Nashville Stories

I'm a Nashville native who hasn't lived there in many years.  Growing up in Nashville and being a part of a group called "Al's Friends" led to some great experiences that could only happen in that town.  ​I've been telling and re-telling these stories, seriously boring my family by the repetition.  I hope you find them interesting.  I was encouraged that Jude Elliott and Wayne Berry found these stories to be entertaining and reasonably accurate.  NOTE: Updated to add insights and recollections from Ken Burns film on Country Music

 

Felton Jarvis and the Spirit of Elvis

 

Nashville…1966...16th Avenue...RCA studios.  Wayne, Judy (now Jude) and I looked around the office of Felton Jarvis, one of the top producers in town.  The decor was African and on the walls hung leopard skins and sub-Saharan rugs.  A few minutes earlier we had joined Mr. Jarvis and Skeeter Davis ("The End of the World") in one of the smaller ground-level studios where they were doing some mixing.  We had never met Mr. Jarvis but he had seen and heard us at the first annual Battle of the Bands at the Municipal Auditorium.  Our little folk trio had managed to place third among all the rockers (a group called the Allman Joys later to be called the Allman Brothers placed first!) But Mr. Jarvis’ invitation was far more important than winning the Battle.

Jude asked why there was a fully decorated Christmas tree in the lobby (it was July).  Mr. Jarvis beamed (in a cool way):  “Elvis was in town to cut his next Christmas album and we wanted to put him in the mood.”  Wayne asked a thoughtful question:  “Is Elvis really as charismatic as we’ve heard or is he just a creation of the Colonel (Tom Parker).”  Mr. Jarvis vouched for Elvis’ charisma:  “I’ve seen Elvis enter a room and the people with their backs turned would sense his presence and turn around.”  

Mr. Jarvis got right to the point.  “I like your sound. Your harmonies are tight and you have an appeal that might sell records.  Your stage presence is terrible but we have people to work with you on that.”  (Wayne’s Martin had gone out of tune and it had taken an eternity of about thirty seconds to fix it while Judy and I just stood there in front of 2 or 3 thousand rock and rollers,  I wish I had said: “Wayne is playing an old Chinese folk song…(pause)’Tu Ning’”. But it was an old joke even in 1966.

Then reality hit.  “Of course, you would have to do COUNTRY MUSIC. We don’t do folk music in Nashville.....”

It’s the 21st century now.  Country music has come so far.  The quality of the songs and performances are tops and it’s difficult to explain how we felt.  Country stars have straight teeth and expanded vocabularies; less like Minnie Pearl and more like Minnie's alter-ego, Mrs. Henry Cannon.  It was 1966.  Folk music was our religion.  It expressed our generation’s yearning for peace, justice and truth.  We had not gotten used to Dylan's amp.  Doing country music would have been a complete sellout of everything we thought we stood for.

“We can’t do it.  We’re folk singers.”   Mr. Jarvis was calm.  The Biggest Record Producer in Nashville tried to reason with Three Unknowns from MTSU:  “It wouldn’t be so bad.  Look at Elvis.  He didn’t like the early stuff he was doing but now that he’s a star he does the music he wants to do.”  (To this very day, over 50 years later,  I hope and pray this was just convenient rhetoric.  It's difficult to accept the idea of Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock”, all the while dreaming of the day he could sing the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” or “I Did It My Way”.)

We were not swayed.  We simply could not do it.  Mr. Jarvis was unbelievably polite.  He personally walked with us out of his office.  We went down the stairs, past the lobby with the Christmas tree and out of the Big Time.  We walked out into that humid Nashville July evening with our idealism intact.

Our little group would have some great experiences that summer in a town that was wide open and hungry for talent.  I finished my accounting degree the next spring and continued my “education” oversees... Infantry.  Viet Nam.  For Wayne and Jude, there would be a recording contract with Electra as part of a group called Timber and two albums....a rented Malibu beach house to live and practice in.   During his days in LA, Wayne was an active and well-known artist in the music scene there.  When I visited them at the beach house in 1970, Wayne was sharing how he played on the Joni Mitchell Blue album and he reached for a guitar strung normally for a right-hander and turned it upside down since he was a McCartney-sider and played one of the songs better than I could play the normal way.  He eventually returned to Nashville and now is a music pastor at a local church.  Judy had a successful career in artist management and once worked daily and personally with Dylan himself, Donna Summer and many, many others.

