HOLLY GLEASON’S BLOG: What The Dreamers, Stars and Singers of Songs Do When No One’s Around.

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It is 10 after 5 in the morning, and Erv Woolsey, the storied artist manager, lets out a laugh. Not ribald or fatal or ironic, but warm; the sort of low rumble that is pure joy and appreciation of the moment. Less than 10 feet away, his client George Strait sits beaming at the corner of baby grand piano’s keyboard, an acoustic guitar across his lap.

What You Don’t See
What The Dreamers, Stars and Singers of Songs Do When No One’s Around.

It is 10 after 5 in the morning, and Erv Woolsey, the storied artist manager, lets out a laugh. Not ribald or fatal or ironic, but warm; the sort of low rumble that is pure joy and appreciation of the moment. Less than 10 feet away, his client George Strait sits beaming at the corner of baby grand piano’s keyboard, an acoustic guitar across his lap.

Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus is on the piano bench, fingers rolling over the black and white keys. Ronnie Dunn is to the dark-haired musician’s right, taking it all in. Dunn, certainly an icon of two waves of major league country, basks in the songs being tossed back and forth, raising his voice as only he can.

Though the hour is late, the spirits are blazing-not drunk, not high, but engaged in singing old country songs and hits that the assembled guests are calling out for. This is music by the people who make their living making music, but made for the joy of the moment, the celebration of song and nothing else.

It is a feeling so sweet, so alive, that nobody wants to go home.

And so they go on… Singing and laughing and loving everything about how music makes them feel.

Even Oscar-winning local girl Reese Witherspoon is swept up in the sparkle and fairy dust vortex of music makers beyond the floorlights’ high beams. She, too, calls out titles, sings along, feels the way the rhythm moves you.

This is what draws people to a life of song… one that except for the very few is a life of scraps, promises and cobbling together the opportunities that keep one alive. For them, it isn’t a life of getting by, it’s the only way there is. Once you know there’s no choice, there’s only melody and words… and that sense of being electric in the connection to what you play.

The songs tumble out, fill the room. The world’s best jukebox brought to life by some of the most famous people in modern country music. A million songs held in common, rarely played, animated by their collective vision.

“Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.”
“You Don’t Know Me.”
“The Fireman”
“Jackson”
“Wild Horses.”

Every song they’ve ever known or loved, tumbling out like a deck of cards, falling from an exhausted gambler’s shuffle. Not perfect, but perfect for the way the lyrics and harmonies glow in a wooden barn in the soon to be slate grey threat of another day.

Never mind the multiple award winners, the Entertainers of the Year and multi-platinum sales. Forget about the headlining tours, the waves of meet & greets, business obligations. This isn’t just about titans or bold-faced name, it’s about fierce integrity and loving music at its roots.

Lee Ann Womack, who was inescapable with “I Hope You Dance” and topped every critics poll in the universe with her scorching take on Buddy Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” leans over the piano in her stiletto heels, ashy blond hair swept up and just beams. She calls out songs she wants to hear… but she also backs up and sits on the stone fireplace’s ledge so others can warm themselves by the ad hoc performance going on.

Foe a woman whose brand new record is Call Me Crazy, in a moment like this, she’s anything but. No, this is the source of her power – and the place where the reasons merge with passion in a communion of like-minded souls connecting at their source.

And it wasn’t just the über-famous. No, this candle-flame drew moths of all stripes. Friends and family members… Bob Marley’s Wailers, especially dead-ringer singer Elan Atias finding his way through Music City for the first time and offering his sweet voice in harmony wherever it fell… New York City’s iconoclastic catalyst of film, benefaction and music Nancy Jarecki looking every bit the glamazon blonde bombshell who is Sally Kellerman… and Nashville’s consummate music man Tony Brown, who’d won two CMA Awards of his own that very night producing Strait’s tell-it-how-it-is Troubadour…

It was also newcomers like Jake Owen, who took his own turn at the piano to find his way through ‘Tiny Dancer” and 30-something hardscrabble traditionalist Randy Houser, whose “Anything Goes, When Everything’s Gone” is challenging country radio in a way not seen since Kris Kristofferson gave Johnny Cash and Sammy Smith the double-barreled reality plays “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”

But it’s not about who anyone is, or what they do. Admission-such that is-comes from on some level certainly of knowing the right people, but it’s more about genuflecting at the altar of why this matters… This, not being some network awards show that sells soap and pits artists against each other, but the reason they all fell in love with the jukebox, the transistor radio, the cover band down the street in the first place…

Music in its purest form goes straight to one’s gut. Even beyond the heart or the brain, it’s an unacknowledged part of certain people’s DNA double helix, wrapped around all the other chromosomes that make them who they are. It is not about money… fame… status… adulation…

No, for these genetically encoded specimens, it’s how they breathe. Music in, songs out.

Somehow, some people are just more alive when they’re immersed in the music.

The trouble comes, usually, when the business-or the insecurity, ego or bad living-creeps in. The wrong reasons start becoming the manifest; the justifications looking like the truth. In the topsy turvy vertigo that sets in, sometimes the feral spirits who came for the ability to create or consume the plutonium cones of creativity lose their way-and the struggle to keep the spark alive begins amidst the deadlines, the growth curves, the market shares, the research mandates and the demographic analysis.

It becomes a matter of margins and quantifiable limits rather than soul. It stops being about why people connect with the music and surrenders to a cover-one’s-rump aesthetic drive, mandated by the profit center and people who don’t remember, possibly never knew what it’s like it to believe in a band or a piece of music so much that it can sustain them when everything else is falling apart.

People sometimes laugh at me: the way I can go on… and on… and on… about a song. But those things truly move me. They change how I feel, whether it’s AC/DC throwing me into overdrive, Patty Loveless drowning me in sorrow I didn’t know how to tap, Bonnie Raitt opening floodgates of raw desire or Springsteen pulling me out from the shore to a place where I can truly breathe… and they are the things I can count on; they are the things that do it every single time I reach for them.

For the people assembled in Ronnie Dunn’s barn, here on what’s billed as “Country’s Biggest Night,” they are as far from the pomp and the romp as a soul can be. With the branches scratching a slate colored sky, this is the root of the real why they are here. Not just in a barn at 5:30, but all these years later.

It isn’t for awards… sales… screaming fans… It is, simply, the music.

Looking at the faces, the smiles, the nodding to themselves and each other in acknowledgement of what goes unspoken, it’s obvious-at least to the people who know how it feels. Erv Woolsey, once an assassin promotion man, knows songs as well as anyone, loves them just as fiercely, with just as much sense of connection as anyone in this somewhat congested space percolating with the electricity of like minds converging.

Scanning the room, not to make sure his client’s OK, but just to take in the joy, he laughs again. He nods at his son a few feet away, a young man raised in a cradle of Dean Dillon, Jim Lauderdale, Bruce Robison and other crème de la crème writers, and receives the knowing look of a fellow discerner.

At a time when it’s easy to blame the mainstream, these are the moments that prove how wrong that notion can be. Business is as business always will be: about the numbers. But for the people who live for the music… here far away, only for themselves, it is the piano fills rising and falling, the acoustic guitar chords chopping up time like rocks of emotional cocaine.

In this space, it’s obvious what matters. Unseen, though it is, it is absolutely something for the fans to know… and believe in. This is the kind of thing that can’t be faked or conjured. It is in embracing the notion that it happens that faith in at least a certain kind of singer can be restored. It is the sort of thing that must be taken on faith, trusted beyond knowing-and yet, right here, right now, it is all laid out like a fortune teller’s deck and future that lies in store.

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