VOL. 7 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 16, 2014
Fight to Save Printers Alley a Family Affair
By Tim Ghianni
“How does it feel to be on your own?” Fritz Hester turns Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” into a surging blues tune that spills out of the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar into the thick, cigarette and beer-flavored humidity stifling Printers Alley
Musician Michael McDaniel has played all around the world, but he’s proud to be a member of the Printers Alley family.
(The Ledger/Tim Ghianni)
“Hello gentlemen … and I use the term loosely,” says a woman – to this writer and a cigarette-smoking sax man/keyboard wiz – as she leads a group of friends down the narrow alley that is the focus of debate among preservationists and, well, futurists.
The debate is clearly one-sided here in the Alley on this hot evening, as wall signs promoting the “Save Printers Alley” efforts demonstrate.
An odd assortment of people carrying cameras – from the most elaborate to the iPhone – snap pictures showing the Alley as it is now, mementoes in case this narrow slice of downtown Nashville vanishes in order to make room for hotels and the like.
“I guess that’s why they are taking the pictures,” says Michael McDaniel, 43, the sax man/keyboardist who is among the folks fighting to save the Alley.
“I played right here last night,” he says, sitting at a multi-colored café table in front of Bourbon Street and sucking, slowly, on a cigarette.
“Back between 1999 and 2006, I played five nights a week. That was with Stacy, when he had the nine-piece band.” The Stacy referred to is long-time Bourbon Street favorite, Stacy Mitchhart and his Blues-U-Can-Use outfit.
Michael’s exhaled cigarette smoke lingers in the humid, windless evening.
“I left when I got a job with Cirque du Soleil in Vegas …. Then moved to Tokyo for two years …..”
Michael rattles off a string of locales, from cruise ships to a cabin deep in the woods of the American Northwest where he has worked or lived in the years before a hankering for Nashville and the Alley, in particular, drew him “home.”
“Came back here three months ago, and it was like I never left. It’s very much a family here. All the clubs here, even though they’ve changed hands over the years, they work like family. Other cities I’ve worked in, they have more competitive spirit. Here, if you go in Fiddle and Steel, and you want blues, they’ll send you down here. Or, we send them back up there if they want country.”
For a sandwich and a cold beer, well there are destinations for those, as well. Naked dancing girls who sometimes even perform karaoke? Check.
Michael leans back in his chair and tracks the trickle of early-evening clientele. “Last night it was so jammed here, you couldn’t move,” he says, smiling.
He admits that Printers Alley, though historic, doesn’t necessarily draw as many tourists as nearby Lower Broadway.
“It’s very much a mix here, but the locals are more likely to come here because they don’t want to be down on Lower Broadway with the tourists.”
Sucking the last ember from his smoke, he smiles and nods toward the front window of the Blues and Boogie Bar. “But last night I had people from Germany, New York and Sweden just in this club.”
As for himself, well, while he works tenor and soprano sax, keyboards and harmonies on Music Row sessions that also include some of the guys who play for tips down on Lower Broad, he skips that touristy stretch.
“I’m not going to play for maybes,” he says, noting that Lower Broad is known for sometimes bulging, sometimes lonesome tip jars when it comes time to pay the piper … or the picker.
Michael, looking at his watch to make sure he gets back inside Bourbon Street before happy hour ends, came to Nashville from the Northwest in 1994. Tours with Eddie Raven, Kevin Sharp and Roger Brown followed.
He was living the dream of countless pilgrims who tote horn and guitar cases and the occasional drum kit to Music City, hoping to join the still-swelling ranks of Nashville Cats.
“I wasn’t here for stardom,” he notes, adding that he felt the need to move to Nashville simply because he was played out in a regular house gig in Yakima. “It was time to move on.”
Nashville seemed like a good spot, not because he wanted to be a star, but because it offered musical options.
“One thing about Nashville is if you run in the right circles, you are constantly pushed to get better,” he says, pausing briefly to holler a howdy to a karaoke joint doorman 100 feet down this Alley that on a hot night mixes the aromas of stale beer, cigarettes and urine … the signature olfactory aromatic spectrum of any club district “morning after.”
Ever been to New Orleans’ French Quarter in July? That’s not napalm you smell in the morning.
