After a year marked by advances in local music and sports, economic and political uncertainty, and the lingering aftereffects of natural disaster, Nashville seems destined for another period of civic reinvention, examining the future of facets ranging from public transportation to the arts. But with change comes inevitable loss. In this issue, the Scene remembers some of the people we lost this year who helped give the city its identity, whether they were beloved entertainers or media personalities familiar to all or quiet benefactors known mostly to a lucky few. Telling their stories of honor, heroism, heartbreak and occasional hilarity are friends, colleagues, longtime city observers and close confidants. And as always, whether they were household names or friends to a select handful, their absences are keenly felt.
Meteorologist, local institution, WSMV-Channel 4
By J.R. Lind
When I was in second grade, I caught mononucleosis. I still have no idea how, as I was years away from participating in the activity which gives the kissing disease its sobriquet. In any event, I was home-schooled by my parents for a month-and-a-half while I recovered.
Despite the main side effect of mono — a gripping, nearly perpetual fatigue — I was still a precocious 7-year-old pent up in the house during springtime. My cabin fever became more of a danger to my parents' sanity than did my mono. My mother sought ways to keep me busy beyond my schoolwork. I adopted a whale, I built models of airplanes and rockets and dinosaurs. And I wrote a letter to my hero.
Before I decided print journalism was for me, I wanted to be a weatherman. My mom suggested I write to my favorite weatherman and ask how I could get his job. So I sat down and wrote a letter to the best weatherman in late-1980s Nashville. I wrote a letter to Bill Hall.
And he wrote me back.
The letter came back on WSMV stationery — in the upper left hand corner was that absurd putrid-gold 4 the station used as its logo for years. Hall wrote me in his own hand, carefully detailing his path to the top of Nashville television. He went to Western Kentucky, so he sent me a glossy brochure on the meteorology program at WKU's Department of Geography and Geoscience. I memorized and repeated it ad nauseam, to the delight of my already frazzled parents.
I used to watch Hall with the same devotion believers watch televangelists. Standing in front of that map — which straddled the line between slate-grey and government-building brown — with his five-day forecast and his Sunshine Awards handed out for birthdays and anniversaries, Hall spoke the gospel to me. Over his more than 30 years on the air at Channel 4, Hall came across as an ideal fishing buddy and an unflappable bedrock of calm whenever the Doppler started seeing red. It has been said that with his avuncular warmth, across-the-board appeal and constant, reassuring presence, the veteran weatherman (once reportedly the highest-paid figure in local TV news) did much as part of WSMV's anchor-desk Dream Team to erode the region's vestiges of racism.
To an elementary school student, however, little of that registered. What mattered was that Bill Hall knew Snowbird. This was back when Snowbird — and his pal, Myron the Rat — wasn't just a logo and a parade-marcher. In between his appearances delivering the alphabetical litany of school closings — the most important stretch to me was "Smith, Stewart, Sumner"; if Bill and Snowbird went "Stewart, Trousdale" I knew I had to get ready for school — Snowbird, in those days, had a Christmas special, which I made my parents tape and rewatch over and over.
Now TV meteorology is all about gadgets and speed. I no longer have to wait until 6 p.m. to find out the weather, because I can just tweet Justin Bruce and he'll tell me. Sort of takes the magic out of the whole operation.
But when I was 7 and I was sick, I had a hero. And my hero wrote me back.
Host, The Fine Print, WPLN-FM
By Jim Ridley
Rebecca Bain's name may mean little to people who have moved to Nashville in the five years since she left WPLN in 2006. For a generation of Middle Tennesseans, however, hers was the literal voice of public radio. Over a 30-year career at WPLN, she read news, reported stories, hosted round tables, and cajoled the station's "above average" listeners throughout a Sisyphean cycle of pledge drives — all in a convivial tone that made listeners feel she was catching up while they drove to work, washed dishes or sipped coffee at home.
Yet it was The Fine Print, a show devoted to conversations with local and national authors, that made Bain a hero to local bibliophiles. She gave thousands of listeners their first exposure to authors such as Bobbie Ann Mason and Rick Bragg — not to mention many long-forgotten writers whom she greeted, regardless of sales or status, as visiting heroes. No matter how dry the subject, for the duration of each author's slot, Bain made him or her feel like the most scintillating person alive.
"I can remember Rebecca Bain meeting me at the radio station with a big smile, escorting me into her studio for an interview," says Clyde Edgerton, the acclaimed author of Walking Across Egypt and The Night Train. "She beamed delight with her job. As soon as she started asking questions, you realized she was a different kind of interviewer. Surely she underlined, made notes, thought through things carefully, read again, reconsidered, guessed a little, and then found the just right question that you'd hoped might some day be asked. This was one of her talents. She was the interviewer you wanted for every book."
On the air, Bain came across like a favorite aunt, fussing over every guest and taking care to show she'd given his work a close read. Off the air, she was saltier, funnier and more opinionated than she allowed herself to be as a host. She had a wicked streak that belied her porcelain-doll features, and she loved sick jokes. She could be "intensely private, irascible, bawdy, warm, generous and loyal," recalls Polly Rembert, Bain's longtime friend and a veteran of Nashville's publishing industry.
When the show ended, the city lost a major supporter of its literary community. As WPLN colleague Nina Cardona noted in a remembrance, "Rebecca had a reputation among publicists as not just the kind of interviewer you want to try to schedule if your author happens to be in Nashville, but the kind of interviewer that was sometimes the primary reason for making a swing through the city."
"The feeling I was left with after the interview was that there were so many careers she could have chosen," Edgerton wrote shortly after Bain's death in October from systemic failure, "but she loved books and reading them, and through that love she made Nashville and the world a way better place."
