25 YEARS IN A FIVE-YEAR TOWN

Journeys with Tim Carroll

  • The raucous crunch of a scarred but churning Telecaster, played through an amp smaller than most self-respecting guitar players would plug into. Then bass and drums — and only bass and drums.
          And then Tim Carroll’s impassioned yelp told the story. “I first came to Nashville with my heart full of hope,” he sang. “In a little while, I started feeling like a dope.”
          This was the mid-1990s, when grunge and sludge still ruled the day, and any rock ’n’ roll references to dope had nothing to do with a person feeling themselves to be of inadequate intelligence. The sound, and the humor, found a sweet spot between Chuck Berry and Joey Ramone. And the story was true.
          “Then someone told me, ‘Hey, Tim. Don’t you let yourself get down,’” he continued, while his fingers commanded his Telecaster’s Keith Richards-y descent. “’Cause you’ve been here only about one year, and it’s a five-year town.”
          That was the word back then, and it holds true in many music minds today: Nashville is a five-year town, if you’re lucky and great. It takes that long to meet the people who know the people who know the people you need to meet to have even a chance.
          Whoever you are, if you play a guitar then you were the hottest player in whatever place you’re from, and everyone knew it. Your parents probably didn’t want to encourage or admit, but you listened to the radio and knew that you were just as good as the people who were making dollars and noise.
          None of us look at LeBron James playing basketball and think, “Hell, I could do that.” Many of us can download a song, sing along, and think that the overall sound has been improved by our participation.
          “You can start on bottom, exactly like the rest,” Carroll sang. “You’ll get your tail kicked, sometimes, around here there’s the best.”
          In coming to Nashville, your hometown résumé flies out the window of whatever vehicle gets you here, and no one cares how much they liked your songs in Tucson or Tallahassee. It’s “play me something, kid.” Except it’s really not.
          It takes forever to get to the point of, “Play me something, kid.” Music lawyers and managers and producers — the people who can get you to the “play me something kid” folks — don’t hang out in the places you’re lucky enough to find a stage. For the most part, they don’t hang out at all. They try to beat the traffic back to Franklin.
          How many nights did Chris Stapleton play the Station Inn, five blocks from Music Row, before someone in corporate authority heard and believed? And after that, how many meetings, bands, dropped record deals, heartbreaks, and horseshit did he endure before rising to what so many called overnight success?
          At some point, in almost every case, the dream draws its last breath, the morning mirror says that all you’re left with is the music.
          After 25 years in a five-year town, most every mirror says that kind of thing.

    Tim Carroll started as a punk at Indiana University, the youngest-looking kid on campus, playing in an audacious band called The Gizmos. When the Ramones came to Bloomington, The Gizmos opened the show with a sledgehammer of a song that begins, “Real rock ’n’ roll don’t come from New York.”
          Led by Dale Lawrence, who would later make glorious music with the Vulgar Boatmen, The Gizmos mixed noise and irony in ways that would forever impact Carroll, who wound up moving to Hoboken, New Jersey, and forming The Blue Chieftains, a hard-hitting, hard-twanging, song-oriented ensemble.
          In Hoboken, Carroll decided he would write his masterpiece, and by some estimations he did, with a song called “If I Could.” It’s an instant sing-along, with audiences hollering back Carroll’s common-sense chorus: “If I could, then I would make money doing something that I love.” He sings, “If I could pay all these bills with my guitar, then I would pay these bills with some rock ’n’ roll.”
          Iconic songwriter John Prine recorded that song, as did Kasey Chambers, and Asleep at the Wheel (though Asleep’s version added something about golf that Carroll never really dug). Aided by Gotham City roots-music force Jeremy Tepper (who now programs several SiriusXM channels, including Outlaw Country), The Blue Chieftains made some good headway and some great music, but never found the kind of audience that paid all of Carroll’s bills with his guitar (he worked on the stock market floor for a time, finding that brokers make a much greater cacophony than rock bands).
          And so, heart full of hope, Tim Carroll came to Nashville. It was 1993. The “Great Credibility Scare” artists of the late 1980s — Foster & Lloyd, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, etc. — were falling away in favor of mega-sellers Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn. But those sales meant Music Row was expanding, and publishing deals were flying around. Carroll was able to get his songs heard, and those songs’ heart, quirk, and melody gained some attention.
          When Bloodshot Records put together a “Hey, Nashville isn’t all corporate dreck” album called Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley, featuring Jason & the Scorchers, Greg Garing, Lonesome Bob, Phil Lee, and other rabble-rousers, Carroll’s mighty “Open Flame” was the lead musical track.

