It was chilly, the trees that dotted the interstate were bare and the sun was returning home to the horizon as we raced toward the Music City. We were en route to—or coming home from, I can’t remember—South By Southwest and I had booked us on a bill at a little club that was tucked beneath a record store.
It was one of those shows that only tend to happen in Nashville. The kind that’s more dog-and-pony, girl-in-a-floppy-hat or guy-in-tasteful-denim-and-way-too-expensive-boots, generic snoozefest formulaic jam industry wankery showcase than it was a proper rock show. The kind of show that has eight or ten bands delivering rapid fire twenty minute sets, playing the same pedal steel, singing about the same whiskey they drank on the same tailgate of the same truck. The kind that we were wholly unaccustomed and you could sense how out of place we were from the minute we walked in the door, beaten guitars and horns in hand.
Everyone was impeccably dressed and tremendously good looking and I thought for a moment that we were on a Hollywood set of Nashville as opposed to the real thing. I was confused as we pushed our way through the throngs of musicians who far outnumbered the fans in the crowd, and I realized almost immediately how extremely likely it was that despite our best efforts we were not going to win these people over—that no matter how well we played or how hard we tried that our brand of euphoric, beer-soaked Jersey Shore bar rock wasn’t going to connect with these folk. Our guitars were drenched in far too much distortion. Our drummer hit way too hard. We drank beers on stage at an alarming rate. We didn’t dress very cool. We cursed way too much between songs.
Regardless, and as ever, we were going to bring as hard as we could and dare them to hate us.
After the fourth or fifth band finished we were beckoned to the stage. Knowing we only had twenty minutes with which to make a statement, we worked faster than usual to set up our gear. Once the mics were placed, we shouldered our guitars and took to our de facto positions. The crowd looked on more intently, knowing that we weren’t about to bring the same kind of faux-country that had been brought all night.
“Hit the snare.” The sound man’s voice bellowed through the stage monitors as we begun our quick line check, the small room packed with the well-dressed country hitmaking hopefuls.
Boom. Boom. Boom. We were on the clock and it was ticking.
“Ok,” he said. “Let me hear the left guitar.”
“Hey man,” I interjected. “If it’s cool with you we can just rip and you can figure it out as we go.”
“Sure thing!” He replied happily. “Everything’s pretty much set from all the other bands. If you guys need anything, let me know.”
With that, we tore into our best six songs. All hit, no quit. Punch ’em in the fucking mouth and if they aren’t having it then fuck ’em. We came here to start a party. Let’s go.
The faces in the crowd wore a convincing mix of discomfort and confusion and it made our crew very, very happy. If they’re not going to like us, we’d prefer they hate us. At least they’ll remember us.
After our brief, set we unplugged, struck our gear and retired to the back patio for a beer, a smoke and a breath of fresh air. We laughed at how out of place we were in this situation. A very few in attendance made sure to tell us how much they enjoyed our set and one ecstatic couple even offered to buy us a round of beers.
Back near the main bar, a wholly unassuming fellow dressed unremarkably in a black sweater and jeans took the stage. Likely due to the complete lack of Nashville-ian fashion sense that helped him stand out in a small sea of pseudo cowboys and fraudulent rodeo girls, I was immediately drawn to him. His songs were good if relatively unremarkable but he had a voice that could halt warships, and when he sang his deep, lonesome, wistful bellow filled the room and easily overtook the idle chatter of the crowd.
Slowly but surely people began paying attention, and by the time his brief set had finished, much of the room’s interest had been piqued, however plenty in attendance still talked over him. He thanked the crowd and ambled off the stage.
A few more bands played, each sounding more and more like the one that preceded it and the night eventually wore to a close. The room began to empty and I found the door guy to inquire about payment.
“It’s not much,” he told me, handing me an envelope with a very few bills in very, very small denominations, “but thanks for coming.”
“Hey man, it’s better than nothing,” I said. “Thanks a ton for having us.”
“No problem,” he said. “Hey don’t sweat these people. I thought y’all were fantastic.”
“Yeah man, me too,” said a voice behind me. I turned to find the unassuming singer with the lonesome bellow. “You all were great, man. Really brought it.”
He motioned to the door guy.
“Make sure they get my cut.”
The door guy nodded in agreement as he counted out cash.
“No!” I told him. “You were great, man. And brought a pretty big crowd. That’s your cash.”
“It’s ok, man. I live here. You guys are on tour. Take it.”
“Man, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
“I’ve been there, man.” He stretched out his hand. “Sturgill.”
“Mike V,” I said, shaking his hand.
We talked for another few minutes, remarking on Nashville and New Jersey and country music and rock and roll and the highways and touring and he, like the door man, told me not to sweat a crowd like the one to which we had just played. I assured him that, as he must have, we’d played to our fair share of unwelcoming crowds. We agreed that it was all part of the deal.
I wish I could say I remembered what he said to me beyond the fact that he liked our band and that he knew how hard it was being on tour. With that, we shook hands again and assured each other we’d look out for one another on the road.
Guitar case in hand, he headed out the door, patting the door guy on the shoulder on his way out.
We loaded our van shortly thereafter and shoved off into the Tennessee night, bound for Memphis where we had a floor to crash on for the night with a little extra cash in our pockets thanks to the quiet local with the ten ton voice.
In the time between that show and this writing, our careers have traveled along quite opposite trajectories.
Sometime after that night Sturgill Simpson released his second album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. It was a surprise success, propelling him to entirely new heights. He began touring around the world to rapidly growing crowds, and his career continues its breakneck rise upward. His newest album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth was released on a major label to universal praise, winning a Grammy for the year’s Best Country Album. He plays some of the biggest, most revered venues in America. He’s one of the biggest stars in music right now. He’s gone supernova.
My band continued on for the next few years, playing for a few dozen people every night. We sold a few hundred records and built up a small — though fiercely loyal — fanbase. We played our last show and were ecstatic when a few hundred people showed up.
But for a few short hours that night in Nashville we were exactly the same. Two dudes making music that a lot of people didn’t understand, just trying to make their noise in a crowded and boring world.
Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, a writer and musician living Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is one of the few people on Earth who loves punk rock, creative nonfiction and Olympic weightlifting equally. Born and raised in New Jersey, he tries not to complain about the pizza down here too much.