The Reality of Playing In Nashville

Hello fans and fellow players,

This is Vic Lawson with today’s newsletter.

I’d like to talk about the reality of playing in Nashville. You’ve got to live here and experience it to be able to separate the fact from the fiction. Just like watching someone eat a steak dinner is a different experience from actually eating a steak dinner, if you’ve never done it, you don’t really know what it tastes like.

I moved to Nashville in 2001. I’ve been playing steel since 1975. After trying my hand in Branson in the early eighties and playing with Texas bands in the nineties, I moved to Nashville from Oklahoma in 2001. I was a contractor and came home from work one day and told my wife I’d quit. She asked me, “What are we going to do?”

I told her I’d like to move to Nashville and spend the last half of my life doing something I enjoy. Luckily she was very supportive.

Fortunately through the years prior to my move I knew a lot of session players and that was about all I knew, I didn’t know any road players at the time. Through the help of one of my friends I had a road job within three months with an artist named Brad Martin on Curb Records.

At the time I thought it was pretty easy, then reality set in and I found out you can’t really make a total living by just playing the road unless you’re extremely lucky, but George Strait’s steel player is not likely to give up his job.

So I was introduced to Broadway. Like a lot of newcomers or somebody not familiar with Broadway, I had my doubts and reservations. For those not familiar with Nashville, Broadway is the major thoroughfare through downtown Nashville, specially referring to the first five blocks on the east side. This is where all the honky tonks are along with the Ryman.

I started playing four hour shifts doing live music from 2:00 PM until 2:00 AM and soon found that there were great players and not so great players. You have these ideas Nashville is full of great players and that’s all there is. Like anyplace else, there’s a mixture.

At that time, I discovered a lot of road musicians do play on Lower Broad to supplement their income. I may get a call at 5:00 in the evening to play a six o’clock job. It’s very fast paced when you’re just filling in and you have to be well versed.

Regardless of what the myths are about Broadway, in reality it’s about the only place to play regularly. John Hughey once told me he loved playing down there and he’d never quit. He enjoyed seeing new players and young players and the enthusiasm they brought. He in no way saw it as beneath him to play down there.

If you come to Nashville and go down to lower Broadway you may see Doug Jernigan playing there. Bruce Bouton subbed for me the other day. You never know who you’ll see. Granted the money isn’t great, but the experience is worth more than the money you get on the gig.

As a new player you have to go down there and network so the established players get to know you because road jobs are usually filled by referrals or recommendations and never get advertised otherwise.

Most of the players down there have already made it. We’re down there because we’re musicians and we want to play. It was kind of humorous when an lady tourist was leaving and putting money in the tip jar and told us, “Good luck. You guys sound really good. If you just hang in there, you’ll make it.”

She didn’t realize if she listened to country radio at all, she’d already heard the guitar player, James Mitchell who is an “A” Team session player, playing guitar on Jamie Johnson’s song “In Color” and Easton Corbin’s song “A Little More Country Than That”. The drummer was Cotton Payne who plays drums for Bill Anderson on the Opry.

All I did was smile and say, “Thank you, ma’am.”

This is not typical, but this is how hectic it can be. One night I had a gig at Legend’s from 6 – 10 PM. I also had a 10 PM – 2 AM slot down the street and to top it off, I had two Opry slots with Joe Diffie.

I had taken one of my Emmons guitars to the Ryman, left it in the dressing room, then went and played my job at Legend’s until Opry time, then took a 20 minute break and ran down the back alley to the Ryman, quickly played my two song with Diffie, then ran back down the alley to Legend’s and finished my gig.

I finished at 10:15, packed my gear and rushed down the street to the next job. Then I had to take another break, run back to the Ryman, play my next two songs with Diffie, pack up my gear and take it back to the truck, then hurry to finish my gig. That was a crazy night, but we live for nights like that.

This is exactly why every steel player should have two complete rigs.

Granted I’m not at all among the greatest of players, but I’m still professional and I’ve learned to play for the song and I stay fairly busy by doing that and playing lower Broad is definitely a part of making a living as a musician in Nashville.

Also if you just enjoy playing and want to play with other pros as well, lower Broad is the only place to do it around here. Obviously as with any profession, the more you do it the better you get. So on your next visit to Nashville, don’t forget to visit lower Broad. That’s where you’re going to find the most music in one place. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed.

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