The following bit of Nashville fiction samples lines from songs recorded by the Cumberland Collective March 3-5 at Blackbird Studios and written, variously, by Jason Eskridge, Clay Evans, Mike Willis, Connor Rand and other cowriting members. For more on the session, stay tuned. And you can find the crew on Facebook here.
He was a professional loiterer, a master in the art of keeping all his love to himself whose place was adjacent to speeding traffic atop one of just a few in-city walk- and motorways over a mighty river, the Cumberland. His front porch looked down on the mammoth Marathon diesel tanks in a tank farm just off the Colonial Pipeline and, farther east and north along the roadway, the downtown truck stop where the world passed through the little-big burg, Nashville, “Guitar Town” the highway haulers called it, “Music City” in the minds of most.
He called it home, if he called it at all.
“I’m OK with the way that I am,” he said to himself and anyone who would listen, but among the latter he could count only a very few, mostly Nashville cops who occasionally harassed him into moving down along the river banks and out of the wind, out of the way of the maybe two pedestrians who might actually find their way to his abode – Guitar Town was a car town, after all.
He was not exactly OK with the way that he was, if he really thought about it. He was running behind of too much, and, not afraid of changing, he would make something out of nothing. A sign, with which he would broadcast. He set about building it with wood of his city, of his river, planks he found washed up on the grounds of the tank farm, old nails not exactly pilfered from same, black paint for the base of the boards, white for the letters. A man named Denton who called himself Peterbilt after the truck manufacturer whose primary assembly factory stood tall in the Texas town that shared his name, and whose Nashville plant had seen more glorious times, found him that morning painting the giant collections of boards. Peterbilt walked due west/south, headed downtown, and after stopping to hear our hero’s story said he ought write the one about the alligator who became friends with the bassett hound because she decided a few things on her own, the alligator. Like there was usually no need to stop and think this thing through, life, there was too much hurt to go around, too many bassett hounds being eaten by alligators.
The two beasts, predator and prey, a songplugger promising a cut on a Kenny Chesney record for $200 and the streetcorner cat that paid him, would come together and prove that even nature could produce elegant harmonies from disparate parts, pull up a chair and sit on down, plenty love to go around. “This is Nashville,” as if “we need it,” Peterbilt said and walked on.
“He’s wearing tight women’s jeans,” the sign painter said to himself, watching Pete roll his way away. “I’ll never understand it.” But maybe he did.
He painted. He would face his sign in the direction of the truckers, where if it actually caught their eye it might have its biggest impact, sending little ripples down major U.S. highways and away from here. Only then might the folks behind the sign, the way Peterbilt went, bother to take a cruise from downtown and parts west across the river to the east side to see it. “This man can’t be trusted,” he said, though Peterbilt had a point, didn’t he. Just as out west, up north, maybe down south right here in Tennessee, a sign, his shingle, his face to the world, the thing needed a story to make your sister want to clap her hands, make you stand up and shot, scream out loud … Patience, he said, whole lot of patience — maybe his message — and went on painting.
The signboard was near 20 by 20, buttressed against March winds by appropriately-positioned four-by-fours comprising a sturdy four-post support system but just wobbly enough to lend working around it a feeling as if the wheels are coming off a little bit — the sign painter put everything he had into the last brushstroke on the bottom left edge and the board rocked.
Wind blew the paint dry and trash in from the east before it swirled at the bulkhead of downtown around the courthouse and candy wrappers and dry tax returns scattered by the two-year-old flood flew back the way it came. He sat. He missed Peterbilt, everybody needs pals. “He’ll be back,” he said.
Days passed. He dissembled the structure four different times after he’d painted his initial message for the truckers — ultimately a missive, the men were too busy, his patience seeping further out of him time after time he got the thing back up and some goon cruising downtown from East Nashville called in a tip, a cruiser stormed the other way with its lights loud and cutting the night….
But he had it back up when he needed it. “Pull up a chair and sit on down,” he said when Pete came on back down the bridge like he’d never left, though he’d traded in his ladies’ jeans for black chinos and an Affliction t-shirt. He picked up right where he left off. “Everywhere I turn, man, it seems like everyone is telling me what I should be,” he said. “No use keeping your heart all to yourself, though. Couldn’t look myself in the eye if I kept that up.”
“We might be kindred spirits, my man,” said the sign painter.
“Can I get an Amen? You have seen the light. Me, I live my life like a truck on the highway, mostly, but everybody changes.”
Am I hearing real words? the sign painter asked himself, slow to accept his own intuition about the one man with whom he’d had a real conversation since it all began, the sign.
Pete moved from behind the sign around front to where he could see what it said. “‘I am out here,’” he quoted. “Nah, man. That ain’t the way your mama brought you up to be. You’re going about it all wrong.”
Or was he just feeling the smoke blow? The sign painter leaned toward the former, leaned into the conversation with renewed vigor.
“You can’t just declare it, you know. My buddy Jason’s got this chili bar, man, this restaurant,” Pete said. “Like he says, you’ve gotta give them something they can chew on, some meat, man, though he makes a godawful-good veggie chili, too.”
So, the sign painter asked, “What would you have me say?”
“First thing I’d do is turn this sign around, brother,” he said. He squatted and got his biceps and parts of his shoulders under the front middle and lifted – the sign’s supports barely got a foot off the ground before the wind carried it and him forward, the sign painter rushing around to the other side to stop the forward progress and help get the monstrosity back on its feet.
“Dang,” Pete said. “I guess what goes around has its way of making its way back around to me.”
“Might write that on the sign.” But the sign painter was no victim, he was of this place, no antagonist any more than the truckers stopping for a night or Pete here might be.
“Nah,” Pete echoed. “How about this,” hands high, marking out the words laterally as he spoke, “‘A tumbleweed never puts roots down.’”
“Sounds like one for the truckers,” he said.
“Nah nah,” Pete said. “They already know it — they know you’re ‘out here,’ too, and they probably really don’t care. They don’t need to be reminded about tumbleweeds, man, and neither do they, really” – he pointed east into the neighborhoods – “though they might actually listen. Then he turned his pointer back around into the nest of skyscrapers: “They’re the ones that need it.”
So Pete and the sign painter turned his sign around and blacked over the old legend before replacing it. By the end, the winds died down and cold set in, a light late-winter snow dusting the legend’s edges just so. Pete wrapped one of the sign painters’ putrid blankets around his shoulders to wait for the aftermath. The two found an extra old chair down by the river and brought it back up to the bridge. They sat, and waited for the people to come.