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They Came to Nashville
By Marshall Chapman
Vanderbilt University Press Copyright © 2010 Marshall Chapman
All rights reserved.
The first time I saw Kris Kristofferson was in somebody's room at the old Ramada Inn on the James Robertson Parkway in downtown Nashville. I had gone there with Jack Clement and Walter Forbes. It may have been DJ Week 1968. I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Vanderbilt University. I remember there were other people milling about the room. And a certain electricity in the air.
A scruffy-looking guy was sitting on the end of a bed playing a guitar, singing a song he had written. Every time he got to the part that went "La de-dah de-dah de-dah-dah / La de-dah de-dah ..." everybody in the room began singing along, including me. But I was thinking, Man, those are pretty dumb lyrics. I guess he just couldn't think of any words for that part. But the people in the room seemed mightily impressed with this scruffy-looking guy with deep-set eyes that seemed to look at nobody, yet saw all. Then I heard someone whisper Kris Kristofferson and figured that must be his name. Sounded like a pretty cool name for such a scruffy-looking guy.
Now mind you, I was just becoming aware that people wrote songs in Nashville, Tennessee. That somebody would actually sit down and think about his or her life, or things like "freedom" and "injustice," then write a song about it. I was so young and naïve, I wasn't thinking about much. Until that night, I probably thought Stephen Foster had written every song that ever was, other than "The Star-Spangled Banner," which I knew was written by Francis Scott Key. Until that night, I had always equated Nashville with Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers and the Grand Ole Opry. But that night at the Ramada Inn, in a room full of strangers and some guy named Kristofferson singing a song about Bobby McGee, I came to realize that Nashville was also a place where people came to write songs. People you did not necessarily see on TV. And some of them actually made a living at it. It was a revelation.
I don't remember meeting Kristofferson that night. At least I hope not, seeing as this was pre–Kent State, which meant I was wearing the uniform du jour of the "TVC" (Typical Vanderbilt Coed)—a tweed Villager skirt with McMullen blouse, knee socks, and Bass Weejuns. After Kent State, of course, everything changed, including the clothes we wore. After that, it was bell-bottom jeans, black turtlenecks, sandals, and my favorite accessory of all—a blue suede choker with a gold nuclear disarmament peace symbol pinned on the front. While purchasing the choker and pin at a head shop near Vanderbilt, I remember thinking, Boy, Mother sure would hate seeing this peace symbol on my neck. And that somehow made me happy.
The next time I saw Kristofferson was about two years later. Ironically, I was again with Cowboy Jack Clement and Walter Forbes. I wrote about Jack in my first book, so if you want to know about him, then read it ... or google him, whichever suits your fancy. Suffice it to say, Jack was at the controls at Sun Records when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On." Fifty years later, Jack would sing his "West Canterbury Subdivision Blues" at my wedding. Everything in between and since has been fairly well documented, but somebody needs to write the book. (You listenin', Cowboy?)
As for my connection with Walter Forbes, I'd met him the spring I was sixteen years old in Hollywood Beach, Florida. I'd gone there with my father for the annual ATMI (American Textile Manufacturers Institute) convention. Usually Mother would accompany Daddy to these events, but she hadn't felt up to it that year, so Dad ended up taking me. It was my first time to fly on a commercial jet, so I was pretty excited. Plus I got to skip school. But the fact that he had asked me to go was beyond special.
One night after dinner, Dad said, "Walter Forbes Sr.'s having some friends up to hear his son play guitar. You want to go?" Sounded good to me, so up the elevator we went to Mr. Forbes Sr.'s suite at the Hollywood Beach Hotel, which is where we were all staying. As we walked in, the first thing I noticed was this guy in a white dinner jacket, playing a Martin guitar, singing songs about mules and slaves and things you just didn't talk about in the proper South Carolina society I grew up in. Plus, the guy had crinkly blue eyes and the biggest, whitest teeth I'd ever seen. He looked right at me and smiled when he sang, and being sixteen years old, I was smitten.
I came to learn that Walter Forbes had recorded two albums for RCA that Chet Atkins produced. That he and his wife Kitty had moved to Nashville so Walter could pursue a career in music. A few years before, Walter's only brother had been killed in a gun accident, which only increased the family pressure for Walter to succeed. So when the uncertainties of a life in music became all too real, Walter returned to Chattanooga to work in the family business. The Forbeses were textile people like my family. Everybody in the textile business knew each other. My grandfather, who'd died that previous winter, had been good friends with Mr. Forbes Sr.
