Music in Music City

The view of Downtown Nashville from the Grammy Block Party

The view of Downtown Nashville from the Grammy Block Party

Living in Nashville is a wonderful thing, especially if you love music. After all, it’s Music City, USA. I’m sure I speak for other music business professionals when I say that even though you may pick, sing, write or produce for a living, you never get over being a fan. It was being a fan that got me interested in music as a child, and I’m still a fan of singers, entertainers and performers.

Last week, I attended the 2015 Grammy Block Party, an annual event hosted by the Nashville chapter of The Recording Academy, the organization that brings us the Grammy Awards. It was a wonderful event for a music fan like me. Not only is the Block Party an opportunity to visit

Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack

with other music business people, it’s a way for the Nashville chapter to prove that this town is not just about country music. Of course, country music was represented with a wonderful performance by Lee Ann Womack (also a 2015 Americana Music Association award nominee) but the delightful Meghan Trainor, a Nashville resident, sang her pop hit “It’s All About that Bass,” among other songs.

Meghan Trainor and uke

Meghan Trainor and uke

Serving as master of ceremonies was Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor for the Nashville Symphony. There is a strong classical music presence in Nashville and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra itself has won seven Grammy awards. The maestro was masterful in his introductions of country, pop, gospel and R&B acts.

Nashville Symphony conductor Giancarlo Guererro

Nashville Symphony conductor Giancarlo Guerrero

Although I spend a lot of my life working to get ahead in the music business, it’s nice to relax and enjoy the melodies and rhymes Nashville has to offer.

As much as I focus on building my own career, moments when I am purely entertained remind me why I moved to this town in the first place: I love music.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr
Download Les Kerr’s new single Contributor from ITunes here.

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Sharecropping Cotton Chopping Delta Blues- for B.B. King

Originally posted on Les Kerr's Liner Notes:

I was saddened to learn of the death of one of my heroes, B.B. King. I hope you’ll enjoy these thoughts and the song Mr. King inspired me to write.

Although B.B. King wasn’t there, it was exciting to perform in the club and restaurant that bears his name in 2011. This great Mississippian and bluesman is someone I have admired for a long time. Having grown up in Mississippi myself, I’ve certainly been aware of his music for many years. The first time I saw him perform was in the early 1980s and I’ve seen him many times since, including his shows at the opening of his Nashville club several years ago and more recently at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I was able to attend his last Nashville performance in April, 2014. Although he was obviously weaker than he was in 2010 in New Orleans…

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Kipling, Service and Tom T. Hall

I keep these volumes of Kipling and Service and Tom T. Hall's How I Write Songs on my desk for inspiration

I keep these volumes of Kipling and Service and Tom T. Hall’s How I Write Songs on my desk for inspiration

Rudyard Kipling doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a poet. It is my observation that if people refer to any of Kipling’s poetry, If and Gunga Din usually get mentioned. But what about Danny Dever, The Betrothed or The Ballad of East and West? Perhaps Kipling’s poetic ability is overshadowed by his books and short stories. Perhaps the “too cool to rhyme lines” crowd could assert that rhyming and regular rhythm make his poems too simple, but I understand them.

In his poetry, Kipling weaves stories with rhyme, meter and the use of dialect that are as complete as any prose. From the beginning, through the middle and all the way to the end of his poems, the reader takes a journey and reaches a final destination. Whether a first person account (Mandalay) or a third person narrative (The Female of the Species), Kipling’s poems leave the reader knowing exactly what he has read.

I have similar feelings about Robert Service. Asking some to name a Service poem beyond The Shooting of Dan McGrew is akin to asking a country music fan to come up with the title of Ernie Ashworth’s other hit (although he did have many besides “Talk Back, Trembling Lips,” a song that addressed body parts as emotional, thinking entities decades before “Achy Breaky Heart.” But that’s another issue altogether).

