Nashville Starr 

When Ringo came to town

by Tim GhianniThirty-eight years ago, surrounded by gently weeping pedal steel and a host of Nashville cats, Ringo Starr hunkered down in a cramped Music Row studio for two days to sing of heartache, loss and Beaucoups of Blues.

Thirty-eight years ago, surrounded by gently weeping pedal steel and a host of Nashville cats, Ringo Starr hunkered down in a cramped Music Row studio for two days to sing of heartache, loss and Beaucoups of Blues. “It was great with Pete Drake and all those Nashville writers and Nashville pickers,” says Starr by phone, reflecting on those hot Music City nights nearly four decades past.

Although Starr directs praise to the steel guitar wizardry of the late renowned session player Drake and the sea of pickers and grinners he worked with back in 1970, he has reason to be proud of his own Nashville achievements. He came here to make a different-flavored record than his solo debut Sentimental Journey, or those he’d made with his three Scouse mates who’d made it to the toppermost of the poppermost before imploding into what George Harrison sourly serenaded as the “Sue Me, Sue You Blues.”

It was Starr’s first visit to Nashville. Four years earlier in 1966, when The Beatles made their way South on tour, they chose Memphis over Nashville for the eighth date of a 14-city U.S. tour that would be their last. In fact, the only time The Beatles had “appeared” together in Nashville was when A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Let It Be and Yellow Submarine played in theaters, or when they visited living rooms thanks to Ed Sullivan and other variety shows. And four years after Starr’s stay here, Paul McCartney would follow suit, spending six weeks in Wilson County and Nashville, while writing and recording with Wings.

But what made Starr’s visit in the summer of ’70 so memorable was not that it came two months after The Beatles announced their breakup. According to Charlie Daniels, whose guitar work on the sessions contributed to the resulting pure country sound on Beaucoups of Blues, it was remarkable that Starr left the rock pretense back on Abbey Road when he settled in at Music City Recorders on 19th Avenue South.

Instead, he enjoyed what Daniels describes as “pretty typical Nashville sessions. You know, three songs in three hours. It was go in, sit down and work. Here’s the songs, here’s the chords, let’s get it done. It was not a Beatles-type leisurely session. It was work.”

That whirlwind trip’s result, on which the “Octopus’s Garden” and “Yellow Submarine” voice found perfect harmony on an unapologetic country album, was largely overlooked at the time. But it has aged remarkably well and deserves a spot on the shelf with the best of the Fabs’ solo efforts—some now call it a pre-hip precursor to what is embraced as the alt-country movement.

But back then, players didn’t know what to expect from playing with a member of the world’s biggest pop band. Drummer D.J. Fontana says when the sessions were arranged, he and his A-plus list of session cohorts were looking forward to the paychecks, but not necessarily to working with a rock superstar.

“We were thinking he was going to be a jerk,” says Fontana, the 76-year-old Antioch resident who rose to his own brand of stardom as drummer for Elvis Presley’s Blue Moon Boys. “I mean, The Beatles, the No. 1 act in the world,” Fontana says. “This guy’s got all these big monster records. But he came here and it was, ‘Whatever you guys want to do, let’s do it. You guys play the way you’ve been playing and I’ll try to catch up.’ ’’

Starr, caretaker of the heartbeat of history’s most important rock ’n’ roll band, embraced his country soul when he arrived in Nashville that June. Other rockers had come here to take advantage of Music Row’s well-stocked expertise. Few, if any, had settled in for an old-fashioned Music City recording session. That it was one of The Beatles—the little combo that invented the trippy, months-long recording process for their later albums—who sought country music’s no-nonsense, workmanlike approach was an unexpected delight for the pickers.

“It was a great time, working with him,” says Charlie McCoy, who, like Daniels, had recorded with rock icon Bob Dylan when he concocted his thin, wild mercury sound on albums fashioned on Music Row.

For Starr, coming here meant complete and carefree immersion into Nashville session style, mystique and technique. With his generous chuckle as punctuation, the former Beatle recalls the Beaucoups of Blues recording method.

“We’d find five songs in the morning and then we’d record five songs at night,” he says. The “we” in this case was producer and steel guru Drake and Starr, who shuffled through song contenders to start their day and finished those cuts by the next sunrise.