Michael recalls first coming to Printers Alley as a 9-year-old, traveling with his grandfather, Marvin Cox, a sax man who had played with “Basie, Ellington and the Dorsey Boys.”
That trip three decades ago was to the same club where this evening he may be coaxed to join Fritz Hester up on stage.
“Back then this was Boot’s Randolph’s Carousel. It was the club Boots had as spillover when his main club across the alley was full.”
The Yakety Sax man’s main club – a Vegas-worthy gathering spot for after-session picking by the likes of Chet Atkins, Danny Davis and Floyd Cramer – has been turned over to a private party place, Michael says.
The late Homer Louis “Boots” Randolph – a genuinely kind man who was sought for sessions by everyone from Elvis to Roy Orbison to Brenda Lee – was the unquestioned king in the glory days for the Alley, which got its name from being the long-time address of the old Nashville Banner – a very good local newspaper in its time – and other printing concerns.
“My grandfather was with Boots and Bill Ramsay on alto in the Tommy Dorsey Band,” Michael says.
“When I first got to Nashville in 1994, the Carousel was still here and I played here. Sent a picture to my grandfather.”
Michael raises a hand to wave at a passing couple, the early-comers. In a few hours this narrow passageway will be filled, a hot August night of music, alcohol and erotic dancing.
Right now it’s mostly occupied by members of “the family” of Printers Alley, the folks behind what Michael describes as “The Movement” to save this old club district where everyone from James Brown to Jimi Hendrix played.
“I played here at Bourbon Street with Bobby Blue Bland. I played here with Sonny Boy Williamson,” he says.
On this night, Michael’s not planning on playing, although the temptation of a little karaoke or sitting in with Fritz’s band is ever-present.
“I just went out for a drive, and the pony brought me here,” says Michael, who lives in the Briley/I-40 area and likes to spend some of his off-time golfing.
“I come here all the time because I’m really part of the family. Heck, I was a ghost. I was gone to Tokyo for two years, and when I came back down here, I walked in here and it was like I never left.”
He shakes his head when the subject of Printers Alley’s potential demise is brought back up.
“The British don’t think we are good about saving our history. And here they are thinking of taking Printers Alley away from Nashville.”
A boutique hotel is among the development being plotted for part of the area that now houses booze joints, a strip club and all the fixin’s.
“There are enough boutique hotels in Nashville right now, and they’re only filling them up three times a year. Maybe nine more times when the Titans are playing,” Michael says.
“Sure the hotel building is going to bring in money with the construction jobs and the jobs at the hotel, but how about the musicians, the doormen, the bartenders? How many of them are going to lose their jobs.”
Heck, he didn’t even have to mention the strippers – karaoke-singing or otherwise – who could be left trembling in the cold.
Will it happen?
“A couple of weeks ago, everyone was panicking. I don’t know. One property owner said it wasn’t going to happen, but I’ve been told there’s too much money behind it to stop it now,” Michael says.
Danny and Julie Arnold, from North Carolina, step off Church Street and begin the trek through the aromatic carnival midway time warp that is Printers Alley.
“I haven’t been here for 25 years,” says Danny, who then came on brokerage business.
“Kevin and Lucky and I were in there,” he nods in a non-specific fashion in the direction of the clubs. “There was this girl singer who wore a baseball cap and she had a cold. But she could sing anything. Nashville!”
Meanwhile Michael “Hot Pepper” Gilliland and Joanna Atnip are finishing their day-trip from Huntsville, Ala. They began on Lower Broad and are going to finish up in the Alley.
“We come up here maybe 12 times a year, whenever I get a little jangle in my pocket,’ says “Hot Pepper,” a mechanic, who emphasizes that the “spider web” decorating the end of his nose is the stitched result of his skin cancer battle and not some oddly placed tattoo. “That’s coming off tomorrow,” he says.
“You know Nashville ain’t just about country music. Today’s just a normal day, and I’ll go into these clubs here, and they’ll be buying me drinks, buying me T-shirts. They make you feel at home.”
“They can put a hotel anywhere;” says Joanna, who adds, “I work with hair.”
Walking back down the alley, past Bourbon Street, it strikes me that Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is a damn good blues song.