I distinctly remember the first time I heard her singing voice.
My friend Danny Flowers was living in a big old rambling house on Blair Boulevard, sharing rent with two other musicians, one of whom was Crowell. My most vivid memory of that house revolves around the afternoon Danny turned me on to the legendary James Burton. For hours, I sat and listened while Danny played song after song from different albums featuring Burton on guitar. I’d never heard of Burton, but I was familiar with his licks, having heard them coming out of the radio on songs like “Suzie Q” (Dale Hawkins) and the Merle Haggard classic “Mama Tried.” To Danny, James Burton was like a god.
At first we listened to some Ricky Nelson albums. Like everybody, I knew Nelson from the Ozzie and Harriet TV show and from radio hits like “I’m Walking” and “Hello Mary Lou.” Early in his career, Nelson had been labeled a “teen idol” due to his incredible good looks. But the label didn’t do him justice. That afternoon with Danny, I discovered that Ricky Nelson was an artist in the truest sense. Not only could Ricky Nelson sing and write songs, but he knew how to make records, and a large part of that was surrounding himself with great musicians like James Burton.
Another album we listened to was Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons. I’d never heard of Parsons either. Nor had I heard of his singing partner whose voice sounded like an angel. Emmylou Harris was her name, and the sound of them singing together was like a universe unto itself―Gram’s voice brimming with confidence, even if he didn’t always hit the notes, and Emmylou’s right on pitch, that beautiful vibrato never wavering. To this day, Grievous Angel remains one of my all-time favorite albums.
That same afternoon, Danny played me a song he’d written called “Before Believing.” Emmylou had just recorded it for her first album. I’d never known anybody―much less an actual friend―to have a song they’d written on a real honest-to-god record, so I was beside myself with excitement. When Emmylou’s album came out, I was first in line to buy it and was thrilled to see Danny’s name listed among the songwriter credits. In addition, a phrase from Danny’s song―”pieces of the sky”―was chosen for the album’s title.
The first time I actually met Emmylou was probably at a party at Beth and Chuck Flood’s house during DJ week 1976. I’d just finished recording my first album for Epic and was riding high that night. I’d arrived at the party with an entourage that included Ben Tallent, Bonnie Garner, Ian Tyson, Raeanne Rubenstein, Melva Matthews, and Canadian journalist Roy MacGregor, who was in town doing a piece on Tyson. Earlier that afternoon, I’d done a photo shoot with Raeanne; Ben had produced my album; Bonnie had signed me to the label, and Melva was managing both me and Tyson. Naturally, I had a crush on Ian. And who wouldn’t? He was one good-looking dude―a real cowboy, unlike the “hat acts” that have saturated country music since 1980. Ian was also a hell of a songwriter, having penned the classics “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.” The crush may have been mutual, but I don’t want to sound like I’m flattering myself.
As it turned out, Emmylou Harris was at the party, along with Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy and Susanna Clark, Ray Benson, and a host of others. At some point, Emmylou and I were introduced. But whatever memory I have of that moment was mostly obliterated by what happened shortly after our crowd left the party.
We had all piled into my 1961 Ford Galaxie―which everybody called “Whitetrash”―to head downtown to the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor where Asleep at the Wheel, Emmylou, and Jerry Jeff were scheduled to play later that evening. I was driving. At least I thought I was driving. A case could be made that I was sort of driving as I was sitting in Tyson’s lap while he was in the driver’s seat.
As we pulled away from the party, Ian worked the accelerator while I worked the steering wheel. Since Ian couldn’t see the road, due to the fact that a woman six feet tall was sitting in his lap, it was left for me to navigate. “Okay, here’s a stop sign,” I’d say, and Ian would apply the brakes. “Okay. All clear. Let’s go,” and Ian would press the accelerator. This arrangement seemed to work just fine. That is, until we approached that sharp curve on Belmont Boulevard― the one just past where the Curb Center and Bongo Java are today, the one that’s graded the wrong way. At that point, our signals somehow got crossed and instead of slowing down, we suddenly sped up. I’m not really sure what all happened next. But I distinctly remember hearing screams and the screeching of tires as Whitetrash careened uncontrollably around the curve, barely missing a police car going the other way.
