Picture this: a standing-room-only crowd in Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, everyone in the audience on their feet, clapping, dancing and singing (in harmony, because, well, this is Nashville), “Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda, help me, Rhonda, yeah, get her out of my heart.”
On stage, legends Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin backed by a band of multi-talented musicians, performed for well over two hours: Beach Boys original songs, some later works, some deep catalog pieces, then the entire Pet Sounds album, and finally, a rousing sing-along of hit after hit songs I have heard my whole life. Then Brian closed with a tender rendition of “Love & Mercy,” and we filed out, subdued but suffused with…well, with love.
I had the great joy of experiencing this moment last Friday night. I’ll be singing Beach Boys songs for the next month or so, probably. They make me happy.
You don’t have to live in Nashville, or L.A. or New York, to know there’s something incredibly special about hearing a song performed by the person who created that song. It’s a transcendent, magical moment. Anybody who has ever been to a concert to hear a favorite artist has experienced it. But some places make these moments more accessible than others, and Nashville is one such place.
I have been fortunate to experience such moments more times than I can count. But no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets old. It’s new every time. It thrills me to my toes, every time. It seems like a miracle. And if creativity is an expression of the divine inside each of us, then I guess maybe it is.
When I first arrived in Nashville in late 1990, I found myself working for a television syndication company on Music Row, in an office on the first floor of a music publishing office building. Soon I was having the time of my life. I fell in love with the live music experience and I have embraced it ever since.
Some of these magical moments have happened in the intimacy of a dark, smoky little dive of a nightclub watching a handful of songwriters in the round. Some I have shared with hundreds of thousands of other fans, such as the three times I have seen the Rolling Stones in concert. Some came as an extraordinary privilege granted to me by virtue of the years I worked for WSM Radio, where I often stood to the side of the Opry stage and watched the artists performing from the famous center-stage circle of wood, or sometimes even listened in a dressing room as they rehearsed before going out.
I’ve seen John Prine singing “Paradise” and Paul Davis singing “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” and “I Go Crazy” at Douglas Corner. I’ve seen Mac McAnally singing “All These Years” at City Winery. I’ve seen Keith Urban at the Bluebird. I’ve seen writer’s nights in nightclubs, in hotel lounges, in church fellowship halls and elementary schools. Kenny Chesney, Neil Diamond, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Beth Nielson Chapman, Dean Dillon, Fred Knobloch, Radney Foster, Larry Carlton, Ed Bruce…and on and on.
I watched and listened to Vince Gill singing “When I Call Your Name” on the Opry House stage with the incomparable Dawn Sears by his side on harmony vocals. I heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singing songs from their first, second and third Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, along with hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishing in the Dark.”
I saw Eric Clapton rocking “Layla” at Bridgestone Arena. That’s also where I went to hear Simon & Garfunkel with Phil and Don Everly. When they sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” their voices intertwining, Art Garfunkel’s clear tenor soaring, “I’m sailing right behind, like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind…” I wept.
After the Ryman Auditorium reopened in the early 1990s, I began attending events there. I saw the King’s Singers, and the Canadian Brass Quintet, and the Harry Connick Orchestra, winter Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and innumerable Bluegrass Night at the Ryman performances.
I danced the night away at Vanderbilt Stadium when I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time on their 1997 Bridges to Babylon tour. Sheryl Crow opened for them. I didn’t sit down all night. On the shuttle ride back to our car, my friends and I named about 20 hits they hadn’t had time to sing. I saw them again in 2002 at Bridgestone Arena and yet again in 2015 at LP Field.
In July 2012 I attended the Friday Night Opry the night Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees performed there for the first time. It was barely two months after the death of his brother Robin, and Barry was the oldest and the only living brother left. He sang “To Love Somebody,” one of the Bee Gees’ standards and probably their most covered song. Then he began singing “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” a song which Robin had traditionally opened on lead vocals. His voice cracked, just the tiniest bit. But he soldiered on, because that’s what professionals do.
In my mid-40s I left Middle Tennessee to go to law school. When I returned, one of the first things I did was go to Ryman Auditorium to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza, ablaze with its contagious rockabilly cheer. Afterward, as I stood in the shadows and lights of the Batman Building, I felt Nashville welcoming me back home.
Once my sister Anita came to visit me, and I had a chance to share with her firsthand how easy it is to find this magical experience in Nashville. We went down to the world-famous Station Inn on 12th Avenue South to hear the Sidemen. One of their standard numbers was a song written by songwriter Paul Craft called “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” which Anita and I knew from Linda Rondstadt’s 1974 album Heart Like A Wheel.
On this particular night, Paul Craft was in the audience. Terry Eldredge, then one of the lead vocalists for the Sidemen, invited Mr. Craft to the stage to sing the song with them. Anita turned to me and said, “Liz! Liz! The man who wrote ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’ is on stage, and he’s singing ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away!'”
“Yes,” I smiled. “Yes, he is.”
Clockwise, from top left: 1) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Jumbotron at Nashville’s LP Field in June 2015, performing “Far Away Eyes.” 2) Me with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen, Bob Carpenter and Jimmy Ibbotson – backstage at the Opry House, 2002. 3) The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza 2014, Ryman Auditorium. 4) Me with Barry Gibb backstage at the Friday Night Opry, July 27, 2012. 5) The Del McCoury Band at the 2009 International Bluegrass Music Association awards show at Ryman Auditorium.