By mid-July the writing was on the wall, I needed to get out of State College. Leaving wasn’t quite that easy though, there were several impediments that needed to be overcome in order to make it happen.
The first challenge was figuring out a destination. I had been combing the trades looking for radio jobs for months with little avail. There was an opening in Hazard County, Kentucky and I had secured an interview, but a little research revealed that they didn’t exactly warm quickly to people from the north and it’s close proximity to the Daniel Boone National Forest provided lots of options for the disposing of bodies. I decided to pass, a decision I’ve never regretted.
I briefly flirted with the idea of New York City and I think there was a slight opportunity for a radio job in South Carolina. I considered a lot of different places, but in the end, the choice was clear, Nashville, Tennessee. Home to both kinds of music – Country and Western.
Earlier in the year, I had traveled to Nashville on a couple occasions and had been treated warmly. A recent trip down had given the place an aurora of luck. That inial trek south took place back in February, when I was still gainfully employed with the radio station.
My afternoon disc jockey, Kevin, and I had decided to head to Nashville for the annual Country Radio Seminar. CRS was a gathering of radio and music executives from around the country held over a week at the Opryland Hotel. Neither Kevin nor I had any idea what to expect but based on our reading, it was a must-attend event. And we both loved a road trip.
We left out on a Monday with a carload of intoxicants and the brilliant plan of taking the back roads to our reach our destination. A strategy that would turn a 12-hour trip into a 22-hour ordeal in which we barely avoided being locked up in West Virginia. Had that happen, I might still be there today.
It was about 2 AM when we found our selves on a lonely road about 30 miles from the West Virginia/Virginia border. At this point, we’d been on the road for about 8 hours, long enough to burn through a good chunk of our party favors.
I was driving, not drunk or high, but not capable of passing a sobriety test either. It was just us on a long curvy stretch of a dark road. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I spotted headlights coming up in the distance. Though they were still too far away for identification, I knew with sudden clarity they belonged to a law enforcement vehicle.
At once, I instructed Kevin to begin the futile attempt at cleaning up the visible areas of the car. He started to comply but didn’t share the same sense of urgency as I did.
“I think you are being paranoid”, he drawled.
Kevin was about 6 foot 4 and as congenial a fellow as you’d find. If you looked up the phrase “country-boy” in the dictionary, you’d find his picture. Clean cut and well-mannered he was the kind of guy every small town mother wished their daughter would bring home. It was easy to look at him and understand why he went by the moniker, Country Kev.
“The hell it ain’t”, I spat back, “We are fucked. Hide that whiskey handle, Slide that plate under the seat. Wipe off those ashes. We are going straight to jail.”
“Calm down. It’ll be all right.”
It was about this time that the headlights had caught up to us, and they were quickly joined by a set of flashing blue lights. I pulled over with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach – visions of handcuffs and small town jails dancing in my head.
The officer exited his car and walked up my side our car where he motioned for me to roll down the window. I complied, and he asked, “What are y’all up to this morning.”
He was being extremely pleasant and his amicable air was throwing me off.
Kevin leaned over and told the officer that we are on the road to Nashville and had gotten a little lost.
“I saw the out of state plates and figured y’all for either lost or drunk.”
“I’ll take lost for a thousand, Jim,” I thought to myself, but didn’t dare voice.
Kev proceeded to turn on the country boy charm and explained to the officer where we were going and what our plans were – how we stupidly thought taking back roads would be better than going on the highway.
“Well you are a long way from Nashville,” the officer chuckled.
He then proceeded to give Kevin directions on where we needed to go. While the two chatted, I sat in my seat convinced that the fates were laughing at me. There was no way we were getting out of this and at any minute the world was going to come crashing down on me. Inwardly, I was practicing how I was going to explain all this to my parents, provided that I even got my one phone call.
“Follow me,” the officer told us, “I’ll get you to the road you need to be on to Nashville. If were you, once on the highway, I’d stick to it.”
The advice was delivered in the same spirit as the rest of the conversation, sans any implied threat.
Having said that he returned to his car, pulled out in front of us, and proceeded to lead us to a much larger road and the path to Nashville. Even while following him I wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t actually leading us to the local county jail and it took every ounce of faith I possessed not to hit the first crossroad we came to, turn, and floor it, in a desperate attempt to reach the county line.