The Bat Poet
By Jim Ridley
Bowker, the cab driver and raconteur known to Nashville for his longtime public-access show The Slime Show, died in October at age 59 after years of terrible health. This excerpt comes from a 1999 Scene profile, when The Bat Poet was flying high:
If driving a cab keeps Bowker in touch with Music City's seedier side, it also brings him into contact with TV stars, visiting dignitaries, and the country music industry. Granted, the encounters aren't always meet-and-greets: A famous 1970s country singer once pursued him at Daytona speed down the interstate, while her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend tried to slump below eye level in the back of his cab. But he relishes meeting fellow musicians and new acts, even if he's pessimistic about the direction of country music as a whole.
"In '80s and '90s country music," says Bowker, a diehard rock 'n' roller who nonetheless has abiding respect for artists like Patsy Cline, Roger Miller and Johnny Cash, "everybody sounds alike, looks alike, smells alike, talks alike. They're corporate-made, OK? You have no real innovators now, that's what's so bad about it. I'm sure there's some great artists out there with great songs, but the industry's got it set up where we don't hear these people."
That's part of the spirit behind community-access TV in general and The Slime Show in particular: that Bowker, [co-host Breeze] Aubrey, and their comrades in shoe-box studios around the country have the free-wheeling, let's-put-on-a-show spontaneity that the networks — and network affiliates — can no longer afford.
"Everybody's watched so much TV over the past 50 years that they know how to react to something," Bowker says. "We don't want to do the same show everybody's seen before. We're kinda like Martha Stewart on acid."
If anything, Bowker's planning to access even more of the public airwaves. He hopes to start a half-hour local-music show called The Music Castle, which would showcase some of those artists he feels are being ignored — on a set made to resemble a castle, no less. He plans concerts, he plans public appearances, he plans multimedia events. But does he plan to be the Bat Poet for the rest of his life? Joey Bowker laughs off the question. His answer is classic Batspeak.
"I'm 47 years old, I can't even relate to that," he says, pulling into the Scene's parking lot. "47? What the hell's that, I was just 27! But see, time is an undefined concept. Always remember that: Time is an undefined concept. Chuck Berry's 73 now and he's still playing 'Sweet Little Sixteen.' I'll still be 70 and crazier than hell. Hee-hee-heee!"
AMON CARTER EVANS
Former publisher, The Nashville Tennessean
By Nicki P. Wood
Down at the bottom of The Tennessean's obituary of Amon Carter Evans, the former publisher at 1100 Broadway who brought John Seigenthaler back to the paper for its glory years, was this paragraph:
"After Mr. Evans sold The Tennessean, he owned and operated Rattle & Snap, an antebellum plantation in Mount Pleasant that he restored and lived in before opening it up as a tourist attraction, wife Denise Evans said."
That only hints at the life of this media mogul after the $50 million sale of The Tennessean in 1978 by the Evans family to Gannett. The son of fiery Tennessean publisher Silliman Evans Sr. bought the bucolic property in about 1985 and retired to what he hoped would be the life of a gentleman farmer. For the first five years he owned Rattle & Snap, he undertook a restoration of the mansion — a conservative estimate says he ultimately sank $6 million into it — with smaller projects following for the next few years.
At that point, he said, it was for sale, if casually. He'd be willing to part with it if someone came looking. Asking price for the house and 4,000 acres: about $15 million. He gradually sold off several thousand surrounding acres, and the price dropped to $5.9 million for the house and 135 acres.
In 2001, I checked in with Evans. Pricey properties were selling like mad all over Williamson and Davidson counties. Evans had hired the third of his six ex-wives to market and sell the place, and was working the Internet to find a larger market.
The Internet listing is where I spotted the storied antebellum Greek Revival beauty in 2001 when I worked for the Nashville Post. Rattle & Snap was named for the sound made by the shaking of dice (or more likely, beans) in a craps-type game of chance where the land was the wager, the loser was the governor of North Carolina, and the winner was William Polk, a cousin of President James K. Polk. Despite her brilliant backstory, Rattle & Snap had no suitors at all.
"I haven't had a legitimate offer on it since I owned it," Evans told me, "and it has been for sale literally since I bought it, except for the five years it took to restore it."
Evans and his seventh wife Denise began operating the house as a tourist attraction beginning in 1994, attracting 30,000 to 35,000 guests a year with lunch and tours, and dinner by reservation. But by 2001, he was ready to sell because he was tired. Evans was doing the cooking, and it was just more work than he had planned.
"I'm too old to continue feeding thousands of tourists, and visiting with thousands of tourists every year," he said. "I'm not the only cook, but we'll get 30,000 or 35,000 people through Rattle & Snap this year. That's a lot of people. I'm getting too old."
In 2002 the house was in the hands of the lender. The following year, Evans petitioned the court to stop a foreclosure. The house changed hands that year. And Evans' stake in the house — which he hoped would be the climax in the glorious narrative of Rattle & Snap's history — became just another chapter in a saga that began with hard luck.
REV. T.J. GRAHAM
Minister, gadfly; host, Open Forum, WVOL-AM
By Jonathan Meador
A rotund middle-aged man with penetrating eyes and a stentorian voice, the Rev. T.J. Graham preached a gospel that belonged to only one man. And though he's gone now, you can still go to his YouTube profile page and hear him lay it out.
"Hey, do you want to hear the truth?" Graham barks. "Are you tired of listenin' to people tell you all kind of lies, and then you find out the truth is not in 'em? Well, I tell you what you need to do: You need to tune in to Open Forum and listen to me. I will tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — the natural truth."
