Letter from Texas via Nashville

I look out my hotel window at rain on the Red River and realise I’m coming down with the cold that has been dogging our party since we landed in the States.

It’s been a really exciting trip, and hard work – and exhausting, to be honest. I tried really hard to put a structure on my Nashville week, but opportunities and exciting things kept bouncing across my path and it seemed stupid not to chase them.

Nashville is a classic example of how the heart of the American city has moved to the outskirts – I took a walk from the hotel down to Broadway on my second day. I was thinking – I’ll get a coffee shop and read for an hour and relax. But it was a depressing mile and a half of car showrooms, office suites, vacant lots and parking garages. And I met no-one. Everyone was in their cars, looking out at the walking guy. What’s he doing?

There are a couple of neighbourhoods up near Vanderbilt University and in Hillsboro with interesting coffee shops and boutiques. But downtown is business, apart from the strip of neon-soaked entertainment that is Broadway. You hit Broadway and it’s a strip of honky tonk bars that are pure tourist heaven – lots of fantastic neon and loud live music, played by some of the finest pickers and singers you’ve ever heard. Hit Broadway at one in the morning and it’s like a war zone – rednecks and rubbernecks and zombies all thumping into each other and going from bar to bar looking for each other, calling cell phones that nobody can hear.

On the other side, we were invited to the homes of some of the people who nurture the Sister Cities relationship between Belfast and Nashville, and they’re the kind of Dream Home properties you see in international House and Garden magazines – steeped in family history, filled with heavy-looking antiques and cut glass. We’ve been so well treated – these people know how to put on a spread. I tasted my first grits and overdid it on the country ham.

Breakfast wasn’t included at our hotel, so the musicians and the people from Belfast City Council would eat every morning at a fantastic diner called Noshville, a couple of blocks from our hotel. I miss it already. We’ve grown up with America as a movie that rolls all the time inside our head, and suddenly you walk down a street and find yourself on set, sitting at the counter in a diner ordering eggs and sausage and a side of toast.

And someone pointed out a wonderful second hand record shop close to the hotel – a fantastic place called The Great Escape, so I’ve picked some old Randy Newman, some Rickie Lee Jones and Steve Forbert, etc. My poor suitcase is groaning already.

The most important things I achieved in Nashville were a couple of co-writes with well-known Nashville songwriters Kent Agee and Pat Alger. Kent and I got a start on something we both thought was very strong, and we’re in the process of finishing it. Pat and I, over the course of a couple of mornings, got a song finished which we were both very happy about. And I met quite a few other interesting writers who have invited me back to work with them. Which is very encouraging.

I also had a meeting with the Nashville Songwriters Association, who gave me some useful advice on writing and the business in general. And I performed and hung out with the four songwriters who are over here from Belfast – Gareth Dunlop (deep soul roots), Iain Archer (tunes that look delicate but which could knock down buildings), Ricky Warwick (big hearted anthems that slam out to the back wall) and Aaron Shanley (pretty and affecting songs about young love with awkward elbows). I’ve put some pictures from the Nashville trip up on the gallery if you want to take a look. All four took part in a showcase gig at the Belcourt at which they shone bright alongside some of the most revered names in Nashville songwriting – Pat Alger, David Olney, Elizabeth Cook and Bobby Bare Junior.

A chance meeting with the lovely John Briggs from ASCAP resulted in a roadtrip for Ralph McLean and I down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama, to visit the fabled Fame studios, where everybody from Aretha and The Staple Singers to the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon recorded. Again, there’s a gallery of pictures from the visit up on the website. The studio remains pretty much as it has been since the seventies. It’s one of the brownest places I’ve ever been – if The Last Waltz had been turned into a studio, it would look like Fame – wood veneer, brown carpet, beige wallpaper, brown sofas. There’s an unmistakeable presence in the place – you can sense the ghosts of greatness.

We stopped off at Big River Broadcasting and met Gerry Philips, son of Sam Philips of Sun Records, who signed Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis... And I sat on the porch of WC Handy’s old home. The Father of the Blues. I’m a distant relation come to pay homage.

There was one last inspiring encounter. John took us to meet two old friends, a pair of artists who live in a dazzling, cavernous apartment above a shop in the centre of Tucumbia. Audwin McGee is a painter, a blogger, he works in sculpture and installation and architectural design. The apartment is huge and open plan, so there’s a canvas-in-progress set up in one corner with dustsheets all over the floor, a piano in another corner, a large open fire hearth and some comfy old chairs and sofas, a vast dining table covered with work in progress and artwork all over the walls. His architectural work on shop fronts in Tucumbia is transforming the town. He and his wife Sandi Stevens, a gymnast-turned-designer who has a range of clothes called Can You Say Geronimo, are at the centre of a growing artistic community in this small town, and they host dinner parties, evenings of readings and music to help it thrive. I was immensely impressed and a little jealous. People like this move me every time – they make me want to sketch and write and sing and make things. And never stop evolving and creating.

And then it was a crack-of-dawn cab ride to the airport and down to Austin, where I’m about to register this morning for the South by South West Music Festival – four days of mad networking, business contacts and performance. It’s a wonderful city, even in the rain, and the streets are full of freaks, geeks and trend setters of all kinds. The last couple of days have been the multi-media events, so everyone is walking around with iPhones and blackberries, carrying laptops and handhelds. It’s kind of funny. I keep waiting for them to walk into each other and I imagine the air just bristling with transmissions and electronic communication. And there are some marketing people just handing out bars of chocolate on street corners to passersby.

I’ll drop another line later this week – while I had meetings lined up in Nashville, it’s more unplanned down here. Anything could happen. Or nothing could happen. Or something – that later turns out to be nothing. You know what I mean.