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By Julie L. Cannon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Julie L. Cannon
All rights reserved.
Those first days in Nashville were happy. Happier than any I could recall. It was no accident that I had Mac's cousin pull his sputtering Vega to the curb on the corner of Music Circle East and Division Street. The Best Western was in walking distance of Music Row.
All my belongings were stuffed into two huggable paper sacks, and when I marched down that strip of red carpeting into a marble-floored lobby with a chandelier, I knew it was a palace compared to that drafty cabin in Blue Ridge with peeling wallpaper and warped floorboards. Room 316 had pretty gold and maroon carpet, gold curtains at a window with an air conditioning unit beneath it, two queen beds, and two glossy wood tables—one in the corner with a lamp, an ice bucket, and a coffeemaker and the other between the beds with a phone, a clock, and a remote for the television. There was even a little bitty refrigerator, a microwave, an ironing board, and an iron. What else could a person need?
More curious about having my own indoor bathroom than a television, I tiptoed in there first. Nothing had prepared me for what met my eyes. Clean white tiles on the floor, a marbled sink, a blow-dryer, a stack of sweet-smelling towels, and fancy soap. The washrags were folded like fans, and there were free miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner.
To say this felt like paradise would not be an exaggeration. Turning around and around until I got drunk with my good fortune, I collapsed and fell flat onto the closest bed, laughing like a maniac, some pathetic yokel finding out she'd won the lottery.
Although bone-tired on account of being so journey-proud that I hadn't been able to sleep a wink in forty-eight hours, I couldn't fathom closing my eyes. I hadn't eaten in as long either, except for some pork rinds and a Pepsi on the ride. But I was like someone possessed: hungry only for the feel of Nashville, thirsty only for the way she looked. I promised myself for the hundredth time I would not think about my mother and the fact I'd left no note. I told myself I'd eat some real food and get sleep later, after I'd explored my new mother. I took the elevator downstairs to find some maps.
At the front desk, a sign said the Best Western had free breakfast: sausage, biscuits and gravy, waffles, eggs, oatmeal, muffins, toast, bagels, yogurt, and fruit. The elation I felt at this was not small, and I couldn't help a happy little laugh.
A short, overweight man in a blue seersucker suit and bright orange tie bustled out of the room behind the front desk and said, "What can I do for you this evenin', missy?" He had a tall pink forehead like you'd expect on a bald man, but his hair—and I could tell it wasn't a toupee—was this lavish white cloud that put me in mind of an albino Elvis. I could see amusement in his startlingly blue eyes.
I didn't bother to mention I was twenty-two, hardly a missy, because he'd said it so kindly and I was used to being mistaken for a much younger girl. "I wanted to see if y'all had any maps and stuff about Nashville, please." I smiled back at him, noting the name engraved on his gold lapel bar: Roy Durden.
"We got maps coming out our ears! What other information you looking for?"
He nodded, turned, and stepped to a bookshelf along the back wall, squatting slowly, carefully, as I watched in utter fascination to see if he'd manage to get his enormous belly to fit down between his thighs. He unfastened the button on his suit coat and the hem brushed the sides of gigantic white buck shoes. Eventually, he rose with a loud grunt, carrying an armload of papers. "Alrighty," he said, spreading them on the counter like a card dealer in Vegas. "Let's see what we can do for you."
"Thanks." I reached for a glossy brochure that said Tour the Ryman, Former Home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was lavishly illustrated with pictures of artifacts from early Opry years and old-time country music stars like Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams. There was a headline that said you could cut your own CD at the Ryman's recording studio. Thanks to my high school music teacher Mr. Anglin, I had already accomplished that task.
"Snazzy, huh?" Roy was nodding. "Now, that there is one hallowed institution. Tennessee's sweet-sounding gift to the world. Place the tourists flock to." He was talking with his eyes closed and this rapturous expression on his face. "Up until '74, fans packed the pews of the Ryman every Friday and Saturday night. Folks loved that place so much that when the Opry moved to its current digs right near the Opryland Hotel, they cut out a six-foot circle from the stage and put it front and center at the new place. So the stars of the future can stand where the legends stood." Roy grew quiet for a worshipful moment.
"There's this one too," he said at last, pushing a slick brochure that read The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum toward me.
Mac, my boss at McNair Orchards, used to say he could see my face in a display hanging in the Hall of Fame, right between Barbara Mandrell and Tammy Wynette. Mac got my head so full of stars, I could hardly think of much else except to get to Nashville to show the world my stuff. I stared at the photograph of a building that looked to be an architectural wonder in itself. One side was an RKO-style radio tower, while the main part had windows resembling a piano keyboard, and an end like a Cadillac tailfin. "That's nice," I offered.
