Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I just passed the six month mark in Nashville. Six months is significant because it is the amount of time I'd originally given myself to make it or break it in town. I figured I'd either get work as a drummer and move my family out or go bust in Music City and be forced to find a regular job. Remaining a drummer wasn't just a romantic desire. It's the only way I've ever made a living and I was truly lost as to what I'd do for work if not music. Being a letter carrier was the only straight job I'd researched but I hadn't looked into it deep enough to know if they actually needed anyone. For all I knew there could be a long waiting list to apply. And what if I got the job and hated it? What if I went Postal?!? Making a living as a musician was a much better option if I could pull it off so I was determined to try my hardest.
Getting gigs was tough at first. There was music happening everywhere but it seemed the same few drummers were doing it all. Everyone knows how tight the session community is, but the live scene in Nashville appeared to be sewn up, too. I saw a drummer named Nick Buda play almost every night I went out. One time I went to a three band bill at 12th and Porter and he played with all three acts! And if it wasn't him it was one of three or four other drummers that seemed to get all the work in town.
When I got to Nashville I tried to slip into the scene organically - without bothering anybody. I thought coming on too strong would make me appear desperate. But after a few weeks of just watching music I decided I'd better force myself out of my comfort zone and ramp up my networking to make something happen. I cold called producers whose music I liked. I sent out promo packs. I said hello to singers/songwriters/performers when I saw a great show. I followed a singer right off the the stage and into his dressing room to give him a card once. "You sounded great." I said. "I'm a drummer and wanted to introduce myself in case you were ever in need." He thanked me suspiciously. I worked on my approach.
I played for free, played for dinner, played for tips. I just wanted to get onstage and make music. After four months in Nashville I got my first session. And that session led to another session. My time beating the streets was starting to pay off. I was now getting some money for live stuff and landing occasional session work, and every gig led to more player connections. I wasn't making enough to support a family yet but I was starting to think Nashville could work in time.
My wife and kids came to visit over the Easter break and had a great trip. We saw Picassos at the Frist museum, we ate at good restaurants, and we enjoyed the many activities Nashville has to offer for kids . My family was in town for 10 days and we didn't get through half the stuff I'd planned for their visit.
After a few days we drove East to the Smokey Mountains. By this time Nashville had already sold itself many times over and the surreal beauty of the Smokies was icing on the cake. When we got back to town we looked at some houses with a realtor to see what the possibilities were, should we decide to take the plunge. Ultimately the whole trip went really well and when I dropped my wife and kids off for their return flight I was filled with feelings of relief and gratitude. If I could just get some more income going I'd have a great case for moving our family out. A month later, however, I did something really stupid.
I had a two sessions and a live show booked and was planning to go home to see my family when they were through. It was the busiest week I'd had so far and I was excited about the momentum. I was charting out some of the songs when I got a call from a music manager. He said he represented an artist who was going on the road and wondered if I might be available. He told me the artist's name and I began secretly looking up her website as we spoke. I asked him when the tour started as her site came up. Her site was great. He said the tour was leaving the next week. My eyes widened. "Next week?" As I was trying to figure out all the things I'd have to cancel one of her songs came blasting out of my computer. I hit the mute button. "You know what?" I said. "As much as I'd love to do it, I have a really full schedule next week and then I'm heading home for a bit. I think I'm going to have to pass." He thanked me and we hung up.
Though it felt strange to turn down a tour, I knew I'd done right by the people I was booked to play with the following week. I'd also done the right thing for my family, who were looking forward to seeing me. I wrote it off as a case of bad timing. But since I was still on her website I decided to pull up one of the songs. It was good. I played another one. It was REALLY good. I clicked the "tour" button to see where I would have gone. The page came up and my heart stopped. She was opening the Brooks and Dunn/Alan Jackson tour all the way through October. I still felt I'd done the right thing, but it was hard to process the fact that I'd passed up a slot on one of Nashville's biggest tours of the summer. I called my wife to tell her what had happened. I thought it might give her a little security to know I was starting to get some quality calls. But like she's done so many times before, she quickly jarred me into reality.
I called the manager back immediately to change my answer but I got his machine. I called again and there was still no answer. It started to sink in. This was the call I'd been waiting for - the call I'd practically given up on - and I'd blown it! I called eight more times in the next two hours and kept getting a recording. My buddy, Bones, called and I told him what I'd done. "They're probably in a meeting." he said. "That's a really big tour, you know!" Aaaaaaa. My head hurt. Then my friend, Glenn, called and said "Wow. Do you realize you turned down Keith Urban's management company?" Aaaaaaa. My belly hurt. The manager finally called two hours later. He thanked me for my interest but said they'd found someone for the tour.
I've always been better at drumming than business. Back in my early twenties I was dating a girl who worked in the financial district. I'd go down there for lunch, see all those suited people running to and fro, and wonder what they did all day. I occurred to me that I had no idea what they carried in their brief cases. Was it cash? Calculators? Briefs? (What ARE Briefs?) I would stare at them with the same confused fascination people give an Amish family on the highway. I couldn't believe these so called intelligent businessmen were still wearing an accessory as useless and impractical as a necktie. The vastness of the gulf between their lives and mine was funny to me at the time. But that was before I was a husband and father. Now I had a family that was counting on me to bring home a paycheck. And I still didn't have a tie or know what went in a brief case.
As I sat moping I got a call from a guy in an 80's cover band. He had a gig on Cinco De Mayo and was looking for a drummer. In my condition I was apt to get rubbed wrong, and this guy was an industrial strength floor sander. He said "I hear you were in the Wallflowers!" (Wallflowers?) I was about to correct him when he said "Lemme ask you this! Are you better than Alex Van Halen?" I felt my face sag. I decided to be confrontational. "Actually" I said. "I think Alex Van Halen is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. In fact, no. I will NEVER be as good as Alex Van Halen." He didn't miss a beat. "How about Neil Peart? Are you better than him?" I felt my body sag. I actually looked at the phone, then collected myself and said "Neil Peart? Ya! I can play circles around him." "Great!" he said, and went on to explain that the gig was four sets from 10-2 a.m. and paid $50. I told him I couldn't do it, hung up the phone, and went to sleep for the rest of the afternoon.
I felt bad about turning down the tour and felt bad about turning down the Cinco De Mayo gig, too. I thought about it and realized I couldn't pass on a paying gig no matter what, so I put my ego down and called the guy from the 80's band. I asked him if there would be any rehearsals and he said "Don't THINK so! We've been together three months and haven't rehearsed YET!" I shuddered - and took the gig.
A funny thing happens when you put yourself "out there". It's as if the energy in the Universe repays you for your effort. I don't know if that theory is true but ten minutes after taking the 80's gig I got an email from the musical director for one of my favorite singer/songwriters. He was putting her band together for a summer/fall tour and wondered if I might be interested. This time I didn't blow it.
I'm very happy to announce that we are now in contract on a house in Nashville and my family will be joining me here this summer. After a slow start things began to materialize, and while I didn't really "make it" OR "break it" I'm confident that I'll be able to provide for my family as a musician after all. My wife loves our new house and is excited about being closer to some good friends and family we have in the South. My kids will grow up in a beautiful city, with fireflies and seasons and "Yes Maam"s, and I can continue making a living doing what I love most. I feel very lucky.