NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Big Country Music Tent

Step Right Up: Is It Myth or Fact?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

All of my life, I’ve heard wise old-timers rave on about how country music is a “big tent” and about how there’s room for everybody under that friendly, inviting big top. We’re all just one big happy family, was the message.

I discovered years ago that there’s not quite as much room under all that canvas as the chamber of commerce has always liked to boast. As passenger-side car mirrors say, “Objects in rearview mirror may appear closer than they are.” And as drug companies like to advise consumers, “Individual results may vary.”

Not long ago, I revisited that big tent in my imagination, thanks to a long session of listening to music, starting in the evening and going on into late night. And then some memories came flooding back to me.

The big tent I saw in my mind’s eye was gorgeous. It was enormous and gleaming white in the bright sunshine with colored flags and streamers blowing proudly in the wind. Cheerful country music played loudly. Colorful posters advertised such country music sponsors as car companies and beer and liquor brands and shampoo and personal hygiene products. A sign said: “Auditions for country music membership today.” There was a long line of country music candidates outside that tent, many of them carrying guitar and banjo and mandolin cases. They all looked cheerful and hopeful.

What I found inside was not one big wide-open space for everybody, as I had expected. Instead, there was a narrow tunnel leading to a sort of large control room, where a committee of middle-aged white men sat behind a long table and motioned the applicants to come forward, one at a time.

Then, the committee members tried different kids of hats on the heads of all of the would-be country stars. I was astonished. It was almost exactly like the Sorting Hat scene from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter books. But instead of one country music Sorting Hat, there were many, many hats of different styles: perfect black and white classic Stetsons, crushed straw cowboy hats, Indiana Jones hats, the country gentleman cowboy hat, the oil baron cowboy hat, many baseball caps (some of which would only fit if worn backwards), derbies, Greek fishermen caps, outback hats, railroad caps, newsboy caps, beanies, knit sweater caps, porkpie hats, fedoras and even a few berets and hard hats and hosts of others.

And the minute that one of the many hats fit a candidate’s head perfectly, a committee member sent that candidate off down one aisle or another. The aisles spread out from that control center like spokes around the hub of a big wagon wheel.

I strolled down the first tunnel-like aisle and soon found myself in front of a desk with a sign reading “Country-Rock.” I seemed to see the ghost of Gram Parsons, and he was protesting loudly that he was not country-rock, dammit. “I sing ’Cosmic American Music,'” Gram protested. Meanwhile, the Eagles and the Byrds lounged, hatless and bored, in a corner.

The most crowded room of all was “Mainstream Country Radio.” It was full of pickup trucks and beer kegs. The mosh pit in the center was packed with handsome young guys with perfect gleaming white teeth and glowing golden tans and tight jeans. They were jumping up and down and yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” It reminded me of what you see in any puppy-cam stream or video.

Inside the room labeled “The Club,” which had a guard at the door checking ID’s, everything was brass and marble and polished oak. Members lounged in overstuffed club chairs, sipped from brandy glasses and puffed leisurely on big cigars. The wall was lined with Hall of Fame plaques. There was an open bar and a lavish spread of appetizers. Unlike the rest of the sprawling tent, “The Club” area had no new wannabe members on this day.

The “Nashville Rejects” room had pictures posted of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Doug Sahm, John Prine, Lucinda Williams and several others. Each was labeled “Charter Member.” Someone had scrawled graffiti on Elvis’ picture, reading, “Who wants in your damned ol’ club, anyway?” Even so, there was still a line of applicants at the door. “I’m different — I’ll make it,” the first one in line told me.

The “Bluegrass” room was full of very mellow pickers and singers, none of whom seemed overly concerned about getting in. Not even after studying a pamphlet on the desk that was titled Projected Yearly Earnings for Bluegrass Artists. Bill Monroe sat regally on a throne, with his disciples Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt on either side.

The “Traditional Country” room was almost empty. Jamey Johnson and Ashton Shepherd were sitting together at a small table and talking over a bottle of Jack. Many spectral ghosts wandered the room, looking for the spirit of Hank Williams.

In the room labeled “Solo Women Artists,” someone had taken a Sharpie pen and written “Formerly Known as Girl Singers” and “Good Luck” over the sign.

The “Americana” room was a veritable Tower of Babel, with a host of people protesting, “I’m not Americana! I’m unique! I’m me!”

The “Roots Music” room had a sign saying, “Please find the ’Americana Music’ room.”

In the “Music Row Songwriters” room, a sign on the desk read, “Please take a number and wait to hear your songwriting appointment announced. Be sure to bring your rhyming dictionary.”

There was a large scrum underway at the “Hopeful Next Taylor Swift Artists” room. It looked like a free-for-all of moms and agents wrestling and scuffling, trying to push in line. A sign read, “You must be 10 years old or older to apply. Blond hair is a must.”

The “Former Rock and Pop Artists” room” was jammed. The large sign above the desk read, “If you were ’always country,’ please take a seat to the right. If you only recently ’just fell in love with country,’ please be seated to the left.” Each person was also given a carpetbag to carry. There were large Jessica Simpson posters pinned up.

One very curious thing I discovered was that there were no connecting aisles between all those separate tunnels. Once you went down one of them, that was that. No turning back or deviating from the path you were on.

The last aisle I entered had a sign reading “Unclassified. If You Have Not Yet Been Assigned, Follow the Arrows.” Curious, I followed the red arrows down a short aisle, found a door and opened it. Suddenly, I was outside, back out on the street. The door swung shut behind me with a big hydraulic whoosh! I heard the door lock click. There was no stage door or other entrance leading back in.

I was gone country.