"Yep, real nice," Roy said, his fingertips grazing more brochures reading Belle Meade Plantation, Margaritaville, General Jackson Showboat, Wildhorse Saloon, and The Parthenon. He lifted a map of Nashville. "Be helpful for you to know Second Avenue runs north, and Fourth Avenue runs south."
"I didn't bring a car."
"That a fact?" He looked hard at me. "Well, downtown and the Hall of Fame are in walking distance, but it's a ways to the Grand Ole Opry." Roy's index finger touched a spot on the map. "There's also a place called Riverfront Park you could walk to, but I got to warn you, missy, Nashville sits down in a bowl, between a couple lakes and rivers, so it feels like you're walking through hot soup in the summertime. Can be right intolerable." He swiped his florid face at the memory of heat as I flipped through the pages of a brochure, pausing every now and again to stare at a picture of a star singing on a stage, the crowd going wild. There was an energy in those photographs, a palpable current of voice and instrument and the sweet thunder of applause. For a long time I looked at a picture of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, their faces suffused with a bright, joyous light.
"You like this one?" Roy asked, making me jump.
"That was in '75, the night Dolly and Porter sang their last duet together. I was close enough to see Dolly's makeup." There were tears in Roy's eyes.
"Wow," I said.
"Wow is right."
"Can I have it? Can I have all these, please?" I tried not to look too eager, but every cell in my body wanted to scoop up the brochures, rush to my room to study them, to dream of climbing right into the beautiful photographs.
"Go ahead. You must be a first-time tourist."
I didn't think of myself as a tourist. I was there because of a promise I'd made, and the voices I'd heard over 103.9 FM back in Blue Ridge. Mountain Country Radio assured me that Nashville was the place for a person bitten by the singer/ songwriter bug. "Um ... I just like music."
"Wellllll, you come to the right place then. We got live music right here at the Best Western." Roy swept one arm out in a magnanimous gesture toward the other side of the lobby where I saw a doorway to what I'd figured was the dining area. A sign in the shape of a giant guitar pick said Pick's, and next to that was another that said Great Drinks!
"Y'all need anybody to sing at Pick's?"
"Naw. We got our bands booked a good ways in advance."
"Wonder where musicians who're looking for work hang out," I said in a casual voice, gathering the brochures.
"Nashville draws musicians like honey draws flies, and a body can't go ten yards without bumping into one of them looking for work. Tons of wannabes in here constantly, trying to make their way. Dreaming the dream."
From the tone of Roy's voice, I couldn't tell if he was trying to give me a warning or just stating facts. "Well, thank you," I said, turning to go.
"Wait. How long you plannin' to stay?"
Barring any unforeseen expenses, I knew about how far my much-fingered roll of $20 bills would go. The Manager's Special of $65 per night came out to two weeks for $910, leaving $90 for food and incidentals, and surely in that time I'd have some paid work singing. A recording contract if Mr. Anglin's prediction came true. Seeing his dear face in my mind's eye made a little guilty tremor race up my spine. I needed to get back to my room. "I paid for three nights up front," I said, turning to go again.
"Hey!" he called, spinning me on my heel to see those intense blue eyes looking at me. "You sing?"
I hesitated, then answered, "Yessir. Play and sing. Write all my own material."
"Well, well. What's your name, missy?"
"Jennifer Anne Clodfelter."
"Mighty big name for such a slip of a girl. Anybody ever tell you you're a dead ringer for Cher?"
I nodded. By twelve I was constantly compared to the dark, exotic celebrity when she was young, starring in the 1970's Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. I was tall and willowy, and my straight blue-black hair fell to my waist. But, where Cher wasn't exactly well-endowed, I was ample in the bosom department. The other difference between me and Cher was that my eyes were green.
"So ... what style of music do you do, Jennifer Anne Clodfelter?"
I borrowed some confidence from Mac's words when he handed me my last paycheck. "I'm the next Patsy Cline."
"Alrighty." Roy chuckled. "Then let me guess. You do traditional? Or maybe early country?"
"You said you're Patsy Cline. But, there's tons of styles. Got your Nashville sound and your country rock. Then there's rockabilly, bluegrass, honky-tonk, outlaw, and Bakersfield sound. Cowboy Western and Western swing. Oh!" he clucked his tongue. "About forgot Texas country style, and the new traditionalist, and can't leave out the contemporary sound, and of course, alternative. Though I don't cotton to alternative."
My heart started racing for fear my ignorance would show. "I'm the old kind of country."
