Our music editor Donivan Berube and the brilliant photographer Robert Lindholm continues on their road trip through the historic recording studios and musical tool sheds of Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans in search of residence in Southern rhythm. Here´s part two of their story.
Words by Donivan Berube | Photos by Robert Lindholm
Country rock singer Nicki Bluhm arrived at Carter Vintage just before sundown. Like almost every other musician who either lives in Nashville or tours through regularly, she’s bought and sold guitars here too. Today a vintage Gibson acoustic catches her eye.
Formerly a lifelong native of the San Francisco Bay area, Bluhm’s move to Nashville three years ago encapsulated every life change imaginable: a new band, a new city, and new relationships, having split with her husband and longtime musical collaborator. Leaving the only hometown she’d ever known has made for an entirely unfamiliar yet welcome new pattern in music making, finding songwriting partners who helped craft her newest solo record, To Rise You Gotta Fall. The album is buried in this journey, rife with the scars of love, loss, and starting all over again.
“I was a total child of the radio.” She described turning dials and searching out every female soul band she could find, from the early days of Motown vocal groups all the way up to the superstars of the 80’s & 90’s such as Salt & Pepa, TLC, and Whitney Houston. We shot pool at the deep end of the Lakeside Lounge in Nashville’s Five Points neighborhood, and she seemed to know every last line to each song that came on overhead. “Maybe so,” she admitted, humming along to ZZ Top. “But I can never remember what the song is or who it’s by.”
“Before moving here, I was told that the people are the beauty of this city,” she beamed, singing the praises of Nashville’s deep and amalgamated music scene. “There are so many excellent songwriters here. Everyone here is so talented.” It would seem that Bluhm’s bar for collaborators has been raised. And while she may not feel entirely at home in Nashville just yet, she’s putting the work in to get there. “That’s what I did all that time in San Francisco,” she leveled. “And now I’m doing it here.” She looked like she’d lived here all her life, smiling wide in a bohemian knitted sweater and desert landscape bolo tie, dancing her way between the bar and the pool table with a glass of red wine.
With her roots set and an all-new band at bat, Bluhm has been touring extensively and with a brazen, exciting willingness to play anywhere. One week she’s in the Mexican Riviera for the Widespread Panic festival, the next she’s at Dee’s Lounge, a classic country dive bar just north of Nashville. “I just wanted a clean slate,” she explained. “To play music for fun and to love doing it.”
Her optimistic approach doesn’t stop there with the music, but seems to apply across all aspects of her life. It’s an innate ability to forgive and forget, to remember the good times without losing out to their union with the bad. She seems to count her successes as an aside to the hardships, refusing to let one be drowned by the other. There is nothing accusatory or demeaning about her tales of heartbreak, but rather the most authentic retelling of life’s throes that everyone wishes for in a country record.
Bluhm’s affinity for Nashville’s songwriting scene is shared by another transplant-turned-local, indie songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek. She splits her time between making music and running Anaconda Vintage, a glowing fashion boutique nestled just under the infamous Grimey’s record store in the East Nashville neighborhood. It’s like stepping into a lava lamp fever dream filled with chic threads and stylish accessories. The store was flooded with shoppers throughout our visit, which Tristen said is the way business has been since day one.
Between herself, her sister, and their 11 vendors, everyone involved is only responsible for working one shift per week at the shop. “It allows me to tour without the usual bartending and service-industry jobs that musicians always have to work,” she said with relief. Although, ownership can come with its fair share of setbacks too. She likened running the shop to working in an ice cream parlor: “After a while you get sick of all the clothes and prefer to just dress plainly all the time.” The music playing was an eclectic mix of outlaw country, vintage jazz, and acoustic soul from Cat Stevens’ “Mona Bone Jakon” to Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and William De Vaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got (Diamonds In the Back).”
Her music is founded in acoustic songwriting at its core, but plays more like a country punk album strung out beneath a disco ball. On “Dream Within a Dream,” released last year on Third Man Records, she spins Edgar Allen Poe’s words into something like a late-night mad dash across a psychedelic cemetery. Tristen’s most recent release is a captivating rendition of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 breakup ballad “A Case of You,” crooning: “I could drink a case of you darling, and I would still be on my feet. If you want me, I’ll be at the bar.”
