Todd Jarrell has been there, done it, and brought back the story
One would never mistake Todd Jarrell for one of the larger-than-life characters found in classic adventure tales like “The Sea-Wolf ” or “Captain Blood.” In his late 50s, average height with a slim build, slightly graying hair, and a neatly trimmed moustache and goatee, Jarrell has a soft-spoken manner with an easygoing enthusiasm that is evident when he talks about his work. As he spins tales of his life as a professional sailor, radio correspondent, travel writer, documentary filmmaker and co-producer of the multiple Emmy-award winning Bluegrass Underground PBS television series, you realize you’re listening to a master storyteller. For Jarrell, a life of adventure and world travel didn’t begin with the high drama found in fiction, but with a simple bit of synchronicity.
It was 1995; Jarrell was a successful advertising salesman for WKRN Channel 2. “A friend at the time was flying back to Nashville,” Jarrell says, “and she saw an ad for Cutty Sark Scotch in a magazine on her flight. I picked her up at the airport, and she said, ‘Look at this.’ I had seen the same ad in the newspaper that morning. The headline read, ‘You haven’t been there, and you haven’t done it.’ And they were right.”
The ad showed the rigging of a classic wind-powered “tall ship” with four sailors hanging from a spar, surrounded by cordage, the wind filling the sails in front of them. It was a scene from another era, when great wind-powered ships circumnavigated the globe. For Jarrell, it was the first signpost of a journey that would take him around the world—from faraway continents like Africa and Antarctica, to a Tennessee cavern filled with music, and on to a home in East Nashville.
Although the magazine ad was the catalyst, the first 40 years of Jarrell’s life prepared him for the moment. As the child of a career Air Force officer, he grew up experiencing the nomadic life of a military family.
“My sister was born in Germany,” Jarrell says. “My oldest brother was born in Dayton, Ohio. My next brother was born at West Point, and I was born in Midwest City, Okla., at Tinker Air Force Base. We moved around—Canada, Montgomery, Alabama, and then Colorado, where I graduated from high school.”
“My dad was very liberal-minded. He was not your stereotypical military guy. We lived in Ottawa, Canada, for three years, and on Thursday nights Dad would check out 8mm films and a projector from the National Film Board, and we’d have movie night. He’d bring home documentaries, and it opened our heads up like tin cans and poured in all this great cultural information. We lived in the embassy area of Ottawa so we were going to school with kids from all over the world.”
While Jarrell’s father opened his mind to other cultures, his mother served as an example of Southern sociability and curiosity about other people. “My mother was the type that would chat-up Dracula,” Jarrell says. “She was friends with everybody. It was natural for her to meet people and be interested in who they are and what they do.”
Upon graduating from high school, Jarrell had a world of possibilities before him and no idea which one to choose. “I didn’t want to go to college without having a reason,” Jarrell says, “and I didn’t have a reason. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I met a band and they were playing gigs with the Dirt Band and John Denver, and I had been playing drums since I was a kid. They offered me a job, and I was gone.”
Jarrell spent the next seven years on the road as a working musician with various bands, learning the basics of the entertainment business first hand. “I booked and sort of managed most of the bands I was in,” Jarrell says. “Since I played drums, it was pretty evident that I wasn’t going to be picking up singles gigs. I had to have a band. If nobody else picked up the reins, I did it, and I learned a lot about promoting yourself.”
“When it became evident that it was time to do something else, I looked toward radio. I ended up in ad sales and did that for five years. Then I moved into television and did that for 10 years, some here in Nashville.”
Jarrell’s parents had moved to Cookeville, Tenn., after his father’s retirement from the Air Force in 1976. Although the family’s roots were in Middle Tennessee, he hadn’t planned on following them, until fate and family responsibility intervened. “My father became very ill with Parkinson’s disease, and my mother was overwhelmed,” Jarrell says. “I moved to Cookeville in 1993 to be closer to both of them and help Mom.”
It was about two years after moving to Tennessee that Jarrell spotted the Cutty Sark ad. The fateful ad was for an essay contest sponsored by the Scotch whisky, and the first prize was two weeks’ passage on the historic Polish sailing vessel Dar Mlodziezy as it ran the first leg of the 1995 Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race.
“I had never been on one of these ships,” Jarrell says, “but I wrote 500 words paralleling the great sailing ships to the communication satellites of our time. They circled the globe carrying information around the world. Out of 3,400 entrants, they picked eight of us. When we all met in New York, it was like a team of handpicked bullshitters.”
The two week passage across the choppy waters of the North Sea from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bremerhaven, Germany, left an indelible impression on Jarrell. “I went diving every year,” he says, “and I had a little 22-foot boat out on Percy Priest, but there’s no comparison between that and one of these ships. There were 80 or 90 ships [in the race] and half a million people came to see them. It was amazing.”
