Despite possessing one of the most eclectic and fascinating résumés of any musician in Nashville, Mac Gayden couldn’t get past the front desk of a single record label when he decided he wanted to make a new album for the first time in almost 20 years. Having sent his new material to labels all over the U.S. and Europe to no avail, the man whose wah-slide guitar put the bite into J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama” had pretty much resigned himself to his fate.
“I had kind of given up,” he says, “and was just gonna write songs and produce and have a good time. Keep writing the kind of songs I always write anyway. And just see what happens.”
Well, what happened was that Gayden was playing on Mark Germino’s Winter Harvest CD when label chief Owsley Manier asked him if he would be interested in cutting an album of his own.
“I said only if I would be allowed complete creative freedom,” Gayden recalls. “So not only did they give me creative freedom, they didn’t even come to the sessions except for a couple of times to make sure that things were going well.... Other than that, they hadn’t heard the album until I had turned it in.”
In other words, they had not heard Gayden’s infectious, reggae-beat remake of “Crazy Mama,” or the soul-drenched plaint “Reconsider Me.” Nor had they heard “Nirvana Blues,” his seven-minute meditation on the plight of the children of baby-boomer sellout parents. This last song wound up as both the title cut and, according to Gayden, the album’s “centerpiece” in terms of public reaction.
“A lot of people are shaken by what that song says,” he notes. “One disc jockey said a lady called the station saying, ‘That’s my life, I wanna know who the artist is, I wanna go buy that record right now.’ ’Cause she evidently had a son or a daughter in college. She had done exactly what the song said with her life.”
That’s not what Gayden has done with his own life. Rather than compromise his beliefs, he has fashioned an album driven by many of the same themesspiritual liberation, especiallythat motivated his work of 20 to 30 years ago. As a veteran of the Dylan Blonde on Blonde sessions, and as a founding member of such fondly remembered Music City ensembles as Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry, Gayden was in the vanguard of pickers and writers bringing the social and spiritual issues of the 1960s to the musical forefront in Nashville.
Yet to speak of his life’s work in such narrow terms is to do his music a great disservice. For underpinning the world-beat diversity and refined musicianship of his current album (even when weighed down by lyrics that are occasionally a bit heavy-handed) is Gayden’s deep background in rhythm and blues. His songwriting credits include both the soul-pop perennial “Everlasting Love” and Clifford Curry’s beach classic “She Shot a Hole in My Soul,” while his guitar credits include countless sessions for Sound Stage 7, the Nashville soul label A&R’d by WLAC deejay John “R” Richbourg. Furthermore, Gayden played club gigs in integrated R&B bands at a time when to do so couldand didput him in physical peril, and as a youngster he clerked at Ernie’s Record Mart, the R&B hot spot that was home to the blues label Excello Records. Indeed, some of Gayden’s most vivid memories are of the many country starsPatsy Cline, for instancewho did their shopping in the blues racks at Ernie’s.
“Patsy was even stronger in that area than most,” he says. “Patsy loved the soul music. I mean, she would listen to all of it.”
A Nashville native, Gayden grew up on Franklin Road near Thompson Lane, but he attended high school in Franklin proper, a town he remembers as “rich in R&B and soul music.” The first R&B group he worked with was the Cameos, a street-corner ensemble that sang on 12th Avenue South. They were strictly a cappella until Gayden, as a teenager, started sitting in on guitar and playing with them when they’d take their urban harmonies into the local community centers. “I bought an electric guitar, and I’d plug it in, and [it would] just be myself and them,” he says.
Besides working with the Cameos and a high school combo called the Sliders, the young guitarist would also back blues singer Arthur Gunter, the originator of Elvis Presley’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” at regional armory shows. Though the history books have tended to slight Gunter’s work unfairly, Gayden recalls the Nashvillian as a first-rate musician with a unique, bass-note rhythm technique unlike anything he has ever heard. “Occasionally you can hear something like that out of John Lee Hooker,” he says, “but Arthur was a little bit more sophisticated.”
Devoted to R&B as he was, Gayden was also that lone white kidthere was one in every Southern town in the 1950swho would sneak out of the house at night to hang in the local black nightclubs. Far from resenting his presence, the friendly patrons would actually protect him.
“Sometimes I would go down there by myself, and I was never threatened,” he says. “I felt more at home there than I did in many of the other clubs. I mean, these were honest experiences. I’m not flowering them at all. They were real. I was treated with so much love by the blacks here in Nashville back then, it made me wonder, ‘What’s going on here? If there’s this kind of feeling going on between me, a white boy, and black people, what’s wrong about the equation here?’ So I started a lot of deep thinking back in those days when I’d go in and sneak in those clubs.”
Not all of his experiences were so uplifting, however. He recalls a harrowing gig in the early 1960s, when he was in the army in Alabama and playing in an integrated band on weekends. Three highway patrolmen came into the club, apparently acting as muscle for a rival establishment, and “one of them walked up to me, and with the other two right beside him...took the microphone and hit me in the face with it, right in the mouth, busted my lip open. And he pulled me over to him by the shirt, grabbed me, and he said, ‘Listen you white m.f., if you don’t get off this stage right now, playing with these black sonofabitches, they’re gonna find you across the Florida line, and they won’t find you alive.’ ”
Throughout the 1960s, Gayden’s musical world expanded as he joined the Escorts, the famous Nashville R&B combo fronted by session great Charlie McCoy, and later started getting hired for studio work. While gigging in Printers Alley, he and his friends would sometimes run across Nashville transplant Jimi Hendrix, andmore importantly to GaydenCurtis Mayfield, who played the Alley clubs when he came through town with Jerry Butler and the Impressions.
“He was just phenomenal,” Gayden says, remembering Mayfield’s work. “Probably of all the guitar players I’ve ever seen in my life, he was the most unique. And the most off-the-wall in his style of playing, you know? Those little trills he would dowhich all of us copied, including Hendrix.”
Significantly, when Gayden released his 1976 Skyboat album, one of only two covers on the record was Mayfield’s “It’s All Right.” By that point, however, Gayden was growing disillusioned with the business. Though he had enjoyed success as a guitarist and songwriter, especially with Robert Knight and Carl Carlton’s separate versions of “Everlasting Love,” his involvement with Barefoot Jerry lasted only through their first album. A solo follow-up he recorded with producer Bob Johnston was never released in the United States, and though “Morning Glory,” the key cut from Skyboat (and still one of Gayden’s most popular originals) “got picked in all the trades,” ABC Records sent it out to country radio, where it was doomed. One more album was cut for ABC in 1976, and then Gayden took an extended hiatus to be with his family.
“I just didn’t want my children to be unhappy, like my first two or three kids were, in my first marriage, because I was never home,” he says. “I was either in the studio or on the road. And they hated it.”
It’s appropriate, then, that when Gayden decided to cut his new album, it was one of his daughters, a student at UT, who encouraged him to include “Nirvana Blues.” “I went up and visited her and...they’re going through exactlywithout the Vietnam warthey’re going through exactly what we went through in the ’60s.”
His hope, one assumes, is that some of the kids experiencing these life changes will draw spiritual strength from music, the same way he did back when he was grappling with the issues of the 1960s himself.
“I think in those days is when I laid the groundwork for the way I would approach music,” he says. “Even ‘Everlasting Love’ was a song of change, you know? It was meant to be a song to create harmony.”
Can I just tell you how happy these recaps make me every Thursday? And I…
Don't know about the David Simon part. I've finally watched a few episodes of TREME,…
Just so you know, you accidently put Scarlett's name instead of Juliette's under Glenn. I…
my girl and I hadn't been that much into all the TV shows when we…