I first started planning what turned out to be my ‘A Night To Remember’ about a year or so before the event. I met someone at a party in the summer of 2017 who had recently driven across America on Route 66, something I had always wanted to do but I’d never gotten round to doing anything about it. On doing some research, I discovered that there was very little left of the original road and to drive the whole 2400 miles would mean driving through some long, boring stretches of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona so a re-think was needed.
Another trip I had always wanted to do was the ‘Big Three’ southern music cities of Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. So aided by a map, Google and some books, I worked out that I could kill two (or maybe more) birds with one stone and do some driving on ‘The Mother Road’ and then go to the three music cities and as a bonus visit Chicago and St Louis too – five of the top music cities in the US of A in one go.
I decide that we would go in September 2018 to celebrate my 70th birthday. The plan was to fly into Chicago, spend some time there, hire a car and drive on Route 66 to St Louis stopping en route at the Route 66 Motel. From St Louis we’d fly to Nashville, hire another car and spend three nights in each of the cities seeing as much of the sites as possible along with a lot of music. I’d timed the trip to be in Nashville on my actual birthday, the 17th so I needed to sort out where we’d be on the day and who we could see to celebrate the momentous event.
One of the places I was desperate to visit in Nashville was of course the Ryman Auditorium – the home of country music. I was hoping there would be somebody I really wanted to see appearing that night but when I looked at their schedule, what jumped out to me was that one of my all-time favourites, k.d. lang (such a favourite that we named one of our cats after her) was not only playing there on the 16th, but was doing the whole of ‘Ingénue’ – her greatest album. So it was a no brainer to book the tickets but that left the conundrum of what to do the following evening.
Then it hit me. I’d been watching ‘Nashville’ a cheesy, but very enjoyable soap opera about the city and its music. A lot of it was set in the Bluebird Café, a real place just outside the city, so whilst I knew that the TV version was a lot smarter and bigger than the real one, I thought it would be an interesting place to spend the evening. When I looked at the schedule to see who was playing that night (a Monday), I saw it was ‘Open Mic’ night, but it was rumoured that often big stars turned up unannounced, so it seemed like the place to go. The set up for Open Mic nights is that you couldn’t reserve tickets in advance but you could try on the day on-line, and if you were unlucky, you could go and get in line on the night. I thought I’d try and circumvent the system and emailed them to ask if I could reserve a couple of seats as I was coming over 4000 miles and it was my 70th birthday – I never received a reply.
During the planning process, I saw a friend of mine, Andy Washington, the UK’s leading Americana tour manager (Alison Moorer & Shelby Lynne, Hurray For The Riff Raff, Justin Townes Earle, Mary Gauthier etc. etc.) who said he’d be in Nashville that week for AmericanaFest and we should meet up when I got there. This we did and on the afternoon of the 16th, before we headed off to the Ryman, we went to see him at the home of Doug and Telisha Williams of the band Wild Ponies who had a party every year in their home and garden, which for some reason had goats roaming around! There Andy introduced us to Mary Gaultier and Yola amongst others and a good time was had by all. Andy asked us what we were doing for my birthday and I told him we were going to try and get into the Bluebird. He smiled and said good luck with that as its tiny and you may not get in. He then said if you don’t, he’d be at Betty’s Grill, a ten-minute drive away from the Bluebird at 407 49th Avenue and we’d be welcome to join him there as he was going there to see a friend of his, Jon Byrd play his regular Monday set. I thanked him but said it would be unlikely as I was determined to get into the Bluebird. We then set off to the shrine that is the Ryman where we saw k.d. who was in top form, sing the whole of ‘Ingénue’ in sequence plus some other of her best-known songs. She was just wonderful as were her superb band – and the Ryman was all I imagined it to be, and more.
The following day, my birthday, we did some of the Nashville sites and spent some time in a park with poor cellphone connection trying to get tickets on-line but failed and it timed out. The only alternative was to get to the Bluebird around 4:30pm and get in line (well I was in America) as the doors opened at 5:30. Expecting just a few people to be there at that time, how wrong could I be! ‘Nashville’ had been on the air for a few years, worldwide and judging but the different languages being spoken, we weren’t the only tourists queuing – the three guys in front of us had driven from Toronto. I asked one of the security guys what were the chances of us getting in and he replied “About 50-50” – not great odds. Now it had been around 95 degrees during the day and it hadn’t cooled down much by 4:30 so it was pretty hot even in the little shade there was in the run-down strip mall so it wasn’t much fun. We passed the time speaking to the three Canadians who were just behind us discussing whether we’d get in. Finally, around 5:30, the line began to move and around 40 minutes later, we were almost at the head of the queue with just a couple of Swedish girls ahead of us when someone appeared from the café and said, “That’s it we’re full” – so almost but not quite! To say I was a little upset would be an understatement and insult was added to injury when they said we could if wanted, go in and take some photographs before leaving the premises – I didn’t take them up on their ‘kind’ offer and stomped away very disgruntled.
When we got to the car and I had calmed down, I punched the address of Betty’s Grill into the satnav and headed off down the road. When we got to our destination, we were a little surprised to find that Betty’s was down a dark side road and it was located in a long, wooden structure that looked a bit like two mobile homes bolted together! When we went inside, it was dark and dingy and whilst our eyes acclimatised to the light (or lack of it) for a moment I thought, what are we doing in this dive as the the place as pretty empty and lacking atmosphere. It had a long bar and grill to the right with the ubiquitous TV up on the wall behind the bar showing a ball game and a pool table in the corner. To the left was a small ‘stage’, well space, where local musician Jon Byrd was singing and playing guitar along with Paul Niehaus, one of Nashville’s finest pedal steel players accompanying him. We soon found Andy – not hard as the place was tiny and it wasn’t exactly heaving and we settled down to watch these two superb musicians entertain the ‘crowd’. I have no idea what they played but they were both superb and having been playing together as a duo for years, the combination of the two was almost telepathic.
A few people did come in now and again but mainly to get a cold beer and something from the grill. However, there was a guy in a baseball cap sitting at the bar who spent the whole evening drinking a beer or three with his back to the musicians, seemingly taking no notice of them. At the end of the evening, Byrd said, we usually end with a specific song but he couldn’t remember what it was and neither could Neihaus. Suddenly, disinterested baseball cap guy shouted out a song title and Byrd said, that’s the one and proceeded to play it!
Whilst I didn’t expect to have the evening I had, there’s no doubt that this will live in my memory a lot longer than some of the great gigs I’ve seen in nearly 60 years of gig going, so I’m more than happy to nominate Jon Byrd and Paul Niehaus playing at Betty’s Grill in Nashville on September 17th 2018 as my ‘A Night To Remember’.