Harlan Howard , doyen of Nashville songsmiths, was very generous with his advice, certainly to the group of acolytes he dubbed the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Juveniles”, mostly the first wave of musical carpetbaggers that came to Nashville in the mid ‘70’s; Brits, Angelenos, Yankees etc., who were afforded his hospitality on a fairly regular basis. I was lucky to get one on one with him a few times, particularly when we were writing a song together to lay on Joe Cocker, who had come to town to record with The Crusaders. At Harlan’s request we met at 7.30 a.m. at his place on Radnor Lake, the earliest writing session I’ve ever agreed to, not being a morning person.
We had it wrapped by 11, he booked the studio at Tree Publishing for 2, and so we repaired to the much-missed Maude’s Courtyard near Music Row for a pre-session liquid lunch. Over those White Russians he gave me a beautiful nugget “ You know, kid, people ask me why I spend so much time in bars….hell, that’s where all the material is ! Sit in the corner with your ears wide open, and you’ll get all the songs you’ll ever need”.
Fast forward a few years…….I’m in Dublin for the opening shows of Nanci Griffiths’ “ Other Voices, Other Rooms” European tour, not as a participant, but because a bunch of my mates are part of the caravan. I’d just come from playing the annual “Blues Estafette” in Utrecht, and after a few days R and R in Amsterdam, had channel-hopped to Dublin for this much-anticipated event.
As has always been my custom when in Dublin, I jumped on the DART on Day 2, to have lunch in Howth, the gorgeous fishing town 8 miles north of the city, at the northern extreme of Dublin Bay. My hostelry of choice, The Lighthouse, an old pub high on the bluffs overlooking the harbor, the ancient cemetery, and the islet they call Ireland’s Eye. A lovely spot altogether.
At two on a salty wind-whipped day, the clientele was thin on the ground, and as I settled on a stool at the corner of the long bar, the only other customer was an old cove, obviously a local, who was seated about eight stools north of me, applying himself to a pint of the inevitable.
I had just finished a bracing walk along the cliff-top trail, and was dressed for the weather in an ankle-length grey gabardine duster and a brown felt Borsalino, so was making a sartorial statement probably a little far out for The Lighthouse. I ordered a meat pie and a pint of Smithwicks, taking my lunch in companionable silence with the old fella… I’ve always enjoyed the ornate turn of phrase that older Irishmen, especially around Dublin, are wont to display, and after I’d polished off the pie, my companion chose to break the silence in just such a manner.
“You have the look of an international man, sir”, he began. “ Well, I suppose I am”, I replied.
“ If you don’t mind me askin’, where do you hang that very fine hat ?” “Nashville”. “Nashville, Tennessee?” “ That’s the one”, I replied. “Ah, I love the country and western….would you be a musicianer yourself?” “ I would” (Y’see, I was already getting into the cadence and the slightly archaic syntax!) “But you don’t have that kind of accent, do you?”. I explained that my parents were Irish, my home town was Liverpool, and my mid-Atlantic accent after thirty years in Nashville still had more than a trace of Scouse.
“ Liverpool, is it ? The dogs in the street used to know me in Liverpool!”, he exclaimed. I’d never heard that colorful phrase before, but instantly grasped it’s meaning. I ordered up two more pints, indicating that he was welcome to join me, which he did. It transpired that he’d been in the Merchant Marine, shipping out of Liverpool to the world’s ports for many years, as had my own dad, and his knowledge of Liverpool’s geography and environs was strong enough for me to know he wasn’t just springing a line to take advantage of a gullible tourist….
We spent the balance of the afternoon chatting away and bending the elbow, and when it was time for me to return to Dublin City, we parted on the most genial of terms, although neither of us made any attempt to exchange contact information, which is how it should be, given the casual circumstances…hell, we hadn’t even exchanged first names !
On the return trip I jotted that phrase down, knowing that I’d be using it somewhere down the line, which proved to be the case.