(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The last old-time bar on Nashville’s Music Row is about to shut down, and I guess I’m supposed to feel sad about it. With the closing of Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern on 16th Avenue South (or Music Square East, as it was re-named several years ago in an effort to upscale the area for tourists), we’re supposedly seeing another epochal End of an Era. And tears are being shed and farewell galas are being scheduled.
But somehow it doesn’t really bother me. Sometimes, eras need to end. And this one was over long ago.
It’s been a long time since aspiring singers and songwriters gathered in seedy bars to swap guitars and songs over beer and cheap wine and occasional weed in the back yard. On Music Row, that is. Songwriters still may do that elsewhere. But on Music Row, it’s not time-conducive or cost-effective (as the bean-counters say), and songwriting by appointment in tiny rooms in buildings on Music Row became the norm years ago.
And the songs often reflect it. Many songs sound like they were written by appointment in tiny rooms with a meter running — like certain hot-sheet motels that charge by the hour. I’m talking assembly-line songs, the stuff you hear every day on mainstream country radio.
Remember when a whole lot of country hit songs were about morose guys sitting alone in bars and drinking hard and punching coins into the jukebox to forget the women who had dumped them or cheated on them or left them or threw them out or stole their car or shot them? The great Harlan Howard was perhaps the last great Nashville songwriter to sit alone at a bar in the afternoon, writing and drinking and talking to friends and coming up with such classics as “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.” Faron Young sat alone at the bar and drank “warm red wine” in his evocative blotto song “Wine Me Up.”
George Jones’ wonderful new three-CD history 50 Years of Hits includes one hit a year from his first 50 years in country music, and since Jones is a master of the drinking song, there’re some barroom gems here. Jones’ second hit song was 1956’s “Just One More,” in which he laments: “Put the bottle on the table/Let it stay there till I’m not able/To see your face in ev’ry place that I go.”
There are many such extreme drinking songs in country history: “I’m Under the Table to Get Over You,” “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “I Gotta Get Drunk,” “Day Drinkin’.” These songs of drunken oblivion even bordered on the whimsical, as in “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas,” but, at bottom, they were songs of ultimate despair. In the classic song “There Stands the Glass,” the narrator knows what he is about to do but is helpless to resist: “There stands the glass/That will ease all my pain/That will settle my brain/It’s my first one today.”
Remember, many of these drinking songs pre-dated today’s awareness of addictions. They also predated today’s DUI laws and their tough enforcement. Hell, drunk driving used to be tolerated and even winked-at in much of the country. Songs like Hank Thompson’s “A Six Pack to Go” (“I’ve got time for one more round/And a six pack to go”) were the norm. No more. Songwriting follows cultural and social evolution.
Many Music Row-area bars became populated with middle-aged guys with graying ponytails, wearing Hawaiian shirts and jeans and sandals who started drinking early in the day and talked a lot about writing songs, if they weren’t actually writing them.
There isn’t really much of a Music Row any more. Nothing to see, nowhere to go. What drinking there is has shifted over to the new strip around the corner on Demonbreun, where a bunch of shiny new joints replaced the old row of trashy souvenir shops and car and wax museums that used to actually lure the tourists who were looking for a discernible Music Row that they couldn’t find in the faceless buildings on the Row. The drinking in the new joints is trendy, with singles action and hot wings and hot young country wannabees onstage.
Songs of oblivion once seemed a romantic notion in Nashville. But what was romantic at 18 is prosaic and even stupid just a few years later. Good songwriters don’t really need to sit in a funky joint night after night and get loaded to write.
It’s been a long way for George Jones from 1956’s “Just One More” to 1999’s “Choices” and its drinker’s lament: “I was tempted/ By an early age I found/ I liked drinkin’/ Oh, and I never turned it down.”
There is, thank God, at least one old-timer still around who knows the power of a good drinking song. Give a listen to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Devil in the Bottle.” That, friend, is a good drinking song: “There’s a devil in the bottle/And he won’t rest till I’m dead.”