The following is an excerpt from MacGregor’s article that ran in the December 12, 1976, Canadian. Like Family Weekly and Parade, the Canadian was a Sunday-supplement magazine that serviced every city in Canada.
Two years ago, I lost the end of a finger on my right hand, and for a minute I thought it had happened to someone else. But that’s the way it is in a crisis, you tend to become detached to what’s really going on. Take what happened in Nashville a few weeks back. The car was about to crash and for all I cared, I could have been casually thumbing through a series of photographs, one of the speedometer at 80, another pasted across the windshield showing a CAUTION sign and a curve like a fishhook, another of the car up on two wheels. Not that all things were quite so clear that night―much of it was like trying to read through an ice cube―but I distinctly remember sitting in the death seat of a white 1961 Ford Galaxie. I recall sailing along the city back streets with all windows down, the night air fresh from the Cumberland River, the crickets steady above the radio. And I know there were others in the front seat; some of them were driving.
I know, too, that someone screamed as we went into a two-wheel drift, not loud, but long, the sound floating like a lariat in the car and finally falling about us too late. A police car swerved to avoid the Ford.
After we came to a stop, a mobile breathalyzer unit was summoned, and the next thing any of us knew, the police had Tyson and me up against the unit with our arms outstretched. I later learned that just before we had come to a complete stop, one of our passengers―and I won’t name names―had taken off running with a briefcase down a nearby alley. Evidently, there was something in the briefcase the passenger did not want to share with the police.
While Tyson and I were splayed up against the mobile breathalyzer unit, a car carrying Emmylou, Jerry Jeff, Guy and Susanna, and Ray Benson happened to pass by. I can still see their faces, wide-eyed with bemusement and surprise. Somebody―it may have been Jerry Jeff―yelled “Lock ’em up!” amidst giggles and a wolf whistle. Amazingly, no one was arrested. Mainly because the police could never determine who was actually driving. Plus, our breathalyzer tests registered way under the limit, which seemed to surprise the officer in charge. I guess there’s no way to measure being high on life.
As for Emmylou and me, our paths have crossed many times since that crisp fall night in 1976. I’ve sung on one of her albums, and she’s sung on one of mine. I’ve ridden on her bus and once sang on stage with her at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. We’ve played countless benefits together in Nashville. For years, the two of us and Ashley Cleveland would raise the roof (Ashley would hit that high note) at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, singing the national anthem for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team’s last home game of the season. We’ve been to parties and had dinner in each other’s homes. There’s probably more, but I’ll close with two stories that will tell you everything you need to know about Emmylou Harris.
Christmas Eve, 1977
My band and I had been in Los Angeles for a week, rehearsing at Al Kooper’s house as we prepared to record Jaded Virgin, my second album for Epic. On Christmas Eve, we went to hear Rick Danko play the Roxy, a rock club on Sunset Boulevard. After the show, the guys all bolted for the Rainbow Bar just up the street, leaving me standing alone on the sidewalk in front of the Roxy. They’d invited me to join them, but I just wasn’t up for going to a bar on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I wasn’t ready to walk back to the Tropicana, which is where we were all staying.
As I stood there gazing at the silver Christmas trees with pink lights along the concrete median on the Sunset Strip, I suddenly became homesick. Homesick for what, I wasn’t sure. Just anything but this artificial display of yuletide cheer. What about snow? I want some goddamned snow! Fir trees … boughs of holly … a partridge in a pear tree, ANYTHING but these fucking tinsel town trees with their pink lights. Give me something REAL, for chrissakes! I’d been in Los Angeles so long, I was beginning to wonder what real was. I was about to start crying when a voice rang out:
“Marshall Chapman, what are you doing in Los Angeles?”
It was a beautiful strong voice. Perhaps the voice of an angel. I turned around to see Emmylou Harris standing on the corner with her husband, Brian Ahern.
“I’m not really sure,” I answered.
“Well, what are you doing tomorrow? Do you have plans?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, I’m cooking my very first turkey. A real one. I’m getting ready to go home and put it in the oven. Why don’t you come over tomorrow and have Christmas dinner with us?”
