I’d been working nights in an upscale liquor store in Belle Meade when this story began, stocking and clerking for a few dollars north of the minimum wage, while spending my days working at cutting a lick as a singer and songwriter on Music Row, making something south of the same pay scale.
I’d come to Nashville in the Fall of seventy-six, bent on stardom in the music business, convinced that my destiny was intertwined with that of my father; that I would succeed him as any son might succeed his father in the family business, take the standard from his hand even as his own days of brilliance waned and march triumphantly into the spotlight, where I was also convinced the world waited for me.
I might should’ve re-thought that some.
Nothing so grand ever came close to happening. There was no standard to inherit, no spotlight to claim. No doors magically opened at the intonation of The Name, no showcases at The Bluebird, no record deals. Adding insult to injury, I was losing my hair. There were no prematurely balding guys getting record deals in town (then) and I wasn’t a hat act. And the truth is – was, I had a passable style, but nothing memorable. Nothing honest. I tended to cop licks from other singers I thought were cool. I’d do my best Delbert McClinton in the verses, lean to Dobie Gray for the bridge and kind of a Vern Gosdin-Bob Dylan synthesis on the choruses. If I’d saved a nickel for every time a producer in town told me to ‘sing like yourself’, I’d be writing this from the deck of the boat.
But the truth is, My Self just wasn’t all that great of a singer. He wasn’t all that great of an act. Gradually, the window of time to seriously contemplate launching a career as a performer out of Nashville began to close. In the end, I could almost hear the rail and sash sliding inexorably down into the sill-casing, sealing shut with an acoustic, wooden note of finality.
B-flat, if I remember right.
Moving into songwriting seemed like a natural progression, a logical career shift. I’d been writing short voice over scripts and ad copy off and on semi-professionally for a few years, and felt I could translate whatever skill I had in drafting pithy thirty-second pieces to pithy popular songs. I had the greatest admiration and respect for Nashville’s writers, and hoped that I could use some of the thimble-full of studio cred I’d chalked up as a session singer to leverage myself into a weekly draw at one of the scores of publishing houses up and down 16th and 17th Avenues. It never happened, but in the years that I haunted those doors looking for a deal, I hung out, traded lines, and wrote with the cats that were the very best of that rarified breed of composer, and came away with a street degree of sorts in Basic Composition.
In the mid-seventies, the community of songwriters on the Row was more akin to a colony of expatriate literati; fiction authors masquerading as Top Forty tunesmiths. Mickey Newbury, Bob McDill, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson – they were literally changing the fabric of popular songwriting in Nashville. Make no mistake: any of those guys could punch out twelve-bar cheatin songs all day long, but they were more apt to write with John Steinbeck or Tennessee Williams as their inspiration than Hoagy Carmichael or Hank Williams. These cats were crafting riveting two and a half minute Great American Novels set to a five-chord rhythm chart; powerful, concise essays on the human condition, told in simply-layered, uncomplicated narratives that immediately conveyed the essence of the story being told. They were creating nothing less than a new genre of literature: novellas you could listen to on a jukebox.
Nothing like it was happening anywhere on the Great American Cultural Landscape, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it. After more than three years in the co-writing trenches honing verse structure, building bridges and shaping choruses, I took my demo to virtually every publishing house on the Row, confident with every door that closed, that the next would open.
After ten weeks, I’d been turned down by all but two houses. A week later, all but one.
I’d put a lot of stock in pitching myself to Roger Sovine, who was heading up the Welk Music Group at the time. Welk was owned by the legendary Lawrence of the same last name, and was a major player on the Row. Some of the best writers in town were exclusive there, and I’d been able to wrangle a handful of co-writer sessions with several of them: Bob McDill, Dickey Lee, and Jerry Gillespie among them. I was pumped when Roger cleared half an hour for me one afternoon in January. If I couldn’t score a deal here, I was going to have to tie a knot at the end of my rope and hang on. Or hang myself.
In Hollywood, screenwriters will tell you – studios will tell you – that if you don’t hook the reader by page 10 –roughly ten minutes into the film- you never will. A similar rule of thumb exists in popular music: if you don’t hook ‘em by the tenth bar of the song, they’re gone.
