Earlier this year, my ex-wife, Laurie, phoned excitedly to tell me that a song she wrote would be featured on a film soundtrack.
“Which movie?” I asked.
“I think it’s called Driven,” she replied.
“The one with Sylvester Stallone?!”
The movie had recently come to theaters, so I jumped in my car to pick her up, rounded up our two teens, and we all promptly caught the next showing at the Hollywood 27. (Laurie and I recently divorced, but remain friends.) We raced down the hallway several minutes late as a Latino usher named Jesus greeted us at the door. Laurie whispered to him as I stepped inside. As we were seated, she explained, “Jesus told me that he thinks Driven is a beautiful movie.”
Hey, now that’s a good sign!
When you first move to Nashville to seek a break in the music biz, you take every little shred of available evidence as a good signstuff like, “I’m writing a song with so-and-so, whose brother produced so-and-so’s second-to-last CD, and he’s gonna check it out.” Then you get a song in a major flick and you stick with the habit, clinging to little things like the words of an usher who happens to be named Jesus.
As time passes in Music City, most of what didn’t matter, you forget. But after 11 years of constant challenges here, I haven’t forgotten much.
With our two kids in diapers, we unloaded into a Green Hills duplex back in 1990. We moved from Anchorage, Alaska, after Laurie’s talent as a singer/songwriter had been discovered from a demo tape we’d sent to Star Song Communications, then a major player in the contemporary Christian music industry. The future looked bright. Laurie was in her mid-20s; I was in my early 30s. She was outrageously gifted, and I had seen enough of the 9-to-5 work world to know I wanted something better for our family.
Laurie’s pay-advance as a developing artist was $100 per month, which at the time was meant to cover maid service so she could focus on writing. We moved here debt-free with $5,000 in the bank. I figured that nest egg should hold us till Laurie “could make it big.” If only we didn’t need to buy so many diapers; just getting one child potty-trained seemed to be as critical to our survival as me finding my ideal job.
But finding work wasn’t so easy. Despite my college degree and eight years’ experience as an advertising salesman and manager, every potential employer detected my subtle disdain for business as usual. In a few short months, our precious savings dwindled until we went bust.
We went with hat in hand to Star Song, and they graciously agreed to advance us the value of Laurie’s contract in a lump sum. After a few more months, I began envisioning us as homeless, and sometimes in my lowest moments would seriously weigh this optiontaking our kids and camping out on Lower Broad, shaking my fist angrily at a world that refused to feed us.
But if you’re going to make it in the music business, the first thing you need to grasp is that the world doesn’t owe you anything, least of all a hit song. After borrowing money from my parents, we moved to an apartment in Bellevue, where I snagged a job delivering pizzas, in what I expected to be a temporary fix. The brake pads on our ’84 Accord quickly wore down to slivers, so to reduce the crunching of metal on metal, I downshifted my automatic transmission instead of hitting the brakes. In the process, I destroyed the gear box. Not only were we without transportation, the rent was due, and Laurie tested positive on a pregnancy test. Then she miscarriedat about the same time I was robbed at gunpoint in a Domino’s parking lot.
We were so broke we couldn’t afford the Sunday Tennessean for the invaluable grocery coupons. I would lift my kids into the newspaper recycle bins to dive for discarded coupons; they thought it was fun.
I turned to the state and to the church for more help. The state provided us with food stamps, a local church paid for a new transmission, and our church back in Alaska took up a special collection for our next month’s rent. After listening to my plea for help, one of the local church deacons asked point blank, “Why does everybody come to town thinking they’re the next Amy Grant?” I offered no defense, just shrugged like an idiota pitiful, shameful exchange. If I had stopped to care about his opinion, I’d have been crushed by the weight of it.
Christian rocker Phil Keaggy lived in Bellevue, and one night he ordered a pizza. Back when I was in college, I had dated a girl who booked a concert featuring Keaggy, and before the show, we were supposed to have dinner with him. But his tour bus became delayed, so our meal together never happened. Now here I stood 15 years later, at his very door with his very dinner, wearing a blue cap and hoping for a decent tipand sure enough, he gave me a dollar-fifty. I’d have framed that dollar bill if I hadn’t needed it so badly. (Oddly enough, he later sang one of Laurie’s songs in a duet with Patsy Moore.)
For almost three years, I delivered pizza while Laurie’s craft evolved. Her direction veered such that she turned down another deal with Star Song. My parents were encouraging us to get the hell out of Dodge. Then a former supervisor from Anchorage, now working in the Seattle area, phoned me to see if I’d be interested in working with her again: “Middle management,” she explained, “earning mid-40s range.”
With no better prospects in sight, I rejected her offer, an agonizing decision. The next four years offered scattered moments of success as we continually passed through the revolving door of defeat. Laurie took every opportunity to play out. She worked her way up to headlining at The Bluebird. She won a slot in the first annual Grammy Showcase. She performed with Deana Carter in the cafeteria at David Lipscomb and at 12th & Porter, back when Deana drove a car in as sad a condition as ours. The music business is a field where anything can happen, and even if nothing happens, you can’t help but play anyway, so nothing is lost.
A lucky break came when a writer for Rolling Stone, Elysa Gardner, saw Laurie perform and requested a tape. That tape made it into the hands of Joe Galante at RCA, who was then based in Manhattan. He phoned Laurie personally, asking that she withhold pitching any more songs until he could meet with her. They convened over breakfast at Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, and then Laurie set up a gig at the Bluebird so that RCA’s A&R man could attend her live show.
The label rep flew down and caught the gig. A local record company also showed upnot to see Laurie, but to pitch RCA another band. They whisked the A&R guy away after the show.
Eventually, RCA did offer Laurie a development deal. By this time, she had acquired a pitch attorney with the prestigious Grubman entertainment law firmand he advised her to reject the RCA offer. After she followed the lawyer’s advice on the premise that he had something better up his sleeve, he suddenly quit Grubman to work directly for a record label.
We came full-circle back to zero. Would I deliver pizzas for the remainder of my life? Friends encouraged us to look for that lucky break, but what they didn’t understand is that success requires a series of lucky breaks timed perfectly in a row, and after that, you make your own luck.
In time, I found a job with a local publisher, and Laurie started a home-cleaning business to help pay expenses. A couple years swept past. Cleaning toilets must hold a very high position in the heavens, because it was through such work that Laurie advanced. She cleaned the apartment of a band promoter, Tom Poling, who passed on a tape to Meredith Devoursney at Curb Music. Laurie and Meredith hit it off, and Laurie was offered a position as a contract songwriter.
I lost my job on the very day she inked her contract. With her new work, we felt great relief, but after having been through nonstop tempest for nearly a decade, our relationship couldn’t recover. We separated. I coasted on my severance package, caught up on my sleep, read and mused over the interesting twists and turns of life. In time, I returned to school and learned a new trade, massage therapy, which I enjoy.
Since arriving in Music City, I’ve come to see that making it big can actually be the great booby-prize. And I’ve learned the ultimate irony of succeeding in the music business: You find success at the same time that the folks back home have nearly forgotten you.
After Driven came out, Laurie called to tell me that she had another song, “You Are,” in another movie, Angel Eyes. LeAnn Rimes sang this one, and the film starred Jennifer Lopez. It was also featured in the Miss USA Pageant.
By all appearances, we’re succeeding.
So why is it that so many dreamers come to Nashville thinking they’re the next big thing? I’ve paid full price now for a reply, and it’s this: Who cares? Who cares if people fall flat on their faces a million times? One way or another, they’ll get up again.
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