Sounded good to me. But then I thought about the guys in the band. They didn’t have anywhere to go either. I can’t remember what all was said after that. All I know is, as I walked back to the Tropicana, I had an address and phone number scribbled on a piece of paper, and an invitation for Christmas dinner that included the guys in the band.
An overdub session had been scheduled at 16th Avenue Sound, one of the many recording studios located on 16th Avenue South, one of the two one-way streets that make up Nashville’s venerable Music Row. The studio was on the second floor of an old house that’d been converted to commercial space to accommodate the music industry. Producer Michael Utley and I were putting the final touches on my second album for Margaritaville/Island. I was especially looking forward to this session because Emmylou Harris was booked to sing harmony with me on “I’m a Dreamer” and “Better to Let Her Go”―two songs that ended up on the album. The session was set for ten o’clock in the morning.
As fate would have it, a winter storm had raged across Middle Tennessee the night before. The snow was still coming down when my phone rang.
“Hey, it’s Mike. Have you looked outside?”
“Yeah, it’s like a blizzard out there.”
“Well, Jim [Jim DeMain, the engineer] just called. He lives way out and says it’s pretty bad. It’s bad out here too.” (Mike lived about twenty miles toward Franklin on Big East Fork Road.)
“Yeah? Well, it’s bad here and we’re just a few blocks from the studio.”
“We should probably reschedule. Will you call Emmylou?”
“Okay. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“All right then.” Click.
When I called Emmy’s house, whoever answered said she was out warming up her Jeep. As soon as we hung up, I called Mike.
“Hey, Mike. Emmy’s planning on coming in.”
“She was out warming up her Jeep. She may have left by now.”
“Wow. Okay, well, I’ll call Jim and we’ll see you there.”
“Sounds good.” Click.
At the studio, I’m standing at a picture window, looking out over the drifts of snow covering 16th Avenue South. Suddenly I see a red Jeep flying through the snow like a runaway snowplow. At the wheel is Emmylou Harris in a red plaid lumber jacket. I’ll never forget this image as long as I live. In fact, every time I hear her voice on “I’m a Dreamer” or “Better to Let Her Go,” I still see her driving that red Jeep through the snow. How can you not love a woman like that?
Nashville, December 1, 2008
I am at Emmy’s house near Green Hills. It’s cold and gray outside with occasional snow flurries. Like Shotgun Willie, Emmy’s “got all her family there.” Plus twenty or so dogs she has rescued from the animal shelter. Two of the dogs are named Henry. The bigger Henry has a pronounced underbite and looks so much like former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, I suggest his name be changed to Coach to avoid confusion with the other Henry.
We go inside and sit down on a sofa in the living room for the interview.
So Emmy, is it true you were a waitress at that Polynesian restaurant or did I make that up?
Oh, yes. It was called the Mahi Mahi. It later became the Golden Dragon. It was out on White Bridge Road.
This was the first time you lived in Nashville, right?
Yes. The first time I came to Nashville was in 1970. Hallie was a baby. She was born in March of 1970 in New York City. But shortly after that, New York seemed like a scary place. It had never seemed scary before. But once I had Hallie, I felt vulnerable with her. All of a sudden, the city seemed dirty and dangerous. (laughs) So we went to Nashville.
Was that your first time ever in Nashville?
Your parents had never taken you as a child?
No. I’d never been there. So I guess … because I was doing a few country songs almost as a joke in my show, I somehow thought I could make it as a country singer in Nashville. (laughs) You know, you don’t think things through. You’re so young. And also, when things get hard―we didn’t have much money, I hadn’t been able to make it in New York, and the marriage was not in the greatest shape at that point―so my philosophy for many years [when times got tough] was … “Let’s move!”
The old geographic cure.
Exactly. Somehow you think that’s going to solve everything. It’s a form of running away … only it requires more packing. (laughs)
So how did you get to Nashville? Did you come by car?
I believe at that point we had―I don’t remember the model―but it was one of those small Fords, not a Fairlane exactly, but a small version of it, do you remember? They were always that beige color. You know that flesh color? Anyway, the car had belonged to my uncle. He sold it to me for four hundred dollars. It was a great little car. I suppose we must have gone down there in that.
