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Jammin'

There was a time when there was a lot of jamming going on in Nashville night clubs. Bass players and drummers would finish a set with hands so tired from thirty or forty choruses of "C-Jam Blues" at Mach 2 that they could barely open a beer. When two or three guitar players and a dance floor full of steel players all get to solo until they run out of licks or break a string, it can really wear a rhythm section out. But there was always someone waiting for a chance to sit in, and you could take a break, grab a drink, take a pill, play a little pinball, or slip someone $15 to finish out the night for you if you had a hot babe waiting.

Musicians make some sort of a living backing up singers with sometimes questionable bands out there on the road, or, if they're politically correct and producer-friendly and a mighty good player, in studios. And it can be pretty damn boring. An artist gig is about 45% travel, 45% sitting around in motels and restaurants and green rooms (some do this 90% drunk), and 10% actually playing. (Some do the whole 100% drunk.) And playing the same songs the same way every night. Session work is mostly hanging around a studio for three or four hours drinking coffee and listening to playbacks and networking with the producer and the other musicians and ending up playing a turnaround and some fills on a couple of choruses - about 20 seconds of music.

But a jam session is a chance for musicians to forget the Top 40 commercial stuff and have a little fun with some jazz, or blues, or fusion and play whatever they want, or whatever they can, with other musicians they may not normally get to work with, and they can play a Dm7/G7b9 over the five chord without worrying about some singer giving them the hairy eyeball. Sometimes a singer will get up, if one of the musicians knows him and he promises to do some good songs and not sing over their fills.

When the Opry was still downtown jam sessions like these used to go on all the time at The Den and Tootsie's and The Wheel on Broadway, at the old Sho-Bud store, backstage at the Opry, in hotels during the annual DJ convention, and in Printer's Alley. Guys would stay up picking all night until the sun came up, high on speed, and invent licks and write songs that'd be on the radio in a month. You could park your car downtown and walk around and see Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Bryant, Doug Jernigan, and Paul Franklin and you could learn more about your axe in one night than you could learn in a year's worth of music lessons back home with Miss Poultice, and tourists and musicians from out of town would go home bragging about all the hot picking they had heard from the Nashville cats.

But it's not happening much anymore. Not like it used to happen, despite the revitalization of the club scene on Lower Broad. Some of the older players have retired or died. Some had too much fun back then and have to take it easy these days. Some only play now when there's a time card around to sign.

Nashville isn't the languid hillbilly Mecca it once was. Money and commercial considerations have squeezed the easy twang out of it. Country music is big business now, like trading pork bellies or marketing a new dish soap. Get the highest return on your investment, sell the most records, cut costs to maximize profits, buy a full-page ad in Billboard. Contracts, bottom lines, red ink, tax write-offs... The agents and lawyers and record executives in New York and LA have shown Nashville how profitable it can be marketing disposable music and production-line entertainers, and now the famous Nashville Sound has as much personality as a McDonald's hamburger.

It's too bad that more of Music City's hot shots aren't burning up the clubs anymore, but maybe they have to get up early for a ten o'clock session that'll make the payment on their BMW. Or maybe they showed up at a couple of clubs where the band was playing Top 40 schlock and thought it looked too much like what they'd been paid to do all day. Or maybe they got stuck at the last jam session with some guitar holder who should have had his axe confiscated at the musician's inspection station on I-65 when he came to town.

These days a "jam session" is a bunch of singers in hats and striped shirts hoping somebody in the audience will sign them to a record deal. Every girl sings "Crazy", and the band is supposed to know every song in the world, even the one that someone just wrote in the bathroom during a sudden flash (or flush) of inspiration. "You'll hear it", the singer says as he starts banging on an out-of-tune flattop and singing while the band tries to find the key, time signature, and tempo. You hardly ever hear an instrumental, maybe because the band is so worn out backing all the Garth and Reba wannabees, and there are not nearly enough shuffles being played. A lot of singers wouldn't know an F-sharp from a flat tire, and they think all it takes to be successful in the music business is a XXX Beaver and a financial backer.

Once in a while, a group of good players might happen to wander up on some stage in some club all at the same time and start swinging, but then some slug will get up and play at Guns and Roses volume and some germ will want to sing some commercial piece of drek that everybody is sick of playing, and some drunk in the crowd will holler for rock'n'roll. Hey, just sit there and be quiet, Mr. beer-and-a-shot, and enjoy the music and buy the band a round.

In the good old days, guitar slingers prowled the streets, deadeye steel players lurked in the shadows, and a jam session could break out anytime someone pulled a Telecaster on you. It's not like that anymore, but what the hell.... you can still hang out in the clubs, show off your latest lick, look for a gig, and stuff yourself with free popcorn if it's been a long time between Krystals. Be sure to listen to Top 40 radio a lot before you show up, but don't waste your time learning the changes to "All the Things You Are" or "Cherokee", because chances are slim that anyone will be calling them.

 

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