(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There is a great song that’s been rattling around Texas and Nashville for years now. (Well, hell, there are actually a lot of such songs, but this is the story of one of them.)
“El Cerrito Place” started life with its songwriter, Keith Gattis, a young Texan from Georgetown and then Austin, who moved to Nashville in the 1990s and signed with RCA Records. RCA released his self-titled album in 1996. Reviewers compared him to a young George Jones. His second album in 2005 for the Texas-based Smith Music Group, Big City Blues, drew considerable favorable attention, but no one in Nashville — or Texas for that matter — knew just what to do with Gattis. It was an old story: too good for Austin, too uncommercial for Nashville.
Gattis put it on Big City Blues with a delicate piano and Hammond B3 organ accompaniment. At almost six minutes (5:58) long, it was and remains a deeply personal song of an individual’s agony.
Charlie Robison, a Houston native who was raised in Bandera, Texas, actually recorded “El Cerrito Place” before Gattis did. His version has a classic Central Texas vocal and warm production with that unmistakable Dixie Chicks aura and background vocal sound, produced by Lloyd Maines. Of course, Maines is the father of Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, and Robison was then married to Chick Emily Erwin. Robison again makes it a song of deep personal angst.
Charlie put it on his 2004 Dualtone album Good Times at 5:41, again with piano and B3 and issued it as a single as well. It had no success. Radio wasn’t ready for a long song that some DJs called “navel-gazing.”
Charlie had been on Sony’s Lucky Dog imprint label along with such “hip” acts as Jack Ingram, BR5-49, Deryl Dodd and the Derailers. It was a doomed record label. Charlie did another album for Sony’s Columbia Records before leaving for the indie Dualtone label.
Now Chesney comes with a recording of “El Cerrito Place” at 5:51, again with piano and B3, on his new album Welcome to the Fishbowl. Where Robison spread a more laid-back Central Texas ranch vibe on this quintessentially Southern California song, Chesney’s is a busier Nashville production.
His choice of a songwriter’s favorite on his new album — on the heels of his selection of another such composition, “You and Tequila,” written by singer-songwriters Matraca Berg and Deana Carter — signaled that he’s increasingly to be taken seriously as a songwriter’s friend. Not just the Music Row songwriting factory songwriters, I mean.
“You and Tequila” added another whole dimension to Chesney’s body of work and elevated his status as song stylist. Grace Potter was his singing partner from the rock world, who added the spark to Chesney’s recording of “You and Tequila” and made it one of the best performances in recent memory. As if to underscore that point, Chesney takes the unusual step of including on Welcome to the Fishbowl a live performance of “Tequila” that he and Potter recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Now, Potter is back and admirably fills out Kenny’s rendition of “El Cerrito Place” as this song continues on its journey.
Interestingly, just as Robison covered two Gattis songs on an album (“Cerrito” and “Big City Blues”), so does Chesney record two Gattis compositions here: “Cerrito” and “I’m a Small Town.” “Cerrito” has also been recently and admirably re-recorded by another East Tennessean, Chelle Rose, whose five-minute-plus stark acoustic demo turns the song into a gothic tale.
Gattis himself is a classic example of the singer-songwriter whom the Nashville music establishment just doesn’t know quite how to handle. When he came to Nashville in the mid 1990s, he knocked around and spent a lot of time hanging with another Nashville expatriate, Dwight Yoakam, and frequently worked on the road as Yoakam’s lead guitarist.
Robison made a video for “Cerrito,” which he himself brought up to CMT. I thought then — and still think — it’s one of the most powerful music videos ever made. Totally captivating, like a mesmerizing film noir. Ordinarily, I do not want to watch a music video for the first time with the subject of the video watching it with me. It felt completely comfortable on this occasion. My praise was genuine. CMT played that video. A lot. And deservedly so.
But both young Texans Gattis and Robison sort of struck out in Nashville. There was just no room at the time for songs written straight from the heart. As Willie Nelson once sang about his own failed fortunes in Nashville, “Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The same thing happened to the young Texan Buddy Holly when he tried to blast out of West Texas and came to Nashville and kind of fizzled out before figuring out who he was. Decca Records in Nashville didn’t understand him. Once he left town and started making records that sounded the way he felt musically, he became an international star and a rock ’n’ roll icon.
Of course, that doesn’t happen every day, but there have been worthy Texans by legions that Nashville has chewed up and spit out. Not maliciously or out of spite. They simply didn’t fit the system. What they had in most cases was, as both Strother Martin and Paul Newman said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, a “failure to communicate.”
Willie had to flee Nashville and head back to Texas to find fulfillment and stardom when he pursued the music he truly loved and felt.
Hell, Chesney is a native Tennessean, and he got thoroughly beaten down when he first came to Nashville to make it.
Had it not been for a rock ’n’ roll record label head who believed in him, Chesney might today well be a farmer back in his native East Tennessee. But Phil Walden, who launched the Allman Brothers and many other great artists on his Capricorn Records label, saw Chesney and liked what he saw and heard, and he believed in him. He signed him to Capricorn’s fledgling Nashville country label. Chesney recorded one Capricorn album, In My Wildest Dreams in 1994. When Capricorn’s country division (and Chesney’s album) failed to catch on, Walden shut the label down and moved back to Atlanta.
He still believed in Chesney, though, and shopped him to every Nashville record label. And back then, there were still a lot of them. None wanted Chesney.
Walden kept trying, though, and finally persuaded Joe Galante of RCA and BNA Records to take a chance on Kenny. Many years later, that gamble paid off, handsomely.
“El Cerrito Place” is the glue that connects Gattis, Robison and Chesney and Nashville and Texas and Southern California. It’s one song that in its different iterations links past and present. It truly shows the power of a single song. Reading the lyrics, it does not seem especially captivating. Although the introduction of El Cerrito Place as a real place does serve to give the song added meaning. Obviously, the actual El Cerrito Place, in the Hollywood Hills, remains seared in Gattis’ memory:
And all them pretty people up on El Cerrito Place
They all got somethin’ in their pockets, all got somethin’ on their face
They roll down to La Brea where it meets the boulevard
Singin’ hallelujah while they dance over the stars
They all think they’re goin’ far
Just listen to it sung. Listen to any of the four versions I have mentioned. It will hypnotize you. A song without a singer just lies there on the page. And a singer without a song is just an idiot. But put the two together and you sometimes get magic.