Just as the landing gear touched down at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on Saturday evening (Nov. 12), the flight attendant came on the loudspeaker. “We have a special passenger on board,” she said in her clearly enunciated voice. “Please welcome the aspiring songwriter Jeffrey Steele, who just got his first cut with Billy Gilman!”
Everybody on the plane who worked in the music business cracked up because, unlike the flight attendant, we knew that Steele is likely the hottest country songwriter around today, and he has the No. 1’s to back it up. And we also spotted the Warren Brothers flying in coach.
But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with nervous laughter. Everybody was surely on edge with a week’s worth of activities leading up to the CMA Awards hitting Madison Square Garden on Tuesday (Nov. 15). When a Saturday night assignment fell through, a friend and I crawled our hotel’s Murray Hill neighborhood in search of a good dinner. We eventually settled into the tall barstools at Benjamin’s and asked for menu suggestions. This was, after all, my friend’s first meal in New York City.
“Where are you boys from?” asked the bartender, James.
“Nashville,” we said.
“Country boys!” he declared with a grin. Already, our cover had been blown. “I’m going to get you some cornbread!”
I laughed it off, knowing I needed a thick skin when it came to teasing Southerners, especially those finding themselves north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Alas, it was no joke. Within two minutes, a basket of the softest, most decadent squares of cornbread landed between our wine glasses.
“We take care of country boys,” James said, confidentially. And the cornbread? Seriously, the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. It threw me for such a loop that I don’t even remember how the woman who later sat next to me — a lively 52-year-old — found out that I lived in Nashville.
In her scratchy New York accent, she proudly announced, “I am a huge fan of C&W!”
And you could tell she was more than sincere. She animatedly told us the whole story about her love affair with, as she called it, C&W — especially the lyrics. She absolutely insisted that my friend and I check out Lee Ann Womack Sunday night at the Rodeo Bar, which was right around the corner. After telling her that Womack’s latest record reminded me of the Tammy Wynette era, she clutched my arm. “I’m going to buy it tomorrow! Because of your recommendation, I’m buying it. Now give me a hug!”
Maybe this country-comes-to-town concept wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
The Rodeo Bar turned out to look exactly like a place I’ve always wanted to discover in Houston or Dallas, where I never have any luck finding a dive bar. A spotlight shaped like a giant cow skull illuminated the deck, almost like a bat signal re-imagined by Brooks & Dunn. Concert posters from famous clubs in Austin decorated the walls, and a new poster on the door announced a musical tribute to Glen Campbell later that night. In the meantime, though, on the venue side of the club, songwriter Rivers Rutherford held the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the palm of his hand. The rowdy folks populated the other side of the bar, and we managed fit ourselves somewhere in between for a few shots of whiskey. I don’t remember the rest.
I recovered enough to check out
The guy could slightly change up a riff in “Somebody Like You,” and the crowd would have gone crazy.
But at the Grand Ole Opry show at Carnegie Hall on Monday night (Nov. 14), the finely-dressed folks were far more subdued. Without a red curtain, footlights or an open gallery at the front of the stage for tourists to take pictures, it didn’t seem like the Opry at all. But you couldn’t argue with the talent: Trace Adkins, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss (who nailed a rendition of “She’s Got You”), Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs and Trisha Yearwood. I don’t know if it was because the typical Carnegie clientele is used to proper behavior, but even a stellar rendition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” with Gill, Krauss and Skaggs couldn’t get them out of their seats for a much-deserved standing ovation. New York City is a tough town. If you can make it there …
I didn’t want to miss Womack at the Bowery Ballroom, a rock club in the Lower East Side, so I ducked out early at the Opry — or tried to. The old joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (The punchline: “Practice.”) But the real question is, “How do you get out of Carnegie Hall?” I somehow ended up backstage, in the basement and finally standing outside with the doors locking behind me. I had to show my ticket to come back in and buy an elegant Hatch Show Print, which I carried with me on the subway downtown.
Right away, I found the right train — but headed in the wrong direction. (You get a nice view of the skyline from Queens, though.) I transferred a few times, my souvenir poster in hand. If ever someone could have been beaten me up — or at least mocked me — for being an obvious country fan lost in the big city, this would have been the time. Of course, nobody blinked.
At the club, Womack confided to the audience that she was “at a loss” for what she needed to do for her comeback album until hearing the song that, she says, saved her career. Before launching into “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” she smiled and proposed a toast: “Let’s all have a cocktail and call somebody!”
My friend and I retreated to the basement of the club (which used to be a vaudeville house) and wound up talking about how we’d remember this visit for a long, long time. By then, Shooter Jennings was about halfway through his headlining set and rolling through a number with more of a traditional country bent. I kicked my feet up and savored the moment. I can’t speak for the industry, but here’s what I learned about this adventure: You can take me out of Nashville, drop me in the biggest city in the U.S. and country music is still going to be my soundtrack of choice.