Now that I’d decided on a destination, and secured some financing, the only thing left to decide was a departure date. A decision that the State College Sheriff’s Department made a little easier.
It was the second week of August and a Monday morning, when I found two officers standing in our communal TV room.
“We are looking for Thomas Weber”, the first said.
“I don’t think he’s here.” I responded, half joking.
“When do you expect him back?”, chimed in the second.
“I don’t know. We all pretty much stick to ourselves.”
“Well if you see him let him we have a warrant for his arrest over some parking tickets.”
“You got it”, I responded.
They left and I at once started packing. Now that I knew they were out looking to serve a warrant, there was nothing holding me to State College. Time to beat a hasty retreat.
I loaded up my 1989 Dodge Daytona with plans to leave at the crack of dawn. Whatever fits in the car was coming with me, the rest would stay. Of course, the aforementioned TV made the cut.
I’d recently purchased the car while working a remote broadcast for the radio station. After spending a couple hours at the lot extolling the virtues of the deals they were proffering, I figured I’d buy one myself. $229 a month? What a deal. I can afford that, though I really couldn’t.
By the end of the day the car was loaded up and ready to go, and before the sun came up in the morning, I was on the road.
Before heading South and West, I had to head East. Jackie, my girlfriend of the past 6 years had agreed to make the initial trek with me – driving down and then flying back after a couple days. At this time she was still entertaining thoughts that I might be her future husband, so she wanted to get a look at the city she might soon be relocating to.
A native of Hazleton, Pennsylvania she was a petite dark-haired, shy, sensible girl and a devout catholic. During our first couple of years dating she’d worked part-time at a nursing home. Despite only making minimum wage, she still managed to save much of her earnings.
We’d initially met during freshman orientation, but were reacquainted on the first day of classes at the Hazleton campus. She was coming out of the classroom building when I greeted her with the salutation of, “There’s the girl with the big boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend”, she responded over her shoulder with a smile.
“You do now.”
That night we met up at my apartment complex where we were hosting a mall gathering. Within days we began seeing each other regularly.
A native of Hazleton, she lived with her parents, grandmother, brother and a mean large poodle. During the first few years of dating, that dog wouldn’t even let me sit on the same couch with her without a threatening growl and an attempted bite. There were a couple instances over the course of our relationship where I failed to heed the warning, only to have the dog reiterate its threat. I was never actually bitten, but that was as much due to my quick reflexes and adhearance to boundaries, as anything else.
Together, we were now on our way to Nashville. While I was filled with excitement, she was filled with trepidation. A trepidation that would unfortunately not be relieved before her return from Nashville.
The trip down was fairly uneventful, and upon arrival, I checked into the Sheraton Hall of Fame at the foot of Division Street. An area that in 1989 bore little resemblance to today’s thriving entertainment district. There were no throngs of twenty somethings spilling into and out of hip bars along the strip. Just the opposite in fact.
The hotel was home to the Hall of Fame Lounge. A dark room that on alternate nights feature karaoke or a cover band playing both kinds of music – country and western. Due to its proximity to music row – a collection of houses and modest buildings in which the country music industry conducted business – it was often frequented by up and coming artists, writers, and music executives, or those whose time had come and went. Probably more of the later instead of the former.
Across the street was Barbara Mandrell’s souvenir shop. A building that encompassed a quarter block and sold all the Mandrell sisters paraphernalia you might want. Across the street on the other side of Mandrell’s place, were a strip of what can only be described as tourist traps.
Need a Conway Twitty comb? A George Jones shot glass? How about an Oak Ridge Boys cooking apron? All these items and more could be found in the shops that stretched along the corridor from Music Circle to I40. Anchoring the strip was the Country Music Wax museum, a place that was as likely to evoke horror as fan admiration.
I loved the tackiness of the area, where rhinestones and denim defined fashion. Down on Broadway, the evangelist Tony Alamo had a shop that sold jackets for $700 to $1000 which elevated the art of the Bedazzler to new heights. At that time you could tell a man’s economic status by the fabric of his cowboy boots. Leather being the lowest rung, python symbolizing a modicum of success, and ostrich reserved for executives.
