The Road to Nashville

Story Birney Imes

The road leading from the 840 Beltway into Murfreesboro was dark, empty and covered with a dusting of snow. The car thermometer read 18 degrees.

The drive up had been relaxing, if uneventful: an aimless meander along the back roads of Alabama, stopping to examine the dusty inventory of small-town hardware stores, pulling over to take the occasional picture, pausing for a drink from the overflowing well at Beaverton.

My Murfreesboro host, photographer Bill Steber, is a retired photojournalist — 15 years at the Nashville Tennessean. Fueled by an interest in roots music, he has produced a rich cache of work photographing in Mississippi’s blues country. One of his photographic interests happens to be hoodoo, a kind of homespun witchcraft, rare, though still practiced by rural African-Americans. He knows Nashville and is well-versed in Music City history.

Bill photographed Louisville native and multiple Grammy-winner Carl Jackson for our winter 2011 issue. This time we had a more ambitious project.

Impressed by their growing number and influence, we planned a story for the magazine on people from this area who are working in Nashville’s music business. With the help of friends and readers, we compiled a list.

Some come here looking for stardom; others simply love music and want work that makes it part of their daily life.

Are you famous? It’s a question asked often in this town, one with an answer that can, and does, change overnight.

First stop on Day One was Steven Fazio’s Southbound Custom. Steven described his business on the phone as “an auto body shop for guitars.” He shares an airy, unheated warehouse in a working-class neighborhood with a cabinetmaker.

While Bill set his lights, Steven talked about being a kid on the loose in the halls of the Mississippi State architecture building where his father was dean. His mother was a professional musician. His work, it seems, pays homage to both.

Across the room two technicians were bent over workbenches, attending the meticulous work demanded by musicians who see their instruments as extensions of themselves. A half-dozen Gallagher acoustic guitars — the name Doc Watson made famous, made in Wartrace, Tennessee — dangled from a rack in line to be finished. I wished for two picker friends from home who would be in ecstasy in these surroundings.

That afternoon, Bryan Owings welcomed us like old friends into his east Nashville home. Bryan’s warmth and good cheer brings to mind another Bryan Owings, the late, beloved WCBI-TV meterologist, his father.

An in-demand session drummer, Owings has played with the likes of Shelby Lynne, Patty Griffin and Justin Townes Earle. At the same time, he has added his touch to the albums of lesser-known friends back home in Mississippi.

On the way to his home studio — the “music annex” — at the back of his house, Brian gestured toward a bedroom filled with drums stacked floor-to-ceiling.

“Yeah, I’ve got to get rid of some of them,” he said. He was almost apologetic. “The cat gets in there, and we can’t get him out until he’s ready to come out.”

For our last session of the day, we took over the showroom of The Violin Shop on Franklin Pike for a session with fiddle player Bethany Daniel Bordeaux. I first became aware of Bethany’s talent 20 years ago when she and my daughter played in the Columbus High Jazz Ensemble.

Bill asked Bethany to stand and play in front of a wall of fiddles. As she played, I wandered through a selection of Jim McGuire photographs of country music legends: Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Buddy Spicher, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks. Across the hall, Bethany played an Irish jig.

The following morning was cold and bright. Bill and I stood in an alley, across from a mural that reads, “I believe in Nashville.” We were waiting on Starkville’s Melby sisters, Hannah and Caroline, who perform as HanaLena.

The girls arrived beautiful and full of cheer, bubbly at the prospects of posing in summer dress in 30-degree weather. Bill photographed the sisters in front of the mural, then against a blue and white striped wall across the alley.

As we finished the shoot, two young guys from New York City, who had been watching, asked the girls if they would pose with them for a picture in front of the mural. Sure, they said. I can’t remember just how they put it, but in an awkward way, the boys asked if the girls are famous.