Updated: Sep 15, 2020
As I drove across the country in my drum laden Jeep the great moods I kept feeling surprised me. I'd worried that the enormity of leaving my life behind might catch up at some depressing truck stop in the middle of nowhere and seize me with a wave of despair. But it never happened. I drove five hundred miles a day and hardly even got bored. Maybe it was the excitement of going to Nashville. I knew it wouldn't be as easy. I didn't think I was going to just waltz in and start gigging every night, but I was thinking positive thoughts and looking forward to the music ahead.
It was on my first day in town, however, that the feelings I'd feared hit me full tilt. I've spent a lot of time away from home on tour with various bands, but this situation felt completely different. One reason was because when you're on the road, you're working and hopefully making a little money. Also, the driving and hotel living serve as a daily reminder that what you're doing is ultimately temporary. Those comforting factors were erased now that I would be coming back to the same house every night with no gigs lined up. I went from a touring musician to a guy renting a room; from a provider to a boarder. It felt like a long, permanent adjustment.
Then there was the season. As beautiful as Nashville can be, the winter months are not the best time to be there. The grass dies, the leaves are gone, and the sun sets about two hours earlier than I was used to. One night I was staring out the window at dusk. It was cold and windy and a grey squirrel ran by looking for cover. "Grey?" I thought. "We have brown squirrels at home." As I thinking about all the changes a train whistle blew in the distance and my guts shifted two inches lower than I thought possible. I felt like I was in some seedy James Ellroy novel. I called home and told my wife the story. She said, "I thought you loved that dark stuff." I said, "Ya, just not when I'm the main character."
The next day I forced myself to get on the phone, which ended up being the best thing I could have done. The warmth of the Nashville community corrected my down turn. I found it impossible to feel sorry for yourself after talking to one nice person after another. Everyone I called said "Welcome to Nashville! When can you come over?" and after my first day of cold calling I already had a schedule to keep.
The people in Nashville move a little slower and show more patience than the folks from home. People smile more. Where I'm from if a stranger smiles and says hello it's usually the step before asking for money. I was walking out of a grocery store and the security guard said "Have a nice day!" Only he said it with a clarity and focus in his eyes, like he really meant it. Like it might cause him genuine concern if I had a bad day.
The first night I went out I happened into to a club where they were playing experimental Jazz. The drummer had a mallet in one hand, a brush in the other, and he seemed to be dead set against playing anything with time. I'd carried the misconception that every stage in town would have incredible players performing heartbreaking songs, but that isn't the case. Fortunately there IS great stuff happening every night if you know where to go.
I'd heard about a club called the Family Wash and it turned out to be a good place to start. There's a songwriter night on Tuesdays that attracts lots of players. I was talking to a guy at the bar and mentioned I'd just moved to town. He said, "Welcome to Nashville!" and introduced me to about ten musicians in a half hour's time. I went to his website the next day and discovered he was a great singer/songwriter himself and also plays guitar as a sideman for an artist I've always liked.
As I talked to people and met more players I kept hearing about "Billy Block's Western Beat Night". The Beat Night happens once a week at a club called 12th and Porter. Besides hosting the show, Billy Block is an established drummer, does an Americana radio program, and generally seems to serve as the mayor of Music City. I introduced myself and he couldn't have been nicer. "Welcome to Nashville!" he said. "Welcome to Nashville!" is the first thing you hear whenever you meet someone new, and, like the security guard at the grocery store, they seem to mean it.
The Western Beat Night has five or six great bands that play half hour sets each. I was so blown away by the music and talent I didn't notice at first, but it occurred to me that every time someone new walked in the room it was all hugs and kisses, like everyone had known each other all their lives. Eventually I started to wonder if I'd crashed a family reunion. I tried not to worry that these people had all been working together for years, and reminded myself that a room full of happy, hugging people is a good place to be.
On Sunday nights there's a show at a club called "3rd and Lindsley" where a lot of players meet. I went there and saw some of the most amazing playing I've ever seen. The guy I met with was pointing out the band members just before they started. "That guy plays with Keith Urban and the other dude plays with the Dixie Chicks. The keyboardist is with Delbert McClinton, and the drummer does a lot of sessions in town." Nashville is a city where a singer/songwriter can put together a pick up band, do one rehearsal, and pull off a knockout show, complete with seques, complex breakdowns, and intricate song endings. The singer's songs were great and his voice was amazing as well. He topped it all off by knocking out a guitar solo that would have forced Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck into a teary hug.
After observing the Nashville scene for a while I was itching to work myself so I answered an "Drummer Wanted" add in the paper and played my first gig. The band was full of very nice people but they were all from California! I thought it was a coincidence but it wasn't really. There are a lot of Californians in Nashville, and a lot of transplants from other states as well. In fact, there aren't too many native Nashvillians in the music scene at all. I met a drummer who was born and raised in town. He pointed this fact out with a chuckle and the guy next to us said "You grew up here? That's so cool!"
I had to get a read on what kind of income you could make in Nashville and after speaking to a couple of musicians that play in big national acts I was surprised to hear that the touring money isn't what you might think. Even on the top level, sidemen only make $40-50,000 annually. That's good money to play music but it won't set you up very long if the band loses momentum or switches their players after a couple years. I was told time and time again, "You don't make "rock" money here."
One difference in Nashville is that, because of the proximity to so many other major markets, a lot of the touring is four or five days out, then back for a couple nights at home. One of the guys I talked to has been with a huge national act for eight years and said the longest tour they'd ever done was three weeks. When you're touring out of west coast you have to go so far to reach other markets that traveling back and forth kills the profits. For that reason, any run shorter than three weeks tends to lose money. Lot's of times you'll go for a month or two (or three) depending on how much tour support or merchandise sales you get. So the trade off is, you don't make as much in Nashville, but the home time is nice and the cost of living allows you to get by on less income anyway. For road work, I'm told January and February are the months when big artists put their bands together for spring and summer tours, so I plan to send some promo packs to a few management companies and record labels. If I can get some auditions I think I have a decent shot at landing something.
As for the session scene, that's a situation you build into slowly and lose quickly. There are already lots of great players working in town and until there's a reason to make a change the producers tend to keep them around. A local producer told me the budgets for recording have become much smaller and so producers use proven players they are sure can knock out a whole album in a day. If a player can't make a few session calls in a row, and a new person does a great job subbing, the sub has a good chance of getting the call for the next session. But to get the sub call you have to keep climbing the ladder, to the edge of the level above you, until you get a break.
Another drawback to the session world is that top players seem to have a "shelf life" even if they don't sub out jobs. I talked to musicians that were in the studio every day and still felt their work could dry up at anytime. I met a realtor who said he was a session bassist for a few years until they "changed the guard". He directed me to his web site and I was shocked to see he'd played on over forty top ten hits in the 90's. If you're one of the few players on the top level you can do real well for yourself while it lasts, but the gig is just too coveted to provide work, income, and security, too. The place to begin a session career is "demo" recordings. They pay around $50-100 per song and if you can get to a point where you are working a few days a week it can support you while you're trying to get "master" (album) sessions, which pay much more.
I've been here long enough now to see the possibilities but not long enough to know what is most likely to happen. Nashville has been a good but sometimes confusing experience that I hope turns into a great decision in time. I've learned that my attitude is a decision I choose to make every day. Getting lost on their crazy freeway system sucks but at least there's no traffic. I got a parking ticket but it was only 10 dollars. A guy waved me down while I was driving but it turned out he was just waving. A big time drummer told me I'd need another job even if I was playing a lot, but Billy Block said "Don't worry, man. You're gonna do just fine!" What can I say? He looked like he meant it.