Enjoying some down time before the afternoon road trip, I spend Saturday morning up in Hillsboro Village, a Nashville neighbourhood that is Funky with a capital F – lots of cute bistros, retro clothing stores, artisan jewellers and second hand book shops. To get there I walk up from Broadway until it becomes 21st Avenue, past Vanderbilt University. It’s a cold, crisp morning and it’s good to be out walking. There’s still ice on the pavements but the sun is out and it feels great to be moving around. I enjoy breakfast with Madeleine Slate, a Toronto-born songwriter who’s now based in Nashville. She’s bound for Belfast in February, to take part in the Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival, and will be staying at our place in Belfast for a few days. We dine at Fido, possibly the hippest of the Nashville cafes. It’s finished in dark wood and red brick and has some untouchably cool vibe about it. One of those vibes that comes out of nowhere and is impossible to define. It has more to do with the clientele than any design or culinary decision, I guess. This is my second or third visit, and every time I’ve been here it’s been peopled wall-to-wall with creative types. Lots of laptops and Converse sneakers and herbal tea.
At three that afternoon, Ben Glover and his fiancée Emilie pick me up in her car and we make the road trip out to Tullahoma, where Ben and I will play a show at the Celtic Cup.
It’s a two hour drive up country, the highway cutting through rolling hills. Apparently our journey will bring us close to Lynchburg, where they make Jack Daniel’s whisky. We pass signs for towns with pretty names like Bell Buckle and Ruby Falls, and you wonder as you pass through places like Shelbyville how they grew up out of the ground in that spot. The road doesn’t even bend here – it just passes on through and on either side there are furniture stores, gas stations, restaurants, supermarkets and housing.
We pass through Manchester and a few other towns in Coffee County, and arrive at Tullahoma, which is similarly low-rise. The light is fading, but the town horizon appears to be flat, bristled with TV aerials and lampposts. The coffee house is (to borrow a phrase from Hemingway) a clean, well-lighted place, decorated in warm reds and dark wood. Owners Chris and Denise have put a lot of time, effort and money into the place. Chris has a fascination with Celtic culture, so they decided to follow that as their theme. Outside, there are Scottish, Welsh and Irish flags. Indoors, plasma screens scroll images of rolling Irish and Scottish countryside – castles, burial cairns, rocky coastlines.
There’s a tiny little PA that sounds surprisingly punchy, and Ben and I settle in, tune up and start playing. The audience – the biggest it gets is around 35, which is pretty packed – are fairly attentive, and we have the chance to try out some of our new songs. It’s fun just to play with Ben, though – I know a lot of his material quite well, and it’s a welcome change to get to play some lead guitar on someone else’s songs. At the break, we have another coffee (believe me, the coffee there is REALLY good), and a slice of the most sinful cake I’ve eaten on this trip. As we pack our gear, we get interviewed on camera by Rachel Vickrey, a reporter who puts out a news programme from Tullahoma three times a week on cable TV.
And flushed with celebrity, we pack up and head back down the highway towards the lights of Nashville, passing through all the little dark, sleeping towns - until we are back on the still-awake highway.