No, there’s no “Photograph,” “It Don’t Come Easy” or “You’re Sixteen”—some of Ringo’s later pop hits—on this album. This is pure honky-tonk, that flavor firmly established in the title track on which fiddle, steel, piano and trademark Jordanaires harmonies back Starr on a lament that some may interpret as being directed, at least in part, at his former mates: “Oh where are the things I saw in my dreams / Where’s the happy that freedom should bring / I see me today and know yesterday / That I threw away my most precious things.”

From then on, there are full-scale Nashville tales of a deadly love triangle, love bought, love lost, love and whiskey found and a somber rumination on war, as appropriate now as it was in the Vietnam era. The looseness and fun of the recording sessions carries over throughout: “When you’re hot, you’re hot,” Starr chirps after a sizzling Jerry Reed guitar solo trailing out “$15 Draw.” The Beatles’ drummer is clearly a guy at home in his element among musicians.

And there’s joy in Starr’s voice now when he talks about those Nashville days and nights. Perhaps his spirit is buoyed further because he’s calling from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where his 10th All-Starr Band—an evolving troupe of oldies specialists—is beginning the tour that brings them to Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon July 6.

“It’s so beautiful, it’s so wonderful,” says Starr, reflecting on the Falls. Curiously, he admits, while the Fabs conquered the world, they never made it to the great natural wonder. “I love it,” he says. “It’s really uplifting. You get up in the morning and look out the window and wow! There it is.”

This year’s All-Starr Band includes Colin Hay (Men at Work), Billy Squier, Hamish Stuart (Average White Band), Edgar Winter, Gary Wright and Gregg Bissonette. Band members perform songs from their personal repertoires as well as serve as backing band for Starr, the happy ringmaster who delivers a sampling of his solo hits and some Beatles classics.

Early shows, at least, ended with Starr performing Liverpool delinquent John Lennon’s anthemic, appropriate and now much-needed “Give Peace a Chance.”

While the All-Starr band offers a splashy taste of rock ’n’ roll glories past—Starr says the band “sounds really good”—he wasn’t seeking to revisit his own past glories when he came here in 1970.

This gentlest Beatle, who by nature attempted the role of peacemaker during his mates’ rancorous divorce, perhaps needed the freedom to express country heartache when the opportunity arose to record in Nashville. Drake brought Starr here after the two met up in London. Mr. Talking Steel has been gone now for a couple of decades, but Daniels remembers well the circumstances that led to the Drake-Starr alliance.

Daniels, who like Drake had already achieved solid footing in the rock world by working on Nashville Skyline and other Nashville recordings by Dylan, was at least in part responsible for the fact that the steel wizard was in London to work on Harrison’s sprawling masterwork, All Things Must Pass.

Harrison, a Dylan crony as well as enthusiastic apostle of all stringed instruments, liked that steely, mournful sound. During a New York jam session with Dylan and Daniels, Harrison asked the not-yet long-haired country boy for the name of the steel player on Dylan’s Nashville recordings. Daniels acted as telephone go-between, and shortly after Harrison employed Drake and his pedal steel on the triple album on which he bid his old mates Hare Krishna and farewell.

Pure chance, and Drake’s need of transportation to the studio, led to Starr’s trip to Nashville.

“It all came together because I sent my car to pick up Pete Drake at the airport when he came in to record with George,” Starr recalls. “He noticed I had a lot of country music in my car. Everyone always knew I liked country music.”

Among Starr’s stirring vocal efforts for The Beatles was his take on “Act Naturally,” a Buck Owens hit penned in part by Nashville’s Johnny Russell. (Russell has since passed away, but on the All-Starr Band’s visit to Nashville eight years ago, the singer-songwriter finally met Starr, an encounter of two affable, generous souls.)

After admiring Starr’s country music collection, Drake asked, “ ‘Why don’t you come down to Nashville and record an album?’ ” Starr recalls.

In his mind’s-eye, the prospect of recording any album likely conjured images of the long hours, nights and weeks the Fab Four spent fashioning Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album).