For nearly six years, Graham laid out his natural truth for admirers and enemies alike on his WVOL-1470 AM program Open Forum, broadcasting a wildly entertaining (and ideologically befuddling) blend of firebrand sociopolitical commentary and classic shock-jock antics from the nondescript ranch-style studio where, once upon a time, Oprah Winfrey landed her first media gig.
Unlike the Big O, however, whose penchant for feel-good powwows and public confessionals propelled her to international wealth and fame, Graham carved a modest niche in his adopted hometown by wielding a rhetorical chainsaw. He ripped into liberals and conservatives alike across a spectrum of hot-button issues, from illegal immigration and racism to gay marriage, health care reform and more.
But on the morning of Nov. 8, Graham, the self-proclaimed "Black Rush Limbaugh," died from undisclosed causes after a massive stroke. He was 50, and is survived by his parents, three siblings, three sons and a granddaughter.
"He held on for seven days," Jae' Nash, Graham's producer and co-host for two years, told the Scene. "What he went through at that hospital ... when you're used to seeing somebody that's full of life, a good-spirited person, laughing, and to see him lying there not being able to talk or really interact with you ... I am so happy to have met a man like him. He was a soldier."
Veteran UPI bureau chief, regional director and Tennessean political reporter whose five-decade career spanned some of the century's biggest stories; when a bodyguard for Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa tackled a would-be assassin in a Nashville courtroom in 1963, young reporter Cheek was so close that the gunman's blood splashed his shoes.
PATSI BALE COX
Prolific country music biographer whose name appeared as co-author on bestselling books by Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna Judd and other celebrities.
ALFRED H. KNIGHT
Founding partner, Willis & Knight; renowned First Amendment and libel attorney who represented The Tennessean and other news organizations for many years; author of The Life of the Law, an award-winning 1996 history of constitutional law spanning medieval England to the Rodney King case.
Radio personality and fixture of the Nashville airwaves for more than 30 years; as ringleader of Y107 FM's morning "Zoo Crew" in the late 1980s, he drew nationwide attention as well as controversy for his "shock jock" antics; he also served as first off-air announcer on CMT.
Son of a Polish immigrant cantor, he went on to a six-decade career in the entertainment industry as a singer, producer and later columnist; he hosted WAMB-AM's The Danny Winchell Show and often performed on it with his cabaret act Moonlight & Memories.
JUSTICE A.A. BIRCH JR.
Judicial trailblazer, former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court
By George Barrett
Al and I came to the bar at approximately the same time, me in 1957 and I believe he in 1958, and we knew each other ever since. Al came to Nashville at the urging of the dean of Howard University Law School, who called together groups of young African-American law school graduates to remind them of their responsibilities to help change the South and the country. He arrived at or slightly after another young African-American lawyer, Boston-educated Avon Williams — and in their different approaches but enormous impact, I cannot help but remember them together.
The late 1950s was quite different from Nashville today. At that time there were maybe two to three female members of the bar, and at most 12 to 15 African-Americans, the rest being mostly Anglo-Saxon. The bar was highly segregated both as to gender and race. But it was a great time to come to the bar because of what was happening here. In 1954, Brown v. The Board of Education laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and the effective desegregation of the South and the rest of the country.
Shortly after Al arrived here, he became associated with Robert Lillard, another African-American lawyer on the City Council. At that time, there was a schism within the African-American community on how to achieve desegregation. Williams and the lawyer he practiced with, Z. Alexander Looby, embraced the W.E.B. Du Bois philosophy of confrontation and litigation. Mr. Lillard leaned more to the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, whose theories of achieving integration depended upon persuasion and consultation. It should be emphasized that both sought the same common goal, to end the segregation of African-American citizens as second-class citizens. This was the society in which Al Birch and Avon Williams found themselves in Nashville.
Apart from their common stand during the sit-in movement — a glorious moment when the entire African-American bar came together to defend the students who were arrested for "sitting in" at the five-and-10-cent stores on Fifth Avenue — their careers pretty well reflected the two theories. Avon took the more political direction. He ran for state Senate in 1972 and had a very distinguished career there. He died in 1993 having earned the respect and admiration of the Senate, where he was often seen as confrontational in both manner and demeanor.
Al took the judicial route. He became the first African-American prosecutor in the Davidson County D.A.'s office, and in 1969 he was appointed to the General Sessions Court, bringing to it a sense of dignity and sternness that had not previously existed. (Al had a sense of humor off the bench, but certainly never on it.) Having established his reputation as a jurist, he was elected to the Criminal Court of Davidson County, where he served from 1978-1987.
Al was the first elected African-American judge on the trial criminal court level in Davidson County. He was appointed in 1981 to the Court of Criminal Appeals by Gov. Ned Ray McWherter and served there for nine years, bringing to it the same dedication, dignity and scholarship. He was ultimately recognized for those qualities by his election to the state Supreme Court, and Al became the second African-American to serve on the high court, serving as chief justice for two terms.
Today, the downtown campus of Tennessee State University bears the name of Avon Williams, and the Criminal Justice Building in Davidson County bears the name of A.A. Birch. Who is to say which philosophy was the right one? When you look to the achievements of these two gentlemen, each speaks to the success of his own philosophy. I am proud to say I knew them both.
NED RAY McWHERTER
Governor, kingmaker, friend of the common man
By Bruce Dobie
Ned Ray McWherter was a hulk of a man, often wearing cowboy boots and smoking a cigar or pipe. Where life ended and art began, it's difficult to know, but he was by various turns hilarious, vulgar, authentic, earthy and country to the core. He was suspicious of the rich, though he was rich himself, and he often made fun of educated people, though he was as smart as they come. As he once chided former Gov. Winfield Dunn in a debate, "Winfield, I may not know Shakespeare, but I do know numbers."