Algiers Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum
Down the street in Algiers Point, folk artist Charles Gillam has turned his home studio into something of a living environmental site and tribute to New Orleans artists and blues heroes. Only a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, the Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum is a compact and colorful exposé of the otherwise underground, do-it-yourself folk art scene, with outdoor sculptures and murals, priceless paintings, and an annual music festival.
While growing up in the 9th Ward, Gillam explored plenty of careers outside of the arts, like managing an antique store and working as a magician. “After Katrina, I wanted to bring a sense of humanity back to New Orleans,” he reflects. “Art can be soothing. I want people to touch the artwork and feel the energy inside of it.” Busts of his favorite musicians like Professor Longhair and “the black Liberace” James Booker are carved out of old bowling pins, plastered wine bottles, pieces of driftwood, and mounds of foam insulation spray. The “Popeye’s Fried Chicken Fountain” is every bit as central as a massive naval base siren.
Gillam welcomes art lovers, collectors, and tourists from all over the globe into his house for an up-close look at what’s become one of Algiers Point’s defining legacies. Tours are offered on an appointment-only basis, led by Gillam himself, smiling effervescently the entire time.
The Louisiana Music Factory with Barry Smith
Despite a handful of location changes, the Louisiana Music Factory has retained every ounce of its character in nearly 30 years of operation. Now located in the Frenchman Street district on the outskirts of the French Quarter, its creaking wooden floors and an entire streetside of warm windows nest a welcome room to while away an afternoon to the soundtrack of local blues, funk, cajun, and zydeco music. When Trombone Shorty plays in-store concerts here, the line spills out the door and into the street. “He was just here last week filming a music video,” said owner Barry Smith.
When faced with not only the Katrina tragedy but also the decades-long decline in vinyl record sales, their foremost medium, Smith responded as if keeping the business afloat was never an issue. “We always specialized in the kind of local and regional music from New Orleans,” he explained. “You can’t get that stuff just anywhere.” I brought a rare Exuma record up to the counter, to which Smith tilted his head and looked the cover over. “Where did you find this?” he asked. “Do you know where this guy is? He used to play in-stores here and consign his CDs, but I haven’t seen him since Katrina.”
The store lives and breathes as something between a museum and a shrine to the city’s sensational history, wherein its sonic exhibits can be heard, touched, and brought home to keep.
Man Ray Records w/Joe Lyle On Drums
“Not many tourists make it up there,” said Joe Lyle on the Maple Leaf residency. “But there was a time when Rebirth was playing on the street corner too.”
A jazz drummer by trade, Lyle left his home town of Baton Rouge to spend three years at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. “They have everything you could ever need there,” he raved. “Floor-to-ceiling cabinets with two-each of anything. It’s the tallest building in south Boston now.” While not discounting the technical prowess unlocked by such schooling, he prefers a more authentic avenue for learning. “They say if you graduate, you aren’t good enough,” Lyle laughed. “I wish I would’ve gone to New School in New York City so I could’ve dropped out sooner.” He is calm but brimming with ambition. “In New York, you can find all that in the streets. That was my backup plan.”
Lyle toured for over a year with the Baton Rouge indie rock band Givers. When Solange called and said to clear his calendar for the year and come out for a month of rehearsals, he signed up ready and willing. Nowadays he takes shows as they come, with regular trips to Los Angeles and New York while running Man Ray Records on the third floor of a bookstore in the heart of the French Quarter.
Although packed with character, Man Ray is a far cry removed from the city’s trendy record stores and music sheds. It is a place of mind to get lost in, to fall in love with. Heaving boxes of records are piled up in a back room. Shelving bows beneath the weight of unsifted musical gems. Even the antique elevator lift is loaded with crates full of vinyl. “I know there’s good stuff in there, but I haven’t had the time to sort them yet,” he said, running his fingers through a box of choice cuts by Prince, the Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa. It’s the same lot from which he pulled a signed Irma Thomas LP, alongside test pressings and other rarities. “I don’t think the guy even knew what he had in there, and neither did I,” he said.
Man Ray feels less like a place where people shop, and more like a studio that’s well cared for and lived in. Opening the store with his own private collection, Lyle admitted that it was hard at first to let some of his prized pieces go. “But I found that a lot of it comes back,” he countered. “And it comes back with even more records that are much, much better.”