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Nashville Heroes

Journalist Tim Ghianni recalls decades covering country legends

Through firsthand stories and anecdotes, Pilgrims, Pickers and Honky-Tonk Heroes chronicles journalist Tim Ghianni’s 50 years of covering of the Nashville music scene and the friendships he formed along the way.

Photo: John Partipilo

Shortly after moving with his parents from Chicago in the early 1970s, Ghianni found his footing as a reporter by literally pacing Music Row looking for country idols to interview. “I began hanging out on Music Row, walking the sidewalks near the studios looking for stars, hoping for music,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ghianni, who wrote the book during the pandemic lockdown, describes it as a personal reflection of “the sound bites, tears among funeral lilies, hugs, the memories, the farewells, and the howdies” of his life and career. “This never was intended to be some sort of scholastic or rigid historic exploration of Nashville’s music and musicians,” he writes.

The book includes 34 chapters covering a veritable who’s who of country music celebrities, including Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, George Jones, George Hamilton IV, Earl and Louise Scruggs, Jason and the Scorchers, and many more. Striking photographs throughout help illustrate the people and times more fully.

“Tim has written a book of up-close and personal chapters about country superstars who changed the direction of the way country music has been perceived,” Grammy winner and Country Music Hall of Fame member Bobby Bare writes in the preface.

While his affection for Nashville’s legends is reinforced throughout the book, Ghianni doesn’t hesitate to show his distaste for what Nashville has become in recent years, describing the current city as “a polluted metropolis.” Nashville’s nonstop growth “has created an ‘It City’ market for too much crappy wannabe country music, while masters like Bobby Bare go underappreciated,” he writes.

Ghianni recounts how he met Bare one evening while digging up old brick pavers at Fifth and Broadway before Metro laid asphalt over them. “It occurred to me at about 1:00 or so in the morning, as I sat in my favorite bar next to the peep show, that those bricks needed to be saved,” he writes, noting that such greats as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash had surely walked there. Bare and songwriter Shel Silverstein happened along on their way to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and offered to help, leading to Ghianni’s lifetime friendship with the legendary singer of such hits as “500 Miles” and “Detroit City.”

Similar encounters detailed in the book include how Ghianni once gave a ride in a driving rainstorm to Johnny Cash’s father, Ray, and how he walked with Kris Kristofferson through the streets of Nashville, reminiscing and lamenting over how it had changed over the years. “Even though I was nervous, I felt like I was in the embrace of a friend, one of two old pals creating sort of a ruckus on the sleepy city sidewalks, wishin’ Lord that we were stoned, as the song goes,” Ghianni writes.

And then there was Eddy Arnold.

“Eddy Arnold was not only a great human being, a wonderful singer, a generous soul, a friend of Hank Williams, one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guest hosts and a good family man, but also the reason, at least indirectly, why my career in daily newspapers ended,” Ghianni writes.

As entertainment editor for The Tennessean in 2003, Ghianni produced an in-depth interview with Arnold and featured it prominently on the front page of the section. But when he relegated another article about hip-hop artist Nelly to an interior page, it didn’t sit well with his bosses. Newspapers at the time, confronted with declining readership, were trying to appeal to a younger demographic, Ghianni explains, noting wryly, “Eddy Arnold wasn’t part of the package they wanted to offer.”

Ghianni was eventually reassigned to the night cops beat “until the newspaper paid me to go away” through a buyout. But, he points out, the “bean counters” got it wrong: “Younger people simply didn’t want to read newspapers,” and they’ve continued to turn to news from online sources “in the years since my untimely demise.”

The book’s foreword was written by Ghianni’s friend and fellow music journalist Peter Cooper, who died in December 2022. Cooper writes, “I’m partial to Tim Ghianni in no small part because he’s anything but impartial. He sees people for who they are, not for their statistics. He values humanity and humility over scoreboard-lit accomplishments.”

With Pilgrims, Pickers and Honky-Tonk Heroes, Ghianni is gambling that he’ll finally connect with an audience — young or old — who appreciates Nashville’s music scene the way he always has.

Nashville Heroes

G. Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.

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