This much we know: He was born poor, dropped out of college three times when his knees kept blowing out in football tryouts, and nearly came to financial ruin after he tried selling shoes in places that included remote Caribbean islands. We know this because to the small audience of captive reporters who followed him around the state, he would often ramble on about, say, his sharecropper father who often struggled in a hardscrabble environment, his loving mother who raised the family, and the Sears catalog in the outhouse that served as the family's toilet paper. What McWherter the brilliant politician understood, at his peak, was how to relate to average working Tennesseans — people who had once used the Sears catalog too.
At one point, his rural West Tennessee Democratic Caucus (yes, it existed) held almost every lever of power in the corridors of the state Capitol. McWherter's political clout rose. In the conservative wing of the national Democratic Party, particularly in the South, McWherter was a power. He was a confidant of Bill Clinton's team in crisis moments, often trooping up to Washington to give them advice on how to get their act together. Years earlier, he had gotten behind Jimmy Carter's presidential bid, and the two exchanged staff and advice. When Al Gore first ran for president, it was no accident that Gore's only serious victories came in a string of Southern primaries orchestrated by McWherter. Ned brought the traveling press corps along to Montgomery and Jackson and Atlanta so we could watch him put it together for Gore. You never met so many redneck Democrats in your life.
McWherter's honesty and straightforwardness inspired a loyalty among staff and supporters that made him an incredibly magnanimous force. Tragically, against the steady advance of the Republican Party across the South, the Democratic Party that he led has mostly vanished.
He was a man to be taken with utter seriousness, but he could also be an absolute riot. In the end, one remembers him flying down a two-lane road to yet another campaign speech, his so-called Redneck Express barreling through exhausted little towns filled with falling-down barns, and the little old ladies serving fresh lemonade from hardware store washtubs, and the old farmers grinning from under their hats, and McWherter standing up to the patient and forgotten crowd and telling them that he was one of them.
It was a sight to behold. And it will never be again.
Athlete, coach, teacher, veteran, former Metro councilman
By Joe Biddle
If you ever dropped by Varallo's Chile Parlor on a wintry day to eat their steaming-hot three-way chili, odds are you knew Angelo "Vic" Varallo. Vic Varallo was a man's man. Vic was salt of the earth, with proper portions of Italian spices added to certify his heritage.
Vic went by many names during his 89 years. Athlete. World War II combat veteran with the Flying Tigers. Coach. Teacher. Mentor. Metro councilman. High school basketball and track meet official. He was a stranger to few throughout much of Davidson and surrounding counties.
Vic was a national-champion competition water skier. Jumping off ramps for distance was his specialty, with his famous "Tarzan-like" yell carrying across lakes both far and near as he flew through the air.
Vic valued life, trying not to waste a minute. He was a high-energy, people-loving addict. A longtime self-proclaimed single man, Vic was the original Bachelor reality series. He had an eye for beauty and it was often reciprocated.
After the war and college, Vic became a coach. That was where Vic impacted thousands of lives. There were times he quietly paid for a number of students to go to college.
For years he officiated men's basketball games at the Downtown YMCA. He was older then, but still in top physical shape. He knew everyone playing. They were local businessmen, mainly weekend warriors trying to recapture their eroding athletic skills. If a referee was a no-show, Vic would stand at mid-court, call the game and talk to the players during the action.
After retiring, he could often be found at Varallo's Chile Parlor, helping out on the cash register. When I met Vic, the restaurant was located on the corner of Ninth and Church, caddy-corner from the YMCA. After a couple of hours of noon pickup basketball, I often found myself walking to Varallo's, undoing all the good I had done at the Y.
It was a social hotspot in Nashville, overseen by the late Frank Varallo Jr., and his wife Eva. Tables were sometimes hard to find, but conversation was plentiful. Vic often joined in, never short of opinions.
When Vic Varallo left this earth, the Renaissance man took a large piece of Nashville's fabric with him.
Former state representative, construction magnate and civic benefactor whose interests included historic preservation and the Cumberland Museum; assistant commissioner of finance and administration to Gov. Lamar Alexander; chairman of the founding board of Franklin Road Academy.
JUDGE LEON RUBEN
Davidson County General Sessions judge for 30 years, former Metro councilman; noted off the bench for a Mickey Mouse collection amassed over four decades (given to the Tennessee State Museum) and for his practice of sitting bench on Christmas Day so his non-Jewish colleagues could be with their families.
LON F. "SONNY" WEST
Metro zoning commissioner since 1986, who started working for the city when Eisenhower was president; with 55 years of service, he was Metro's longest-tenured active employee at the time of his death.
Real estate titan, H.G. Hill Co.
By Bruce Dobie
John Hardcastle combined a banker's manners with a historian's intellect, and that mix produced one hell of a delightful and agreeable man. With his wife, Fran, he was firmly planted in Aulde Nashville social circles, but displayed a driven intellectual curiosity and often thumbed his nose at convention — such as his participation, in 1976, in a re-enactment of the storied 1779 flatboat trip from Kingsport to Nashville that historians consider the founding of the city. Similarly, the first time I ever heard Hardcastle deliver a lecture, on Nashville history, he was dressed in a coonskin cap and other 18th century attire. If memory serves me correctly, he was channeling James Robertson. Perhaps "performance historian" would be an apt description of his metier.
Besides his passion for Tennessee history, Hardcastle was an ardent environmentalist, active in the early efforts to save Radnor Lake from development. He was also active in the Nature Conservancy. (At his funeral, a son offered the remark that while his father loved nothing more than sleeping outside in a tent, the only tent his mother ever really loved was the one enveloping the Cheekwood grounds once a year.) Professionally, Hardcastle started out as a banker but later was named president of the H.G. Hill Realty Co. Under his watch, the company developed the upscale project Hill Place on Post Road.
