As I settled into my new position with Haas Enterprises, it quickly became apparent that the company needed to quickly get the cash flowing in order to have a chance of pulling off October’s promotion. The company was still in debt from it’s Fan Fair promotion back in June which made things even more challenging. Still, we had artist commitments and radio stations were interested, we just had to sell.
That’s where the majority of my time was spent, calling radio stations and extolling the virtues of participating in Country Music Month. Since JD had a tendency to over-promise and underdeliver, previous participants weren’t a lock to repeat. That meant a lot of cold calls, a tedious and disheartening endeavor, but I pushed through. What choice did I have?
To complicate matters, JD’s father was fighting health issues that would eventually lead to his passing away. His parents lived up in New York and as best I could tell he had a close, but complicated, relationship with them. I could often hear him on the phone in his office arguing with them, but rarely did they fail to come through with financial support.
His father’s health battle weighed heavily on him, and on more then one occasion he would drop everything and head to New York, returning a few days latter stressed and saddened. He was understandably distracted through much of this time which meant many of the day to day responsibilities fell into my incapable hands. It was under these circumstances that I learned some valuable lessons about Nashvile that have served me well to this day.
Being from the Northeast, I was used to loud conversations and open disagreements when doing business. It may sound argumentative to the unattuned ear, but in actuality little is taken personally, and solutions are arrived at despite the appearance of discord. In the South, it doesn’t work quite that way.
On more than one occasion I would find myself in a heated business conversation that I thought ended in resolution and delivery date. The date would arrive but not the delivery. I’d call the other party demanding to know where my item was, only to have them shrug and say, “I never agreed to that.” Which left me with little recourse.
It didn’t take me long to learn that if I was involved in negotiations and the other party used the phrase, “You’re not from around here are you?”, things were not going to end up in my favor. I don’t hear that phrase as much as I once did, but trust me, when I do, I heed the warning and shift.
Nashville’s history is littered with the bodies of those from other parts of the country and mistook the city’s congenial nature for a sign that residents were a push over. These interlopers arrived with visions of dominance only to soon find themselves heading back to fence they came, suitcases in the trunk, not sure what had just transpired. I was determined not to join their ranks.
One nice thing about the independence provided by JD’s frequent absences was that I was able to include a few of my favorite artists in the upcoming promotion, acts that might not have made the cut had he been fully engaged. One of those artists was that young up and comer Garth Brooks.
Now the idea that you’d have to sneak Brooks onto any promotion seems laughable today, but keep in mind that at that time he’d only had one hit – Much Too Young, To Feel This Damn Old. A song that just barely broke the Top 10, peaking at number 8 in July 1989. He was showing lots of promise but there was little indication that he would become the legend that he’s grown to become.
Having met Brooks the previous months during the Country Radio Seminar, I fancied him a bit of a friend. His co-manager Pam Lewis was also a friend of JD which made her a frequent visitor to the office. I was eager to help them in any manner possible.
My naive mind figured that since I was interacting with radio stations across the country, I could promote hin through those relationships. As I previously mentioned, part of the Country Music Month promotion was providing stations with audio and video spots of the artists endorsing their station.
The job of recording and producing these spots fell to me. While Garth didn’t have an official day on the calendar associated with the promotion, I took it upon myself to record Garth doing the spots and slipping it in with participating radio station packages. The time was already booked, might as well take advantage of it, right?
I was pretty proud of myself for this initiative and felt like I was really doing a favor for this virtually unknown artist. Unfortunately for me, Garth didn’t quite see it that way.
On the day the recording of the liners was scheduled, Brooks picked me up at the office in his old pickup truck to go over to the studio. When I got into the truck, it didn’t take but a moment for me to catch on that he wasn’t happy. Always effusive, he was sullen and monosyllabic today.
“What’s up Garth?”
“I’m pretty mad with you”, he responded.
I was a little taken back as I couldn’t think of a thing I might have done to offend him. Just the opposite. Here I was going out of my way to help him, and he was put out with me? what the hell?
“What did I do?”
As we pulled into the studio parking lot he pulled up a copy of the proposed promotional calendar from the space on the seat between us.
“I don’t have a date on this calandar? Why don’t I have my own day on this calandar? Why am I recording spots if I don’t even have a day? This ain’t cool.”
To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. The individual calendar days were reserved for artists with multiple hits, the idea being that the station would play those hits repeatedly throughout the day. The reason he didn’t have his own day should have been readily evident.
“Um…you only have one hit dude. How could a radio station feature you for a day? Are they supposed play that one song all day? I mean…come on man I’m doing you a favor here.”
Garth continued to seethe, it was clear that he wasn’t counting this as a favor, and in his eyes, our roles were reversed from how I interpreted them.
