Like many others who come to Music City, I was an aspiring singer-songwriter when I moved to Nashville in 1998. I arrived in the echoes of one of the big hit songs of the time: Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby,” off his album Soul’s Core. It was ubiquitous, really, and had that line, in which the narrator, playing a gig in Los Angeles, says it “seems like everyone here’s got a plan / it’s kind of like Nashville with a tan.”
As I explored the music scene in my new hometown and met other songwriters and musicians, Mullins’ version of Nashville seemed more and more accurate. Everyone did indeed have a plan. All over Nashville it seemed, people weren’t writing songs to express a thought or a feeling, or have fun with melodies and lyrics. They were writing them for somebody, or with somebody in mind. There were things you couldn’t say in songs, because people wouldn’t get it. You couldn’t use too many chords. And gigs weren’t gigs, they were showcases. It seemed no one played a gig because it was fun, or because they wanted to rock out or entertain anyone. They were trying out songs, or hoping so-and-so would be there, or courting Music Row and trying to fit themselves into a mold. It was a far cry from the scene I had left in New York and New Jersey, where if felt like people had more of an artistic plan than a business one.
I quickly realized this was not the Nashville for me, and decided to stay on the tract that I was on before I got here, writing music the way I liked and making records on my own. But I soon discovered that the independent musicians had a plan as well. There were the right gigs you had to play, the right regional tours, the right critical reviews in the right indie mags and the right independent sound of the right independent record by the right independent producer.
Working in the business side of the industry — I had gotten a job at a performing rights organization — and pursuing the creative side was making my head spin. Somewhere around the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, I realized I just didn’t have it in me. I would not have a career, even an independent one, in the singer-songwriter-performer side of the music business. I also decided I really wanted nothing to do with the business side of it either.
But then I was faced with a new challenge. How could I reconnect with music in a way not colored by the business? I loved music after all, especially writing and performing it. It was tough. Like getting together with an old friend you’ve become estranged from, and both of you are accusing the other one of changing –”you’ve changed!” “no, you’ve changed!” “I don’t even know who you are anymore!” — but you both love and care about each other and need to work it out.
It turned out, like the struggling lovers in the Deep Blue Something song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” we’d find common ground in a film. Or rather, two films.
In 2007 came a little documentary called Young @ Heart, about a senior citizens chorus in Massachusetts that performs spirited, earnest and sometimes hilarious versions of contemporary rock, pop and soul songs. I caught the film on the festival circuit at the Nashville Film Festival. It returned as part of ITVS Community Cinema Nashville and was later broadcast on PBS stations nationwide via Independent Lens. It’s an outstanding and heartwarming documentary. For many of the performers, most in their 70s and 80s and some in their 90s, music was their reason for getting out of bed in the morning. They didn’t have a plan to make it big in the music industry. They were in it for the joy of making music, and giving … giving to each other and their audiences.
Then in 2010 came the documentary film For Once in My Life, a film I’ve heard some people say “out Young @ Hearts Young @ Heart,” which makes more sense when you hear the phrase out loud as opposed to reading it. It’s the true story of the Spirit of Goodwill Band, a group of singers and musicians in Miami assembled from the workforce at Goodwill Industries. The members of the band all live with various physical and mental disabilities — everything from autism and Down syndrome, to blindness and other physical, mental, and developmental challenges. What brings them together is their love of music. Again, there is no plan, not in the music business sense. They want respect, yes. They want bigger venues, yes. But what they gain, and what they give back to each other and their audiences, can’t be contained in even the biggest of stadiums. It’s a testament to the healing and empowering power of music.
All this is to say that here in Nashville, in Music City, For Once in My Life should be required viewing for anyone who makes music, promotes it, sells it or simply loves it. It’s a reminder of what makes it so important, and why it moves us the way it does. It’s a story about why we write it, record it and perform it, and whom it touches. The music business is a massive part of what Nashville is, both culturally and economically. For Once in My Life is a reminder of why there is a music business at all.
For Once in My Life screens as part of the free ITVS Community Cinema series at the Nashville Public Library downtown on Saturday, January 22 — Reception at 2:00 p.m. Screening at 3:00 — and airs on NPT and PBS stations nationwide via Independent Lens on Tuesday, February 1 at 9:00 p.m. The Community Cinema event will include a post-screening discussion with disability advocate Lorre Mendelson, Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee Career Solutions development director Debbie Grant, and music therapist Tina Haynes. Vicki Yates of NewsChannel5 will moderate.