Service is famous for his story-poems about The Yukon but he was a well-travelled wordsmith whose subject matter stretched way beyond adventures of gold-crazed hooligans, saloons and mysterious women out to separate prospectors from their precious dust. One of my favorites is The Absinthe Drinkers, inspired by Service’s service in World War I in France. The story is as captivating and action-packed as the Yukon pieces and has a slam-bang surprise ending.

Someone whose work should also be considered pure poetry is songwriter Tom T. Hall. Although not officially a poet, Hall’s words stand alone as stories and just plain good observations quite capably without music. In The Homecoming, listeners may identify, as I do, with the musician on the road too long and far away to get back home. The first person account reveals that he couldn’t even get home to attend his own mother’s funeral. Or they may relate to the character’s father, who never sees his son. Those two characters could be found in any situation regardless of the wayward son’s occupation.

Mr. Hall graciously autographed this album cover for me

Mr. Hall graciously autographed this album cover for me

Like Kipling and Service, Hall uses humor to make some serious points. In Harper Valley PTA, his clever lines reveal hypocrisy. The little girl’s mama socked it to accusers who, themselves, had more to hide than Mrs. Johnson’s short dresses revealed.

The stories that Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service and Tom T. Hall have written and sung with rhyme and rhythm motivate me to develop my own way to communicate in the one-to-one style I admire in their work. The challenge of writers and performers who revere those with such distinctive styles is to emulate but not imitate. However, if a little flavor of these fine writers seeped into one of my musical recipes, I would consider it a welcome ingredient.

As I read Kipling and Service and Hall
I can’t help but be most inspired by them all – Les Kerr
Copyright 2015

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Slicin’ Sand

I created traction by spreading sand on the ice-covered driveway.

I created traction by spreading sand on the ice-covered driveway.

Snow and ice are no day at the beach, at least for a Gulf Coast boy like me. So here I am in Nashville, Tennessee where we have to deal with it every year (which makes me wonder why people in Nashville always say, “We’re not used to this”). But the February, 2015 batch thrust upon us has been unusually harsh and lengthy.

Streets are dangerous but there have been moments when they were fairly safe to drive and anticipating that I would need to get out of the house at some point, I parked my car on the street instead of in the garage one night. The driveway is on an incline and I thought driving up and down an ice-covered driveway wouldn’t be wise.

The garage is a luxury I had never experienced until I moved into my current home in 2004. Growing up, my family had unenclosed carports. As an apartment dwelling adult, none of the complexes I lived in had any cover at all for vehicles. I did lots of ice scraping accompanied by language that could have turned the snow and ice from white to blue. My garage means a lot to me.

So the day after I left my car on the street, the roads were indeed passable enough for me to get out and procure certain necessities for the next round of cold weather. Dog food for the dog and eggs, milk, beer, shrimp to boil and Jack Daniel’s for me. You know – the stuff you need. But when I returned home, the inclined driveway was too slick to get the car into the garage. Traction just didn’t exist on it. I then decided to create some and turned around and went back out to Home Depot to see what they had. Every bit of salt and driveway ice prevention stuff was gone and all that was left was sand. In seventy-pound bags. I bought three and headed home.

I used this Flora Bama Lounge beer pitcher and spade to "slice and spread" the sand.

I used this Flora Bama Lounge beer pitcher and spade to “slice and spread” the sand.

The Home Depot man told me the easiest way to distribute it was to open the bags and pour sand into something you could use to spread it on the ice. When I got home, there in the garage were an old Flora Bama Lounge and Package Store beer pitcher and a garden trowel. If a beer pitcher could think, this one would probably feel very far from its Florida/Alabama beach home sitting there in the cold garage. But that pitcher had served me well in its original purpose and now, it and the spade would be my tools.

Click this photo for video of Elvis singing "Slicin' Sand" in Blue Hawaii.

Click this photo for video of Elvis singing “Slicin’ Sand” in Blue Hawaii.

As I dug the spade into the first bag of sand, I thought of a song from the 1961 Elvis Presley movie “Blue Hawaii” called Slicin’ Sand. It was in a dance scene featuring the King of Rock and Roll kicking sand around with a bunch of other young men and women at a beach party. There I was with my Flora Bama pitcher slicing sand from a bag in the frigid, Tennessee air. Not quite the same thing.

