Nashville Blues

This guitar belonged to Nashville blues man Johnny Jones, who died in 2009

This guitar belonged to Nashville blues man Johnny Jones, who died in 2009

Johnny Jones’ red Gibson guitar stood on stage alone as a symbol of its late owner and others who cut their blues teeth in Nashville during the city’s R&B glory days. Jones was a fixture in the Music City blues scene during the 1960s and a mentor to many, including Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix migrated to Nashville after a stint in the army had him stationed at nearby Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Jones and Hendrix were part of the house band for Night Train, a blues TV show. The man later known for setting his guitar on fire at Woodstock actually played it, and played it well, when he lived in Nashville.

But to the concert itself, July 30, 2014: It is only fitting that the radio/concert/video series Music City Roots dedicated an extraordinary episode to blues and rhythm and blues. Produced in conjunction with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Night Train to Nashville exhibit and compilation albums, this blues celebration and reunion brought many of Nashville’s surviving blues legends together for a concert that won’t be forgotten by those on stage or in the audience.

The Music City Roots show included performances by Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues,” Marion James, The McCrary Sisters whose father, the Rev. Sam McCrary, founded the Fairfield Four, and the Fairfield Four, themselves.

The Legendary Fairfield Four

The Legendary Fairfield Four

Charles “Wigg” Walker, The Valentines and LeVert Allison performed during the show and joined the all-star finale, as well.

Marion James - Nashville's "Queen of the Blues"

Marion James – Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues”

The house band for the evening was the Jimmy Church Band, rocking as only they can as they played for all of the acts and showed the crowd why they have such a stellar reputation as performers in their own right. Also performing was legendary songwriter Mac Gayden, known for writing the standard Everlasting Love. Robert Knight, the artist with the original hit record of the song, was also on hand to perform it.

Clifford Curry - sang She Shot a Hole in My Soul

Clifford Curry – sang She Shot a Hole in My Soul

Among other Gayden/Chuck Neese-penned hits was She Shot a Hole in My Soul, performed flawlessly at the show by the man who made it a nationwide hit, Clifford Curry. (On a personal note, I have been part of several shows with Clifford and you will not find a more generous and humble performer.) At the Roots show, he told a story that started similarly to the tales by others who have pursued success in Nashville. But the ending of this one changed his life. Curry recalled periodic trips from his hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee, to Nashville as a young man trying to get his foot in the door as a songwriter. As fate would have it, his voice got more attention than his songs and he stepped before a studio microphone and shot a hole through everybody’s soul.

Music City is the home of many “musics,” including the blues. Many people who don’t live in Nashville, and far too many who do, don’t know the impact of the blues traditions begun on Jefferson Street. The music that was taken to the world was created by musicians and songwriters just trying to make a living playing what they loved. The good news is that the blues is still alive in Tennessee’s capital city and legends and more recent artists perform it every week. To quote Lou Rawls, you can still “put some blues in your shoes and some soul in your bowl,” in Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville blues royalty on stage for the finale

Nashville blues royalty on stage for the finale

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Click here to preview, order or download Les’ new album, Les Kerr As Is.

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The perfect place for lonesome

Looking down a lonely street

Looking down on a lonely street

It was the first time I ever felt sadness while driving toward New Orleans. As I crossed the Pearl River into St. Tammany Parish, the realization that Gail was not with me settled into my mind and my heart. It was as heavy as the hot, moist, South Louisiana air. Like the heat and humidity, that prospect became more burdensome with each moment. There had been times when I was in New Orleans without her over the last twenty-four years but I always knew that we would be there together again. That’s not so anymore.

After I crossed Lake Ponchartrain and the city I love so much came into view, I wondered if I could stand being there without her. The reason I made the trip was to prove to myself that I could. New Orleans has been a part of my life since I can remember and I didn’t want to stop going there because Gail had died. The closer I got to the French Quarter, where I would perform on a radio show and then spend the night, the more doubtful I became.

About 2:00 p.m. I set my suitcase and guitar down on the hardwood floor of a second story apartment on St. Phillip Street. I couldn’t bear to unpack the bag or open the guitar case. The sun beamed through the tall windows across the parlor onto the old brick wall that had the personality only a French Quarter brick wall can have. “Gail would have loved this,” I thought. Tears began to flow and led to heavy sobbing. The same kind of vocal crying that, when I’m at home, causes me to try to reassure the dog that I’m not yelling at her.

