Running around London doing interviews is swapped for a trip to Nashville, where musicians and songwriters still uniquely reflect life’s hardships.
I don’t own an iPod, but if I did, the Arctic Monkeys would probably not be playing. As deserving as they might be, my auditory attention is currently focused on four-piece country revivalist band named Ike Jonson and the Roadhouse Runners.
No, don’t worry. I hadn’t heard of them either – until Friday that is, when I stumbled across them in a honky tonk bar in Nashville, Tennessee.
I’ve been in ‘music city’for the past few days. This is work – of course – but at the same time I’m soaking up all things Americana and indulging my passion for music.
As associate editor at The Big Issue I don’t get to travel too often. Normally my days are spent in our offices in London commissioning articles, out and about interviewing, or digging around for stories behind the key political issues of the day.
We are a small editorial team. We each have our own interests, but we are all committed to campaigning for social justice within a media seemingly dedicated to pumping out identical, bland, news content.
Music, arts and entertainment also form a vital component of The Big Issue’s weekly magazine, hence the reason I have a taken the 4,500-mile trip to this thriving musical heartland set between the Smoky Mountains and the plains of the Mississippi delta.
The programme is packed, and there have been some real treats so far. Hank Williams is a name that will resonate with music aficionados in the UK. Here, the hillbilly hero is integral to the fabric of Tennessee’s history. Having died a drunkard at the age of 29 on New Year’s Day, 1953, myths and falsehoods have surrounded his short, but remarkable life.
This week, I met his stepdaughter Lycrecia. At 69 she is the only surviving member of the Williams family with living memories of Hank. Over the past year she has helped curators at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame painstakingly gather fragments of the singer’s life to tell the unheard story of three generations of a musical family brimming with talent and beset by tragedy.
Behind the fame and notoriety is a complex tale of an aspirational white working class family during America’s Depression, a son who pursued a musical dream, a wife striving for success but living with an alcoholic, and two children haunted by the premature death of a father before either had reached the age of 10.
It is the same minutiae of everyday life – the trials, tribulations and ultimate hope that has featured in the songs of every country artist following Hank – Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette. The list is endless.
And there’s plenty here in Nashville still pursuing that same dream. Besides the healthcare industry, and bible publishing, music publishing and recording is big business here. There’s nothing downtrodden about Nashville’s polished streets and skyscrapers.
Elvis recorded here at RCA’s famous Studio B in 1958. Today, musicians such as Jack White of the White Stripes have taken up residence.
But it is not just the stars who take centre stage. The musicians behind the musicians are celebrated here too.
Recall the introductory guitar lick on Dusty Springfield’s Son of a preacher man? That was session musician Reggie Young, who I met yesterday following a lunchtime question-and-answer session at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He’s played guitar on many of the iconic songs of the past few decades, and his story is equally as fascinating as those he has accompanied. Foremost he’s an artist, but at 71 he has also born witness to a tumultuous period in America’s social and cultural past – you can’t buy that kind of knowledge and experience.
The upcoming weeks and months may also write another chapter in America’s tumultuous history. Unlike Memphis, which I visited in January, Nashville doesn’t appear gripped by election fever. Instead, the current economic crisis is on people’s minds. The effect of it, I am sure, will be reflected in the lyrics of Nashville’s musicians, buskers and songwriters.
And so back to Blighty: back to Boris and his mayoral triumph, back to Brown and the 10p tax revolt and back to the ordinary people I meet every day who feel the effects of change but are rarely given such a grand platform. Perhaps there’s a piece of Nashville in all of them too.