Chapter Preview – Connoisseur of Worst Case Scenarios

Nashville looks different to a teenage Opryland theme park visitor than it did to a 30 year old folk singer – when I lived in Tennessee as a kid, the thought of going to Nashville as a pro musician had never even crossed my mind.  What was I going to do, play in Conway Twitty’s band?  My first sights were set on being a drummer, but as I evolved and took up songwriting, the thought of this place wandered even further from my mind.  I never felt a kinship to Nashville in those years.  Now, though, we found ourselves in the deepest throes of what Steve Earle has called “The Great Credibility Scare” – a period in Nashville’s history that found artists and labels stretching the very boundaries of what could be called Country music, signing acts like him, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kevin Welch, Lee Roy Parnell, and a host of other artists who would never in a million years fit the mold of a “hat act”.

And – because it needs to be said and confessed – I never would’ve come to Nashville that year if Matt and Michelle hadn’t set the whole thing up and convinced me to come along.

Once it was in ink and we’d committed to it, though – the prospect took on a degree of excitement.  I was actually looking forward to seeing what things looked like from the “boots on the ground” perspective and getting a closer look.  We’d booked a couple of shows in town, including a writers’ round at a place called Big River (it sat all the way at the end of Lower Broadway where Acme Feed and Seed lives today), and an in-store live performance at Tower Records.

Travelling with Michelle was fine, as long as the wheels of the car were moving.  When the car stopped, she got to be a bit of a handful.  After we’d first arrived in town, she spotted a ring at a shop that she passed over at first – and then suffered an absolutely debilitating case of buyers’ remorse that found us actually going back to the shop so that she could buy the ring she’d passed over the first time.

There are a lot of details that time has managed to blur over the years, and one of them is the name of the woman that we stayed with while we were in Nashville – she was a friend of Matt and Michelle’s, really sweet – Matt and Michelle took the guest room, and she offered me the choice of the couch or sleeping with her.  It was completely innocent at first, or at least that’s what I said to myself to rationalize the notion of sleeping with this woman I’d just met…and she was lovely.  I’ve thought about her a number of times since moving to Nashville six years ago, and sadly, I don’t think I’d recognize her if I were to pass her in the produce aisle at Kroger.

Our first night in town, we had tickets to the Ryman Auditorium to see a band called Jars of Clay, who were recording a live concert video that night.

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jars of Clay, I don’t know if you have an opinion of Jars of Clay, but that show – that night – was somewhat otherworldly to my eyes and ears.  I had never heard of them, and every song was brand new to me, and I was an instant fan.  I had taken a single seat a few rows over from Matt and Michelle for the sake of logistics, and I was somewhat grateful to be able to sit there and let this music wash over me by myself with no forced interaction with anyone else…

…until I felt Matt tap me on the shoulder about two thirds of the way through the show.

“Hey, man – I’m sorry, but I think we’re gonna have to go.”

I looked up at him and he looked both distressed and slightly panicked – I didn’t ask any questions, I just got up and followed him up the aisle to the exit, where a sobbing Michelle was waiting on the other side.

Michelle had gone to the bathroom and had taken off her new ring to wash her hands, and had walked out of the bathroom without it – and she lost her shit.

Thankfully, someone turned the ring in to the box office and the breakdown eventually subsided and we were able to collect ourselves and move on.

Another early stop after arriving in town was the office of NSAI headquarters – Nashville Songwriters’ Association (International).  They’re an advocacy and networking organization for songwriters with an influential reach into the Nashville community, and into just about every community in the US and beyond with a significant music scene that has a songwriting element present among them.  In town, they offered writing rooms, office space and internet access for their members, and in those days – internet access meant the availability of an analog phone line.  As such, they were a godsend for Matt, who practically lived on his laptop.

While we were there, I did the thing that I did in every city I found myself in, even for a fleeting moment – I grabbed a copy of the local free weekly (in this case, the Nashville Scene)and started flipping through it.  In the listings for live music in that weeks’ Scene, I went to check the Bluebird Cafe itinerary for the week.

“Dammit!” I said, out loud, surprising even myself.

“What?” Matt answered.

“I was just looking at the Bluebird listings…we just missed a round at the Bluebird with Rusty Young from Poco – by two days!”

