Nashville: Both Jared and I worked on this one. Maybe you’ll be able to tell who’s voice is who’s…but maybe not.
There are times you drink for fun. There are times you drink to mourn. There are times you drink alone. There are times you drink to celebrate. Then, there are times…times when you’ve just pooped into a plastic bag in your trailer, in 100° heat/humidity, because the one bathroom you pulled up to is closed and you know there’s no hope of even getting back into the car without bringing last night’s dinner unwillingly with you, and you’re questioning everything about why you’re here, what’s the purpose, staring at said bag of poop, marveling at how symbolic it is at this very moment in your life…when you realize that now, this second, is a PERFECT time for a drink. Does it matter that your beers have been floating in tepid water? Does it matter that it’s 8:00 in the morning? Does it matter that you’re at a children’s park in broad daylight? No. With your newly acquired breakfast beer and your bag of poop, you head back to the passenger side of the truck, deposit the bag into the trash and settle in for the most deserved alcoholic beverage of your life. This. Is. Nashville.
Throughout our career as Champagne Sunday, people have had all kinds of advice for us. “You should focus your genre”, “You should be more country”, “You should be more rock”, “You should try out for *insert popular singing show here*”, “You should put together a full band”, “You should go to Austin, Portland, New Orleans, Nashville”. . . They always come from well-meaning people with wonderful intentions, but they also tend to be from people that either don’t know the specifics of the music industry, or heard us once and think they’ve got us pegged as band. We are genuinely interested in improving ourselves and part of that is listening to others’ advice, but though we’ve tried all of these, we’ve never felt any of them to be a great match, and Nashville was no exception.
For years, we’ve been hearing about Nashville. How we’ve “gotta go to Nashville”, we’d “kill it in Nashville”, “there’s so much music in Nashville”, “you guys would fit right in out there”, etc. We’ve been through enough of these “gotta go’s” that we’ve learned not to put too much stock in them, but we are also willing to give anything a chance and see for ourselves.
I’ll be blunt. Nashville was a GIANT disappointment to us. I’ll say that with the caveat that we were only there for a short time, didn’t see a bunch of shows, and were limited from really hitting the town both by our four-year-old and our budget. Also, maybe it was over-hyped to us and just couldn’t live up to the mythic fairytales we were fed. So we’re fully willing to admit that there’s probably a lot more that the city has to offer than what we saw. I truly get that. However, to us, this city was everything we disliked about Los Angeles…plus country music and humidity.
Instead of a town brimming with amazing, new, fresh music played by the creme de la creme of songwriters and players, performing desperately with all they’ve got, we found adequately talented musicians statically droning out tired country clichés and stereotypes, trying to write the next big thing that already was. It felt like a bunch of ghosts in cowboy boots that didn’t realize they had died. It was a place where the souls of musicians are sold freely and cheaply, and original artists don’t get paid or even tipped for performing. I’ll try to paint a fuller picture of our experience, but before I begin, let me say that, although it may not sound like it, we are truly grateful for the opportunities that we were given and the shows that we got to play. I recognize that we were generously given these performance slots that a lot of artists don’t get without putting in a ton of work and paying dues, and we are thankful for that chance.
Most shows in Nashville are set up as “rounds” with anywhere from three to five artists taking turns performing their songs for an hour, then the next group of three to five gets up and takes turns, then maybe another, etc. All this is usually followed by an open mic. The rounds are “hosted” by a single artist, and you have to be invited to play by that host. Almost nobody short of nationally recognized superstars or cover bands gets to play a full show on their own. We were scheduled to play two of these rounds while in Nashville.
Our first show in town:
We woke up at 5:00 am at a rest stop outside Yankton, SD, slammed as much coffee as we could tolerate, and drove like mad for Nashville. We arrived, dressed to kill, ready to take the stage and show this town who we are, with maybe five minutes to spare until showtime. We flew through the door of the Commodore in full show garb with all our merch and gear loaded on our cart and Rudy atop it all like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove. We probably looked like prima donna jerks, and were treated as such by the sound guy, who had to deal with our pedal boards and (gasp!) an extra instrument. Contrast all that with the other performers of the round: Plain clothes, two acoustics, no pedal boards, on time, sweet as pie. Of course we looked like prima donna assholes.
We knew we were the freshmen on campus, and we were really excited to see what the seniors were going to show us. We were ready to hear masterworks, and learn all we could about song structure, lyric writing, interesting harmonies, skilled guitar playing, and crafted storytelling from these people who lived and worked full time in this haven of music that was brimming with songwriting genius.