Did somebody drive you? Did you drive yourself?
I’m sure that … let’s see … I was still married to Hallie’s father [Tom Slocum]. We split up in Nashville once we’d been there for a while.
So he drove you down?
Probably … or the two of us. And I’m sure … yes, what we probably did was drive to Birmingham first―where my aunt and uncle were living―to get kind of situated. I think I do remember this. (laughs) I could be making this all up. I remember we bought a used baby bed and I remember my uncle painting it.
White. And so we were getting ready to go to Nashville―I don’t remember if we had already rented a place or what. Surely we must’ve scouted it out. Anyway, we just kind of took some rope and stuck it [the baby bed] on top of the car, and then just wrapped the whole car with rope. Of course, we hadn’t gotten very far outside of Birmingham before it all came crashing down on the hood. I’m surprised we didn’t have an accident. This was before cell phones and we were out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know how we got to a phone and called … I think my mother was visiting her sister down there, my aunt. So they got into a huge DeSoto that had belonged to my grandfather, who had died a few years earlier. You remember those huge DeSotos that had trunks that you could put … that you could live in? And so they drove and picked us up. The baby bed was cracked, so we went back to Birmingham, and my uncle―God bless him―fixed it. He could fix anything. He glued it and secured it properly, and then we went on to Nashville.
So did you end up going in the DeSoto?
Oh, no. No, our car was okay. It was just the baby bed. (laughs)
Did you go in a caravan? Did they go with you?
No, it was just me and Tommy and Hallie. We just drove on to Nashville, as I recall … or as I don’t recall. Somehow we ended up in Nashville.
So you came to Nashville through Birmingham …
Through Birmingham, because that’s where I was born, and my aunt and uncle were living there at the time. So we did have family.
Do you remember where you first lived in Nashville?
We lived in that little area near Hillsboro Village, off Natchez Trace. We had an attic apartment there for a short period of time. At that point, I was working at a gay bar across from the Trailways bus station downtown. I can’t remember … was it the Hi-Hat? I believe that was the name. And so I did that, but I was nursing Hallie. It was very painful because my breasts would fill up with milk during my shift.
So your first Nashville gig, you’re breast-feeding and working in a gay bar.
Yes. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?
That’ll work. (laughs)
And after that, I can’t remember, but we ended up living in a house on Blakemore [Avenue]. And we had a roommate, a guy who helped us with the rent.
Were you singing then? Any gigs?
After Tommy and I broke up, I remember singing in some place out on Murfreesboro Road, in a lounge for happy hour. I don’t even remember the name of the place. Or was it on some pike?
Elm Hill Pike?
No, that wasn’t it. Was there such a road called Albert Pike? Anyway, who knows what it was. It was some motel lounge, a chain motel probably. But in Nashville [in 1970] I really didn’t do much singing. I waited tables. First at the gay bar, then the Mahi Mahi. Somewhere along in there, the problems Hallie’s father and I were having kind of came to a head, so he just decided to go on back to New York. He hitched back to New York and I kept the car. After he left I couldn’t keep the rent up, so I moved in with some friends―actually this gal who was best friends with one of my cousins from Birmingham. I’d only met her briefly when we were teenagers, when I was visiting my cousins down there. She and her husband had a little cinderblock house out on Charlotte [Pike] way before it got all built up out there. I had no money. I was broke. So I moved into their attic. They had a little boy they called Hambone who was about Hallie’s age. I was on food stamps at that point, still working at the Mahi Mahi. I remember they wouldn’t let the wait staff eat the food, so I was living on fortune cookies and food stamps. It’s hard for me to remember what all happened after that. But at a certain point, I realized I just had to go home.
What was your impression of Nashville during that time? I know you were struggling to make ends meet, but did you make any connections with your music?