About a week after my father and I were back in Spartanburg, a package arrived in the mail from Chattanooga. Inside was a record album entitled Chattanooga Arts Festival featuring Walter Forbes and the Revived Virginia Minstrels. It was inscribed, "To Marshall, Very first copy, Love, Walter." After I read the inscription, I shrieked and burst into tears. My parents thought I'd gone off the deep end. Understand, I come from a long line of Presbyterians—often referred to as "The Frozen Chosen"—so my behavior was surprising, even to me. After I calmed down, Dad showed me the two RCA albums Walter had sent him a couple of years before. I spent the next few months learning to play every song on those albums.
After that, there were summer visits to the Forbes home on Lookout Mountain. I was hoping Walter would teach me more about the guitar, but he said, "Nope. There's someone here who's much better than me—Norman Blake." So I ended up taking three lessons from Norman Blake on the second floor of an old brick building in downtown Chattanooga. I remember carrying my guitar up a long flight of worn wooden stairs to a room with an electric fan whirring back and forth in an open window. But the summertime heat never bothered me. I was too focused on Norman Blake and learning to play the guitar. I remember how exhilarating it felt, the first time I was able to simultaneously play bass notes with my thumb and melody notes with my fingers on songs like "Home, Sweet Home" and Elizabeth Cotten's classic "Freight Train." My mother had driven me to Chattanooga that first trip, and I can still see her sitting there reading or knitting while Norman Blake taught me guitar. Those were the only guitar lessons I ever had. After that, I just picked things up on my own.
That same trip, I remember being at Walter and Kitty's, watching Walter fill shotgun shells with bird shot using this little machine he had in his basement. I was just standing there watching him. There was music playing on the stereo, and every now and then, one of us would say something. I remember Walter asking if I had thought about college. I told him I had, but had no idea where I wanted to go, or even if I wanted to go. Most of the women in my family had gone to Converse College in Spartanburg.
"You want to go to Vanderbilt," Walter said emphatically.
"What's Vanderbilt?" I asked.
"It's in Nashville, and that's where you want to go."
After that, whenever anybody asked me where I was going to college, I always said, "Vanderbilt."
My parents were hoping I would go to a small, southern, liberal-arts women's college like Agnes Scott, Hollins, or Sweet Briar. They weren't particularly thrilled about my obsession with Vanderbilt. Like many people in South Carolina, they considered anything west of the Blue Ridge Mountains "just plain uncivilized." I remember Mother saying, "But we don't know anybody in Nashville." I was thinking, Exactly. And that's why I'm going! Also, after two years at an all-girls boarding school in a midsized town in North Carolina, I was ready for a change.
So the first time I came to Nashville was to look at Vanderbilt with my mother. We flew out Friday, January 27, 1967, during my senior year in high school. Riding in from the airport, I remember how gray everything seemed—the crags of limestone on either side of the road, so different from the green pines and rolling red clay hills back home. Mother and I stayed at the old Anchor Motel on West End Avenue. That first morning, we had breakfast at Miss Martha's Restaurant across the street. Mother picked it out because it had her name. Mother was born Martha Lenoir Cloud, but everybody called her Martha.
A Vanderbilt coed named Carmi Carmichael showed me around. I'd known Carmi from Spartanburg. Her family had lived just up the street from my family on Connecticut Avenue while her father was president of Converse College. On Saturday afternoon, Carmi took me to a basketball game at Memorial Gym to watch the Vanderbilt men play Mississippi State. We arrived early and sat in the back row of the student section. By tip-off, the gym was packed. I had never experienced so much excitement. After a sluggish first half, Vanderbilt won convincingly enough, 79–64.
That evening, Carmi and I drove downtown to see the Grand Ole Opry in the old Ryman Auditorium. Our seats were on the main floor just under the balcony. I remember somebody spilling a Coke in the balcony and it dripping down to where we were sitting. I also remember a large woman nursing a baby in the pew in front of us. I'd never seen a woman nurse a baby in public—or in private, for that matter— so I was somewhat taken aback. I was thinking, Boy, it's a good thing Mother didn't come. Mother would not approve of bare bosoms in public, baby or no baby. Other than that, I just remember how down-home everything was—musicians and friends and hangers-on wandering on and off the stage, while the show just kept on going. It was like being on a train. And I loved the commercials and how they were part of the show—especially the song about Martha White's Self-Rising Flour with Hot Rize Plus. And Bobby Bare singing "Detroit City" while women rushed to the stage with their cameras flashing.
That previous fall, I had applied to Vanderbilt, Emory, Hollins, and Converse. By spring, I was accepted at all four. But thanks to Walter Forbes, there was never any doubt in my mind as to where I would go.
I arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in the fall of 1967. Not long after I'd settled in, I got a call from Walter, who was in town visiting Cowboy Jack Clement. They were in a bar out on White Bridge Road called the Hound's Tooth. It was Walter, Jack, and Bill Hall. They were having a few drinks, so I took a cab out to meet them. It was my first time to ride in a cab alone and my first encounter with someone in the Nashville music business. I've often wondered whether it was God or the Devil smiling on me that night. Probably a little of both. Anyway, a few weeks later, I received in the mail a couple of Stoneman Family records ("featuring Dancing Donna") from Bill Hall, also known as the Colonel. Cowboy? The Colonel? Men back home didn't have names like this. Men back home had names like James, John, and Roger. This Cowboy guy and the Colonel ... they were making records, for chrissakes! No way any fraternity boy was going to compete with this.
By the way, I just called Jack to ask how Bill Hall got his nickname. "He had to be called something," Jack replied. "Cowboy was already taken."
Music Row is only two blocks from Vanderbilt, but back then it might as well have been on the moon. That night I first saw Kristofferson, Walter had picked me up at my dorm to take me downtown to meet up with Cowboy at the Ramada Inn. And that's where we were when Fred Foster came bursting through the door with Kristofferson in tow. After Kris sang "Me and Bobby McGee," Cowboy asked him to sing it again. When he did, Cowboy said matter-of-factly, "That's a hit."
Like I said, the next time I saw Kristofferson, I was again with Cowboy and Walter Forbes. The two of them had picked me up in Jack's black Cadillac to go to a party at Doug Jeffords's house. This was toward the end of my junior year. By then, I was playing music with Vanderbilt classmate Woody Chrisman, who would later join the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Riders in the Sky.
I just received an email from Doug Jeffords in Ireland, and he had this to say: "The party was for a bunch from The Johnny Cash Show, plus assorted pickers. I had met Kris almost as soon as he hit town, but really got to know him during the Cash Show. Newbury was there, Vince Matthews, and some others. As I recall, you arrived with Clement, who Larry [Larry Murray, head writer for the Cash Show ] had invited to drop by. You were in your TVC mode, while still looking like a real folkie. I knew immediately that you were someone much more interesting than the Vanderbilt coeds of that era! You looked around for a few minutes, then said, 'Shit! Woody's got to be here,' and departed to return with him."
This was late spring 1970. By then Woody had married and had a child, with another one on the way. He and his young family were living in an attic apartment on Pierce Avenue, where the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital is today. He was in bed with his wife and child when I knocked on their door.
"Hey, Woody!" bam! bam! bam! "Get up! There's a party with some people from The Johnny Cash Show. I'm with Jack Clement and Walter Forbes and everybody's playing music!" So Woody got out of bed in his skivvies, grabbed his fiddle, and down the fire escape we went.
Next thing I know, we're pulling into Doug Jeffords's driveway.
Now, I wouldn't see Jeffords again for another twenty-seven years. Not until late one Sunday afternoon in June 1997. My husband Chris had wanted me to see a house being shown in the old Richland–West End neighborhood, but by the time we got there, visiting hours had ended. So I walked up on the porch hoping to get a peek, when I saw two men standing just inside the front door. As the realtor mouthed, "Sorry, we're closed," the other said, "Hey, that's Marshall Chapman. Open the door!" As it turned out, the other man was Doug Jeffords. So Chris and I ended up buying Doug's house, which is where we still live today. It amuses me to think we might never have lived here had I not crashed that party with Walter Forbes, Cowboy Jack Clement, and a snuff- dipping fiddle player wearing nothing but his skivvies.
Anyway, we must've been a sight walking into Doug's house that night. But the strange thing is, I just vaguely remember Mickey New-bury and Kristofferson and Vince Matthews being there, mainly because there were other, larger forces at play. This was just after Kent State, and when Walter (who had served two years in the Marines) said he didn't blame the National Guardsmen for shooting those students, I suddenly felt a seismic shift at my core. And even though I was still a virgin, I lost a big chunk of my innocence that night. The world I had been raised to believe in was not the world I was beginning to see. I looked at clean-shaven Walter, who'd gone back to Chattanooga to live the life of privilege I was raised to live, then glanced at scruffy-looking Kristofferson singing, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," and thought, You can't have it both ways, Marshall. You're either free and open and sensitive to the world, or you're not. And though I may not have been aware of it at the time, my soul was casting its lot with the scruffy-looking guys.
I'VE RUN INTO KRISTOFFERSON MANY times since those two nights from my Vanderbilt days—BMI parties, onstage at Tipitina's, backstage at the Troubadour, and so forth. Then there was that all-nighter in somebody's room at the King of the Road Motor Inn in Nashville. Kris was holding court with Billy Joe Shaver, me, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Sammi Smith in attendance. Well, initially it was Kris, Billy Joe, Willie, and me. Sammi Smith came padding down from her room later on. Then way later on, Waylon just sort of blew into the room like a cyclone.
Excerpted from They Came to Nashville by Marshall Chapman. Copyright © 2010 Marshall Chapman. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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