Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#53 Nashville/Music City Footnote III

For any good shaggy dog story, or furry footnote, the teller must dilatate and attenuate the plot(less)line sufficiently to result in complete anti-climax. So far. so good. The bathetic conclusion is nearby, however.

But first, that other side of town. To the east past Music Row (the record companies), on to downtown and now all the way over the river to the Disneyish Opryland complex--here is represented the Nashville most associated in the national consciousness. Spamalot let's call it, to distinguish it from the highbrow western end with its Athenian pretensions.

More specifically, from the (now-restored) old cathedral of country music, Ryman Auditorium, and down a few blocks to the Cumberland River you've got the revitalized, just-like-the-old-days Lower Broadway. This was/is Nashville's Bourbon St., or Beale St. in Memphis--its blues with "twang" if you will--where you can walk and sample for free the "Sound" coming from little open-door bars lining both sides of the street. No cover but a beer to get into these living definitions of a "honky-tonk," because most nights are amateur ones. And they're all only a few doors down from the next, punctuated by arcades, fast-food places, and "museums"/fan-shops dedicated to one country-music star or another, or all of them. Apocalyptically tawdry ... and great fun.

And, de gustibus, good music. The wannabe Porter Wagoners and Dolly Partons who flock to Lower Broadway most often bring some talent with them. Tootsie's Orchid Lounge has always been the ultimate mecca for those pilgrims. The real-life proprietor Louise "Tootsie" Bess could be seen hovering around the bar in my day, and several years later be seen doing the same thing, cameo-wise, in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). She was to aspiring country-singers what Johnny Carson was to would-be stand-up comics. As in Altman's movie--and in the under-appreciated W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings that same year, with Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed, including a cameo by guess-whom--if you got a gig at Tootsie's, you got it made in Music City.

So it was for Ms. Parton, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings, among others. Roger Miller reportedly penned "King of the Road" at Tootsie's. Porter Wagoner, on the other hand, was already a recording and television star when he hit Nashville in the late 50s. He had been featured on TV's Ozark Jubilee in his native Missouri for some years, had several hit records to his credit, and had earned the moniker, Mr. Grand Ole Opry, before Dolly even signed on with him.

He was almost a literal "hit" with me, too. Or call it a near-physical "brush" with celebrity. Enough. Here's the story. I'd been commuting to Vanderbilt from our place across the river for a couple of weeks before the fall semester had started, and could easily find parking on campus. But this was the first day of classes on that morning in 1968. Parking lots full. So back around to just off big 21st Ave., across from what was then the Divinity School, where I found a spot. Also across from campus on 21st was a pancake house--could have been an IHOP, but it shortly became a Lum's beer and hot-dog joint anyway--whose parking-lot driveway debouched into the side-street upon which I had parked, and upon whose sidewalk I was soon walking, carrying my briefcase, thinking intently upon the very new day ahead.

Gap in sidewalk ... proceed across driveway a step or two ... catch glimpse of bright yellow object in corner of right eye ... closing fast ... jump back ... see Cadillac convertible inches away sliding by and galumphing to a halt halfway into the side-street and already well into a right turn. Car rocks back and forth a moment ... driver with long, houn'-dog face, topped with flamboyant cowboy-hat, looks over shoulder of garishly embroidered jacket ... says in distinctive baritone:

Sorry about that, Pardner.
And drives off.

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