Hardcastle was an extraordinarily sociable man and had a fabulous laugh. In fact, just about everything he said seemed to start out seriously but then detour down a trail of good humor. At one point in his long slide into so-so health, I ran into him at the Whitland Avenue Fourth of July picnic, which he loved. He was dressed in a natty red-white-and-blue. "Age is getting to me," he said, taking a seat on a nearby bench. I then repeated to him what John Jay Hooker had told me, when he had turned 70. "When I woke up this morning," Hooker said, "I grabbed my penis and told it, 'Penis, if you were alive today, you would be 70.' "
John Hardcastle laughed so hard I thought I was going to have to call a doctor. At his funeral, a Dixieland jazz band played classics, and smiles broke out everywhere.
KERMIT C. STENGEL JR.
Real estate developer
By Jim Ridley
To say that Kermit Stengel left a changed city is no exaggeration. A developer who balanced a regard for historic buildings with a frank and unsentimental assessment of their economic viability, he was among the first to attempt rehabbing downtown properties such as the Noel Hotel at Fourth and Church and St. Cloud Corner at Fifth and Church during a period in the 1970s and '80s when razing was routine. Yet when the Sudekum Building housing the old Tennessee Theatre became unfeasible to maintain, he declined to endorse the preservationists fighting for its survival — even though it bore his grandfather's name. Although neither he nor his family retained any ownership interest in the property, he fully supported plans in the early '90s to build the Cumberland residential high-rise on the site. Preservationists may have thrown a fit, but it's hard to argue now that the Cumberland wasn't a bold first step in bringing urban dwellers back downtown.
Stengel was born to the youngest of the four daughters of Nashville movie-theater magnate Tony Sudekum (1880-1946), whose Crescent Amusement Co. was one of the powerhouses of film exhibition in the Southeast during the early 20th century. He may not have entered that wing of the family business, but his son Marc K. Stengel says he showed his grandfather's entrepreneurial panache in another field: real estate. Early on he embraced the emerging model of the office park, and his Kermit C. Stengel Co. (which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year) was pivotal in the development of the area now known as Melrose, among others.
In his last major project, the Belle Meade Town Center, accomplished with his sometime protégé Tony Giarratana, Stengel was able to save the marquee and façade of a Nashville treasure — the now 71-year-old Belle Meade Theater — while adapting the structure to modern purposes. The intensely private veteran developer was not one to let sentiment get in the way of a shrewd real estate deal, Marc Stengel says; and yet this property may have meant something special. It was built virtually in the front yard of what had been Tony Sudekum's home, and Stengel was there in 1946 the night Sudekum died. The home's name — Ridgefield — lives on in the name of Stengel's property holding company.
KAZUHIRO "JED" SUZUKI
Founder, Goten Japanese Steak & Sushi
By Nicki P. Wood
When you visited Goten Japanese Steak & Sushi Bar, you'd almost certainly see Kazuhiro "Jed" Suzuki, dressed in his suit — friendly, mild-mannered, and quietly in charge.
You might even have chatted with him over the years. But it's unlikely he told you that he was a pharmacist by training, or that he was a longhaired musician in a Beatles cover band in Sapporo, Japan, in the 1970s. That he bought his first motorcycle at 16, and once bought Alan Jackson's bike at a silent auction. That he worked alongside Rocky Aoki at Benihana, the country's original hibachi restaurant.
It's a long way from Sapporo to Nashville. It looked, for a while, like Suzuki might be a Sapporo pharmacist. But, his daughter Kaz says, "He wanted an adventure. He was always dreaming of doing something different."
Maybe it was that sense of adventure, or perhaps his inner showman, or his mother's restaurant background. Something energized Suzuki to leave Japan for New York, where Benihana had opened in 1964 and was wowing diners with its combination of steak, searing grills, flashing knives and theatrics.
In New York, Suzuki became friends with Vic Watanabe, another hibachi chef. When Watanabe opened the Nashville location of Kobe Steaks in 1977, Suzuki came to work with him.
Suzuki's next move secured his place in Nashville dining history. Always dreaming of doing something different, he got the notion to combine the hibachi steakhouse with sushi bar and opened Goten. It wasn't Nashville's first sushi place, but it was the nicest, and it drew such crowds that a second location was opened in Cummins Station.
The steakhouse-sushi bar combination is the standard now — there are nearly a dozen in the Midstate. But Goten was the first.
Goten's original location was in the Baker building across 21st Avenue from the Vanderbilt campus. Suzuki hired Vanderbilt students for valet parking, and they proclaimed him a fair man, genuinely interested in people, quietly in charge.
Black suit, hair just so, mild-mannered and equitable. But also fun-loving, mugging for the camera, free-spirited, musical and committed to his interests.
Suzuki died in September. But his influence remains, both in the restaurant concept he pioneered and in the tributes that poured in — not just from friends and Goten regulars, but touchingly, from those valets and hostesses, from vendors, deliverymen and repairmen. Kaz Suzuki says she felt at times that she was the one dispensing condolences to his distraught public.
The occasion demanded nothing less than a Beatles-themed funeral for Jed Suzuki — a rollicking barge of music on which to float a man on a motorcycle rock-and-roll sushi adventure down a river with tangerine trees, and marmalade skies, and cellophane flowers of yellow and green, towering over his head.
