June 26, 2008
The Bluebird Cafe is a cramped room in a Nashville, Tenn., strip mall where most everybody who has become somebody in country music played early in their career. The list is a who's who of Nashville saints, including Garth Brooks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and on and on. It's also oddball enough that one night disco queen Donna Summer sang "She Works Hard for the Chili."
Aspiring singer-songwriters show up hoping to sing two songs at open mic night or, if they've passed that test, share the microphone with a few other songwriters. They sit in the middle of the cafe surrounded by people eating Cajun catfish sandwiches and drinking beer, but who primarily have come to hear unheralded talents.
I was in the audience this week when a woman named Jenn Grinels began to sing. We'd already heard a songwriter who sounds like Neil Young and a songwriter with a lot of mountain in her voice. The audience listened and applauded them. They had talent. Then Grinels began to play and sing and the whole room stopped breathing. She has a dazzling voice, Chrissie Hynde's mojo, Rickie Lee Jones' feel for the jazz in the spaces between notes and a unfailing sense of the dynamics called for in each moment. When she sang a song to a friend who died too soon, the words fell from her mouth like gems. "After all the tears have dried/for the rest of my days/I will keep you in my heart/Always." A woman in the corner of the cafe cried.
Then Grinels sang a wish-you-were-here song called "Happy Birthday" to her boyfriend seated a few feet away after returning two weeks ago from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Grinels could really play her guitar, too. And nobody knows who she is yet.
Nashville is known for country music, but the city offers much more. The area around Vanderbilt is lively. In one block are the Mellow Mushroom pizza parlor, a Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream shop and a Starbucks. All your major food groups.
I was in Nashville for a workshop at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. The center is named for a former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville who in the 1960s worked for Attorney General Robert Kennedy and negotiated with the governor of Alabama on behalf of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery. A group of Klansmen put him in the hospital.
New college media advisers like me had come to Nashville to learn some of the basics of shepherding a college newspaper through the uncharted wilds of new technologies and the jungles of ignorance about the freedoms of the student press. Lawyers larded us with precedents guaranteeing these freedoms, even in the face of asinine journalistic practices like fake April Fool's Day editions and worse, while veteran advisers joked that they hoped we would still want to be one of them when the week was over.
Most of us know the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Maybe we know it prohibits respecting an establishment of religion or preventing anyone from exercising their religion. We sometimes take for granted the right to assemble peaceably.
But the right some seem to value least is our right to petition the government for redress of grievances, the right to protest. Some have come to view protests as unpatriotic when, in fact, the First Amendment Center argues, they are among the finest traditions of our country. The center has an exhibit about American protests dating from the Boston Tea Party through the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and up to the present. These protests brought necessary changes.
"There's thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville," the Lovin' Spoonful sang. That's vastly underestimated. So is Nashville.
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.