Despite it being after business hours, I was in a hurry to check in at my new place of employment and so I talked Jackie in to swinging by before we grabbed dinner. Luckily when I got to JD’s office he was there and working on the fall project.
What Haas Enterprises did specifically was to design an October – Country Music Month – promotion that he sold to radio stations across the country. Every day of the month in October was dedicated to a different artist and the participating station would feature the music of the artist that day. Fans loved it because they’d hear more of their favorites music, and labels loved it because fans would hear more of their favorites music.
JD also produced audio and video spots of artists that gave a shout out to the local radio station. You’ve heard them before, “I’m Clint Black and whenever I’m in Salina, I tune into WXXX.” Radio stations used these spots as an integral part of their station’s marketing plan.
The promotion also provided a trip to Nashville for the CMA awards, that listeners would be given an opportunity to win. While listeners were in town for the week leading up to the award show, he would arrange for several private events with the artists. Breakfast with Reba or a visit to the offices of Ricky Van Shelton. Maybe Shenandoah would stop by the office and sing them a few tunes. It really was a once in a lifetime experience for these listeners, many of whom came from small towns across America.
He did a similar promotion in June for Fan Fair.
In looking back at that time, it is important to recognize that the relationship between the country artist and their fans was completely different than it is today. While pop and rock artists often looked for separation from their fans, country artists embraced theirs. It was not uncommon for an artist to spend an hour or so after a concert in a fan’s town signing autographs and interacting with attendees.
As a result, country fans tended to be extremely loyal. If an artist got a couple hits under their belt, they could reasonably bank on a long career. To foster that loyalty Nashville created a week-long event called Fan Fair that drew thousands of people every June from all across the country with the opportunity to hear and meet their favorites.
The event was held out at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Yep, that same place that’s in the process of being demolished to build a soccer stadium. My we’ve come a long way.
Every artist, from those in the embryonic stage of their career to country royalty, had a booth where attendees would line up to shake hands, take pictures, and secure autographs. It wasn’t uncommon to stand in line for several hours in order to meet an artist, nor was it uncommon for an artist to dedicate several hours to meeting fan demand.
In 1996 Garth Brooks returned to Fan Fair, after a 2 year absence, and signed autographs for 23 hours straight. Reportedly without a bathroom break. That kind of dedication may seem extraordinary, but every artist had their own similar tale.
At this time fan clubs were also king, and fan club presidents were treated with a sense of deference. They were the ones that produced news letters alerting members of upcoming events, answered correspondence, and generally served as a conduit between an artist and their fan army. With the rise of the internet and social media, theirs is a profession that has been relegated to the dust bin, but at one time, a talented fan club president carried considerable clout.
Nights during Fan Fair were reserved for label showcases. The major record labels would all collect the top talent on their roster and each would do a couple songs for the adoring throngs. Inclusion in these showcases was considered a sign of making it, and a vote of confidence from the label.
Not surprisingly, fans would plan annual vacations around Fan Fair attendance. They’d talk about seeing rising stars like baseball aficionados would talk about seeing future Hall of Famers at spring training. Hotel lobbies and RV parks were the chance to see old friends and swap past stories. It was hokey, and locals often despised it, but it was unequivocally Nashville and no other city in the country had an event like it.
In the late 90’s Fan Fair moved to Titan’s stadium and re-branded itself as the CMA Music Fest. I guess in some ways it’s bigger than ever. It is certainly slicker, more organized, and better staged than it was, but it’s also more impersonal and less unique than it ever was. These days I find little that differentiates it from any other music festival in the country.
Once a homage and a thank you to you fans, it has now become just another week of carefully coordinated bombast that serves to distance country music from it’s hillbilly roots and replace it with slickly branded flawless characters that barely hold a candle – musically or personally – to the Wagoners, Tuckers, and Lynns of the foregone era.