But I spread my traction and got the car into the fabulous garage, out of the elements (ironic, since the vehicle is a Honda Element, itself). Belle the Beagle, the Honda and I settled in for a night of

24 hours after the sand had been spread on the driveway, it was barely visible thanks to more snow.

24 hours after the sand had been spread on the driveway, it was barely visible thanks to more snow.

warmth as temperatures again plummeted. The next day, more snow covered up the sand I had carefully installed upon the driveway. But with nowhere to go and plenty of supplies, I was fine with that.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr.

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Phone call from Hank

This record, and other train songs by Hank Snow, inspired me to send him The Little Rebel

This record, and other train songs by Hank Snow, inspired me to send him The Little Rebel

“Hello?” I said when I picked up the telephone receiver.
“Is Les Kerr?” drawled the voice I heard.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“This is Hank Snow.”
Stunned, I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Mr. Snow. I’m honored to hear from you!”

It was August, 1987, about five months after I had moved to Nashville. Before I left Mobile, Alabama where I had lived for seven years, I recorded a twelve-song cassette of songs I had written called Sand in My Shoes. One of those songs, The Little Rebel, was inspired by my grandfather who had spent his adult life working for the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad. “The Rebel” was billed as “The South’s First Streamlined

The Little Rebel was included in this cassette album in 1987

The Little Rebel was included in this cassette album in 1987

Air-Conditioned Train” on its official GM&O timetable and fare brochure. It was Granddaddy’s favorite train, always the one he recalled most fondly.

Hank Snow still appeared regularly on the Grand Ole Opry in 1987. He always opened his portion of the show with his classic train song, I’m Movin’ On. Among my favorite Hank Snow train songs is The Golden Rocket and that summer, I bought his album, Hank Snow Railroad Man. While listening to it, I thought, “The Little Rebel would fit right into this album! Who knows, maybe he’ll do another railroad record and include my song.”

The letter I wrote to the Country Music Hall of Fame member that accompanied the tape I sent probably went like this:

Mr. Hank Snow
c/o The Grand Ole Opry
2804 Opryland Drive
Nashville, Tennessee

Dear Mr. Snow,

I have long admired your work and enjoy hearing you perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Of all your songs, the ones about trains and railroads are my favorites. Here is a song I wrote about a train that ran on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad called “The Little Rebel.” I’m sending it to you in hopes that you will consider recording or performing it.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Les Kerr

So when Hank, himself, called me on the phone to discuss the song, I thought I was dreaming. As we talked, it occurred to me that my answering machine recorded incoming messages on cassette tape. While trying to be as cool as possible on the phone, I did my best to make the machine start recording. It never did and I’ve often wondered if Hank Snow heard the clicking noise caused by pushing the record button that never engaged throughout the conversation.

“I like your song,” The Singing Ranger said. “It tells a good story and it’s a solid railroad song.”

My excitement was building like a head of steam on a six-eight wheeler as our conversation moved down the track. “Hank Snow likes my song and he called to tell me so!” blew through my mind as loudly as an air horn on a diesel locomotive.

But just as air brakes can slow a train moving at breakneck speed down a dangerous grade, my enthusiasm was about to come to a screeching halt.

“I wish I could help you out with it but I’m not doing any recording these days,” said Hank. “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you sending me the tape. Would you like for me to send it back to you?”

The image of Hank Snow, probably dressed in one of his rhinestone covered Nudie suits, going to the post office to mail my tape back to me flashed in my mind’s eye for a split second. Then, like an engineer sensing just the right moment to throttle back, I regained my composure.

“No sir,” I said. “I would hate for you to go through that trouble. But if you know anyone else at the Opry who might be interested in my song, feel free to pass it along to them.”

“Mighty fine, Son. Keep on writing and good luck.”

“Thank you Mr. Snow, I will.”

Click to hear The Little Rebel

Click to download The Little Rebel from ITunes.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr.