In the years since that evening, our generation of peace-justice-and-truth-seekers proved to be mostly self-righteous and just plain selfish.  We found that achieving peace, justice and truth for the whole world is easier said than done and accomplishing just a little of it within our families is hard enough.....and worth the effort.

East Nashville High School Talent Show/Centennial Park Concert/Roy Acuff

Each year for several decades, East Nashville High School  sponsored a big talent show, the biggest in Nashville.  Pat Boone won it in 1953!  In those days, there were fewer clubs where young artists could showcase their talents and talent shows were one way to get noticed. (Country music stars of the day, when they were in town tended to do the Opry and rest after grueling road tours  with no Lear jets, mostly sparse buses and private autos. Wayne, Jude and I decided to give the talent show a shot in the spring of 1966. The winner received a cash prize and would be the opening act for the Centennial Park Summer Concert series with Roy Acuff. We placed second to a concert violinist (he was quite good) who took the cash prize but wisely realized that violins and fiddles didn't mix.  So we got the gig. We did four songs, met Mr. Acuff and his band and got our picture in the Tennessean. And yes, Mr. Acuff balanced his fiddle bow on his nose!  In the audience, unknown to us and to the rest of the world was Kris Kristofferson. More about that below.....

Kris Kristofferson, Bob Johnston and the Spirit of Dylan

A few weeks after the park concert, Wayne learned that the New Christy Minstrels (NCM) were holding auditions at Columbia Studios on Music Row. We decided to try out but being the idealistic folk singers we were, we vowed that they would have to take all three of us or there would be no deal!  We went down early to Columbia and waited outside with about thirty others and their cases of guitars and banjos. We were standing near the front door when it opened. 

A scruffy-looking character that I am 100% sure was Kris Kristofferson opened the door and asked just the three of us into the building while the others continued to wait outside. “Aren’t you Al’s Friends? I saw you at the park concert, you were great!”  Kris was working at the studio as a janitor/go-fer at the time. Don’t know if he had yet written Sunday Morning Coming Down or Me and Bobby Magee. He gave us a quick tour of the building and invited us to join him in the main studio upstairs after our NCM audition.

Our audition went OK but there were no group or individual offers to join the NCM.  What came next was special. We went up to the main studio. Kris greeted us and we sat down behind the control board, engineer and the producer who happened to be Bob Johnston, Dylan’s producer at Columbia. Yes, THE Bob of “Is it rollin’ Bob?” insertion on one of Dylan's cuts.  They were working on what would become the Blonde on Blonde album. Charlie McCoy, the go-to studio musician of the day was in the studio roaming from keyboard to keyboard, octave to octave to find just the sound that Johnston wanted. Dylan was not present. At one point, Johnston turned to Kris, handed him a ten or twenty and asked him to go get some pizza which he did. Nobody was kicking us out so we just hung around quietly for over an hour. When the pizza arrived, Mr. Johnston personally offered some to us.  We left by the upper, side exit which was just a right turn outside the main studio.  Nashville was a wide open town in 1966.

Brenda Lee

 

First day of school.  Seventh grade at Maplewood Junior High.  September 1957.  There were 3 elementary feeder schools to this brand new Junior High and already the games adolescents play had begun; meeting and greeting, jockeying for social status, etc.  But there was one person whose social supremacy was assured…Brenda Lee Tarpley.  She was a few months older than most of us but as a seventh-grader she already had two hit records and at least one network TV appearance.

Her mother, with the help of Brenda’s manager Dub Albritton, had rented a modest brick house in a nice neighborhood just a few blocks east of Dickerson Road.  I never saw the inside of that house but once or twice we hung out with her in her front yard/neighborhood. Brenda and I were not close but she was a very down to earth, unpretentious person.   She was in and out of school due to her career and was even a Maplewood cheerleader for a while. She didn’t actually graduate with the Class of 1963 but she definitely considered herself a classmate and joined us for our 40th and 50th reunions in 2003/2013.  Per Ken Burns, Brenda was the main breadwinner in her family since she was seven years old!