The other acts went first. They were great. You could tell they had spent a lot of time honing their craft and making their songs marketable. Nice first songs to ease the crowd into the show. We felt like we should follow suit, but still be Champagne Sunday. I mean, we WERE there to show what we can do, so we didn’t want to hold back too much. So, we were going to open with “Birdies”, keeping it light and fun. The uke for some reason wasn’t working. Everything checked out on our end, so we looked at the sound guy for help. He shrugged as if to say “not MY problem.” All eyes were on us, the assholes from elsewhere that showed up late. We were beginning to feel awkward about taking up even more time when there wasn’t much to spare. The stress was building. We were exhausted from driving since sunrise, and technical glitches blamed on us that weren’t our fault was the last thing we wanted. I looked at Jessi and said “Snow?” Yup. With sweat literally dripping down our faces, the crowd waiting, the sound guy sitting, arms folded, and our first Nashville stage under our feet, we knew it was critical to be strong in this moment. Stay powerful and professional and remain true to ourselves. Jessi smiled and we launched into the most electric version of that song we’ve ever played, unleashing the stress of the drive and the frustration with the sound, and slammed our collective foot down announcing that we are not prima donnas but professionals with something to say and a show to perform!
People wandered in from outside (where the music was also playing through speakers and on TVs), several phones came out taking photos and videos, the cook poked his head out of the kitchen, and table conversations dwindled within the first verse.
The sound guy was a sweetheart after that. We’d barely played the last chord and he was on his feet, running to the stage to figure out what the problem with our ukulele was. We were no longer the asshole outsiders, but were getting nods of approval from the crew and crowd. For the rest of the round, we were accepted as equals.
Afterward, we were introduced to a bunch of regulars and other performers. Among them, the sound guy and his wife, both of whom were REALLY cool people. Actually, everyone we met was really awesome and nice. “Okay,” we thought, “here’s where we get connections and recommendations for upward movement, some gigs or some connections that will help take us to a new level and make this trip worthwhile.” What we got was a lot of “Wow! You guys are great! What are you doing here?”, and “You should be playing somewhere with way more exposure!” If that word was a cure for cancer, no one in the world would have the disease.
Wait. What? Isn’t this the place we were supposed to be? Isn’t this the mecca of music connections that would get us to a new level? What do you mean, “What are you doing here?”
It seemed the best we could get without actually moving to Nashville was recommendations and invitations to more rounds where we could play and get paid with applause. Or connections to other people who could get us more such rounds. Or we could actually move to Nashville and struggle, paying more dues, playing for free and starving or slugging it out in cover bands to pay the bills only to eventually arrive at making a living playing our original music. But we’re already doing that! So, yeah . . . seriously . . . what are we doing here? Also, with all the compliments, not one person bought anything. We even had someone turn down a FREE STICKER! This was going to be tough if we weren’t making money performing and no one wanted to buy merchandise.
But we still had a few more things planned, and were willing to take a fuller view than one single experience. There was an open mic that we were going to play in a couple days that we were hoping would have more to offer.
The open mic at Douglas Corner Cafe consisted of a round, followed by an open mic. They said that you need to call between 1:00pm and 6:00pm on the day of in order to book a spot. We called at 2:00 and got a recorded message saying to state our name and show up at such and such time. Done. We got there a couple hours early to watch the round and meet up with our old drummer, Matt Gay.
The round was . . . well . . . Jessi put it best when she said that it felt like the same Taylor Swift album on repeat. Except not nearly as interesting. Five girls on stage, all nearly indistinguishable from each other. All pretty good, nothing remarkable, a lot of country clichés (but from a younger generation), and all the stage presence of a set of lawn chairs. Okay, I get it. Nashville is a songwriter’s town. People are there to listen to the writing. Performance ability and entertainment doesn’t really enter into the equation. But even being there for the writing, it felt like there wasn’t an original thought among them.
Oh well, open mics are usually chock full of variety and we were excited to see what showed up. Should be fun. And holy crap, there are a lot of people here. Chatting with various people, inquiring where they’re from, almost everyone there was from somewhere else. And I mean, seriously, holy crap, so many people! At least a hundred. Nowhere to sit. Great crowd! Open mic time. The guy announces that he’s got the list ready, and there are 66 people on it! Two songs each. Probably four minutes per song. Doing math. Wow, this is going to be a long night. Better check where we are on the list. Our four-year-old may not last that long. Wait. We’re not even on it?! What the hell? Turns out, it’s recommended that people start calling at 12:30, and that it’s usually filled up by 1:00. Man, I wish we would have known that. Why would they give us a 5 hour time frame to call in, if they really meant 30 minutes between 12:30-1? Well, might as well stick around for a bit and watch some of the acts. Oh, now Rudy can’t be here anymore? What a waste of our time. After talking with a few more Nashville regulars, it turns out that this kind of communication breakdown between artists, bookers, venues, public, etc. is fairly common. This is where living here would come in handy. You’d get to know how to navigate these hassles to play a free couple songs for a bunch of people that are also waiting to play. Again, what are we doing here? This was a really low point. When we toured with Kim Archer in 2016, open mics were amazing for us. We’d go in, play 2 or 3 tunes, sell a bunch of merch and possibly book a gig. Because we had 4 days in Nashville with NO income, we were really counting on merch sales to help supplement that. How would we sell merch if we couldn’t play?