    Tim Carroll walks onstage at the Double Door in Charlotte, North Carolina, and blasts into “Open Flame,” hands flying across that blonde Telecaster. By the time he’d finished with that one, and “If I Could,” and “After the Hurricane,” and “Five Year Town,” and all the rest, everyone in the place — all 35 people — realized that they’d heard something great and true and right.
          After the show, he gives a fan his number and says, “Call if you’re coming to Nashville. I live at a place called Coolsville.”
          A month later, in Nashville, it turned out the Green Hills Kroger was on the way to Coolsville. Beer was purchased. Emmylou Harris was sighted, shopping for groceries. On the way out, the Nashville Scene had a write-up about the South by Southwest festival, and a picture of Nashville’s Lonesome Bob performing there with Allison Moorer.
          “Hey, that’s my roommate,” Carroll said.
          “Lonesome Bob is your roommate?”
          “Yeah, at Coolsville. We usually just call him ‘Bob,’ or sometimes ‘Lones.’ Or maybe ‘LoBo.’ It’s cool when your nicknames have nicknames.”
          Coolsville was a place of significant creativity, with Mark Horn’s drums set up in the living room and a full P.A. system. Kind of like if East Nashville’s purple building had double beds.
          Coolsville is gone. It’s the Green Hills Library now. A few doors down, Emmylou’s house remains intact.

    “Don’t give up if you’re good,” Tim Carroll sings. “You’ll finally get renowned. It may take some time. It’s a fiveyear town.”
          Carroll got a record deal in the late 1990s, right around the five-year mark. And the words of the prophets are written on a blonde Telecaster.
          Sire Records. Same label as the Ramones. They paid for him to go make an album in Memphis, with drummer Rick Schell and Blue Chieftains bass man Scott Yoder rounding out a righteous three-piece. One of the songs, “Find a Way to Win,” was used in a Reese Witherspoon movie about a high school election, and Reese Witherspoon is super-famous.
          The label was excited. This was gonna be big. Sire boss Seymour Stein saw Nashville as rock ’n’ roll’s new hotbed. Carroll would help lead the way, but he’d have to stop playing local gigs for $5 covers all the time, because when the record came out he’d be playing big places for big dough.
          And so he stopped for a while. And then he kept stopping, because the record kept not coming out.
          And then he wasn’t doing what he loved. Every day and night, at the Exit/In, or the Sherlock Holmes pub, or the Mojo Tavern, it was, “Hey, Tim, heard about the record deal. Congratulations. When’s it coming out?”
          Sire kept telling Tim, “Soon,” and then they stopped telling him anything. He’d wake up in Nashville, off Charlotte Avenue, call Sire’s New York offices, and holler for an answer from any poor soul who answered a telephone.
          One afternoon, he disappeared for hours, and came back with hundreds of photocopied CD covers. The covers read, “Tim Carroll: Not For Sale.” After a trip to a guy who could make copies of CDs, the covers went into cases.
          “Not For Sale” was for sale, wherever Tim Carroll was gigging. And Tim Carroll was gigging again, most everywhere. Five bucks at the door. Hell with it.

    Soon, Carroll was spending nights on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, playing increasingly country-style guitar with his thenwife, Elizabeth Cook. After Bloomington and Hoboken and 1,000 cigarette-stained dressing rooms, most people would play the Opry and revel in the glory, the ease, and the air conditioning.
          But Joe Diamond, who sang good, hard country music at an absolute dump off of 51st Avenue, needed a fill-in lead guitarist. His usual guitarist, a guy named Bebo, couldn’t be there.
          “They’re paying $35 and all the beer you can drink,” Carroll said. “The more I drink, the more I earn.”
          Ten seconds into Carroll’s first solo, Joe Diamond hollered into the microphone, “Bebo who? Bebo WHO?”

    “If it’s a five-year town, as I’m so often told, who’s got time to wait around, by then I’ll be too old,” Tim Carroll sang.
          Waiting around makes you old, and so Tim Carroll never waited around. For more than 9,000 Music City mornings, he has woken from dreams of songs, and he has worked to bring those dreams to fruition. He is frequently hilarious and habitually serious. He is dismissive of the dismissive, and encouraging of encouragers. He’d rather swing and mightily miss than stand with the bat on his shoulder.
          These days, Carroll rarely brings the blonde Telecaster out in public. He plays a pretty Gibson through a little Vox amp, producing Nashville’s most joyfully searing rock tone every week at various venues, especially East Nashville’s 5 Spot, where he began a residency — swear to God — five years ago.
          He’s making fine albums, the latest of which is the Dave Coleman-recorded Keeping Time.
          He gets up every day, looks in the mirror, and knows that no broken promise, missed opportunity or backhanded slight can take away the music. The mirror says all that’s left is the music, and Tim Carroll says that’s more than enough.
          As he wrote and others have sung, “Things don’t work out like you planned, and you’ve had all you can stand, there’s always tomorrow.”
          Twenty five years in, there’s always tomorrow. And Nashville’s not really a five-year town …
          It’s Coolsville, man. It’s Coolsville.