I didn’t make any connections in music, but you have to realize I’d just come from New York where I met Paul Siebel [wrote “Spanish Johnny”], Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg … I mean, there was just music happening, even though it was a down period, there was still a little bit of a music scene [in New York], although once I got pregnant and had to deal with that, I was taken out of music. I really didn’t think I would ever do music again. I don’t even know if I missed it. I was just trying to figure out how I was going to survive. Even though―and it sounds a little dramatic―but I always knew that I had my parents. My parents had always stood by me, no matter how many mistakes or crazy things it seemed like I was doing. I always knew I could go home. But for a while there, I was thinking, “This is my life, this is my bed, I’ve made it, and now I have to lie in it.” I don’t think it was because I was too proud, but I just thought, “I’ve got to make this work. I can make this work.” Then finally I realized it was not just about me, it was about me and my daughter. But then it was about me. I just thought, “This is a place where I can go and we can be safe until I can figure out what I’m going to do.”
How old were you at this point?
Let’s see … 1970, so I was … twenty-three? I should have known better. So I was twenty-three and I pretty much felt my life was over. I thought I was never going to have any fun anymore. And I worked a few jobs … I got a job as a hostess for model homes. But I would take my guitar.
So this was when you were …?
Back at my parents’.
… who were living in … was it Virginia?
They were living in Maryland, and they had a little, it wasn’t exactly a farm …
Yes. And so I had a job in Columbia, Maryland, which was one of those first communities to have neighborhoods with names like “Hobbit’s Glen.” (laughs) Everything had to be a little charming.
Sort of a bedroom community for D.C.?
Yes. And so I would take my guitar and hide it in the closet. Nobody ever came … All I had to do was just hand people an application if they walked through the hall. I was in the office, and there were about three versions of the houses they were selling … [Emmy’s cell rings] … oh, I’m sorry …
It’s okay. We’ll take a break.
When did you come back to Nashville? I realize you came back here to live for good in 1982. But after 1970 …
The next time I came [to Nashville] was in triumph. [At this point, some dogs go running through the living room as Emmy’s mother walks by on a walker. She announces she’s going to get something cold to drink in the kitchen because she’s thirsty.]
So in a hundred words or less, how did you go from food stamps to triumph?
A hundred words or less … (we both laugh) Well, let’s see … [a small dog can be heard yapping in the background] … in moving back to my parents’ … [yapping continues] … there was a neat little music scene in D.C. So eventually I went from being a hostess in model homes to actually playing in clubs through the help of―I have to mention Bill and Taffy Danoff [Fat City, Starland Vocal Band]. They were kind of like local stars in the club system, and they were aware of me from when I used to play the hootenannies when I was in high school. So they just took me under their wing and said, “Come here. You’ve GOT to start singing again.” And they single-handedly got me back into music.
And their names are?
Bill and Taffy Danoff.
Taffy, like the candy.
Yes. Bill and Taffy Danoff. They’re no longer a couple, but they’re still friends.
Boy, does it happen. (laughter) And so while singing in the clubs, that’s where I hooked up with Gram [Parsons].
Of course, this is all documented. You go to L.A. and record with him and the rest …
Yes. So after Gram’s death, I go to L.A. to make a record, and all of a sudden “If I Could Only Win Your Love” is on the charts. So when I come back to Nashville, the first day I’m there I meet Dolly Parton and George Jones and I throw up. Not because I was drinking or anything, it was just so overwhelming. I met Dolly in her studio and then we went to his [Jones’s] club, Possum Holler.
So when you come back to Nashville in triumph, you fly in from L.A. So this is in the mid-’70s?
Yeah. The album [Pieces of the Sky] came out in January of 1975.
I remember meeting you at Chuck Flood’s house. I think that was the first time we actually met.
I’m so glad you remember all that.
It’s crazy. I have this incredible memory, at least about some things.
Was it at his Christmas party?
It was at a party, but it was during DJ week. I recently heard from Beth [Beth Flood]. It was some anti-music-establishment party. Jerry Jeff was there. And you were there.
Wow. That must have been ’75.
It may have been. Was that the first time you had come back to Nashville?
Yeah. Because the record came out in January. For some reason, my albums always came out in January. We recorded it in ’74, and it came out in early ’75.
This would have been that fall.
I think I did the CMAs [Country Music Association awards] … Was it ’75 when I sang “If I Could Only Win Your Love” with Charlie [Louvin]?