 

 

Rita Coolidge

There was another famous (to-be) entertainer that started the SAME grade, that SAME September day at Maplewood Junior High: Rita Coolidge. Since she was not famous yet, she had to fend for herself like the rest of us and of course, she did that quite well. She was already into music and soon became a member of a group called the Arrington Sisters (two sisters Arrington and Rita) performing at school assemblies and other places around East Nashville. Rita’s father was the pastor at a Baptist Church on Trinity Lane. I didn’t know at the time that Rita's older sister, Priscilla, was already a professional singer. Priscilla had moved to Memphis and married Booker T. of Booker T. and the MGs.  Rita didn’t graduate with the Class of ’63.  Her father became pastor of a church in Florida and they moved there.

 

When the Class of 1963 graduated, a carload of us guys piled into somebody’s car and drove to Daytona Beach for a week. By accident, we bumped into Rita. She was with her mother who watched Rita like a mother duck who was down to her last duckling. Rita was beautiful…a little thin by our East Nashville standards, long black hair and wearing a very small (for those days) bikini. Both she and her mother were very friendly and invited us to stop off at their home near Jacksonville on the way back North, which we did. Six years later, in the San Francisco airport, just back from Viet Nam and waiting on a flight, I was going through a bin of LP’s and there, on the back of a Bonnie and Delaney album was Rita. She had made it in the music business. Later came the solo career, her relationships with Stephen Stills, then  Graham Nash, then came her marriage to Kris Kristofferson.

David Peay (a.k.a. Peel) and Robert Altman’s “Nashville”'

David Peay was in Wayne Berry’s first folk group at Antioch High School which had broken up by the time I met Wayne. David loved the New Christy Minstrels and eventually became a member of the group.  I met David only once.  Both of our old foreign sports cars had broken down at the same time between Murfreesboro and Nashville on US 41 in Laverne. David was gracious. We talked about Ian and Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot.

Sometime after David became a New Christy Minstrel, he met Fess Parker. One night, Wayne called me in a rush to say that David was going to be on the Daniel Boone network TV show that evening. We tuned in with great anticipation. David played a callow young man who has a few lines early in the episode, is wounded by "Native Americans" and then was dragged around, moaning and groaning, by Daniel Boone for the rest of the episode...no more lines. I wrongly assumed that was probably the end of David’s acting career.

Much to my surprise he bounced back in a very BIG way. We were living in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974 or 1975 when the Robert Altman film “Nashville” was released. David (who by this time had a new last name…(Peel) had a major role in the film. If you remember, the movie is filled with dishonest backstabbers. Even Lilly Tomlin’s character is seduced by the David Carradine character. David P. plays a mostly decent young man, the son of Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) a Big Kahuna in Nashville music. In one memorable scene, David is being interviewed by a British reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin and is sharing in a deeply personal way.  She abruptly leaves him in mid-sentence because she hears that Elliot Gould and Julie Christie had just arrived. (Every Nashvillian I've talked to hated Robert Altman's movie...anyone disagree?).

Bobby Lord and Boudleaux Bryant

Bobby Lord was a likeable, boyish (Dick Clark-like) country singer who, as far as I know, had only one hit: "Pie-Peachy-Pie-Pie".  (He deserved to have his only hit have a better title, and to be a more serious song.) For several years, he had a one hour show on Channel 4, WSM, every weekday from 4:30 to 5:30 PM.  Wayne, Jude and I (Al's Friends) were on his show twice and everything went well.  I still have a mimeograph copy of the September 20, 1966 program.  Bob Luman and Bill Joe Trammell were also on the program.  I believe it was Bobbie who recommended our little group to Bouleaux and Felice Bryant for some demo work.

Boudleaux and Felice Bryant were leaving Acuff-Rose Publishing, starting their own company and were looking for a group to demo their songs.  The duo wrote many songs recorded by a wide variety of artists from Tony Bennett to the Grateful Dead but are best known for their Everly Brothers hits….Wake Up Little Susie, Bye, Bye Love, etc.  According to Ken Burns, the Bryant's songs were recorded 900 times and sold a half-million records.

