Country music, to me, is more than just a genre. For me, it is a feeling, and it is home. My parents met through their mutual love of country music and their band Tenbrooks Molly. I was raised on country – it was all I knew. When other kids talked about the Backstreet Boys, I was listening to Emmylou Harris. We played cassette tapes in the car, and I enjoyed songs of lesser known artists like the Cajun singer Gib Guilbeau as the soundtrack to my early years. All of this would eventually come full circle.
Rock and metal became my thing as I grew older, but then I found myself craving more out of my music. When I revisited country music, now as an aspiring singer and guitar player, the songs – and skill needed to play them – meant more. I now understand and appreciate the power of the subtle bend of a B-string, or how the shaky quiver of the voice of a 20-year-old kid from Waycross, Georgia says more about life than I ever thought could be possible.
That poignant voice belongs to Gram Parsons, whose blend of country, rock, rhythm and blues, and folk influenced countless artists and changed the landscape of music in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I followed the footsteps of my parents by forming Way Behind The Sun last December with my fiancé Tyler and my little brother Tommy. Somehow, a show promoter found video of us performing a Gram Parsons song online, and he loved it.
To our surprise, that promoter, Will James of Cosmic American Productions, invited us to perform at the 11th Annual Gram Parsons InterNational, a one-night festival held in Nashville, on Nov. 3. The goal of the show is to gain signatures for a petition to get Gram Parsons inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame–a place where his Nudie suit resides but he is not yet a member.
On Nov. 1, our band, obvious New Yorkers despite our western clothes and boots, made the 14-hour pilgrimage to Music City. To combat nerves, we distracted ourselves by visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here, my first favorite – Emmylou Harris – gave a presentation about her life and career. We saw Gram Parsons’ outfit on display, and felt an aura that fueled us for the night ahead.
We had the honor of being the closing band at Gram Parsons InterNational, paying tribute to our hero. We shared the spotlight with Earl Poole Ball, whose rich discography consists of work alongside Parsons, the Byrds, Johnny Cash, and more. We played on the same stage as Gib Guilbeau’s son Ronnie. We dedicated “Ooh Wee California,” a Swampwater song which his father Gib sang, to him. It was a surreal experience having the sounds of my childhood come to life in front of me, while I was a part of it.
Despite the status, or lack thereof, of my band, and despite having never been anywhere near down South before, we were greeted with a genuine kindness by everyone we encountered. One would think Nashville is a cutthroat, every-band-for-themselves place, but that’s not what I experienced. Earl Poole Ball, while I was shakily setting up my guitar after his set closed, told me he could not wait to hear us – us! We befriended members of the Chris Watts band, whose drummer Isaiah Lyon we borrowed for our set. They play every night in Nashville, and we never have, but they did not care. They gave us a thorough list of things to do while in town, chatted with us, and eased our nerves.
It weren’t just the musicians who welcomed us: store clerk Victor from Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop gave us a detailed tour and spent over an hour talking with us about country music history. Gary from Gruhn Guitars, after a long talk when he noticed my Gram Parsons shirt and my brother’s Flying Burrito Brothers band shirt, gave me a free shirt and discount on our purchase.
If I were in their shoes (boots), and I saw a group of loud excited tourists with cowboy hats and New York accents running around my town, I may not be so willing to start a conversation. But the people we met in Nashville proved that country music, with its honest, relatable, and beautifully true songs, unites.
I will miss moments like these. And I will miss the neon lights and never-ending song that keep Nashville alive through the nights. Though over 900 miles from New York, this place so different felt so right for us.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Because country music is not just a genre. It is a feeling, and it is home. And we can take it with us wherever we may go.
To join over 13,500 others in pushing for Gram Parsons to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, sign the petition at www.gramparsonspetition.com
Originally published in the Putnam County News & Recorder