“They could play If Tomorrow Never Comes, it has just been released. No reason they couldn’t alternate between the two songs or play other cuts from the album. I’m really disappointed that you ask me to do you a favor and you don’t include me in the actual promotion.”
I didn’t know what to say. In our eyes, both of us had a defensible position, one we weren’t budging from. Opening the truck door, he looked over his shoulder at me, “Let’s go do this, but I am not happy with you.”
In a state of shock I exited the truck. We went in and cut the spots. Somewhere out there are a handful of radio stations who benefited from my unintentional misstep. They are in possession of footage where the 90’s King of Country Music is extolling the virtues of their broadcasts. I would assume those are valuable commodities today.
Later back at the office, Garth’s co-manager Pam stopped for one of those aforementioned frequent visits, providing me with an opportunity to seek clarification of the day’s events.
“What the hell, Pam? I thought I was doing him a favor.”
“Obviously he didn’t see it that way,” she replied, “he felt he deserved a day on the calendar and I don’t disagree.”
“But he only has one hit!”
“That’s irrelevant. Next time, include him.”
I let the argument drop and noted the lesson.
Few people did more to facilitate my adjustment to Nashville than Pam Lewis and to say I’m appreciative is an understatement. She was unflinchingly kind and inclusive to me even as her life grew increasingly chaotic due to Garth’s meteoric rise. She took the time to explain the workings of the music to me and included me in many of Garth’s early Nashville promotional events.
The first time I ever entered the storied Bluebird Cafe was with the Brook’s entourage. He was preforming with a circle of Oklahoma writers. I wish I could remember who all was on that bill but the only one entrenched in my mind is Becky Hobbs, loved me some Ms. Hobbs.
During that performance, Brooks played a song that would soon become another in a long list of hits for him – The Thunder Rolls. It was a dark song about spousal abuse made even darker by the final verse describing the demise of the abuser. That final verse was dropped, despite its power, from the recorded version.
The Bluebird of the ’80s was already considered hallowed ground. A place were aficionados gathered to listen to the muse of the best writers in the world. Myself, I love the music but the place felt pretentious, and if one more person shushed me – expectations were, and remain that patrons are silent during performances – I was going to lose my mind. To me, music is meant to be imbibed, not worshipped. Give me three chords and the truth, and let me dance and hollar.
That was my one and only visit to the Bluebird until 5 years later when I returned to see a circle that included Tommy Womack, Bill Lloyd, Pat McLaughlin, and if I’m not mistaken Greg Trooper. That visit, despite its lack of star-power wattage, was more enjoyable than my initial visit and to my credit, I’d also grown a greater appreciation for the art form. If I remember right, there also weren’t as many “shushers” in the room. But I digress.
One time I accompanied Garth and company to a taping of Nashville Now, the venerable Nashville Network show hosted by Ralph Emory. During the cable boom earlier in the decade, Nashville – seeing the value in branding the city in order to become a tourist destination – formed its own cable network in order to sell the attraction of the Nashville way of life. Nashville Now was a nightly variety show hosted by a long time radio personality, Emory, that showcased the city’s talent in front of a live audience.
The musical appearances were entertaining but you can’t imagine my thrill when I discovered that adult beverages were made available to members of the studio audience during the taping. It wasn’t long before I had a mason jar of Lynchburg Lemonade in my hands and was chatting up one of that night’s guests, Del Reeves.
Reeves was wearing a stonewashed fringe jacket and I felt it was my civic duty to inform him that Bon Jovi would approve of his fashion choice. Reeves, for his part, was tolerant but quickly looked for an exit to the conversation.
After a couple more lemonades, I don’t think I was thrown out of the taping, but I believe it was suggested that it might be best if certain friends of artists stay outside the studio on the provided tour buses.
Another time I accompanied Brooks and company for an appearance of his on the Grand Old Opry. I was in awe back stage. Brook’s dressing room was located near Ms Sarah Cannons – Minnie Pearl. Ms Cannon was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met and indulged me with several minutes of conversation.
I remember the Green Room of the Opry came had a telephone. Looking at that telephone, I longed to call someone and say, “Hey! Guess where I’m at?” But being as it was a Saturday night I couldn’t think of anyone to call. But I racked my brain.
Watching Garth’s performance from the backstage wings is something I’ll never forget. It was awe-inspiring to look past him and see all those enraptured faces soaking up his music. It was crystal clear then that belonged on the Opry’s historical stage.
Oone of my fondest memories of this time was an afternoon spent standing around in the kitchen at Pam’s office with co-manager Bob Doyle, members of the band, and Pam’s staff talking about the just-released single, If Tomorrow Never Comes. We were all drinking quarts of beer and speculating on the future. Everybody was hoping the song would follow the lead of the first single and break the Top 10. It was a ballad and so there was concern around whether it would catch on or not.
Filled with the boldness of youth and despite not knowing what I was talking about, I boldly predicted, “It’s going to become the wedding song of the year. You guys need to relax. You are about to have a huge hit on your hands!”
