In musician’s terms, this was “a bean run” to Nashville aimed at finding evidence to support the legend of Kentucky’s Country Music Highway.
With little money in our pockets and only a vague idea of where we were going when we got there, musician and former Opryland employee Eddie Riffe led the expedition from the driver’s seat of a big white van.
“You have to break this trip up into three sections,” he explained, predicting we would make the 338-mile trip from Ashland to Nashville in five hours flat.
True to his word, Riffe maneuvered the big van into a parking space at The Nashville Palace precisely five hours later.
The Nashville Palace, which is the place where Randy Travis worked as a dishwasher before he became one of country music’s biggest acts, was vacant at that moment, although Riffe quickly taught me you can engage anyone in Music City in conversation by asking how they fared during the city’s September flooding.
A few minutes later, we found ourselves at a restaurant with musician Bobby Cyrus of Louisa as we all kept an eye on the TV to watch his video “Milkman’s Eyes” at the number-three spot on GAC’s “Country Countdown” show.
After a quick smartphone background investigation, a fiddler from Florida with no friends in the city approached and asked Cyrus if he might be in need of someone with his skills. Cyrus told the fiddler he might indeed have a place for him and promised him a live audition before the week was through.
Timing (and a UK vs. Duke ballgame) worked against us for the rest of the evening, and we completely missed a showcase performance by local musicians Crisp & Davis at The Exit Inn. We also discovered the evening’s scheduled performance by Michael Moore, who won the WTCR Colgate Country Showdown a couple of years ago, had been rescheduled for a night in early December.
Riffe, who had been starving for a few hours away from home, was soon fast asleep and snoring as I spent the rest of the evening cursing at him and watching an all-night session of public television which seemed to focus on murder and suicide.
With only a few hours to get notes in my book and photos in the camera, we hit the ground running early the next morning to meet Cyrus at his office on Music Row and discuss the connection between Nashville and our part of Kentucky.
Cyrus considered the question for half a second before pointing out a stack of “iDitty” cards on a table and explaining the product, which allows consumers to access everything from an artist’s music to photos and more, was developed by Lawrence County’s own Dan Hunt.
Grinning, Cyrus said the Kentucky/Nashville connection is easy to find, noting his new album “Homeplace” features plenty of it.
“Me and Tom T. Hall and Dixie wrote a song called ‘Something in the Water,’” he said, citing lyrics that salute Kentucky musicians from Loretta Lynn to Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley among other “Kentucky notables,” including J.D. Crowe.
“There’s always ... generation after generation ... always great talent coming out of the Tri-State. Today it’s the same as it’s always been — great singers and musicians and songwriters,” Cyrus said, giving a nod to local guitarist Shelby Lore as a young talent to keep an eye on. “One of my biggest goals is to come back home and pave a ‘bigger road’ and a ‘wider road’ to Nashville because young people can easily end up with the wrong people. You can’t just say ‘I have a dream,’ and move to Nashville. I would like to be able to go back and create a place where these dreamers can come and sit down with an experienced person who can help show them the way ... how to get a copyright, how to publish a song and how to protect a song. Coming to Nashville and beatin’ on doors ... it’s hard to do that anymore.”
In addition to launching his career as an artist, Cyrus is pouring his energy into his new record label, BGC Records, which he hopes will become an outlet for musicians who call the Tri-State their home. “I would love to work with people like Tony Ramey and Paul Pace in the future. I mean, these guys are incredible talent from back home.”
A few blocks away on Music Row, Marshall alumni and Lucasville, Ohio, native Dana Romanello juggled professional duties while extending courtesy to her visitors from the Tri-State. A stage performer since she was 3 years old, Romanello has an obvious love of country music and a work ethic which has served her well during her almost eight years in Music City.
“I just started writing the script for America’s Country Countdown. It’s like turning in a country music college report every week,” she said with a smile before allowing her guests a glance at the office and studio maintained by her boss, Kix Brooks, and handing over a big bag of signed items and recordings from artists including Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Kenny Chesney to help River Cities Harvest during the local agency’s holiday food drives.
Lots of support
The road to Nashville hasn’t been especially easy, Romanello said, and she credits the support of many friends along the way to get to this point.
“It’s crazy. Nashville is a huge city to me,” she said, almost blushing in apology before explaining her rural roots and musical family seem to have worked in her favor. “I think people from here do recognize that.”
Romanello said her early impressions of Nashville weren’t particularly great, explaining she was initially exposed to a wilder side of the music business. “I thought that was what it took,” she said, describing some of the unsavory behavior she witnessed before going to work for Ricky Skaggs and Skaggs Family Records. “Ricky showed me it doesn’t have to be like that.”
For an aspiring country or bluegrass musician with a goal of making it in the music business, Romanello said Nashville is definitely the place to be.
“As Kix says, ‘You must be present to win.’ I would tell any young person they need to get educated and then get down here and get this education too,” she said before quoting another person who said, “You can accomplish more by accident in Nashville than you can on purpose in your hometown.”
Romanello said she is working toward release of a new recording which stays true to her musical roots.
“After seven years now, it is just starting to fall into place,” she said, noting her songs combine traditional and modern influences. “You know what we’re calling it? Sassy Grass.”
Paul Pace sighting
As our time in Nashville drew nearer to an end, Riffe’s eyes lit up in response to a message saying Paul Pace was about to take the stage at Honky Tonk Central in the city’s downtown district, providing us with the day’s final destination and a chance to grab some lunch.
After a bit of outstanding city driving by Riffe, we found Pace (wearing a Kentucky Farmers Bank ball cap) and fellow musician Ken Taylor on stage singing songs made famous by Merle Haggard, Tracy Lawrence and Toby Keith. Sitting there at the bar wolfing down a quartet of barbecue sliders, Riffe had a look of outright admiration in his eyes as Pace played the hits.
“If we all could sound like we wanted to sound, we would all sound like Paul Pace,” he concluded.
Director/Writer/Producer John Lloyd Miller, who has worked with some of the most legendary names in Nashville and recently directed Bobby Cyrus and cousin Billy Ray Cyrus for the “Milkman’s Eyes” video, said Kentucky musicians have made a distinct impression in Nashville and beyond.
“My brother (Mark Miller) works in Huntington and I give lectures at Marshall using Skype,” he said before citing a list of singers and pickers with roots in the bluegrass state, including his all-time favorite singer, Patty Loveless.
“Half of my career has been working with people from Kentucky,” he said, naming Ricky Skaggs, The Kentucky Headhunters and members of Blackstone Cherry as just a few among many. “They are just great walk-around musicians. If you are traveling through there and stop at a club or something and hear them play ... it’s not Nashville. It’s got so many influences and a bunch of distinct voices.
“The thing about Kentucky musicians is they are the nicest people you could ever want to meet — straight shooters. And I like that after they leave Kentucky, they always honor where they are from,” he said. “They are so loyal to their roots.”
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.