The radio interview was scheduled for 6:15 p.m. in the WWOZ FM studio, just a few blocks away near the French Market. I looked forward to visiting with host Kathleen Lee on the air but dreaded the hours before and after. In my three long months of grief, professional obligations have lifted me from depressing depths and I was confident I could do the show with no problem. Playing for people makes me happy. But the anticipation of spending even one night without Gail in New Orleans prompted me to call a hotel in Hattiesburg to see if I would need a reservation if I chose to head toward Nashville when the interview was over. I didn’t reserve a room and decided to take my chances if my emotions caused me to leave.

With a couple of hours to ponder my situation and my life before the radio show, I left the unopened suitcase and locked guitar case to walk around the Quarter. I thought that might clear my head. By then, the sun was beating down as I made my way to Bourbon, Royal and Chartres Streets amid shuffling throngs of happy tourists. Lines I wrote in a song about New Orleans years ago rattled through my mind with new, unwelcome clarity. “You can’t escape this sticky heat no matter what you do. And I can’t escape the way I’m missing you.”

Comfort Music

Strolling the French Quarter served to make me sadder. Realizing that was no good, I remembered that whether I spent the night or not, I would perform on WWOZ. So I headed back to the apartment to tune my guitar, go over songs and think about what I might say on the air. When I opened the guitar case, the sight of my six-string friend brought comfort to me. Tuning it gave me purpose and soon I was concentrating on my voice and remembering lyrics. I went over a few songs I don’t play very often and a few I’ve been singing for years. The old standbys, my “comfort music,” did their job and began to lift my spirits, as they always do.

I finally opened my suitcase to get out my toothbrush and at that moment, I thought, “Well, that’s a good sign.” I washed my face, made it smile in the mirror, picked up the guitar and headed downstairs. As I walked toward the radio station, the feelings of foreboding those same streets had produced just an hour and a half before gave way to the pleasant anticipation I usually have before a show. By the time I got to the station, I remembered what I am about and why I wrote all those songs about New Orleans. Kathleen was the gracious host she consistently is and I smiled through the entire show, sincerely, even when she mentioned Gail.

Talking/playing on WWOZ

Talking/playing on WWOZ

One of the last times I was Kathleen’s in-studio guest, Gail was in our room at the Le Richelieu Hotel listening. I mentioned that on the air and as I left after the interview, I thought about how much Gail had always encouraged me. It dawned on me that she wouldn’t have wanted me to have a bad time in a city that had meant so much to both of us. Her absence still hangs about me as strongly as her presence did. But my attitude had been adjusted enough for me to decide to take the guitar back to the apartment, unpack the suitcase, and enjoy the rest of my time in the Quarter.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Visit www.leskerr.com

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She’s still making me laugh

A few weeks after Gail died I was roaming the house looking at pictures of the two of us. I saw a particular favorite on a bookshelf and picked up the frame. It was a surprise to see the characters hiding behind it obviously waiting for me to discover them. Gail had done it again.

The traveling rabbit that made Gail and me smile many times.

The traveling rabbit that made Gail and me smile many times.

There he was, a skinny and familiar flexible rubber rabbit dancing with our five-inch-tall Mr. Bill doll. The rabbit was holding a carrot in one hand and reaching out his other gloved paw to keep his balance with the cylindrical plastic man in red with the perpetual look of surprise. I laughed out loud. Then, I cried out loud while still smiling.

The rabbit has had a habit of turning up in unusual and amusing places ever since it appeared in a surprise Easter basket Gail gave me on a trip to New Orleans in 1992. Amazingly, Gail was able to pack the basket in a suitcase without my knowledge until Easter Sunday when she gave it to me in our room at the Ponchartrain Hotel. The bag had been checked and handled by airport luggage crews in Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans. Miraculously, the basket and the rabbit inside had made the trip unscathed and undetected by me until she unwrapped them that morning.

Over the next two decades at home in Nashville, I would find that rabbit hiding in my sock drawer or behind my alarm clock. We would laugh and say, “How did he get there? That rabbit sure can move around!”

A day or two later, Gail would find it clinging to her makeup mirror or in a pair of shoes she had picked out to wear on a given day. He would appear lurking in the silverware drawer, clinging to a doorknob, or looking over a lampshade as if he were waiting to climb out from the inside. We got more and more creative about where the rabbit would show up and which one of us would be the recipient of his next surprise appearance.

Finding the rabbit dancing with Mr. Bill made me laugh again.

Finding the rabbit dancing with Mr. Bill made me laugh again.

