Pilgrims’ Progress: Photo Book Charts Nashville Dreamers

There have been Nashville picture books before, but not like Nashville: The Pilgrims of Guitar Town, a new volume by internationally renowned photographer Michel Arnaud, with text by local resident and Music Row maven Robert Hicks.

Readers will look in vain among the pages of the book for Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Vince Gill. But Alan Jackson is there, and Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner each get color portraits. John Hiatt and wife Nancy Stanley Hiatt pose with horses and dogs on their Nashville-area farm. Peter Frampton, a former resident, gets a two-page, black-and-white spread at the Bluebird Café.

Elsewhere, there are songwriters both aspiring and famous, music publishers, members of Nashville’s high society and anonymous street singers, including the animated chap on the cover.

Fiction writer Jay McInerney and wife Helen Bransford McInerney are in, as are Music Row “writer/publicist/cheerleader/confidante” Hazel Smith and the great Chet Atkins, shot on a Saturday morning at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. One shot shows MCA Nashville President Tony Brown in a soda fountain booth, across the table from ex-Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois.

Some in the book, like Mark Bryan of Hootie & the Blowfish or singer-songwriter Jules Shear, are just passing through Music City. Others, like upper crust-ers Sam and Valerie Fleming and Ridley and Irene Wills, have been in Nashville all their lives. The last images in the book are of Billy Ray Cyrus.

“We wanted to show that Nashville is a layered place,” says Hicks, who worked on the project with Arnaud for three years. The authors will talk about Nashville: The Pilgrims of Guitar Town during a live chat with country.com at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday (Nov. 2).

“It really is this Mecca for dreamers and it is the most accessible place on earth,” says Hicks, who came to Nashville to study philosophy at Vanderbilt and stayed to become a music publisher.

“I work out of L.A. and New York,” Hicks says. “There’s no accessibility for a young artist like there is here. People can criticize us all they want — our business is shaky right now — all that aside, this is still the place. This is the quickest place to get started. You can come into Nashville and end up sitting at a guitar pull the same night.”

The circumstances surrounding the creation of the book were almost as serendipitous. French photographer Arnaud — who lives now in New York — came to town to photograph Hicks’ house for House & Garden magazine.

“I was fascinated by the American dream,” he says, “and the process of it and the fact that it was in front of me and easy to illustrate.”

Getting Alan Jackson for a photo was not so easy, but Arnaud felt Jackson’s story was an especially good illustration of how pursuit of the dream can pay off finally. “He was very charming and it was a great photo session,” Arnaud recalls.

At the Cracker Barrel to photograph Atkins, Arnaud and Hicks ran into rock legend Leon Russell, who happened to show up at the restaurant. Russell invited the crew and Beth Nielsen Chapman, also along for the shoot, to his house.

Among his favorites, Arnaud says, is a shot of Buddy and Julie Miller, made in the front room of their small house, where Buddy has installed recording equipment. A hungry cat loosened up the proceedings.

The book got its start one night on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Hicks, Arnaud and Arnaud’s assistant were in Robert’s Western Wear having a drink. “We started talking about Nashville,” Hicks recalls, “and about why I was here and what I thought about Nashville.

“I told him about coming to this epiphany of seeing Nashville as a place where hopes and dreams came about,” he says. “We talked that night about doing a book.”