Thirty years ago this week, I pulled into Nashville (and a cicada storm) in a yellow, 24-foot Penske truck, stuffed with everything I owned. Fidgeting next to me was my 2½-year-old daughter, Jamie. Following behind in a beater Honda Civic was Ana, my wife at the time, with our nine-month-old son, Brett. I was 35. I had given myself three years to write a hit or pack it in and become a civilian.
We found a cheap townhouse near Harding Mall (now long gone), and over the next few days, met some of our neighbors: Johnny Neal, Joe Diffie, and Tom Murphy, all new arrivals in town. Tom and Joe were working at Gibson Guitar, where Tom would later gain fame for his work in their custom shop. Joe? Well, you know. Next door was a band called Heartbreak Mountain whose lead singer was Marty Raybon. Not a bad cul-de-sac to land in.
I had come to town hoping to leave my electric guitar in the case, having gigged non-stop in California for the past twelve years. However, within a week, Mickey James, an acquaintance from L.A. who heard that I was in town, asked if I’d back him up at the Bluebird Cafe. Naturally I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”
The night of the gig I met keyboardist Jay Vern (Jay’s Place studio) who told me about a gig at Linda’s Lounge in Joelton on Clarksville Highway. (Yikes!) Thirty dollars a night and all the beer you could drink. “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”
So much for leaving the electric guitar in the case.
One day, I saw Marty standing in the cul-de-sac next to his Chrysler, railing about Nashville. “I quit. I’m moving to Alabama,” he said. Marty had just landed a house gig in Muscle Shoals with the band that would become Shenandoah. Heartbreak Mountain was now floundering, so I said, “Guys, I know every Urban Cowboy song in the book. I can’t sing one-fourth as good as Marty, but I’ll help you keep your gig until you can replace him.”
That night I was up on the horseshoe stage behind the bar at Lonnie’s Western Room in Printer’s Alley (along with Brian Prout, later to become the drummer for Diamond Rio). I knew I was no longer in L.A. when, on the breaks, I would mosey next door to the Classic Cat for a quick beer and an eyeful, past one of the guys in the band sitting on the curb reading his Bible.
Within a few weeks, Heartbreak Mountain found my replacement, another new kid in town who could sing just a bit better than I, Billy Dean. Billy and I became friends, hanging out and gigging until he got his record deal and needed a full time guitar player. (He sang one of my first demos, a song that would land me my first publishing deal a few months later.)
On the nights I didn’t have a gig, I’d help put the kids to bed, then go to any and every songwriter show in town. One night, in the back hallway at the Bluebird, I met Paul Scholten and Scot Q Merry, who had just arrived from Minnesota. They had moved into their own cheap townhouse with a basement where they had all their road gear set up, along with a Tascam 8-track patched into a Peavey board.
Paul and Scot and I made a deal. I would play guitar on their songs, and they would do rhythm tracks on mine. That was the genesis of County Q Studio, the realization that our fellow, cash-strapped, new arrivals needed cheap demos. Paul and Scot obliged them–$75 out the door for the first batch.
I had little experience in the studio, but this was low-pressure, freewheeling, and fun, and I got better. More importantly, I met all kinds of big-hearted and talented people who would go on to become my co-workers, co-writers, and friends over the ensuing decades. My writing improved from being exposed to the wide variety of songs and songwriters that came through the door, the greats, the near greats, and those that just grate on you.
Shortly before leaving L.A., I had been contacted by Pat Finch, the young “tape copy” guy at Dick James Music in Nashville. He had pulled one of my cassettes out of the mail bin (yes, such things happened back then), and liked it. That made one connection on Music Row. I would bring Pat songs I was working on, and he would give me feedback (yes, such things happened back then).
One day, a young guy from Tree, Jody Williams, took over the helm at Dick James (from Mike Hollandsworth, for whom I would write 25 years later). Jody and Pat offered me a deal: $100 a week and all I could write. “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”
I could go on, of course, but I’ll stop at about six months in. Almost all of the unlikely, wonderful, deeply gratifying things that have come my way in thirty years in Nashville, I can trace to those first, swirling days before I knew anything or anyone, when I was besotted with the magical strangeness of it all: the cicadas, the fireflies, the thunderstorms, the skyline, the music, and the people—my people.
Today, I saw a bright yellow Penske truck driving down I-40 against a backdrop of May-green trees and towering blue-gray clouds. I felt a little tug and an ache for the “me” that was—and the place Nashville was—all those years ago. My advice to whoever was driving that truck? Find a cheap townhouse, then get out and meet your neighbors and repeat after me: “Hell yeah, let’s do it.”
Bob Regan was recently featured in The New Yorker…