It may have been. But now that I think about it, that party at Chuck’s was in ’76. For sure, because I had gone to Boston for this disastrous relationship-thing and come back in shame (laughs) to retrieve my two-hundred-dollar car.
Oh, well, at least I had a four-hundred-dollar car! (We both laugh.)
(We take a break.)
So after that first album, you would come back to Nashville …
Yeah, we started coming back pretty regularly for different things.
Did you come back to record?
Never to record. It was always CMAs or things like that.
What was it like meeting Dolly [Parton]?
It was a big deal. Here I was this hippie girl with a hit record …
A country hit record, right?
It was a country hit record, and the album was doing really well. People from the rock world and the country world were buying it because … obviously the association with Gram. There was a curiosity thing to it probably. So somebody had arranged for me to meet Dolly because I had recorded [her] “Coat of Many Colors.” In my interviews, all I ever talked about was Dolly Parton and George Jones because I was such a convert to country music. I was trying to carry on Gram’s legacy kind of, because I was a fairly new, obnoxious convert to country music. I THRILLED at turning people who had never heard Dolly Parton onto Dolly Parton, making them listen … and then watching their reaction when I showed them her picture. I remember one guy, he literally just fell over.
I talked to Dave Hickey recently and he said, “Hugging Dolly Parton is like being run into by a soft Buick.”
Oh, how funny. (laughter) So how is Dave Hickey?
I love Dave Hickey.
Yeah, me too. He’s one of those people who just … He’s the last person you’d expect to still be alive.
I’m glad he’s still around. He’s still one of the best interviewers I ever had. He loves music.
Yeah … and he wrote that great article about Hank Williams―I think I sent you a copy. He wrote it on the very day that Hank Williams had been dead longer than he’d been alive.
It was called “Hank Williams and the Glass Bottomed Cadillac.” Somebody’s doing a documentary based on it.
Yeah. Okay. So one more question and I think we’ve got it. Why did you come back to Nashville to live?
Ah … I think, once again, when things get bad … [wild scratching sound. A dog jumps up on the sofa and sits on the voice-recorder between us.] Ernie! Ernie! Mother! Can you take Er … Mother! … She can’t hear me. Ernie, get down! [Ernie settles down.] … Sorry.
Interruptions are good. They break it up.
Well, once again it was another relationship thing. Brian and I … our marriage was kind of ending.
You and Brian had that house out in … what was the name … [of the canyon]?
Oh, you mean Camp Pretentious? (laughs)
No, no … the one where I went for Christmas dinner. It was a little ranch-style …
Oh, now THAT was a nice house.
It was in a little valley …
Yeah, it was in Studio City. On a street called Oakdell. I loved that house.
I remember it was in a canyon. I can’t remember the name …
Laurel. Yes, that’s it!
Yeah, it was off Laurel [Canyon Boulevard]. It was great. [Emmy’s mother’s voice rings from the kitchen: “I left some coffee in here. I had to get it.” Emmy calls out: Okay!]
So you and Brian moved into a bigger house after that?
Yeah. Camp Pretentious. That’s what Phil Kaufman called it. It was an early McMansion. One of those starter castles … with an elevator. (laughs) It was on sale.
Where was it?
It had been Clark Gable’s estate and then they built these ridiculous houses. Anyway … moving to Nashville was part of moving away from that … and the marriage … and trying to make a new start. Rodney and Rose [Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash] had moved here. And through Rodney, I’d met Guy and Susanna and gotten to know them. They had become really good friends of mine. So I kind of felt like I had people I knew here. I also rationalized that even though it was still nine hundred miles away, I was closer to my parents in Virginia, where Hallie was spending a lot of time because I was spending so much time in the studio and on the road. So she was actually kind of being raised by them. Eventually, once I got things a little more together down here, she came back and lived with me.
I remember one time running into you and Meghann [Emmy’s second daughter] at the Dragon Park. Meghann was five. I was with my sister and niece who were visiting from South Carolina. I remember Meghann and my niece were the same age.