By 1997, Jarrell’s father had passed away, “and I was living by myself in Mt. Juliet on a horse property with no horse,” recalls Jarrell. “TV ad sales were still very lucrative, but it got to the point where I couldn’t do it one more day.”
It was then that he noticed another magazine ad. “I saw a tiny classified ad in the back of Sail magazine,” Jarrell says, “looking for a crew to go around the world on the SV Picton Castle and share expenses. I called my brother Brad and said, ‘If we don’t do this now, when are we ever going to get the opportunity?’ I was just entering my 40s, and it was just going to get harder and less obtainable and less doable.
“Brad and I flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada and had a look at the ship. It was a wreck. The sails weren’t finished, the stove wasn’t installed yet, there was no food on the ship, the crew wasn’t all there, but we bought into the dream.”
The two brothers quickly learned that they had signed on as far more than just passengers. “There was a lot to learn,” Jarrell says. “There were 250 lines that all have a separate job and a different name. In the dark, in a storm, if you do something wrong you could kill somebody. It’s a whole ’nother world. It was a lot of bloody hard work getting the ship ready to go, but we finally left in November in a fierce gale.”
Like most modern sailing vessels, the Picton Castle had a diesel engine for emergencies, but the main goal of the voyage was to emulate the pre-industrial age of sea travel when great sailing ships traversed the globe, powered only by wind, waves and human toil.
“It was all manila rope and canvas sails,” Jarrell says. “We had 20 people, men and women, in one cabin. We cooked on a woodfired stove. There was no refrigerator. There was no shower. We showered with buckets on deck. You would dip up sea water, wash with it, and then you had half a bucket of fresh water to get the salt out of your hair. It was rough.”
Sailing south from Canada, the Picton Castle spent the next 20 months circling the globe. The journey took Jarrell and his brother through the Panama Canal and on to a score of Pacific islands, including the Galapagos, Easter Island, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands. The ship then continued eastward to Australia, Bali, Tanzania, and South Africa, stopping for just a few days in some locations and as much as a month in others.
“We went places that you can’t go otherwise,” Jarrell says. “You sail into a bay in a boat like that—a hundred feet tall with three masts, straight out of 1890—and people want to know about you. You’re not just another boatload of wallets. People wanted our story.”
With his brother along with him on the voyage, Jarrell soon discovered they had instant common ground with almost anyone they met. “I’d introduce people to my brother and ask about their family, and bam, off down the road we’d go. The next thing we’d be at somebody’s house meeting their family and eating dinner. We had such great experiences. If you just open yourself up, people are so nice, most places.”
In addition to honing his skills as a sailor, Jarrell was also creating a new career for himself as a writer and radio correspondent. Before departing on his voyage, Jarrell was approached by the late Rebecca Bain at Nashville Public Radio with the idea of creating a sound journal of the voyage. “I took it as a mission. I wanted to make something more of it. They loaned me a minidisk recorder just on faith. I recorded the sounds and voiced the stories, then mailed the minidiscs and handwritten scripts from various ports. Scott Smith at WPLN put the elements together and produced the series that aired every other Monday morning for two years.” Jarrell’s sound journal of his passage on the Picton Castle was eventually released as the audio book “Slow Dance With the Planet” in 2001.
When he returned to Tennessee in the summer of 1999, Jarrell found himself with two desires: to return to the seas and to keep writing about his adventures. “That’s how I broke into writing,” Jarrell says. “There have probably been more people in space than have been around the world on a square rigger in our lifetimes. Few people have that kind of experience and write professionally.”
Between 2000 and 2003, Jarrell signed on as a paid, able-bodied crewman for various sailing vessels and voyages—down the west coast of the Americas and around Cape Horn, multiple passages to Antarctica, and more. He was also writing about the voyages for various sailing magazines and producing radio stories for National Public Radio, CBC Radio in Canada, Radio Netherlands World Service and BBC Radio World Service. “I just kept going,” he says. “I got on different boats, went different places, and kept selling stories.”
Just as chance and happenstance had sent him to a life on the high seas, once again fate altered Jarrell’s course. “I was back home between trips,” he says, “and I had planned to get on another ship and keep going. The week that I anchored was the week my mom broke her hip, and I met Brooke, who is now my wife. It’s funny how the world turns.”
Between caring for his mother and beginning a relationship with the woman he eventually married, Jarrell continued to write and produce radio stories in the Middle Tennessee area. He soon added another credit to his growing resume: documentary filmmaker. “I had an idea to do a film in Africa, and I approached Becky Magura at WCTE, the PBS station in Cookeville. She basically told me I was crazy, but then she thought about it for a couple of months. She called me back in, and we ended up doing it. I hired a friend out of England who was a cameraman. We met in Africa and shot it.”