In the days after Gail’s death, that plastic bunny never occurred to me. I had been consumed with sadness and the labyrinth of insurance, benefits, and trying to go on with my life. Those things continue with me now, but unexpectedly finding that rabbit gave me a much needed laugh and a reminder to think of more cheerful times. It also gave me pause to remember that Gail was always looking out for my happiness and to believe that she is still making me smile.

Click here to view video of The Gail by Les Kerr.
Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

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Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund

Gail Kerr

Gail Kerr

NOTE: The deadline for contributing to Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund was June 30, 2014. The final amount raised for How’s Nashville was $50,000, far more than anticipated. Thanks for all of your compassion and support.

The outpouring of love and good wishes since the death of my lovely wife Gail has been astonishing and very comforting to me. Thank you all so much.

One of the frequent questions I receive is, “How can we honor her memory?” A great way is to support Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund, a project she proposed before her death and is now being implemented, thanks to The Tennessean, How’s Nashville and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. The biggest difference in her proposal versus the way it is now is the name. It is now named for her and she would have been so honored by that. Like many others, Gail recognized the homeless issue in Nashville and did her best to bring focus to it in her columns.

Not only did Gail write about it but, in her very “hands-on” way, she volunteered on projects that helped those who slept under no roof and had fallen on hard times. For several years, she served lunches prepared weekly at Downtown Presbyterian Church for the homeless and urban poor. She bought every issue of The Contributor, Nashville’s independent newspaper designed to help the homeless get off the street (and succeeds beautifully at that mission).

If you were one of Gail’s readers, I don’t have to tell you that she pulled no punches and did not advocate causes in which she did not believe with all her heart. Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund was her idea and she was looking forward to getting it going. So now, it’s underway.

How it works

Gail learned about an organization called How’s Nashville and wrote a column about it last year. Through How’s Nashville, people are getting off the streets and staying off the streets. The program’s success in keeping people in housing after moving in really impressed her. The following paragraph explains it:

How’s Nashville aligns itself with the national 100,000 Homes and is a collaborative community campaign to assist individuals and families who have experienced long-term homelessness and are among the most vulnerable population in the most vulnerable people in Davidson County. Currently more than 30 organizations representing the nonprofit, government, and business sectors work together to help individuals and families move from homelessness into permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible. We believe that a focus on the most vulnerable individuals and families in our community will save lives while we work together on streamlining our city’s housing placement process.

The How’s Nashville campaign focuses on:

* Implementing Housing First(moving people from the streets/shelters directly into permanent supportive housing)
* Collecting data (so we, as a community, understand the populations we are serving)
* Tracking our progress (evaluating outcomes to improve our approach)
* Improve our local system (streamlining our systems to benefit all populations)

Thank you

I would personally like to thank The Tennessean for continuing this project and re-naming it for Gail, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for implementing the financial parts of this fund, How’s Nashville for this wonderful program, and everyone already donated Gail Kerr’s House the Homeless Fund.

Thanks.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

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Devastated but grateful

While the pain from the death of my lovely wife Gail is impossible to describe and terribly hard to bear, I am very grateful for the outpouring of love, prayers and thoughtfulness so many have sent my way.

Please accept my heartfelt thanks and I appreciate your understanding that I’ll write again when the time is right.

Les

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Southerners and Irishmen, revisited (audio link included)

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band have played St. Patrick's Day at Jimmy Kelly's in Nashville each year since 1996. This song is always on the set list.

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band have played St. Patrick’s Day at Jimmy Kelly’s in Nashville each year since 1996. This song is always on the set list.

Songwriters are often asked where they get song ideas.  I hope you’ll enjoy this story behind my song, Southerners and Irishmen.

When I lived in Mobile, Alabama in the 1980s, I developed a near-addiction fondness for coffee with chicory, readily available in local grocery stores at very resonable prices.  New Orleans (where I have also spent a lot of time) is most associated with this flavorful and potent treat, but it’s also found up and down the whole Gulf Coast.  When I moved to Nashville in 1987, I realized that finding it on grocery shelves here was nearly impossible, and always expensive.

So whenever my performance schedule took me back to the Gulf Coast or New Orleans, my standard operating procedure included loading up at (the late, great) Delchamp’s and other local grocery stores on coffee with chicory.  I chose every opportunity to load up with vacuum-sealed bricks of Community or Café du Monde coffee every time I made it down South.

In the late 1990s, I had spent a few days in the Mobile Bay area before performing at an event in Destin, Florida.  As usual, I made sure to buy a bunch of coffee to take back home. Around that time I had heard some report about how nostalgic people from Ireland and from the American South become when they leave the familiar places where they were raised.  In my own case, I was raised in Mississippi and had spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I have always felt like coffee with chicory is a way to start the day with a taste that part of the country, which I still so dearly love.