"I see. So, you want to be a star?"
I saw mischief in those blue eyes, and I didn't know how to answer this question either. At last, I nodded.
That's when he began regarding me with amused pity. "If that's the case, you'll really want to be here a little longer. Actually," he paused and drew a long breath, "you'll want to be here nine years."
Roy cleared his throat, and it seemed he stood on tiptoes because he rose up at least two inches. "Nashville may be the creative center of the universe if you're a singer and a songwriter—got all kinds of resources here for learning the industry, lots of places you can sing—but folks don't call her the nine-year town for nothing. They say it takes nine years to break into the scene, to become an overnight success. I've lived here all my life and I love her, but if you're looking to break into the music business, she can chew you up and spit you out like nobody's business."
I must've looked sad or confused because Roy's face softened, his voice grew smooth as silk, "You got people here?"
"I'm on my own." Four simple words—the truth of it stunned me.
"I got an extra room at my house."
"Um ... thanks. No offense, but I'm fine on my own."
"Ain't trying to rain on your parade, but I've seen plenty have to wait tables or worse. Randy Travis was a cook and a dishwasher at the Nashville Palace before he could make it on his music. Seen a good number turn around and head home, too, tail tucked between their legs. You might need a place if—"
"I said I'm fine."
Roy rolled his lips inward, considering. "Independent type, hmm? Well, good luck. But don't worry if you change your mind." He drew in a long breath. "If you change your mind, you just come right on back and see Roy. I'm here most evenings after seven. I just figured if you're new around town, trying to make your way in the country music scene, it'd be good if you had somebody to fall back on."
* * *
Back in my room, I sat on the bed, Roy's words hanging over me like a dark cloud. Chew you up and spit you out, and Folks don't call her the nine-year town for nothing. Just like that, a dark cloud moved over me. This spirit of despair was something I often felt, and it had a Siamese twin who drove me to do really rash and stupid things. That was how I'd made my worst mistake to date, acting on blind impulse. And now impulses to bolt from Music City were gathering forces. I knew despair was the worst thing, the killer that blinded you to possibilities, and so I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes, and forced myself to go back all those years to a little scene that happened on the stretch of linoleum between the music room and the gym.
"Really, Jennifer, you have a gift you need to share with this world." It was between classes, and Mr. Anglin whispered in this intense voice, his small mouth barely moving against my ear. "Promise me you'll get these demos to Nashville." I recalled that his hands clenched into fists, even after I gave him my word that I'd do it. Mr. Anglin often reminded me he'd heard thousands of singers in his job of music teacher at the high school and choir director at the church, but I was the only one who'd ever moved him to tears. My songs and the way I sang them pierced his heart.
Speaking of hearts, Mr. Anglin had been well-loved, and his memorial service in April of my junior year had been a large affair involving the entire staff and a good number of the nine hundred students from Fannin County High, as well as a huge flock of people from the church. The odd thing was that Mr. Anglin's burial, prior to the service, was private. Mr. Anglin was a bachelor and had been an only child with no living parents, so there was no family to have requested this.
No family I could confess to ...
After the service, when everyone was in the fellowship hall drinking coffee and eating cakes brought by dozens of church ladies, I walked out to the cemetery to see his stone. I put my hand over my heart and said, "I'm sorry. I had no idea you'd take it so hard. Please forgive me." I walked around Mr. Anglin's new home. He loved flowers, and toward the fringes of the graveyard, there was soft purple wisteria dripping from tree limbs. There were flowers near the graves, too, and I'm not talking about artificial arrangements poked down into stone vases. There were daffodils and dandelions in pretty shades of yellow, and a line of white irises. When a jot of blue caught my eye, right at the edge of where the dirt had been disturbed for Mr. Anglin's casket, I let out a little, "Hah!" and bent to pluck the tiny stem of a forget-me-not. I turned to Mr. Anglin's headstone again, and with tears in my eyes I said, "I won't forget you, ever. I promise I'll take the demos to Nashville." But even with this graveside declaration, I'd continued on the path of that heedless decision that put him there in the first place.
Here it was six years later, and I was only just beginning to honor my promise. I felt the slick brochures from Roy Durden and looked down at the bold words: The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. "I might be in the Hall of Fame one day," I said out loud, picturing myself with all those legends and pressing my free hand over my heart to feel a trembling hopefulness deep inside that moved outward making all of me shake. Then it was like I had this knowing, this sense that what I was imagining I could actually achieve. I hopped up, splashed cold water on my face, and took the elevator downstairs again.
Excerpted from Twang by Julie L. Cannon. Copyright © 2012 Julie L. Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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