Matt, being the expert networker and politician that he was, took the story from there and explained to the folks in the office that Rusty had written one of the songs on my album, and that we were on the road and likely wouldn’t have made the show even if we’d known about it.  He was just making conversation, really – there hadn’t been an outburst, I hadn’t made a scene, and I wasn’t irate or emotional about it…and after having brought it up, I immediately pivoted to another round at the Bluebird that we should take in while we’re there with Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Marcus Hummon, and Matraca Berg – I knew Marcus’ recording of a song called Bless The Broken Road from a Musician magazine compilation that I’d picked up long before the trip, and I’d heard Matraca’s songs on TNN…Jeff was just Jeff from the Dirt Band – I later found out that he and Matraca were husband and wife, and that Jeff was a co-writer on Bless the Broken Road – so it all made sense.

So, we missed Rusty – bummer.  But this show would be a good introduction to Nashville for all of us, I thought.

While I continued to peruse the paper, the receptionist came over and handed me a Post-It note that read:

Rusty Young (615) xxx-xxxx

“I just got off the phone with him, and he asked you to give him a call.”

Now – let’s just pause here, for a minute, and think about what just happened.

The receptionist had been a party to this conversation just a few minutes prior, and she took it upon herself to pick up the phone and call Rusty.  I’m left to assume that she told him that there was some guy named Tom Hampton in their lobby who had mentioned having recorded one of his songs…and Rusty had told her to give me his phone number.

Now, whatever you might think about Nashville, know this:

That’s never, ever, ever gonna happen in New York or Los Angeles.  Not in a million years.

That was the beginning of the reshaping of my attitude towards Nashville.

And yeah, you’d better believe I called him – said hello, we caught up a bit, I told him that I was in town for a couple of shows.  He asked where, and I told him that we were doing a writers’ round on Lower Broadway, but that I was doing an in-store at Tower Records the next day.  I didn’t invite him outright, but yet he asked what time the show was, and he told me he’d be there.

At this point, I had been playing in front of crowds ranging from a handful of folks to upwards of a thousand for roughly ten years or so, and I felt as though I was past the point of something like stage fright or butterflies.  I had seen bar fights, power outages, fires, floods – once you’ve seen a dude bleeding all over the floor in the middle of a song, it’s easy to assume that there isn’t much that would rattle you.

Now, though, I was about to play a show with a hero in the audience.  And yes, I’d opened a show for them a couple years prior, but there are a number of important distinctions between these two situations – most headlining acts never hear a note played from the stage before they step onto the stage themselves.  

The guys from Poco actually have a great story that they used to tell at shows about all the bands that had opened for them who went on to have successful careers, and talked about this comedian who came out in a white suit playing banjo with an arrow through his head…and they all agreed that there was just NO WAY this guy was ever gonna make it.  (It was Steve Martin, and of course they were wrong.)  It’s also worth noting that some of the only live shows that the upstart Buckingham-Nicks duo played before joining Fleetwood Mac were opening for…Poco.  

The only real reason to take a gig opening for another artist is to play to their audience and hope that some degree of cross-pollination takes place – that some of their fans will also become your fans.  Of course, there’s a fantasy that evolves early on when we daydream about playing on the same stages as the bands we idolize, forging friendships with our heroes and winning their approval…maybe they’ll like my music and, who knows?  Maybe they’ll invite me up to sit in or something and we’ll all hang out backstage and…sure, it makes for a great movie, but real life doesn’t often lend credulity to the fantasy.   There’s seldom anything more than a cursory greeting exchanged between the opener and the headliner.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I know, I know…just pretend you don’t know the rest of the story and keep reading, OK?)

Still, I’d gotten acquainted with the band some years back and – while I didn’t necessarily think of myself as much more than an acquaintance, they knew who I was…and that, in and of itself, felt significant to me.  Heroes had been a big deal to me from the beginning.  But the thought of actually getting to know them to the extent that they remember your name, or that one of them would extend their phone number to you, and then to learn that they think enough of you to take the time to come hear you play?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was a big fucking deal to me.

