There I was last Friday afternoon (June 6), cruising the Fan Fair booths at the Nashville Convention Center and looking for something authentically country, when I rounded a corner and came face to façade with Billy Yates’ Country Store. Instantly, I was 12 years old again, barefooting it along a hot West Virginia blacktop, with a nickel in my hand and a Coke already fizzing in my brain.
Yates knows his country stores. There on the tin-roofed front porch sat the familiar waist-high soft-drink cooler, ready for you to lift up the lid and plunge your hand into the black pool of water that kept the bottles so unbelievably cold. Beside the screen door stretched the “loafers’ bench,” where adults liked to sprawl and argue politics. If you pressed your face tightly to the door screen and shaded your eyes, you could squint inside and glimpse rough wooden shelves stacked high with chewing tobacco, flashlights, shotgun shells and other rural luxuries you knew you’d never have the money to buy. It was a weathered gray time machine.
One of the nicest guys in the business, Yates wrote George Jones’ “Choices” and scored such hits on his own as “Flowers” and “I Smell Smoke.” He told me he’d gone all the way back to his native Missouri to get materials for his faux emporium. He built it, and his brother painted the signs. If the city lights in Bill Anderson’s booth hadn’t lured me away (as they eventually do all country boys), I might still be there, chatting with Yates and eyeing his magical cooler.
Anderson was busy signing autographs when I walked by his place, so I moved on past the Native American Dance Center exhibit next door and then paused at the Pigeon Forge one-hole miniature golf course to watch a woman blow her chance to win a free T-shirt. Life is cruel. But here, at least, it was air-conditioned. I stopped for a few minutes in front of Marty Stuart’s booth, hoping that the Resplendent One would show up and give us all a lesson in style — maybe even favor us with an aphorism that we could pass off later as our own. But it was not to be. I felt a severe glitter withdrawal.
Then I spotted Billy “Crash” Craddock’s lair, and the lights behind my eyes snapped back on. “Crash” wasn’t in either, but I stood spellbound nonetheless by the vinyl-album covers from the ’70s he’d used to decorate his space. His images seemed to glow from the jackets. His smile was radiant and his hair airbrushed to perfection. The confines of a minuscule CD cover could never do him justice. Most people remember “Crash” for that tom-cat yowl, “Rub It In” — but I remain partial to his gentler airs, like “Broken Down in Tiny Pieces” and “Afraid I’ll Want to Love Her One More Time.” Come back, “Crash,” we need you.
Near the main entrance of the exhibit hall, exhausted fairgoers sprawled in awkward poses across the vast carpet, looking like casualties in a Civil War field hospital. Hardier folks shuffled in a wedge toward John Berry, who hugged, smiled and hugged again. Given the size of the crowd, the hall was relatively quiet. There was the wavelike wash of a thousand murmuring conversations, but, mercifully, there was no loud music. Occasionally, though, someone would spot a star arriving — or think she had — and a communal scream would go up. Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry were greeting ecstatic fans at their “My Town” exhibit, which boasted a water tower with a pulsing red light on top. Billy Ray Cyrus, who wasn’t in his booth then, and Phil Vassar, who was, each had an American flag as his dominant motif.
At the Tower Records enclave, rising star Buddy Jewell leaned across the counter to embrace an admirer and hold her until her friend’s camera flashed. I’ve always been a fan of the vocal quartet 4 Runner (remember “Cain’s Blood”?). So I ambled over to their digs for a few words with their publicist about their new album, Getaway Car. For those of you who haven’t been keeping tabs, Mike Lusk has replaced original member Billy Crittenden. Jim Chapman, the tall, bald, ramrod straight bass singer, continues to be the most dramatic physical presence in country music.
Even when Emerson Drive wasn’t there, fans flocked to group’s booth to drool and dream over the cream-colored 1959 Buick LeSabre convertible that served as the centerpiece of the exhibit. I waded on through the crowd until I heard a familiar voice. Standing on my tiptoes, I saw Shotgun Red, the irascible puppet, holding court. His inseparable buddy, Steve Hall, stood at his elbow. Actually, he was on Hall’s elbow, but you get what I mean.
As the afternoon wound down, I trudged back to Yates’ country store for a final shot of cheap nostalgia. But no one was around. I guess that’s why we have 7-Elevens.