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New Orleans entertains me

It was a treat to perform at the Louisiana Music Factory.

It was a treat to perform at the Louisiana Music Factory (click photo for a video clip).

The weekend of December 19-21, 2014 in New Orleans, I was fortunate enough to play solo shows at the Louisiana Music Factory, the Everette Maddox Memorial Poetry and Prose Series at the Maple Leaf Bar and do a guest spot on Kathleen Lee’s Swing Session show on WWOZ FM. Because of my schedule, I realized that I could just go out and enjoy music Friday and Saturday nights. I did a little homework before my trip and realized that it would be possible to see some musical friends and a couple of other fine acts while I was in town. Here’s who entertained me and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it all.

In order of appearance:

Friday: Lena Prima at The Carousel Bar and Lounge, Hotel Monteleone

The daughter of New Orleans and swing icon Louis Prima, Lena Prima delivers an

With Lena Prima at The Carousel Lounge

With Lena Prima at The Carousel Lounge

excellent show featuring her father’s music and her own songs, as well. Blessed with a fine voice and magnetic stage presence, Lena leads a great band that includes a horn section that sparkled with renditions of Jump, Jive and Wail and Sing, Sing, Sing, both written by the late Louis. The band had the whole Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone dancing. Since I had not heard her perform I downloaded one of her albums and one of Louis’ to inform and keep me company on the road to New Orleans. I also grabbed her Christmas CD and bought her Starting Something album the next day at Louisiana Music Factory. Lena keeps her father’s swing tradition alive and offers her own original music at the same time.

Saturday, 1:00 p.m. Benny Grunch and the Bunch, Louisiana Music Factory

I first learned of Benny Grunch and the Bunch in the mid-nineties when I picked up one of their albums in the JazzFest music tent. Although I had never heard of them, the title The 12 Yats of Christmas told me I would enjoy their music and it didn’t disappoint. The title song is a Crescent City send-up of the Twelve Days of Christmas, complete with local references and a variety of New Orleans dialects, of which there are many. Think: Santa moves to the Lower 9th Ward. It’s a hoot.

Benny Grunch leading his "Bunch!"

Benny Grunch leading his “Bunch!”

Celebrating the anniversary of the original release, Benny and the Bunch now have a two-CD set that includes the original and Christmas versions of another piece of poetry, Ain’t Dere No More. If you remember Schwegmann’s, Holmes’, Ponchartrain Beach and other Big Easy retail and entertainment icons, you’ll enjoy this. The group’s live show was just as entertaining as the recorded music and the entire audience at Louisiana Music Factory seemed to be made up of locals who knew all “da woids.” Yeah, you’ right!

Saturday, 5:00 p.m. Matt Hoggatt at Margaritaville, New Orleans

Matt Hoggatt and I met in 2011 at a songwriting festival on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He grew up in Gautier, Mississippi, just across the river from Pascagoula, where I spent (or misspent) much of my youth. Matt has become a friend and he is a fine songwriter and a

Matt Hoggatt at Margaritaville, New Orleans

Matt Hoggatt at Margaritaville, New Orleans

clever performer who has recorded several CDs. A song he wrote, Dear Jimmy Buffett, landed him on stage with the King of Somewhere Hot and an album released on Buffett’s Mailboat Records. His new CD, produced by Keith Sykes, is an entertaining disc full of incredible wordplay called Workaholic in Recovery. It was five o’clock somewhere, specifically at the Storyville Tavern at Margaritaville, New Orleans, where I joined others in enjoying not only Matt’s musical delivery but his clever (and sometimes bawdy) comments between songs.

 

 

Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Kitt Lough at The Bombay Club

Kitt Lough at the Bombay Club

Kitt Lough at the Bombay Club

The Bombay Club is within walking distance of Margaritaville but a world away in atmosphere. Nestled in the Prince Conti Hotel, its elegant and plush furnishings, martinis and mixed drinks are the perfect complement to Kitt Lough’s beautiful delivery of New Orleans and American songbook classics. Kitt and I met during her time in Nashville around a decade ago at the late, great Tower Records, where her CDs and mine were available. She played F. Scott’s and other Nashville jazz venues before moving to the Gulf Coast, first to Pensacola and now, New Orleans. Kitt is at home in the Crescent City and does New Orleans proud with the way she sings. When I saw her in December, performing with her was New Orleans icon Jimmy Vidocovich playing drums, an extra treat.