 

Mr. Bryant (we never saw Felice) invited us out to his house on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville. 

He greeted us warmly and took us downstairs to his in-home recording studio (a big deal in those days).  The one thing he said that I'll never forget is that he wrote or tried to write at least ONE SONG EVERY DAY.  He asked us to sing a few songs from our repertoire.  He liked what he heard and said he would write some songs  FOR US.  We were invited to return in a couple of weeks and he would have some songs ready.  Imagine…one of the biggest songwriters in Nashville writing songs for three unknowns from MTSU!  We were surprised that already this relationship had moved from demo singers to being written for!

 

Our excitement was unbounded as we drove out to Hendersonville that night. He stayed upstairs in the living room where he reached for a very average guitar (Yamaha?) and began to “pitch” his songs.  He made little eye contact as he played and sang but he looked up occasionally.  Maybe we didn’t recognize a diamond in the rough.  The first song did not match-up compared to our lofty folk music expectations.  We were so into our kind of music he could have pitched another "Kathy's Clown" and we wouldn't have recognized a hit!    When he finished the first song he searched our faces for feedback.  Jude said….”I really liked that line where______________.  None of us said “good song” or “great song”.  He quickly moved to the second song.   At the end of the song there was a brief moment of silence.  Then Jude offered another lame comment which was better than anything Wayne or I had.  It was apparent to Mr. Bryant that he was not dealing with reasonable people.  (He didn't know that "real" folksingers valued "honesty", boorishly so, even if it hurt someone's feelings.) I don’t remember anything after that.  Only that he was VERY polite (certainly more polite than I would have been in this situation) and we were quickly but graciously ushered out of the Big Time.

A Nashville/Viet Nam Coincidence..What are the chances?

I served in Viet Nam from April 1968 to June 1969. Infantry.  After a month in the field, the Army in its wisdom, sent me to Vietnamese Language School which got me to a safer, dryer place for six weeks. One evening after dinner, a friend and I were sitting on a wall of sandbags talking.  The conversation turned to the girls we had dated “back in the World”. I shared with him about a girl, I had gone out with, Asenith Rhodes, the sister of David Rhodes, my best friend in college. What was unusual about our relationship was that we dated: then didn't: dated, then didn't every spring for 3 years.  Later, when it was almost dark, my friend and I walked over to the very rustic outdoor "cinema”.  On this particular night the movie happened to be a low budget flick about a young country singer who knocks around Alabama and then arrives in Nashville. His manager/ handler who, to create some buzz, assembles some screaming teenage girls, a la Elvis. Suddenly, the face of the girl I had JUST BEEN TALKING ABOUT FILLED the screen. The shot widened quickly to show other screaming teen girls. I was dumbfounded.  Not too long after getting back to the States/Nashville I got a chance to tell Asenith about this coincidence.  She remembered being in sixth period study hall in the library at Maplewood High School. A producer came by and picked out the girls he wanted and took them downtown to the Tennessee Theater on Church Street where the scene was shot. She had not seen the movie and did not know that the shot had singled her out so prominently.  Only in Nashville (or maybe New York or LA) could a coincidence like that even be possible. 

Ron Gant/Don Gant

As long as they were still under parental authority, Ron Gant and his older brother Don were members of the Eastland Avenue Church of Christ on Gallatin Road.  I don’t recall ever meeting Don who was best known for being the lead singer of Tupper Saussy’s Neon Philharmonic and the mega-hit “Good Morning Girl”.  Ron and I were in the same Sunday school class and after class four of us guys would sneak out the side door and skip the main worship service upstairs.  Most of the time we rode around in Burke Mahling’s GTO or the latest hot car his dad had bought him.  We often went to the Krystal on Gallatin Road.  One day we went to Ronnie’s house and he played the guitar for us.  I had just started playing and knew only a few chords but I remember him saying that after you’ve played awhile you can anticipate the next chord.  I didn’t believe him but of course, he was right.  Ron was very active in the Nashville music business and had a long association with Acuff-Rose.  When he placed the song “Elvira” with the Oak Ridge Boys he made Acuff-Rose a lot of money and received nationwide coverage by the Associated Press which is why I know about it.

© 2019

by Larry Wilson Music