For one weekend in June, Tennessee was the center of the universe. CMA Fest (formerly known as Fan Fair) sprawled all over downtown Nashville, while Bonnaroo and its legion of faithful attendees partied a few miles down the road in the sleepy town of Manchester. And this is normal. With the exception of 2014, both of the long-running festivals have coincided for as long as anyone can remember, but this year had an unexpected third element enter the fray: Game 6 of the Stanley Cup.
Nashville has been bubbling over with hockey fever the past few years thanks to the surging Nashville Predators, who overcame a sixteenth seed playoff birth this season to claw their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. But this story isn’t about hockey. This is about my experience as a working musician on one of the busiest days in Nashville history.
The musicians that play the clubs downtown come from all over the country and the world to work, not content being big fish in little ponds. A decent living can be made working Lower Broadway, all without leaving town, and the circles of players overlap like a Venn diagram. Through this system people can meet literally for the first time a few minutes before a gig, trusting they will know enough of the same tunes to get through roughly four hours of music.
My day began with seeing a Facebook post from a friend looking for someone to play that night from 2-6 pm. I was already scheduled to play somewhere else from 6-10, but I figured since I would already be downtown, it was a good idea. After working out a few technical issues (this club wanted little stage volume and relied on a system of wireless in-ear monitors to provide sound for the musicians), the job was mine.
It went well. The crowd was receptive and generous with tips, the staff professional and the sound great. Luckily, this band and their bandleader were particularly gracious in choosing familiar tunes, guiding me through the ones I didn’t know and being kickass all around. It’s always reaffirming to see the rest of the band having fun playing with you, especially when you had met only moments before. We finished up and I began the Great Schlepp of 2017. I now had to contend with Luke Bryan and seven blocks worth of hockey fans.
Moving gear from Point A to Point B is my least favorite part of being a musician. Most working musicians use a handcart with a few bungee cords, but I, being Dingus Khan and the Leader of the Horde out of the East, was not equipped with one this day. Instead, I had only myself to carry an amp, pedal board and gig bag to the next stop, two blocks away.
If you look real hard at the bars on the opposite side of the street in this video, you might be able to make out a musician with long hair and a white shirt yelling at the crowd in front of him to move. It was to no avail. What should have been a five-minute walk, even without a cart, took five times as long. Thankfully, I still made it to my next gig in time, and regurgitated my equipment all over the stage.
The singer played a mean lead guitar and was a nice change of pace from the previous outing. My fingers were still hot from the four hours prior and allowed me a chance to really open up. We played from puck drop through the final moments of the third period to packed crowds both inside and outside the bar. The atmosphere was incredible.
With about half an hour to go, a friend of mine tried to flag me down from outside. We were in the middle of a song, but he mouthed and gestured if I could play across the street at another bar after this gig was done. Even though I was pretty hungry and tired by that point, I thought, What the hell? Why not? I waved him yes and met him across the street shortly thereafter.
I was introduced to the folks in the band, who again I had never played with before, and off we were. This last gig had its own quirks. It was my first time ever with a legit country fiddle player, and I sang more than on my previous two. While the street affair behind us finished, there were still a few locals out and about, in addition to some elated Penguins fans celebrating their Cup victory. I ran into a few buddies on the way to my car who had the same afterglow I had. Spirits were high, but you could tell the city was exhausted.
A handful of things have stayed with me about this experience and are useful for any up-and-coming player trying to wrap their head around a crazy day like this. For starters, it’s important to note there is a physical toll to being on your feet playing and schlepping gear all day. No one warns about any of that when you’re 14 and listening to Metallica for the first time, deciding you want to play guitar.
The following day felt like I had been run over by a truck. My ears were hollow and fuzzy, occasionally spiraling out into a high-pitched ring, the swan song of that tone in your hearing range. To make matters worse, my shoulder’s usual dull pain was particularly sharp. Despite the perceived glamour of being a working musician, it comes with a physical cost, and I spent most of the next day resting and rehydrating. It’s important to take care of your body.
Meanwhile, the intangible keys that enabled me to say yes to my two extra gigs and have them go smoothly were versatility and confidence. While there was some overlap in song selection, each was noticeably different from the previous one. Being a versatile player helped me recreate the appropriate vibes and feels to go from playing “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” to a swampy “Long Haired Country Boy,” all in one day. I found myself singing harmonies both above and below the main melody line while also singing lead on some songs, all while holding down the guitar fort and engaging the crowd. Basically, I was the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese rock star for the day.
Positivity helped me keep my head when playing tunes I had never done before. I’m not prone to stage fright these days, but it can be intimidating to play something you’ve never heard in your life in front of 100-plus strangers while getting chords mouthed to you from across the stage. Having an upbeat mindset not only reflects well on you as a musician, you might not get the call again if you say you don’t know a tune or have a bad attitude about playing it.
At the end of the day, I’m blessed to work with musicians who are more concerned with camaraderie than competition. The Predators may have ultimately fallen short, but like the city of Nashville, for one sunny moment in June we were all in it together.