Saturday, 10:00 p.m. Double Dee at Margaritaville, New Orleans

Not only did I hear some great music in New Orleans that Saturday night, I got some exercise walking up and down the French Quarter to listen to it. My friends Darwin and Dana Nelson, known as Double Dee, were playing the 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. show at

Double Dee at Margaritaville, New Orleans

Double Dee at Margaritaville, New Orleans

Margaritaville’ s Storyville Tavern. We met in 2011 at the festival on the Mississippi Coast and we have shared the stage in Nashville. Prolific songwriters and engaging entertainers, Darwin and Dana have stayed true to their Gulf Coast roots with songs like Call It Gumbo and my favorite, Jumpin’ Like Mullet. I joined them on stage at Margaritaville for an impromptu version of Folsom Prison Blues and it was a joy to see them again.

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. The Everette Maddox Memorial Poetry and Prose series, Maple Leaf Bar

Everette Maddox was a one-of-a-kind man known for his poetry, his wit, his general persona and his drinking. He excelled in every one of those areas and those of us who were privileged to have known him were constantly entertained and fortunate in his presence. What a thrill for me when, in the late 1980s through some friends we both had in Mobile, Alabama, he asked me to come to New Orleans to sing my original songs in the weekly poetry reading series he had started at the Maple Leaf Bar.

Poet Nancy Harris at the Maple Leaf Bar

Poet Nancy Harris at the Maple Leaf Bar

Everette died in 1989 and Nancy Harris, a fine poet and person, has kept the series going and has continued to include me throughout the years. It was a treat to perform at the event and to hear poets, including Nancy, present their work. Nancy’s most recent collection, Beauty Eating Beauty, follows The Ape Woman’s Story and Mirror Wars, the other collected volumes of her work.

After I performed, Nancy held an open mic

The Loving Apparitions

The Loving Apparitions

where others were able to read or sing their original words and music. I enjoyed hearing the original music of New Orleans’ Mike True. It was also a pleasant surprise to hear for the first time The Loving Apparitions, a duo made up of my friends Victoria and Colt Burkett.

 

 

Sunday, 7:00 p.m. Kathleen Lee’s Swing Session, WWOZ FM

The Maple Leaf Bar is down on Oak Street (that always seemed ironic to me). It’s off Carrolton Avenue and a fair distance from the French Quarter. After the poetry event, I headed back to the Quarter to WWOZ to join the ever gracious Kathleen Lee (a fine singer and recording artist) on the air. Kathleen’s Swing Session features an ever-expanding array of classic and contemporary Big Band and Swing music.

With Kathleen Lee at WWOZ

With Kathleen Lee at WWOZ, June, 2014

She has been kind enough to play my New Orleans-flavored Jingle Bells (Christmas in New Orleans) for many holiday seasons. I usually listen to her Christmas show online from Nashville and it was a treat to be a part of it in the studio with her and “St. Nick.” Kathleen put me in good company playing my music along with classics from Burl Ives, Gene Autry and Louis Armstrong on the 2014 version of her Christmas Swing Session.

Where to look

I highly recommend looking at online music calendars before any trip to New Orleans. It’s like looking at the JazzFest schedule before you go – you can plan to catch the acts you really want to see. I recommend the WWOZ Concert Calendar, OffBEAT Magazine’s Events page, and the Louisiana Music Factory’s Concerts and News page and the Maple Leaf Bar’s Calendar. The WWOZ and OffBEAT calendars cover events all over the city while the Maple Leaf and Louisiana Music Factory pages show what’s coming up at those venues. Of particular interest about the latter, the Louisiana Music Factory is a great record store with music every Saturday afternoon. It’s free and you’ll hear some great acts in a non-bar atmosphere.

