Time was not on our side as we scooted out of The Red Rooster trying to beat the clock for the start of a show at Nashville’s world-famous Bluebird Cafe.
Again guided by local musician Eddie Riffe in our search for local musicians making their way in Nashville, we were bound for the Bluebird for a chance to hear Huntington native Rick Huckaby do his thing.
Throughout this visit to Nashville I’ve also been shooting notes to a guitar-playing buddy who worked his way to Nashville after earning his stripes performing and recording with Pike County’s own Marlow Tackett, and we’re both pretty sure we’ll have a chance to get together and play some blues as part of this trip. As fate and musical timing would have it, he ended up walking into the California Pizza Kitchen across the street from the Bluebird just as we were being shown to our table in the little cafe.
It was my first visit to the Bluebird, although I was well aware of their no-talking-during-music policy (I’ve heard they will do terrible things to you with a shrimp fork if you’re busted). When people describe this place they always use words like “intimate,” but I was still caught off guard by the small size. Our hostess seated us so close to one of the evening’s four singer/songwriters that I could have handed him a guitar pick without even leaning forward.
Before I had even warmed my seat, my buddy shot a note from across the street and I had to excuse myself to just run out and hug him around the neck, punch him in the arm and tell him I had to get back to work. I tried to get him to sneak over and grab a seat with us, but he politely declined, saying “Claustrophobia, man. I can’t take it in there!” We swore to make an attempt at breakfast the next day and I jumped back out into the cold night air and then “pardon me’d” my way back to my seat.
The Bluebird Cafe’s four-man show was well under way when I got back inside and Huckaby was obviously enjoying the company he was keeping in the songwriter’s circle. The locally-born musician had Michael White (who wrote "Loving Every Minute" for Mark Wills and "The Baby" for Blake Shelton, as well as co-writing several songs on Huckaby’s new album “Pistols & Diamonds”) to his right, and Gary Harrison (who has written more than 300 major-label songs including several number-one hits and songs recorded by artists including Reba McEntire, Joe Nichols, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Conway Twitty, Chely Wright, and Keith Whitley) to his left. Sitting directly in front of Huckaby was former Keith Whitley bandleader Carson Chamberlain (whose own songs include “The Best Day” as recorded by George Strait), rounding out the evening’s team for an annual event to benefit Alive Hospice.
As the evening unfolded, each took turns singing their songs, including tunes made famous by some of the most recognized names in Nashville. Between songs, the musicians casually chatted with audience members and joked aloud about everything from sassy women to old guitars.
To the delight of their audience, each took time to share the stories behind their songs, and the other musicians often added backing vocals or even a guitar solo when they were moved by the music.
“Huck” was the young man in the circle, although he proved himself deserving of the seat with renditions of his own songs including “She Gets Me High,” and “In My Room,” to an appreciative audience which included his mother.
When it was time for the music to end, Huck received an unmistakable endorsement as the veteran songwriters unanimously agreed they wanted him to close the evening with his tune “Beer With Jesus,” which he soulfully delivered as each in the audience semeed to nod in approval as the song’s story unfolded.
Chamberlain, a native of Berea, was easily drawn into conversation after the show and seemed to appreciate our efforts to document the role of Kentuckians in modern-day Nashville. Prompted by Riffe and myself admiring the instrument he played that evening, Chamberlain held the hand-built guitar out for inspection and explained it was built for him by Jim Triggs, who also “aged” the instrument for him with the help of a razor blade and other non-traditional finishing techniques.
I noticed Riffe becoming unusually animated as Chamberlain continued to share his time with us and he was practically heel-hopping before finally breaking over into a full-blown-fan moment as he remembered attending a series of shows by the late Keith Whitley.
“I’ve watched you for years. Man, what a band,” Riffe said to Chamberlain, rattling off the locations of each Keith Whitley concert he’d attended, and the men quickly arrived at a mutual point of admiration for the band’s drummer.
I asked Chamberlain for a comment to use in these stories and he didn’t skip a beat before singing the praises of our mountain musicians.
“Well there’s tons of great writers besides all of the artists,” he said, citing the talents of Kentucky-born songwriters including Ashley Gorley of Nicholasville and Lee Thomas Miller of Lancaster, as well as guitarist Lou Toomey and drummer Bruce Rutherford.
“Most of ‘em are raised on this kind of music, you know? Growing up that’s all we done,” he said. “I think a lot of it is just ...the people there grew up playing.”
Riffe and I agreed we had indeed witnessed an incredible show, and that the “intimate” nature of The Bluebird Cafe truly enhanced the experience. We aimed ourselves back toward our near-Music Row motel to plot our next move (several names remained on our to-find list), and it was at this point we proved what kind of men we really are.
As unsupervised guys alone in a big city without our women, we both smiled the devil’s grin while looking at the neon-colored lights of the “gentleman’s club” within walking distance. Wasting no time, we then ordered a pizza and fell asleep watching “Amish Mafia” on The Discovery Channel.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
or (606) 326-2651.