So with my car full of coffee with chicory heading back to Tennessee, the thoughts of this song occurred to me.  I stopped at a roadside gas/convenience store somewhere in Alabama and bought a pad and wrote these lyrics as I drove back home.  Songwriters might relate to this – drive a while, stop and write.  Drive a while, stop and write.

By the time I got back to Nashville, I had finished the song, and it’s been a good one for me.  I recorded it with just an acoustic guitar and my friend Robby Shankle joining with his tasteful flute playing.

I hope you will enjoy the lyrics, printed below.  You can listen to the song at this link:   Southerners And Irishmen

And, by the way, I’m happy to report that coffee with chicory now found in many Nashville grocery stores.  But I still “stock up” every time I’m on the Gulf, just in case!

Southerners and Irishmen
Words and Music by Les Kerr/©1999
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
The little things that take them there for moments at a time
Are elevated to a place that’s sacred in their minds
 
To hear a fiddle play a piece of some old Irish reel
Can cause a man from County Cork to genuflect and kneel
A Georgia lady in New York might fall down on her knees
If someone merely speaks the words, “My mama’s black-eyed peas.”
 
Show a cotton boll to a Mississippi son
Or talk about the bluegrass with an old Kentuckian
Find a displaced Dubliner and sing, “Oh, Danny Boy,”
And smiling eyes will soon be filled with grateful tears of joy
 
I do my best to keep a taste of home right close at hand
I guard coffee with chicory like smugglers’ contraband
Be it Irish Whisky or fried chicken with green beans
Southerners and Irishmen are brought home by such things
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
Others have a sense of sight, of hearing, touch, and taste
But Southerners and Irishmen are blessed with sense of place
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
 
Text copyright 2012 by Les Kerr
Learn More about Les & join the e-mail list for free downloads, including Southerners and Irishmen
at www.leskerr.com
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Gaga for gratitude

No coffee-filter hats for me. I'll stick with Stetson- dark for winter and straw for summer.

No coffee-filter hats for me. I’ll stick with Stetson- dark for winter and straw for summer.

Well, there she was wearing a dress made out of coffee filters and talking to Jimmy Kimmel. Her coffee-filter hat just about reached to the top of our television screen. She had to approach his desk carefully because of the very tall white wedge shoes she wore. Lady Gaga, in all her white, coffee filter glory, held court.

The Jimmy Kimmel Show has been broadcasting from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas and I happened to catch Thursday night’s episode that featured Lady Gaga. I don’t know much about her music but I have always admired her showmanship (though I don’t see myself in a meat dress or a coffee filter hat). Her ability to communicate with her audience through music, wardrobe and makeup is remarkable. As I watched her talk last night, I found something else that I really like about her: sincere gratitude for her fans.

She is a very articulate conversationalist. She said she had gone incognito throughout the week to eat barbecue and to watch up-and-coming music acts perform at different venues around Austin. When asked if a celebrity had ever visited one of her salad day shows, Lady Gaga said no but that she would have loved it, had it happened.

As the conversation went on, she began to talk about how much she appreciated her fans. The singer said it meant so much that they have stuck with her throughout the different stages (and costumes) of her still very vibrant career. Referring to fan loyalty and the fact that they are the reason for her success, she said, “I’m a lucky girl.”

How refreshing!

In an era when others on the national and international stage commit embarrassing blunders off-stage, Lady Gaga shocks people on stage because she knows that’s what her audience wants. From what I’ve read and heard, she leads a quiet normal existence when she’s not performing. Off the top of my head, I could not name a single Lady Gaga song. But the fact that she appreciates those ultimately responsible for rise to stardom, the fans that buy the music and come to the shows, makes me a little “goo-goo for Gaga.”

I treasure this autographed Minnie Pearl's Chicken box given to my by my wife Gail

I treasure this autographed Minnie Pearl’s Chicken box given to my by my wife Gail

I never thought I would refer to Minnie Pearl and Lady Gaga in the same sentence, but I am reminded of Miss Minnie’s account of her first Grand Ole Opry appearance. She said the “solemn old judge,” George D. Hay told her when he saw how nervous she was about facing the audience to “just go out there and love ‘em and they’ll love you back.” Probably without realizing it, Lady Gaga follows the same advice.

All of us who write and play music should be reminded that if it weren’t for the people who enjoy and support it, the biggest venue we play might be our own living room.

Having said that, I’ll close with a heartfelt, “Thank you.”

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr. Click here to visit Les Kerr’s web site!

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