It’s funny, in the past the stars where more accessible – I can remember saying and greeting Patty Loveless in Target – but seemed like larger than life personalities when you met them. Today they are less accesable and everybody is trying so hard to be joe-average, that much of the star power is lost. When you met a Kris Kristoferson or Lori Morgan, it might have been in a normal setting, but you had no questions about what they did for living. Can’t always say the same today.
But, let’s get back to that first night at my new place of employment in my new city.
In hindsight, I should have recognized from that first moment that my lack of planning was going to prove problematic. After introductions were made, the first words out of JD’s mouth were, “Wow, you are here. You actually did it. You moved here.”
I completely failed to pick up on the trepidation in his voice, “Yep, and I can’t wait to get started.”
“Well…we got to talk. Did we ever agree on a salary? What are you expecting a week?”
“I don’t know…you were saying something about $275 a week. I could live with that.”
That number seemed to work for JD, “I can do that.”
Of course we never discussed how many hours I would work a week for that pay. There was also another issue.
“I should tell you, we’ve also got a little cash flow problem at the minute. We just launched the new promotion, so all my money is tied up in it and I’m waiting for checks from stations. I may not be able to pay you all at one time. But if you work with me, we can really knock them dead.”
I quickly dismssed his voiced concerns, “It’s all good. I don’t need much to get by. We’ll figure it out.”
None of this conversation was serving as reassurance for Jackie. If anything she was seeing signs of any future betrothment slipping further and further away. Like I mentioned before, the girl was no fool. Unfortunately she’d driven to Nashville with one. To her credit, while she did leave her escape hatch wide open, I’m grateful for her support during this transition. It couldn’t have been easy.
While JD and I were talking, Pam Lewis showed up. She was thrilled to see us and extremely welcoming to Jackie. She seemed genuinely excited that I was moving to Nashville and offered her help in any way possible. She caught us up on what was happening with Garth and his plans for world domination.
His first single – Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old, had peaked over the summer at number 8 on the Billboard chart. Plans were to later that month release a follow up single – If Tomorrow Never Comes. Optimism was high and expectations were that, hopefully, they would have another top 10 hit.
We quickly wrapped things up, as both Jackie and were starting to get hungry. For our first meal in Nashville, I chose a Nashville institution – another that is unfortunately now nothing but a memory.
In 1989, the Longhorn Steakhouse wasn’t a chain restaurant. It was a single entity eatery located off of West End on Lyle Avenue. Obviously, they specialized in steaks, but it was decorated like an old town roadhouse complete with peanut shells on the floor and taxidermy on the walls. Whereas Los Angeles’s Palm Restaurant had hand-drawn portraits of its more well-known patrons on the wall, the Longhorn had white dinner napkins that had been signed by the artists and writers that frequented the establishment.
The restaurant’s food was good, but its real claim to fame was its bar. A bar where at almost any time of the day you could find Nashville’s finest holding court. Harlen Howard, Jack Clement, Steve Earle, Tanya Tucker, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon, and others were frequent visitors. They’d while away the day swapping lies and trying outlines for future songs. Once again, it was a feature unique to Nashville.
Nowhere outside of New York or LA could you find a collected pool of as talent as those that called the Longhorn base. The difference between here and those other places was accessibility. Hit songwriters were as welcome as nobody newcomers, if a seat was open and you had money in your pocket, everyone was welcome at the bar.
Over the years I would frequent the bar on many occasions. Listening to stories long forgotten and hearing the genus of songs that would go on to sell millions. At other times it would just be a nice respite from the outside heat. I think it’s safe to say that among all the things sacrificed by old Nashville to create today’s metropolis, the Longhorn is among the most missed.
That night, as Jackie and I ate our steaks and gazed around, the possibilities unfolding before me seemed endless. Despite all the omens that singled otherwise, I felt that I’d arrived right where I needed to be and that I made the right decision to move. Over the past 30 years, I haven’t always felt that way, but that night it felt like the universe was wide open and all I had to do was reach in and grab me some.