Richard (that’s the guy with his name over the door) comes from New Orleans, and has worked hard to bring a little corner of The Big Easy with him to Tennessee. We’re way out of town here. The cab from the hotel just keeps going and going, way out on Old Hickory Boulevard and then White’s Creek Pike, and the houses start to get sparse, laid back from the road so you can just see the lights in the trees. There’s snow on the side of the highway and even the direction signs start to thin out.
Eventually we come to a crossroads, and the cafe is on one of the corners, a little well-lit bistro gleaming with warm earthy colours. There’s a cute stage area, and the PA system is pretty good. The staff offer me a warm welcome, and they settle me at a table with coffee and go about their Friday night tasks. They’ve just opened, and there is no-one around. I watch my cab disappear back up the highway. Richard confides that he didn’t even open the cafe last night because no-one was out in the cold weather. I look out at the icy verges and wonder if tonight was a good idea for either of us.
Out here is like you picture the American countryside from your James M. Cain movie imagination: long, lonely highways and empty crossroads, where the lights burn green and red over deserted intersections. Occasionally, huge trucks barrel on through. There’s a front porch here, and you imagine warm summer nights with good music, good food and beer as the sun sinks low in the trees and Nashville city centre is a distant glow on the horizon.
But not tonight. It’s cold and I check my watch. I’m supposed to be on in ten minutes and there’s just me and the staff. The waitress offers me a menu and tells me there’s a meal for me – do I want to eat now, or after performing? I look around the empty restaurant and almost say ‘instead of’.
As it happens, within ten minutes half a dozen people have come in. One of them is Ownie, a friend and fan of mine from Memphis, who has made the detour on her way home from Chattanooga to hear the performance. From Chattanooga through Nashville to Memphis to hear songs from Belfast. That's how small the world is. And by the time I get through my half hour spot, another dozen have come in and the atmosphere is starting to warm up a little. Afterwards, as Ownie and I enjoy a bowl of chilli and conversation, people come over to the table and shake my hand.
Most of them claim an Irish connection – which is not unusual here. Much of Tennessee was settled by the Scots-Irish, so names like Ward and McNaughton are familiar. Someone else is coming to Dublin later in the year and wants to know if Belfast is worth a day trip. Of course, I say. Here's my e-mail address. Let me know when you're coming and I'll tell you where the good gigs are. All of them tell me that although they were chatting at their table, they were listening, and they really liked the music.
The next morning I get an e-mail from one of them who tells me he loves the songs, and describes my music as ‘like a warm cup of coffee on a cold day’. Thanks very much - that’ll do for me.