So, you’d better believe that when I got off the phone with Rusty, I went upstairs to the cubicle where the public computers were and jumped onto AOL to see if Jon was online – I couldn’t wait to tell him what had happened.

Well, sure enough, I found his screen name in the Instant Messenger window when I signed on (Jon was a graphic illustrator, and he worked from home – so he was online all the time) – but before I could send him a message, an IM window opened on my screen:

Jongeorg:  Hey!  I was going to email you!

Hamptontom:  Dude, you’re never gonna believe this

Jongeorg:  You want to go first or should I

Hamptontom:  You go first…no way will yours be bigger than mine

Jongeorg:  OK

Jongeorg:  I talked to George Grantham, and he’s coming to your Tower Records show 

Hamptontom:  HOLY SHIT

Jongeorg:  Right?

Jongeorg:  What did you want to tell me?

Hamptontom:  Well, here’s a plot twist for you – there’ll be two Poco members at my show tomorrow

I proceeded to tell Jon about the encounter with Rusty via Instant Messenger – but now I needed to process this additional information, because I was still wrapping my head around the notion of Rusty being at the show at the moment I learned that George was coming – and I’d never met George before.

There was another layer of potential drama that occurred to me as I was processing all this.

There had been a reunion of the original five members of the band in 1989 that resulted in an album on MCA and a short tour that was rumored to have ended in somewhat contentious waters.  Richie had jumped ship first, then Randy – and everyone ended up splintering again by the end.  

The version of the band that I’d seen that day in Pittsburgh six years prior was Rusty and Paul Cotton with a pair of players they’d picked up in the interim…and of course, it had certainly dawned on me that there might’ve been a reason why George hadn’t continued on with the band after the reunion tour – personal or otherwise.  Certainly, I didn’t know any of them well enough to be privy to any inside information – and for all I knew, there may have been some bad blood between Rusty and George that rose out of the aftermath of that tour.  I was immediately concerned that they’d think they were being set up to arrive in the same room at the same time as some sort of fanboy matchmaker operation, and they’d both leave angry at having been set up to bump into each other.

This is the thing I invented in my head, anyway – I had become a true connoisseur of worst case scenarios, and I’d cooked up a doozy for myself this time.  By the time of the show, I had worked myself up into a bit of a lather – to the point that I’d have actually been relieved if one or the other hadn’t made it to the show.

So I was standing on the stage, playing one of my songs, and I saw them both at almost the same time – Rusty came in through the door next to the counter, and I saw George walking up through the classical music aisle.  They saw each other at roughly the same time and started walking towards one another and met in a bear hug in the middle of the store, and I felt twenty pounds of stress evaporate and leave my body in that moment.

I had an interview to record after my set, but I took a minute to greet them both after the show and set up a lunch date with George before we left town at a Mexican restaurant he liked before saying goodbye to the two of them.  I did the interview and took some time to get to know a friend of Michelle’s named Tiger, a guitarist in town who was as much of a Poco fan as I was, and we got ready to leave for the Bluebird after the show.

I had never been to the Bluebird – but once I had, I got it.  It was a tiny room in a strip mall that most people wouldn’t have noticed if they were driving out Hillsboro Pike for any other reason.  And yet, it had taken on legendary status over the years as a place where songwriters gravitated to show off their work.  

After the show, I managed to strike up a conversation with Matraca Berg – during which I executed a perfect example of my now somewhat commonplace Lindsey Buckingham Sad Trombone maneuvers.

What would that refer to, you ask?

A long time ago, I read in an interview about an encounter that Lindsey had with George Harrison when he met him for the first time – Lindsey was getting to meet someone he looked up to, and he had a ton of questions he wanted to ask him, but he led the volley with:

“Of all the great stuff you did when you were in the Beatles, where on earth did you come up with that amazing solo for Tax Man?”

George looked down at the floor and answered, “actually…Paul did that.”

I’ve executed similar versions of this same gaffe enough times that I’ve come to refer to it as having “Lindsey’d” someone.

For example – the first time I got to play with Dave Van Allen some years later, I told him how much I loved the pedal steel solo in the Last Train Home song Hendersonville – it was perfect, it was understated and melodic and I could hear it in my head without listening to the record…

Dave’s response:  “well, thanks…but that was Pete Finney on the record.”