He found out that 19th Avenue South is a long way from Abbey Road. “It was fast and it was good,” says Starr, delight in his voice as he recalls those sessions. “We did the whole thing in two days.”

Scotty Moore, who himself helped birth rock ’n’ roll, was co-owner of Music City Recorders and served as engineer on the album. “The main thing I remember is there were too many people in the studio, in the control room and in the front row,” says Moore. “It was so crowded you just couldn’t breathe. But the session went fine.”

Now a soft-spoken resident of Blueberry Hill in rural Davidson County, Moore knew firsthand about being in the world’s most famous rock band. Before The Beatles began their rock ’n’ roll reign, Moore played in Elvis’ Blue Moon Boys with bassist Bill Black and drummer Fontana. Moore’s licks pretty much forged the path all rock guitarists had to follow. (“Everyone else wanted to be Elvis—I wanted to be Scotty,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has said of the humble 76-year-old.)

But by 1970, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had gone Vegas, and Moore had pretty much put aside performing when he came to do business on Nashville’s Music Row. He enjoyed having a Beatle for a client.

“The sessions went until at least 1 a.m,” Moore says of Starr’s nights at Music City Recorders. “But it was 2 or 3 in the morning before we got out of there. It took that long just to say goodnight to everybody.”

Riding shotgun with Elvis of course made Moore immune to being starstruck. “For me it was a job, but I enjoyed meeting him and it was a good camaraderie.”

If there was awe to be found in the room, it came from the visitor from England, who says working with Moore “was an incredible experience.” After all, “Scotty played all those guitar parts with Elvis,” Starr says.

Since Fontana handled the sticks for the Beaucoups sessions, listeners won’t find Starr on drums anywhere on the vinyl LP. He did pick up his sticks for post-session free-form jamming, but it wasn’t until the record was remastered for CD release a quarter-century later that “Nashville Jam” was included in the package.

That instrumental begins with a most familiar drumbeat—heard billions of times on songs by rock’s most memorable combo growing louder. A listener would almost expect, if he or she didn’t know better, to hear John, Paul or George jump in with vocals. Instead, the ensuing “Nashville Jam” offers the delight of dueling guitars, fiddle, pedal steel and keyboard, all punctuated by various kinds of twang and thump.

Drummers Starr and Fontana do a little of “No, he’s better…” in their separate interviews about the sessions, but one thing’s certain in Fontana’s mind: Those who discredit Starr’s drumming are musically ignorant.

“He’s one of the finest drummers,” says Fontana, who spends much of his time working the Elvis festival circuit. “People say ‘He don’t do a lot.’ Well, he don’t have to do a lot. He played that steady tempo. He was the glue for The Beatles. He put it together for them. That’s what they needed. That’s the whole secret of drumming. If you wanna do something fancy, go ahead and do it. If not, just play the beat.”

Fontana’s appreciation for Starr’s work grew during the two long jam sessions that ended the recording. “Ringo did it all,” he says of the studio rollick that became “Nashville Jam.” “I think one of [the jams] was 18 minutes. The other one was something like 20 minutes. What amazed me, he never varied from that tempo. He had the greatest conception of tempo I’ve ever heard in my life. I have never heard anybody play that steady in my life, and that’s a long time.”

While Starr played drums, Fontana contributed to the jam’s glorious racket. “I played tambourine, claves, maracas,” he says. “We were just picking up anything. When I tired of playing one, I’d pick up another. It went on and on as we went around the horn, everyone playing.”

McCoy, who played organ, vibes and harp on the sessions, also cherishes the jams. “At the end of everything, after we had finished up the recording, Ringo went behind the drums and played and everybody jumped in. We just jumped in the groove. He played much better than I had the impression he played from just hearing The Beatles’ records.”

Daniels considers Beaucoups of Blues an important record. “In retrospect, I don’t think it was the explosive album [Apple executives] wanted it to be,” he says. “I’m sure they wanted it to be a multimillion-seller. But it was not in the Beatles tradition, like what George and the other guys had done.” Instead, it was a full-frontal country album. And as such, Daniels says, it helped “legitimize country music in the rock world.”

Starr recalls it simply as a couple of days spent with good musicians working on good songs, singing away the blues. “Nashville was very good to me,” he says.

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