Why I came
Most people chance cities because of marriage or job opportunities. Although my marriage did precipitate my exit from Northern Virginia, where I had lived my entire life, I didn't choose Nashville for the money-making opportunities. I chose it over any other city because of opportunities that I hoped it would provide to further my music career here. I didn't even seek a "day job" until after I'd been here for about 18 months, had toured the US with a band, learned the Nashville Number system, greatly improved my playing skills and made many contacts in the music business here. I also learned that even though my keyboard abilities were on a par with the top players in the business, I would not be able to sustain a middle-class lifestyle by playing music.
This is a bit of a conundrum for most people who are not associated with the music industry. Everyone knows that Nashville is "Music City," and the hub of a huge industry that generates billions of dollars in profits for big companies. People hear about the big stars and their multi-million-dollar lifestyles and assume that anyone who can play or sing well enough should be entitled to “make it” if they move to Nashville. This is the myth behind such popular TV shows as “American Idol.”
But the facts of life for the working musicians here are quite different than most people assume. Most of us can make a decent living in any other US city playing the local scene; I put my daughter through 2 years of college with earnings from my classic rock band during the late 80s and early 90s.
Why we play
Money is not the reason people play music. For years I dismissed music as a childish pursuit; something with which to make a little spending money while attending school, or a way to earn extra income for the purpose of finishing the basement or even putting a child through college. Although I was able to make decent money over the years, the money alone wasn’t sufficient motivation. Many times I’ve calculated my actual hourly earnings based on the time I put in rehearsing, traveling and paying for my equipment. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve proven to myself that I could make better money bagging groceries.
I’ve always struggled with self-esteem, and playing with a band has always boosted my image of myself, gradually allowing me to accept me for who I am.
However, there is a much more compelling motivation beyond money and self-image that makes us play. Most people are unaware of the power of the Muse when it calls upon an artist’s soul. For years I didn’t hear it calling, or I assumed that it was just me enjoying accolades and the feeling of being a “real person” for someone who all his life had felt invisible.
Although the local music scene sustained me for decades, I eventually outgrew it. I gradually progressed from unimaginable gratitude for being accepted into my high school band to playing in better and more professional groups making more money. Each time I would reach a new plateau I would say to myself, “It can’t get any better than this.” But eventually something would happen to rock my little boat and throw me back into the cold sea, where I would flounder for awhile before picking up another ship.
Bands always break up; that happened with “Thaxton & Reed” when Dennis left town, and if happened with my high school and college bands when we all graduated and went our separate ways.
I sometimes left bands on my own volition. I would tire of the stress of trying to balance the triple requirements of sustaining a home life, a professional “day job” career and a musical career. That’s what happened with “Inner Light.” Or I would become dissatisfied with being the only one marketing the band while the other players would show up increasingly late with more and more lackadaisical attitudes about their performance. This is what happed with “Mirage.” Or the leader would turn into an insane lunatic, which happened with “Straight Up,” the country-rock trio with whom I performed in 1996.
Sometimes I left bands only to begin jamming in the basement with friends. I was the “Pied Piper” of a group of friends who I invited to jam with me after I folded Mirage in 1991. We would gather on Saturday nights to drink, party and play a standard set of old rock & roll tunes. I taught them how to sing harmonies, to listen to one another and how to sound like a professional band. Our little group eventually developed such a large repertoire that we booked a club one night for a 4-hour performance. We filled the club with friends, who all had a great time hearing us play out in a “real” club.
But I eventually tired of being the “big frog in a small pond.” My frustration grew as the little group played the same old tunes in the same old basements with the same old people. My frustration grew at the same time that my friends settled into what for them was a comfortable way to relax and have a good time.
I needed something more.
About that time, my first marriage dissolved (which is another story for another post). Not long afterwards, the woman who would become my second wife dropped into my life from outer space (New Jersey, actually). She moved down to set up housekeeping with me in the fall of 1994, and of course I invited her to join the regular jammers for our weekend jam parties. She was a great singer, and I had high hopes of integrating her into the fold.
The only problem was that the “fold” included my ex and her boyfriend. So my new partner would be relegated to sitting on the couch for hours next to my ex while I played with my old buddies. She would occasionally be asked to get up and sing a song, but the more time went on, the less enthusiastic she became at the prospect of spending her free time in the company of my ex and her friends.
The jams were held in the basement of a good friend. I asked him once if he could arrange for a jam that didn’t include my ex and her boyfriend. Such a jam was held, but the news quickly got back to my ex, who expressed her deep offence at my friends “taking sides.” So that put a stop to that.
Meanwhile, my mother was dying. She eventually passed away in late 1996, and I eventually sold her house in the spring of 1998. This broke my heart, because I had wanted that house to be my retirement home that I would eventually pass down to my children and grandchildren. I had visions of the grandkids playing in the beautiful azalea jungle that my dad had created before his death in 1971. But sometimes broken dreams lead to new dreams. The sale of my mom’s house proved to be the springboard for me to escape the tentacles of my social network. At the time I believed that leaving Northern Virginia would be the only way to salvage my relationship with my new partner, who by now had become my second wife.
We could have chosen any city in the US, because the proceeds from the sale of my mom’s house allowed us to pay off our debts and gave us enough cash to live on for awhile.
We chose Nashville, because it is one of the few places in the US where you can seriously pursue a musical career. Here you learn from the best in the industry and get to see if your talents are up to par. And so at the ripe of age of 52 I embarked on what some would call a crazy journey in pursuit of an artistic dream. My father certainly would not have approved, and in my head I can still hear his voice, admonishing me to be tough and smart, not frivolous. He grew up in the Great Depression, which made an indelible mark on the members of his generation.
So we found our selves in Music City, knowing not one person in the state of Tennessee except our landlord. I eventually broke into the music network by going out to blues jams and gradually working my way into a few paying gigs. In the spring of 1999 I went out on the road with a country-rock band, touring the country and writing a book about my experiences.
To my delight, I discovered that keyboard players are in great demand here. Especially keyboard players who can work “without a net,” meaning those who have a good ear and can jump right in without a lot of preparation.
The skill level of the musicians in Nashville can be daunting. But I discovered that my keyboard skills were up to par and even better than most. All that playing in those weekend bands had borne fruit.
Although I found I could work seven nights a week, I also found out what every musician discovers about Nashville. We all find ourselves caught at the intersection of supply and demand.
You can’t make any money here.
You can tour with a road group and maybe make decent money (maybe $1,000 per week if you’re touring with a big name artist). But there are several problems with this:
(1) Touring season is only for a few months, which means you either collect unemployment during the off-season or get a job driving a truck or bagging groceries.
(2) You won’t meet anyone who can further your career while playing casinos in Arizona and South Dakota. They’re all here in Nashville.
(3) Touring means you can’t hold down a “day job,” or at least not one that pays decent white-collar wages.
You can play in the local music scene in bars. But remember that Nashville can support only about the same number of local music venues as any city its size (about 1 million). But remember what I said about the intersection of supply and demand? There are many times more musicians here than a typical city of Nashville’s size. And they’re all at least as good or better than you.
So here’s what happens: A good night playing 4 hours at a local club might get you $35 or so – about what I made in college for playing a frat party (or more likely nothing). You might get lucky and make $100 here and there. But those opportunities are few and far between.
My future in Music City
However, Nashville is still the creative heart of the music business. The songwriters are here, because the recording and publishing industry is here. That means that I have a market for my accompanying and my creative skills, because every songwriter’s songs sound better with more accompaniment than just a guitar. The keyboard sound makes their songs more distinctive. And I’m capable of co-writing, which I intend to pursue in the future.