My prediction proved right and it was just the first of many colossal hits that would come for Mr. Brooks. There was talk during this time of me going out and doing merchandise for him. It was an idea that never bore fruit because the band was still in a van at the time and it was decided that I was a bit too…exuberant for him.
My father was not impressed by the potential opportunity. Over the phone I told him, “I may be going out on the road with Garth Brooks selling t-shirts. Keeping my fingers crossed.”
There was several minutes of silence before he responded.
“Who’s Garth Brooks? That’s a job?”, was all he said.
Yes, , a very good one. I occasionally think back and wonder…what if…about that opportunity.
Garth’s wife at the time was sandy. I’d met her at the same time as Garth, and if the truth be known, I preferred her to him. Sandy was a Miller Lite in one hand, Marlboro in the other, kind of girl. She possessed a quick wit, and I loved cutting up with her when the opportunity arose. In an upcoming chapter, I’ll tell you a story that demonstrates just how generous Sandy was and how she helped me out of a Christmas pinch. Even as Garth’s stardom grew, Sandy remained grounded.
In the ensuing years, rumors have circulated that even then something was going on between Garth and fellow artist Trisha Yearwood. In all honesty I never saw it. The only thing I ever witnessed Garth loving more than Sandy was his career. But that’s just my view.
During my first couple of months, Pam not only included me in events related to Garth but she also kept an eye out for my well-being, going so far on occasion to make sure I got fed. Pam had been involved in MTV during its formative years and therefore meals always were accompanied by fascinating anecdotes.
At time Pam was struggling a bit financially herself. Breaking an artist takes a lot of resources, and much of Pam’s were tied up in pushing Garth’s career. Eventually, she would recoup her investment tenfold, but there was no way of guaranteeing that at the time. The odds were just as good that she would go broke as they were that her gamble would pay off. Yet she still watched out for me.
One of my favorite dinners was with her and assistant Maria Thompson at the long gone Macaronis – a restaurant devoted to the many varieties of macaroni. It was located down 21st avenue on the corner adjacent to Vanderbilt University. A modest but tasty eatery.
Maria Thompson was another one of those people whom without I would have never survived the early days in Nashville. She was the younger sister of Chuck Thompson who worked for the Ken Stilts company who managed the Judds. As Lewis’s assistant, she was responsible for taking Garth to all his in town interviews and promotional events, as well as coordinating his phone interviews. Sharp as a whip, and possessing a wry smile, Thompson taught me about the inner workings of the music business and introduced me to many of the key players.
She also on occasion lent me a little financial support. Like I said, surviving those early days in Nashville without her would have been extremely difficult and I’m eternally grateful for her and others’ kindness.
It’s funny, you never realize that you are in the midst of historic moments when they are unfolding, but that’s what was happening all through the fall of my first year in Nashville. I was provided that rare opportunity to watch an artist go from near anonymity to super stardom. It was not going to be the last time I was provided that opportunity, but it was the closest proximity I was ever granted.
Over the next decade I would get a front row seat to rise of Keith Urban, Deana Carter, and the Mavericks. I’d also witness the rise and fall of some artists like Little Texas, Big and Rich, and others.
To those outside of Nashville music artists may be considered unapproachable, but here, within the city limits, they were considered neighbors. To me, and it’s a view I share with most of Nashville, they are people first, albeit talented ones, with an interesting profession, but still just people.
I used to run into Don Everly at the Green Hill’s Kroger with some regularity. He’s be walking down the aisle shopping while eating a Popsicle from a just-opened box.
Boxer and actor Tex Cobb could often be encountered on Belmont Avenue, his favorite greeting to me, “Keep your hands up, white boy.” Howard Cossell credits Cobb for driving him out of broadcasting boxing matches after his exceptionally brutally fight with then World Champion Larry Holmes, but here in Nashville, he was just a regular guy.
As a side note, I once got to ask Cobb what was going through his mind when Larry Holmes was beating the hell out of him. he thought for a moment, cocked an eye, and answered, “Well I thought to myself, Larry Holmes sure is beating the hell out of me.”
I didn’t really grasp it when I moved to Nashville way back in 1989, but the city where I was making my new home was a place were exceptional was almost the mundane. It was a place where you never knew who you would interact with but everybody was treated the same. A place where your banker may have a gold record on the wall for a single they wrote. Or your doctor. Or your insurance agent.
It seems a corny thing to say but at that time there was magic in the air and all you had to do was inhale it to feel it. Unfortunately, I like many took it for granted and as time moved on, some of that magic moved out. The Nashville of today is bigger, wealthier, and the envy of the country. But I’m not convinced it’s a better place, though I suspect that 30 years from now somebody will be telling their own stories about the magic of Nashville in the year 2020. At least that’s my prayer.