Look for the acts I mentioned and there is no question you will be entertained. But if they’re not playing while you’re there, you know you’ll hear some great music in New Orleans.

Order Les Kerr CDs from Louisiana Music Factory – click here!

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr
Follow Les Kerr – Songwriter/Entertainer on Facebook and Les Kerr twitter.com/leskerr

 

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Birthday 335

Reflecting on my birthday this year found me remembering my favorite of them all. In 1996, for my fortieth birthday, I was surprised by my wonderful wife, Gail, and friends with the gift of the cherry-red Gibson ES-335 electric guitar I play to this day. The surprise of the thing is a tribute to Gail’s ability to keep a secret and ensure that a lot of my friends would, too.

Imitating Elvis with my Epiphone 335, Pascagoula High School, 1973

Imitating Elvis with my Epiphone 335, Pascagoula High School, 1973

The first decent guitar I ever owned was an Epiphone knock-off of the Gibson ES-335. It, too, was cherry-red and had a vibrato tailpiece that caused me to be out of tune more than in. I played it in talent shows, at school pep rallies and wherever my high school group, Les Kerr and The Blue Suede Band, could corral anyone into listening to us. For our first paying show, we made twenty dollars. For the whole band, not per person. We immediately spent our initial professional earnings on chili-cheese dogs at Edd’s Drive In in our hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi (Edd’s is correctly spelled with two “d”s, incidentally).

During that period, I imitated Elvis Presley and the band focused on his music and that of other gutsy rockers, including Chuck Berry. Berry was famous for his guitar wizardry and wielded a “335.” During the 1970s he was experiencing a career comeback with hits that included Reelin’ and Rockin’, among others. While my friend Garry Downs took the lead parts as we belted out Johnny B. Goode, I still felt proud to play my imitation 335 and sing, “Go…Go…Go, Johnny Go!”

As time went on and I went to college, I traded my electric Epiphone for an acoustic guitar and got into the singer/songwriters who were popular then – Jim Croce, Mac Davis, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg and others. I was also the youngest member of a bluegrass band at Ole Miss, the only freshman in the group whose other members were graduate students. So my interest in playing electric guitar lay dormant for many years.

However, by the 1980s, I had begun to really listen to the blues, especially to B.B. King. He was not only “King of the Blues,” but “King of Guitars” to me. In his early career, the guitar most associated with him was, you guessed it, the Gibson ES-335. He later used the ES-355 and eventually designed the “Lucille” model, his pet name for all of his guitars and the one he still plays.

When Gail and I married in 1993, she noticed that every time I saw King or anyone else

The first CD I released featuring my "birthday 335"

The first CD I released featuring my “birthday 335″

playing a Gibson ES-335, I would say, “I would sure like to have one, cherry red, like my first little Epiphone.” As I was about to turn forty, she got the idea to surprise me with one. She enlisted many friends to contribute to the purchase of the guitar, swearing them all to secrecy so it would be a surprise to me. With the help of Tommy Goldsmith, journalist and guitarist extraordinaire, she searched high and low, eventually locating one within budget at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. She and Tommy purchased the guitar with money she had collected, hid it at the home of some friends, and then presented it to me at a party we had planned to celebrate my birthday.

Playing the ES 335 in Nashville, Tennessee, October, 2014

Playing the ES 335 in Nashville, Tennessee, October, 2014

I was overwhelmed that night and still remember the tender loving care shown by Gail and everyone involved who made my fortieth birthday so memorable. Until she died this year, we often laughed about how much better that was than a bunch of “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s Forty,” gag gifts she successfully prevented from coming into our home. I do not step on stage with that guitar without thinking of her and the nice friends who made that all happen, and will be forever grateful for this gift that continues to give. Thanks to everyone who helped in this dream of mine that is still coming true.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.

Click photo to download Les Kerr's Live CD, As Is!

Click to download Les Kerr’s Live CD, As Is!

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