Environmentalist, philanthropist, progressive, single degree of separation
By Bruce Dobie
Betty Brown tended to a broad array of interests from her (and her husband Martin's) almost feudal spread out Hillsboro Road. Her agenda seemed to flow rather organically, although an official obituary would point to the fact that she was the founder and guiding light behind the Nashville Tree Foundation, which has planted thousands of trees here. There were other board memberships certainly, but most of her official commitments stemmed from a love of the outdoors. Friends often found themselves traipsing after her to inspect one or another wildflower on the family's property. Her environmentalism was, in many ways, her religion.
Because of her husband's family ownership of Jack Daniel's, Betty had standing the moment she moved to town. But from then on, it was her ballgame. Smart, progressive, unabashedly happy and willing to do whatever she wanted, she was a force. Betty didn't spend her time grooming future Swan Ball chairwomen. But the social arts were, in fact, her forte. Betty was a consummate and inveterate connector of people, always at the center of something. A visitor to her and Martin's house might find seated around the table a talking medley that included a congressman, an Episcopalian bishop visiting from California, and an environmental activist just in from the woods. Her summer trips to the family compound in the Canadian wilderness, attended over the years by dozens of thankful guests, were studies in how to make the difficult look easy. Betty's running buddies were a who's-who of literate, well-heeled Democrats, and at the Brown home they were often refreshed.
One time around Betty's table, someone mentioned a nasty divorce whose details were rocking the city. "Yes, they're negotiating here," she said nonchalantly. Activity often found Betty. She was comfortable in the fray. She loved spotting talent, putting people together, mixing it up. Her native Louisville pulled hard, but Nashville was where she invested her time and energies. An epic struggle with Parkinson's claimed her far too early. What we all would have given to see a vibrant Betty, 25 years hence, still presiding, the city's grande dame. She was buried in a wooden casket made from a tree felled on the family property. The gal had style.
Educator, nutritionist, born fighter
By Nicki P. Wood
When Minda Lazarov came out of surgery in 2006, she asked whether, in her absence, anyone was working on a plan for the future of Bells Bend. It was the beginning of her third great campaign to set something in the world right while managing her own health.
It was her health that brought her and husband Barry Sulkin together. Diagnosed with cancer as a teen, she missed weeks of school, and Sulkin (who happens to be her fourth cousin) was asked to tutor her in math.
Her health also led to a career in child nutrition and food policy, and on to an important cause. Lazarov drafted child development expert T. Berry Braselton, Sen. Tom Harkin, and even scientist Carl Sagan to eradicate a scandalous WIC program that supplied infant formula to new mothers for their babies for a few weeks, by which time the mother's own milk had dried up.
When underground nuclear testing was resumed in Nevada in the 1980s, Lazarov happened to be attending a food policy conference in Las Vegas. She impulsively joined the protest, was arrested and released. But she and others wanted the issue to remain visible. They organized larger, louder groups that included Kris Kristofferson, Sagan and Martin Sheen to protest and get arrested again.
When she woke up from surgery in 2006 and asked what had been done about Bells Bend, and the answer was "not much," she "about busted a stitch," Sulkin recalls. While she healed, she educated Nashville about the natural treasure just a few miles from downtown. She found a "brand" for Bells Bend, "Nashville's backyard," and published a vision for the area's future, Beaman Park to Bells Bend: A Community Conservation Project.
"Don't just work one angle — work all the side angles" was her method, Sulkin says. Lazarov hired Jeff Poppen, "The Barefoot Farmer," to build a food project, which became Bells Bend Community Farms. When a pair of whooping cranes nested on a Bells Bend farm in 2008 and 2009, it was as if Lazarov's plan to preserve the area had nature's blessing.
Simultaneously, she chipped away at a memoir on her life as a patient, sequestering herself in a neighbor's barn for half of each day. The second half of the day was spent "saving the neighborhood," says Sulkin. After another cancer diagnosis and another round of chemotherapy, she fine-tuned the memoir, Whatever Happened to Patient 2410, and secured an agent.
Was her work finished at death in October? Judge by her legacy, one that all Nashvillians can read and learn from, or walk in and be inspired by.
But there was something else in Lazarov's legacy, something rare and irreplaceable: discernment. As Lazarov's 26-year-old daughter Shea says, "People would come to her for advice, and she seemed to easily come to what was right. She was the person who had all the answers."
Gone Too Soon
Author, essayist, science journalist
By Jon Bates
JR's name was really JR. No, it's not short for anything: it's two letters, "J" and "R." His folks told me so. Of course, JR would have told you it meant "Just Right," with a completely straight face. JR's lightning wit was what hooked you, but it's the wisdom he shared that kept you coming back for more.
Whether discussing current goings-on at Melrose Billiards or explaining particle physics, JR was great about breaking down complex ideas and explaining them in familiar terms. That's what made him such a good journalist, a rising star whose articles in Scientific American, Popular Science and other publications had already attracted a loyal readership. JR could digest particle entanglement, then turn around and give you a quick rundown complete with Star Trek references.
But his interests were many, his curiosity about the world limitless. JR could just as easily make a compelling argument for why UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva was such an avant-garde fighter, comparing him not to other bruisers but to rock 'n' roll innovators like David Bowie and Lou Reed — a unique way of thinking about mixed martial arts and music. JR's brand of writing made you interested in his take on things from sci-fi to Korean food to gender politics, all while relating it to your favorite comic book. It's this form of original thinking that set JR's articles apart from your run-of-the-mill science journalism, and made him so easy to relate to personally.
These are the things that made talking to JR so easy, and the things that make his absence so hard.
By J.R. Lind
A plane carrying members of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed Sept. 7, killing 43 people, including a slew of former NHLers and prospects.
Among the dead were two former Predators — Karlis Skrastins and Josef Vasicek — and a former prospect, Robert Dietrich, who appeared in a few preseason games for the Preds but spent the better part of two seasons on the farm with Milwaukee.