Roger handed me a cup of coffee, took my cassette and loaded it into his system.
I’d brought ten tracks; all originals, some co-written, all the best of what I had.
He never played one past the tenth bar. A few measures of each song would begin, then his right index finger would shoot up and hit the fast-forward button, speed-tracking through the rest of the tune. Midway through the tracks, he simply kept his finger poised above the FF button. His face changed perceptibly in front of my eyes, drooping a fraction of an inch with each song’s opening few bars, settling, finally, into what actually looked like anger; that he’d just wasted two and a half minutes of a perfectly good afternoon listening to absolute shit.
‘You’re being paranoid’, my other voice whispered sotto voce somewhere behind me, ‘These songs have… they’ve overwhelmed him, man. He literally can’t wait to hear what the first few bars of the next song sound like. He’s never heard anything like this before. Your art. It’s all about to change, man. Be ready.’
Or something like that.
Roger popped the cassette out of the deck, handed it back to me, and stood.
“Let me ask you a question,” he said.
Here it comes. How soon can I be in the studio? What kind of money’s it gonna take? Can I have dinner with Hag tomorrow night?
–“Have you thought about another career, Buck?
Wha—what did he just say?
“Maybe something in retail….”
Bile was beginning to rise up from my gut, like magma coursing up through a volcano’s pipe. I could barely form comprehensible sounds in my mouth.
“Another…. Something in –what?”
“A song plugger, maybe. You’ve got a great pitch, it’s just that— the songs are just — ”
His office phone rang once, and he grabbed the receiver like it was a lifeline. After a second, he cupped the mouthpiece, turned and smiled.
“I gotta take this. Let’s have lunch, man. Maybe next week? I’ll have Brenda call you.”
He turned back to the phone, stuck his hand out, shook mine and crossed to his desk, his back to me as he sat down.
Cassette in hand, heart on sleeve, I walked the hall back to the lobby like I was moving through wet cement, expecting any second to see a uniformed guard step into the portico at the end of the aisle up ahead and shout, “Dead man walking!…. Dead man walking.” I was crestfallen. I could barely roll the joint I’d been hoping to light as a celebration when I got back in the car.
I had no idea how bad it was about to get.
Within an hour after I’d called Murphy and lied to her about the meeting with Sovine (‘Went great. He wants to have lunch next week…’) our landlord stopped by to wish us a belated Happy New Year, and to inform us we were two months behind on our rent: a small two-bedroom condo we’d leased from him the year before. We had ten days to pay or thirty to move. Add to that the twenty or so days until Murph went into labor, and it added up to just a wonderful month ahead.
The darkness at the edge of town notwithstanding, the mail that afternoon brought needed relief in the form of an unlooked-for residual check from my short-lived gig as a supporting player on “Hee-Haw Honeys”; a shorter-lived CBS series spun off from its namesake. Twenty-four minutes of ‘Laugh-In’ sketch comedy in a country diner with Misty Rowe, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Lulu Roman and Gailard Sartain, who was quite possibly among the five funniest people in America. Incredibly, the check was enough to not only cover the rent, but maybe give us a couple yards buffer.
Life is good. God is great.
On my way to the bank, God set our ’76 Pinto on fire and melted every wire and hose under the hood. The engine compartment looked like the inside of an industrial meat smoker.
It was too much. Standing on the curb, tears streaming down my face, streets covered in grey slush from the snow the night before, flames licking out from under the Pinto’s hood, I raised my fist high in the air, gripping my residual check from Honeys, and shouted heavenward:
“As God is my witness, I will be a songwriter! I will be a so—“
A loud whump came from somewhere beneath the car, stopping me in mid-soliloquy, and a thick plume of black smoke billowed out from the engine block.
“O.k….o.k.!,” I hollered. “I’ll….I’ll look into plugging! Jesus!”
With the flames from the block-fire wrapping around it, the right front tire blew, and I did all I could do; said a fitting, pithily elegiac prayer and watched silently as our beloved Pinto dropped to one knee, and died a slow, wheezing, smoky death on the corner of Church and 46th.
I never went into retail.
© 2014. J Buckner Ford