“Tree Safari: A Sculptural Journey” focused on Cookeville sculptor Brad Sells’ travels to South Africa in search of exotic hard woods to use in his work. With the success of his first film, Jarrell followed it with a sequel shot in Hawaii. More documentaries followed, focused on such varied topics as the devastating effects of the methamphetamine trade on rural Tennessee communities, homeless street children in South Africa, and tuba maestro R. Winston Morris. All were picked up by PBS and broadcast nationally.
“I had been around television just enough to think I could pull it off,” Jarrell says about his jump into the world of filmmaking. “I really was the guy who was too dumb to know that he couldn’t do it. I learned by asking questions and people being kind to me. A lot of people in [filmmaking] are very generous in the same way that Nashville musicians are. It’s not a competition.
“I never had a burning desire to be a filmmaker, but I love storytelling. I realized I wanted to do the documentary on tubas the day I was in Winston Morris’ office and he was about to play a record for me. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, a song like this can change your life!’ He dropped the needle and this goofy song comes on called ‘When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba Down in Cuba.’ I was sitting there with the one guy on this planet whose entire life and career was informed by this song. I try to find subjects that I can be passionate about because it’s too hard if you don’t have that passion. It’s too much work if it’s just for a paycheck.”
Jarrell’s interest in unusual stories coupled with his growing experience in television production led to a “downward turn” for his career in 2008. “I pitched a radio story to WPLN about this local guy [Todd Mayo] who was doing a show down in a cave,” Jarrell says. “I interviewed him, and he said, ‘As cool as this sounds, imagine what it would look like on television.’ And I did.”
The two Todds’ collective vision was of “Bluegrass Underground”—a showcase for acoustic roots music staged 333 feet beneath the Earth in “The Volcano Room,” a natural amphitheater located in Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tenn. Series’ creator, Mayo, began the concerts in 2008 as live events for radio broadcast. With Jarrell’s filmmaking experience, the two Todds created Todd Squared Productions to bring the show to television.
“We talked for two or three hours about how to get it done,” Jarrell says. “It took us a couple of years to get the pilot shot, but PBS picked it up.” Co-produced by Mayo and Jarrell and presented by WCTE, the Emmy award-winning “Bluegrass Underground” recently finished taping its fourth season. Referring to the show as “‘Austin City Limits’ meets ‘Nova,’” Jarrell applies the same scrappy “just do it” attitude to the production that is the hallmark of all his endeavors.
After Jarrell’s mother passed away in 2009, he and his wife, Brooke Scurlock, made the decision to relocate to Nashville. For a man who had travelled around the world, East Nashville had charms all its own.
“We’d look at houses in other parts of Nashville,” Jarrell says, “and then come back here and spend the day. It was the vibe. The diversity of East Nashville—people took pride in the diversity and that resonated with us more here than in any other part of town.”
“We had a brick ranch in Cookeville,” he continues, “and kept talking about knocking out a wall, adding a sliding glass door—but we never did it. We walked into what was probably the 50th house that we’d looked at in Nashville, and it was the same floor plan as our old brick rancher, but the wall was gone and sliding glass door was there. We opened the back door and there were a thousand acres of Shelby Park. We were home.”
In addition to his work on “Bluegrass Underground,” Jarrell continues to work on documentaries. The ideas and stories tumble from him as he talks about current productions or future plans—travels to China with an American artist whose work is influenced by traditional Chinese pottery, a history of vinyl records and how technology influenced 20th Century music, and perhaps a return to the high seas. “I might go again,” Jarrell says, as his eyes sparkle with the excitement of prospective adventures. “My wife is a nurse practitioner, and I’ve looked into the possibility of her signing on as ship’s medical officer. I could certainly see us going.”
Reflecting on his life and career, Jarrell is passionate about the possibilities that still lay before him. It’s not a case of reflecting on accomplishments, but rather an acknowledgement of how past experiences shape the future. It’s a testament to the ability of people to transform their lives simply by deciding to do so and then resolutely following through, with the awareness that fate may alter the course, but not the destination.
“If I had had a master plan, I would have screwed it up a long time ago,” Jarrell says. “A lot of it was just flow and trying to put myself in the right place, and that meant working really hard. The ability to travel the world and have people open their doors to you is an amazing gift. You have to come home with a story, which means you better pay attention. You gotta ask the questions. You don’t want to get up before sunrise, but if you want that photo or sound, you better. You do stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily do, and end up with people and in situations you never would have found otherwise. If I had one wish it wouldn’t be for that million dollars, but for the ability to walk into any room in any land and be able to speak the language. Now that would be a wish come true.”