Monday, December 14, 2009

Thank You, Ricky Skaggs

Glen Eagle Road, 2008

I don’t actually have any pictures of Nashville. I went there occasionally on business during the late 1980s and early 1990s and didn’t carry a camera with me in those days.

By why let that get in the way of a memorable night?

I’d flown into town the night before I had to meet my client. It was winter, rainy and cold. I was having dinner at some chain steak house on the edge of Vanderbilt University and had grabbed a local arts & entertainment tabloid newspaper to read while I waited for my meal to be served.

A small ad in the back of the paper announced that a cable TV show starring mandolin player Ricky Skaggs was taping that week at the Ryman Auditorium, and that on this particular night he would be taping shows featuring a variety of musicians, including country music legend Bill Monroe, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby and Bela Fleck. Tickets to the taping were free, but on a first come, first served basis.

I gulped down my dinner and ran downtown to the Ryman Auditorium. Taping had just begun. A friendly doorman said all the tickets were gone, but that if I could find a seat I was welcome to come in. That's Nashville for you.

The Ryman Auditorium is a surprisingly intimate place. The seats are uncushioned wooden pews arranged in an arc around the stage. The main floor was full, but I found a congenial group of people in the balcony who let me squeeze in with them.

Skaggs came out onto the stage and explained that they would record each performance twice to give them editing choices. He asked that the audience try to show as much enthusiasm for the second takes as they would for the first, and also said that they were going to tape the performances of the older musicians first so that they could get home to bed.

I don’t remember a lot about the older performers. I’d heard their names before and some of their songs. But I’ve never spent much time with country music. It was Hornsby and Fleck who I really wanted to hear.

Taping a television show never goes as quickly as you’d think. It was after 11:00 p.m. before Skaggs brought Bruce Hornsby out onto the stage. They played several songs together, making several takes of each one. Then he brought Bela Fleck out to play. Again, several takes of each song. They were thrilling to watch perform, no matter how many times they repeated each song. The audience loved them and showed its appreciation with long and spirited applause at the end of each take.

By 1:00 a.m., the place was so full of music that no one wanted to go home, even though some had been there for seven hours by that time. Little children were stretched out asleep across the laps of their parents. I knew I had to get up early the next morning, but there was no way I was leaving.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better and were beginning to preparing yourself for the inevitable end of the show, Skaggs surprised everyone by bringing all of the performers who were left back out on the stage. The cameras were turned off and the lights were turned down. Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck and assorted backup musicians played together for over an hour. There was no beginning and no end to anything they played. They jammed seamlessly on everything from old school country to modern bluegrass to jazz to rock & roll and Broadway.

It was glorious, not in some spiritual way, but in the way that watching people who love what they do and love doing it together can impart enough energy and enthusiasm to fill a whole auditorium.

I took Glen Eagle Road, above, not long after arriving in Missoula, Montana. Living as I do in the flat coastal plains, the topography and big sky of this scene were as exhilarating to me as listening to those musicians playing was that night many years ago in Nashville.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I'll bet that WAS a memorable evening--what luck. I really like Nashville, and that sounds like a fabulous time. Nothing like good musicians going at it.