Skrastins — a tough, net-blocking SOB of a defenseman — was part of the Predators' first draft class and spent five seasons in the organization, playing in 302 games for the big club and starting a streak of 495 consecutive games.
Until the summer of 2011, only one former Predator had died. In eight days, along with the loss of Wade Belak Aug. 31, that number grew to four.
Many of those we lost in 2011 had nowhere to call home
Among the many who lost their lives on the streets of Nashville this year: Roy Allen, Alvin Bartlett, LaShun Bledsoe, Billy Bowman, John Buie, Jeffrey Burgess, Roger Carnahan, Clark Cobb, Terry Crawford, Jeff DeHart, Richard Gagne, Kenneth Goslin, Edward Gray, Deborah Harris, Reginald Hickerson, William Johnson, George Jones, Billy Jordan, Anthony Lewis, Denise Lomax, Barbara Lunquist, Larry Maurice, Jack McCollum, Deborah Mock, Paul Mooney, Eleisha Perry, Howard Pollard, Robert Potter, David Ross, Hans Soto, Dennis Sparrow, Ricky Teasley, Dorothy Upchurch and Randy Whitfield.
Former Nashville Predators enforcer
By J.R. Lind
Wade Belak was, in his way, the last of an era. He was hardly the last designated pugilist in the NHL. But he may be the last one ever drafted in the first round. He was chosen 12th in the 1994 draft by the Quebec Nordiques, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound stack of hexahedrons: a cube of a head on a box of a body, supported by two squared-off tree-trunk legs. He was a throwback to the pre-lockout NHL when the game was a bit slower, the checking a bit harder and fights more common.
But as teammates noted, he was a character who regularly poked fun at himself, who lightened up the locker room. He was ebullient and relished his role as a goofy, oversized team ambassador, appearing more comfortable with a microphone clutched in his limestone hands than he did a hockey stick. He never scored a goal in Nashville, but he provided plenty of cheers with his fists, sent over the wall to settle a score. Feared on the ice, he was beloved off of it.
When Belak was found dead by hanging — an accidental death, we're told now — in a Toronto hotel room, he completed a tragic hat trick of former NHL fighters gone too soon in 2011. The deaths, unconnected but for the similar roles played by the deceased, started a conversation on the editorial pages and the blogs about hockey's code and the men who enforce it. Should fights — which are farcical foreordained contests as often as they are spontaneous score-settlers — be part of a 21st century sports league?
That's a conversation worth having, but it glosses over who Belak was to Predators fans. He was, in many ways, the Predator who was easiest for the people in the stands to relate to.
Games were always a little more special when Paul McCann announced the scratches pregame and Belak wasn't on the list. It usually meant a nice donnybrook with the bad guy on the other team. And more often than not, Belak came out on top, our smiling, red-headed champion. And, no, Belak wasn't an offensive force — but every once in a while, he'd get loose in the slot and let one go. He never triggered "I Like It, I Love It," but it was always fun when "Beeler" got close. If Wade could almost score, we could too.
Wade Belak was a champion and an ambassador. More than that, he was a dad, a husband and a friend. And he is gone too soon, his off-ice potential ripped away by a death we still don't, and may never, understand.
Offensive coordinator, Tennessee Titans
By J.R. Lind
Mike Heimerdinger was never interested in straightforward, up-the-middle football. When he called the plays for the Titans — from 2000-2004 and then again from 2008 until last season — the offense may have been a lot of things, but never boring.
Under his leadership, Steve McNair got his air back. He turned Billy Volek into an old-fashioned gunslinger. Chris Johnson was — for a starburst of a moment — the most exciting player in the league. Heimerdinger wasn't going to grind out a win.
When 'Dinger died of cancer in September, he was in Mexico. Sure, chemo was effective: the off-tackle run of oncology. But in Mexico, maybe there was some hidden gem — like Chris Johnson in the college-football backwater of East Carolina University.
Head coaches are politicians: polished, camera-ready faces of the eternally ready-for-prime-time NFL. Their assistants — especially career assistants like Heimerdinger — are scheming technocrats: cerebral and ... well, just a little weird.
Heimerdinger played the part of scatterbrained patient-slash-coach toward the end of the 2010 season, pretending not to remember "the eight names" of the disease that was killing him.
But Heimerdinger was anything but addlepated. He searched like crazy for ways to utilize his assets on the field, and he searched like crazy for ways to beat cancer. All great coaches are competitive — the offensive types looking for a way to break through whatever wall the defense throws up.
That was Heimerdinger and cancer. During the last month-and-a-half of the woeful 2010 Titans season, 'Dinger would go to chemo during the day, go to practice in the afternoon and call a game on Sunday, determined to solve two puzzles at once: how to devise a winning game plan against an aggressive, insidious disease — and how to keep an offense from succumbing to metastasizing chaos.
When the new regime took over the Titans, Heimerdinger was out of a job. But not out of a paycheck: The team continued to honor his contract as he underwent treatment. Forever looking for a new wrinkle, he found the treatment he thought might just work. He made his plan, and he played it to the last yard.
By J.R. Lind
No one, ever, will be able to describe the madness of a sports crowd as perfectly as radio announcer Larry Munson did Sept. 21, 1984, when his beloved Georgia Bulldogs defeated Clemson.
"The stadium is worse than bonkers!" he cried, as Kevin Butler kicked a field goal — in the run-up to the kick Munson described the ball as being on the "49-and-a-half" and the distance needed for the kick as either "100,000 miles" or "60 yards plus a foot-and-a-half." It was one of Munson's most famous calls — calls that have become part of the lore of SEC football.
