The names of some of the musicians in this story have been changed to protect the innocent guilty.
I first arrived to my new home in Gallatin, TN, some 30 miles north of Nashville on a warm summer night in June of 2002. My family and I had just spent two days driving across the country with all of our personal belongings stuffed into the back of a rented Ryder truck and, despite being exhausted, we unloaded the truck at about 8 PM before collapsing into a deep sleep. All I knew about this new world called Nashville was the vague description of a gigantic music community conveyed by my friend “D”, a world which I knew little about, but one I needed to explore quickly. While we did have some savings, employment was a priority, so after a day of unpacking, we ate dinner, took showers, and headed for the city to start getting acclimated.
At some point during the drive in we stopped and picked up a copy of “The Scene”, Nashville’s biggest arts and entertainment newspaper. The words “Open Blues Jam 9 to 1 at The French Quarter” seemed to be calling my name from a section of club listings, and that would be our first stop. We walked into the dimly lit room to see a crowd of 10 or 12 listening to a four piece band meandering through some blues standards. After a while they called me up and, not knowing a soul in the place, I played two or three songs which, to my relief, were well received. Upon returning to my table, a moderately well dressed gentleman approached me and said “Hi, my name is Freddie. I really enjoyed your playing. I’ve got my own band and we are in need of a guitar player. Are you looking for a gig?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Fresh off the boat and without a job in site, this seemed too good to be true. Now keep in mind that I still didn’t know how the Nashville music scene or community worked, so any gig being offered seemed like a good thing. “Yeah, I’m definitely interested in doing some gigs.” And with that we exchanged phone numbers. Of course I would later learn that in Nashville not all gigs are created equal (more on that later). After chatting with Freddie for a while the next day I accepted his three or four upcoming local gigs and agreed to attend a few rehearsals with his band to prepare. The next day I met him at a Mini Mart where he gave me a CD of his material. Always wanting to be prepared, I went home and anxiously dug in. This was where I would receive my first surprise.
After popping the disc into my CD player I began to listen to a marginal recording of my new “band” and was a bit disappointed. The songs weren’t all that great, the musicianship was average at best, and the vocals were downright scary. “Well, maybe they’ll sound a little better live.” my wife, Kelly, optimistically encouraged. I learned the stuff and showed up for my first rehearsal at Freddie’s home south of Nashville, guitar and amp and hand. Shortly after rehearsal began it became apparent to me that the level of musicianship in this band was unlike what I had previously heard at the Fiddle and Steel and other clubs around town when visiting the city a few months prior. And when I say “unlike” I don’t mean in a good way. Again, I chalked it up as “Maybe they’re holding back because it’s a rehearsal and will sound better live.” Of course in hindsight, I should have known better, but hey, I was new to town and just happy to have some gigs lined up.
That brings us to our first gig a couple of weeks and uninspired rehearsals later (and by the way, I did get paid something like $15 per rehearsal for gas money). The Radio City Café is a small, but friendly bar somewhere on the east side of the city, and while being inside the club itself felt fairly safe, the surrounding neighborhood streets did not. The other band guys were already there and, running a little late due to getting lost in this still unfamiliar city, I quickly set up my gear after a brief reprimand from Freddie for my tardiness. Then Freddie said “Okay everybody, let’s have our preshow band meeting backstage.” We followed Freddie to the “backstage“ area (otherwise known as the kitchen of this fine establishment) to engage in Freddie’s little pep rally. “Okay everybody, we’re going to play the first two songs back to back and then I’ll address the crowd. We’ll play the third song and then I’m going to tell a joke. At the end of the joke I want you (points at drummer) to play a little ‘ba dat boom’ you know, like they sometimes do on the late show. Keep an eye on your set lists, I’ve made notes where I’m going to pause to speak and tell jokes.” Oookaaay. “And one more thing, I want everybody to walk out onto the stage in the right order, in other words, Joe, because you’re on the furthest side of the stage you should go first.”
This all seemed a little overproduced and over-the-top for the gig at hand, but hey, you can’t fault the guy for taking this $20 dive gig in East Nashville as serious as a show at the MGM Grand. To become successful, one must project a successful image at all times, right? So we walked out onto the stage single file and barreled through the first two poorly written blues numbers, after which, the audience of my wife plus 12 went mild. Freddie introduced himself and we played the third number which was followed by his first joke. While I can’t remember the specifics of the joke, I do remember that it was long, rambling, and not the least bit funny to me or anyone else in the place. The drummer’s “ba dat boom” didn’t help much either. We dug back into a couple of more songs which, unfortunately, were also played with no more power or conviction then the weak renditions we had limped through at the rehearsals. So this was the show, we would play a couple of uninspired songs, then Freddie would tell a bad joke, a couple more songs, more bad jokes. The jokes were so bad that, after a while, you could hear groans from the crowd as soon as they realized he was going to tell one.
Still, bad jokes and all, I did manage to have some fun, after all, I was now playing in Nashville so I was pretty excited because of that fact alone. Plus, sometimes when you’re playing with a band on stage it’s hard to be objective about the overall situation. I finished out the night, loaded out my gear, got paid my $20 and hopped in the car with Kelly for the 45 minute drive home. The gig had been awkward and we began the drive with a deafening silence which I bravely interrupted by asking “So what did you think?” “Well, you were good. Freddie, not so good. He can’t sing very good, the songs are terrible, and his jokes are downright painful. The drummer was pretty bad as well.” she answered honestly. “Yeah, I was kind of afraid that’s what you’re gonna say. I guess I’ll give it one more shot.”
That one more shot turned out to be a gig back at the French Quarter a couple weeks later. It just so happened that on the night of this gig my friend “D” was playing the Opry and had invited Kelly to go along, so she didn’t arrive at my gig until near the end of the show. She didn’t miss much. While they were getting the royal treatment on the other side of town, I was living a nightmare that was literally an exact duplicate of my first gig with Freddie, only in a nicer club. I mean, it was carbon copy, the same preshow meeting, single file onto the stage, same type of milk toast performance, same bad jokes, same “ba dat boom” following the same bad jokes. Oh yes, there were a few subtle differences; this club, despite being considerably larger than the Radio City Café, had an even smaller crowd (I think six was the magic number on this night), it was in an even scarier part of town, and it had a great PA system which allowed every nuance of Freddie’s bad vocals and jokes to be heard with exceptional clarity. By this point in time Kelly and I had more thoroughly explored the Nashville club scene and had a better idea of what kinds of musical situations might lead somewhere. It was now obvious that this situation wasn’t heading in a very good direction. So by the time I was walking to my car and Freddie approached me I was basically ready to give my notice.
Then comes one last surprise. “I need $20 to pay for house sound.” He states matter-of-factly. “What? I thought you were walking out to pay me.” “No, I can’t pay you on this gig. To play here, we have to pay a house sound fee of $100, that’s 20 bucks each.” My look of confusion might have caused him to rethink his strategy and he then blurted out “I’ll tell you what, instead of paying you for the next rehearsal, I’ll just put that money towards the sound fee.” He offered. “That would be great Freddie.” and with that, we drove off, laughing all the way to the poorhouse. I called him the next day and told him that I appreciated him giving me a chance, but his band just wasn’t right for me at this point in time. I had given it my all, and while the music had been largely uninspired, it was the bad jokes that were killing me. I literally could not take one more night of those bad jokes. It was time to see what else this town had to offer.