Oh, the Dragon Park! We had the Nashville Saturday Mothers Club. It was Holly Tashian and Rosanne and me. We all had kids about the same age. Rain or shine. Some times we’d just picnic in the back of Holly’s Volkswagen station wagon if it was raining. (laughs) That was really great. I found Nashville … you know, the first time  I wasn’t impressed with Nashville because I was going through so much trauma and so many changes, and trying to figure out … you know … food stamps. No music. I didn’t really have any friends … well, other than the friend of my [Birmingham] cousin that took me in, who was terrific. But ultimately, I needed to go home. It wasn’t a Nashville experience for me. But when I came back to live here, it took me a while but I tell you, I am so in love with this town! It’s like when I first came, I was on my way to someplace else. Because … [nasal accent] Nashville? You know, I’d lived in New York, in Boston, in L.A., traveled all around the world. At first I thought, “Well, I’m certainly not going to stay HERE.” And gradually, you start putting down roots. Nashville, for me, has been like some guy you’ve known all your life and he’s a friend, but you never really thought romantically about him. Then all of a sudden, you wake up one morning and you realize this is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.
There’s the places and all the things it has, but mainly, it’s the people I fell in love with. The people and the friendships and the memories. And also, a big part of it is my mother coming to live with me. I’d only been in this house two or three years when my father died and my mother came to live with me. Before, it was always, “Okay, how long am I going to be here in this house” in the back of my mind. So there’s that. You get attached to the people. Also, there’s something wonderful about familiarity. Knowing the shortcuts. Knowing the little places you would take somebody. I have friends from out of town and the first thing they want to do is go to Pangaea. Because there’s not a store like it anywhere as far as I know. And I love going to baseball games at Greer Stadium … and I hope that’s not going to become a thing of the past. I just love knowing my way around and having most of my friends really close by. I can even bike some of the places.
Like Lola and Jamie … [mutual friends Lola White and singer-songwriter Jamie O’Hara]
Lola and Jamie and, you know, Buddy and Julie [Miller]. But I’m sorry (laughs), I can’t bike to Lola and Jamie’s. It’s too far and too many hills! But Buddy and Julie and Nanci Griffith, they all live close by. And another wonderful thing that has happened, all these years when I was traveling, I would only see my family on holidays and if I played in the town they were living in―Northern Virginia and Maryland, Birmingham, whatever. But now my mother is here and my brother is actually living with us right now. Two of his children have moved to Nashville and have houses. One of my nieces works for me, she brings her baby who was born on my birthday. And I’ve got three grandnieces and nephews who live in Nashville, and we are always having these spontaneous family gatherings.
So now, you’re here!
I’m here for good. All my pets are buried in the backyard, which is where I’m going to end up. At least my ashes. I’ve got my pet cemetery back there. The house is paid for. It took me … I was on the road for YEARS, but then it took ONE TOUR―the Down from the Mountain Tour―and the house was paid for. Because I didn’t have to take a band. (laughs) That’s where all my money goes.
Having a band is like having a drug habit.
It is. I’ve got a very small band now―just three pieces. I could probably go out by myself now, but it’s not much fun. I had a rhythm section this past year because I put out a new record. We did the whole promotion thing. But now I’ve stripped down. I had to let my drummer and lead guitar player go. Now I’ve got an accordion player, a bass player, and a fiddle/mandolin player … and they all sing, and we’re doing the Opry this week.
The Carter Family with instruments!
Is there anything else, something special about Nashville, something that could only have happened in Nashville, a special Nashville memory …?
Well, right after I moved back here for good, Paul [Paul Kennerley, English songwriter-producer] and I were out driving around and for some reason, we decided to check out the Bluebird [Café]. There was a little handwritten sign in the window that said STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES. I had no idea who Steve Earle was. I’m thinking, “That has to be a made-up name.”
Steve Earle & the Dukes?
Oh, yeah. I just got it! (laughs)
And so we walk in and there’s Steve with a drummer and a bass player. And one of the first songs he did was “The Devil’s Right Hand.” And so I turned to Paul and said, “This was the right move … moving to Nashville.”
Excerpted from They Came to Nashville, a work in progress by Marshall Chapman. Copyright (c) 2009 by Marshall Chapman. All rights reserved.