*I need to interject here also by giving a sincere nod to Tacoma specifically. The open mic scene is friendly, warm, fun and almost every one is communicated with well. We have always known how special things are in Tacoma, but some people in town are still questioning it. Go almost ANYWHERE else and you’ll see.*
The Saving Grace:
We had one more round to play. It was with our friend Ben Potter who we know from Tacoma, and we were looking forward to playing with him and his partner, but more than anything we just wanted to get back on the road where we could actually make money, play full shows, and get out from under the soul-crushing, stale atmosphere of heat, humidity, and disappointment that permeated our every trudging step.
Our gig was a good one. We played well, Pontiac Alley (our friend’s duo) played well, and the people that got up to play the next few rounds also did well… for no one. Aside from the other musicians and some friends we brought, this hotel Bar had few people in it and fewer interested. I’m so confused. Please remind me again why we came 1,300 miles out of our way for this town. It’s not like every gig we’ve ever played has had throngs of people climbing over each other to hear us, it’s just the expectation vs. reality of Nashville had settled itself upon us with a heaviness we couldn’t crawl out from under. We thanked our stage mates, thanked the host and thanked our “audience”, then left our last Nashville stage of the trip. It was anticlimactic to say the least, and we weren’t satisfied. We wanted to know more. We wanted to be told, “You should have done this and that and everything different!” Maybe then it would explain this feeling.
After we played, we sat down for a lovely dinner (compliments of Ben and his wife Barbara, our photographer), and watched the remaining rounds. We finally got our chance to ask questions of a Nashville regular whom we trusted as well as be honest with our thoughts. So, Ben asked us how we liked Nashville… Now, Ben and his wife were the reasons that we were here in the first place. They invited us into both of the rounds that we played, and we did two photoshoots with Barbara. It wasn’t going to be fun, but we had to be honest with our response. We opened up with our feelings and experiences thus far in Nashville, and didn’t hide our distaste and, we found that, yes, everything we went through is pretty much how it goes in this town. They understood completely.
HOWEVER, something that we didn’t get to experience was the music publishing side of things.
That’s something that requires the setting up of meetings, planning, and a little more preparation than either of us had time for (Ben and Barbara are in the middle of moving from Olympia to Nashville). So this trip was mostly to give us an idea of what’s down there. We asked Ben what we could do to better prepare for another visit (if we decide to come back) and he said he’d help with the business side of it. But, as far as the other part went, this is how he put it. “There are people great at writing songs. There are people who look good on stage. There are people who are incredible entertainers. If you can do one of those things, great. If you can do two, then that’s something. But, you guys have all three, and there’s nothing I can say to you as far as advice goes that you should change.” Now, this was a VERY nice compliment. I mean, we both just kind of sat there and smiled. And this made us feel a bit better. Not only were our friends and hosts super understanding of our feelings, but it also validated that we weren’t imagining things. But, we still needed to learn something from all of this.
For an older generation of musicians and writers that were the behind-the-scenes pioneers and unsung heroes of this music in its heyday, I can understand the appeal of Nashville. It’s like the grunge scene in Seattle, the punk movement in L.A., the blues in Austin or Memphis and the eclectic jazz scene in New Orleans.
I think what we learned, or should I say, what was finally and totally engrained in our beings, was that Champagne Sunday doesn’t belong any ONE place. We certainly have something we an bring to each spot, and much to glean from every scene we tap into. But, the truth is, when someone lovingly advises, “You guys just HAVE to go to (insert popular music town name here)!” We’ll nod, and say thank you, because to them, that’s a huge compliment. That’s someone’s way of saying, “I think you’re good enough to play with the big kids.” and for that we are grateful.
However, the “Smile Tour” was bigger than one town. It was wider than whatever box a town would be. We’re beginning to see that Champagne Sunday is less genre, more movement. Less scene, more be seen…by as many people who need it. It’s a communication between audience and act. It’s shared stories and experiences. It’s too much to fit into a “What type of music do you play?” and more of a “We’re just here to make you feel good tonight!”
We can’t be mad at Nashville or the people in it. They’re doing their thing. Maybe, a part of us could totally get into that, just like a part of us could get into rocking with a band on huge stages or playing small piano bars in New York or rowdy hippie jam festivals in a desert somewhere. Champagne Sunday is a movement that can not be categorized or put in a town or pinned down to a specific…we just are. And although that may hinder us at times, we seem to be more and more ok with that. So, thank you, Nashville. You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You were nothing we wanted, yet everything we needed. We’ll see you again, maybe. Maybe.