Luckily, Kev kept his wits about him, and made sure I followed directions until the officer went his way and we were back on the road to Nashville.
To this day, I have no idea how we avoided certain incarceration. The only thing I can think of is that the officer was at the end of his shift and figured we’d be out of his jurisdiction before we did any damage, so why take on unnecessary obligations/
You’d think that having escaped the near disaster we’d just avoided would have put the fear of God in us. In reality, it was just the opposite. We felt predestined to get to Nashville and nothing was going to stop us. Like Jake and Elrod of the Blues Brothers, we were on a mission from god.
About 8 hours later we arrived in Nashville, and collapsed in our motel room across the street from the Opryland Hotel. It wasn’t two hours later when we were awakened by a pounding on the door. It was Rick Hughes, junior promotion guy from MCA.
At this time, it’s important to remind you, I was a 24-year-old kid from Pennsylvania, to put it bluntly I didn’t know shit. Hughes, just a few years older than me, may have just been starting his career at MCA, but in my eyes he was already an established music business executive, and, quite frankly, I was in awe. This was one of the people who made it happen and they were standing right here in my hotel room. Nashville was already kicking ass.
“Come on you guys,” Hughes said, “Let’s go! Time’s a wasting. Let’s get some lunch.”
We started to get ourselves together and asked him, “Where we going? How expensive is this all going to be? We ain’t got a lot of cash.”
“You boys really don’t understand this do you?” he admonished with a smile. “You ain’t spending nothing this week. All these promotion guys, myself included have expense accounts to wine and dine you. Let them pay, now let’s go. I’m up first.”
I haven’t been to CRS in probably 25 years, but even in the late nineties, it had become a much tamer version of its incarnation in the 80’s. Insurance agents and liability laws hadn’t yet conspired together to save us from ourselves. The CRS of 1989 was a wide open affair designed to supply access for one week to all the food, booze, and country music stars our hearts desired. It felt like 24-year old country bumpkin had died and gone to heaven.
During the day time there were seminars and panels dedicated to discussing the state of country music and country radio, while at night all the labels and promotion companies had suites at the Opryland Hotel in which to facilitate networking. Each one of these suites was stocked with ample food and drink, free for the taking. Making their way through the suites were various artists. Sometimes the artists would be doing an acoustic song or two, others just hanging out and chatting.
The Opryland Hotel of today is no modest affair, but in 1989 it was like Elvis’s Jungle room on steroids. There was an atrium filled with paths that weaved through tropical plants, and a large skylight that at night gave the impression of almost being out doors. The place was breath taking and rivaled anything I’d experienced in NYC.
Since everybody was there expressly to be noticed and win the hearts of radio programmers, there was nobody running interference for the artists. In these suites is where I first met Bill Lloyd, Radney Foster, Cactus and Curtis from Highway 101, Suzy Boguss, Nanci Griffith, Patty Loveless, Holly Dunn, and countless others. But it wasn’t just the artist you had open access to, it was music business executives as well. Legends like Joe Galante, Jimmy Bowan, and budding powerbroker Tony Brown, held court right next to the artists they were marketing.
As much as I enjoyed the suites at night, I quickly grasped that there were people that I needed to meet who never frequented them, but they were available during the morning at breakfast. For 4 days, I closed the suites every night and greeted the opening of the dining room doors every morning in an attempt to get to know as many people as possible and learn as much as possible from them.
One of the first people I met at CRS was former Gavin Report Country Editor Elma Greer. Though at the time she was semi-retired, she was highly respected and knew everyone. For some reason Elma liked me, and she made it a point to introduce me, and Gavin’s Associate Country Music Editor Cydni Hoelzle, to everyone of the considerable number of people she knew. These introductions were invaluable.
I think part of the attraction was that Elma enjoyed hearing tales of the late-night antics from the suites. Or maybe she just liked my energy, whatever the case, I owe her a huge debt of gratitude and she was a big influence on my life.
Ironically, I often credit Foster and Lloyd for making me fall in love with Nashville. At the time, I figured that if somebody as cool as they could live in Nashville, then it would probably be a good fit for me. Years later Hoelzle would actually fall in love with Radney Foster and become his wife. A marriage that is still thriving today. The threads that run through life.