Lindsey’d.

So that night at the Bluebird, I marched up to Matraca and told her how much I loved the song Easy to Tell from her Lying to the Moon album, how it was equal parts classic country and Roy Orbison rolled into one, and I thought it was one of her best songs…

“I’m glad you like it, but actually…Stephony Smith wrote that one.”

Lindsey’d again.

I actually committed a misdemeanor count of Third Degree “Lindsey’d” with Paul Cotton the night we met for the first time, when I asked him if he played the solo from Good Feeling To Know through a Leslie cabinet.  Paul’s reply?

“I have no idea!  I’ll have to listen to it sometime!”

I mean, it’s a gift – it’s not like this is something you can teach, folks.

I met George Grantham for lunch the next day and had some amazing Mexican food while we got to know one another – he was such a kind guy, and he had a lot of nice things to say about Our Mutual Angels, and believed that if the right person got their hands on it, Brand New Distance could be a number one country song.  We talked a little bit about the old days with the band, and I worked up the nerve to ask him…

“…listen, at some point, I have to start putting songs together for a follow-up to this record – if we can make it work, I’d love to have you play on it if you’d be interested…”

He didn’t even hesitate – he said that if we could figure it out logistically, he’d be happy to.

He’d been playing a bit around town with a band called Hoopla, and he gave me a copy of their CD at lunch, and we traded contact information before we parted ways – I still had one more show to play before we left town, a writers’ round with chairs for both Michelle and I at Big River on Lower Broadway.

Our round was somewhat uneventful, but I’d met a young songwriter from Texas that night named Terri Hendrix who was in town, and she asked if she could borrow my guitar for her round after ours was finished, and I happily obliged – I took advantage of the extra time to take a walk up the street and listen to the folks playing in some of the other rooms along the strip.

Now, admittedly, I had conjured this illusion in my head that – because of the sheer number of people who came to Nashville to try to run their stuff up the flagpole, that competition must be fierce and that you had to be exceptionally good to actually achieve gigging status in a town with so many great musicians in it.  I mean, that would have to be true, right?

Well, my walk up Lower Broad that night altered my perception considerably.

There was a place called the Gibson Guitar Cafe that had a girl at a piano who might’ve only started playing a few weeks prior to that night…another place had a guy in a cowboy outfit in the window, singing the line “Big Boss Man” over and over while he repeated a 12 bar blues riff on guitar – it was actually a little disheartening to see that open mike hackers could work their way onto stages in a town like this, where music was a cash crop.

Still, for my first trip to Nashville that wasn’t a flyover on my way back to my hometown – for my first actual professional trip to Nashville – I left town with a smile on my face as we headed back to Philadelphia.  I don’t know that I actually harbored any thoughts of moving to Nashville at that point, as my kids were still young and I wasn’t prepared to be that far away from them – and my own personal musical blueprint was still very much the John Gorka career path, and even though Nashville had been welcoming to him, I didn’t foresee a scenario where I found myself living there.

The three of us had stayed at my brothers’ house in Jackson for one night of the trip, and in Nashville for the rest – travelling with Michelle, I was learning, was going to take some getting used to.

On the way north, we stopped at a rest stop off I-65 somewhere in Kentucky that was absolutely massive – it was a food court AND a department store AND a gas station AND a rest stop, and it seemed like they had damn near anything and everything that anyone could have possibly wanted to eat, hot or cold, in one corner or another of this place.  Even though I’d been up and down the roads of my corner of the world for years now, I’d never seen anything quite like this place at the time.

So we gassed up the Caravan and pulled away from the pumps to go inside and find something to eat.  Matt and I went inside and made relatively quick decisions and came back out to the van to eat and wait for Michelle – who remained inside until well after I’d finished my food.

I asked Matt – do you want me to go in and check on her?  You think she’s ok?

We both decided that she was probably just poking around through souvenir T-shirts or something and that she’d be out when she was ready, so Matt finished his dinner as well while we waited and talked about what had happened on the trip.

Some twenty minutes later, Michelle emerged from this travellers’ Shangri-La, this oasis of every kind of food one could possibly yearn for in a roadside setting…

…with two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of water.

Indeed – some getting used to.