Through Greer I also met Pam Lewis. Lewis was the co-manager, along with Bob Doyle, of a budding country artist you might have heard of, Garth Brooks.
Lewis was known as the personality half of Doyle/Lewis management. Having recently come to Nashville after cutting her teeth at the fledgling MTV network, she was a warm and friendly face while Bob was often standoffish and slow to warm to people. Once he got to know you he would reveal a dry wit and warm personality, but that took a New York minute. Lewis was much more welcoming and became an integral part of my survival in Nashville. Hers is a friendship, though I don’t see her as often as I’d like, I still treasure to date.
In 1989 the stadiums and TV specials were mere dreams for the future. In 1989 Brooks was just another singer trying to pitch a debut single – Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old. Somewhere I have a pin that they were passing out that had the song title on it, in an effort to drum up interest. If I could find it, it might drum up some interest on eBay.
Kevin, would use CRS 89 as a place to solidify a relationship with Brooks, while for myself, I had too many other people to meet to get bogged down with just hanging with him. We ran in the same social sphere the whole time, but I often left Kevin to hang with him while I forged other relationships. Always in search of adventure.
One such adventure, took place toward the end of the week around 1 AM. I inexplicably found myself in a stairway of the hotel with songwriter Wayne Perry. Perry offered to share a freshly rolled joint with me. At first I demurred, but then thought, “What the hell.”
Little did I know that Perry would go on to be the writer 5 number one hits and become the central character in his own interesting tale. In 1989, he was just another guy who’s acquaintance I enjoyed making.
Through Pam Lewis, I met a guy named JD Haas. JD owned a company that created two annual promotions for radio stations that featured trips to Nashville – Country Music Month and Fan Fair. As part of the promotional trips he created and marketed to radio stations, the winners received a chance to meet interact with their music heroes. Besides the trips, he created radio station liners and television commercials. Possessing an energy that eclipsed my own, JD and I instantly hit it off.
CRS week wound up on Saturday and Kevin proceeded on a less eventful trip home, with a new appreciation for Nashville. Both us had visions of someday making the city our home.
Kevin and I returned to Nashville in June for Fan Fair. While that trip was less eventful than the previous trip, it provided me an opportunity to view Haas in action. I sat in a room with 30 people and listened to Steve Wariner sing and play acoustic guitar. With listeners, I attended meet and greets with Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea. It was all very intoxicating, and I was now actively considering making a move.
Fast forward, and it just seemed logical that the city was calling to me. Haas and I had remained in contact since my return from Nashville. Several times he had raised the idea of coming to work for him.
The more and more I thought about it, the more and more appealing relocating to Nashville became. I started to formulate plans. JD confirmed that if I made the move, I’d have a job which solidified plans.
The only obstacle left to overcome was the funding of my plans. My savings were non-existent and most of my slim income was spent covering rent, utilities, and bar tabs. In order to fund this next chapter, I would need to head home and explore the depths of my parent’s generosity.
In hindsight I don’t know what I was thinking. My activities over the last five years had not exactly endeared me to my parents nor did it instill in them a faith in my future. To my credit, I hadn’t really asked for money up until this point and so they didn’t completely dismiss my request out of hand.
“How much do you need?” my father asked.
“Based on my calculations…$700 should cover me getting established. And remember it’s only a loan.”
To this date, I had no idea how I derived at the figure of $700. If memory serves me correctly, I not only hadn’t researched rents, utilities, or any other element of Nashville’s cost of living, I hadn’t even agreed upon a starting salary with JD.
$700 was supposed to be sufficient for fuel food and lodging to Nashville, plus first-month rent and deposits for utilities. If one of my kids were to come to me and present such a proposition, I would promptly put them in the car and drive them to the loony bin. No doubt considering them certifiable.
Yet to my father’s credit, he gave me the “loan”, despite his lack of understanding about my life choices, and wished me luck. My mother offered a few other choice words. My plan, be it what may it was, was coming together and it was now time to tie up loose ends in State College and prepare for my southern relocation.
In my head it sounded easy, but in reality it would prove a lot more difficult then planned and I several more obstacles were looming in my near future.