Munson said the things fans were thinking — he just said them better. When Herschel Walker ran over damn near everybody, all damn near everybody could do was shake their heads and say "Wow." Not Munson.
"Oh, you Herschel Walker. ... My God Almighty, he ran right through two men! ... My God, a freshman!"
Yeah, just what we were thinking.
These days, young radio play-by-play men are looking for their next job — at being a haircut on ESPN or getting the top games on Sunday — so they take no opinions and never say "we," let alone things like "stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot."
Munson didn't care. He was a Bulldog and he was going to be a Bulldog till he died and he'd "we" and "us" all over the airwaves.
But before he was a Bulldog, he was a Commodore. In 1952, Munson came to Nashville to broadcast Nashville Vols baseball games. He talked WSM into putting Vandy basketball games on the air — he'd do the play-by-play, naturally. Munson was a hit, and WSM added Commodore football to its repertoire.
Munson would stay on the stick for Vandy games until 1966 when he got the UGA jobs. Maybe it was the decade and a half of Commodore games that gave Munson the dourness, the ever-present sense that nothing would work out — until, at least in his Bulldog years, it inevitably did. Munson was a homer — a delightfully entertaining homer — but he was also the most pessimistic cuss who ever watched a football game.
Munson continued to live in Nashville until the late 1970s, driving to Athens for ball games and then coming back here for his TV show The Rod & Gun Club — not just a show about hunting and fishing, but the first ever TV show about outdoor sports. Munson left the world a Bulldog — as he should have — but it was Nashville who brought the Minnesotan to the SEC.
Hunker down, Larry. We miss ya already.
Race-car driver, paper-airplane champion, graphic designer, screenwriter, you name it
By Jim Ridley
The story goes that in 1976, graphic designer Bill Pryor was short on funds and wanted to wangle a trip to New York. A buddy who worked on David Frost's short-lived Guinness Book of World Records TV show could finagle him a ticket — if he could figure out some excuse to appear. Pryor started scouring the book. Eureka! He started arm training in preparation. When he was ready, he invited local media and camera crews to the upper deck of Municipal Auditorium. He held aloft an item for which Guinness had no entry — a paper airplane.
Most people would've pitched it straight, or tossed it in an arc. Bill Pryor had been studying this thing. He flared the wings slightly, reared back, then hurled the vessel straight up. It hovered a moment, then began to curl in widening circles, nearly 30 times. By the time it landed, Bill Pryor held a new Guinness world record for paper airplane "duration aloft." More importantly, he got his ticket to the Big Apple — only to find the show had been canceled.
He probably could've bought a ticket, but where's the fun in that? Bill Pryor was all about fun. A Navy man, he loved speed, a good story and adventure. He found them all behind the wheel of a car, accompanying his great friend Anatoly Arutunoff on a racing team from the 24 Hours of Daytona to the Mille Miglia. With "Toly," he produced the first live racing telecast in the U.S., the Can-Am series, for which he hired a hot-shot director with the same birthday: an ace named Andy Sidaris who'd made his mark on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Wait — you mean the Andy Sidaris who directed all those soft-core boobs-and-bullets epics like Picasso Trigger and Hard Ticket to Hawaii? Yep, and his collaborator on 13 of them was Bill Pryor, whether as screenwriter, actor or in some other capacity. Pryor's biggest screenwriting credit was perhaps the 2004 golf biopic Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. "It's not easy for a screenwriter to be in a good mood, not all the time," says fellow screenwriter Will Akers, who often traded critiques with him. "Bill was."
He was married to veteran Nashville publicist Ellen Pryor for more than 30 years, and to the end, she says, he took every swerve and curve with a kid's wide-eyed optimism. Somehow, children sensed a kindred spirit. In his later years, whenever a kid in some far-off town or country would have an urgent question about paper-airplane engineering, the phone would ring in Bill Pryor's study. And no matter how late it was, he always took the call.
By Jon Weisberger
When Harley Allen would bring his bluegrass band into The Station Inn, folks would wonder how many songs he'd likely get around to actually singing in a 45-minute set. He had plenty of choices, starting with the many hits he'd written and co-written for and with the stars of country music, and passing through to the standards he learned from his father, bluegrass Hall of Famer Red Allen. Usually, the number would come out somewhere well shy of the typical dozen or so — and that was OK, because Harley's rambling musings between songs could be some of the most outrageous, funniest stuff you'd ever hear.
Then, just when you were trying to figure out the exact mixture of hilarity and bad taste you'd been hit with, he would launch into some heartbreaking ballad, or one of those driving old bluegrass standbys. If it was one of the latter, once it was done, he'd say, "Boy, that's a whole lot more work than writing a song."
Nashville's a songwriting town, and Harley Allen was a world-class songwriter. But before — and while — he was writing the hits, Harley was a singer, one of nearly unparalleled beauty and sadness. He had a reedy, mournful tenor voice that seemed to always curl a phrase just a moment before you thought it might, or rise just a bit higher than you thought it could. And whichever of a dozen different ways he'd surprise you as a singer, it always turned out to be exactly the right one to make you feel the same longing, the same emptiness, the same self-mocking yet utterly serious sense of despair that seemed to be haunting him.
Harley Allen could be brutally dismissive and, it seemed, compulsively irascible. Yet he was also a profoundly humorous man, and — often covertly — a warm one, too, devoted to people and things he appeared not to care about. Cancer took him too soon, and while there are many reasons to miss him, in the end, those are the ones that count the most.
WILMA LEE COOPER
Country singer, Grand Ole Opry member
By Randy Fox
Wilma Lee Cooper spent much of her 90 years making the kind of music she grew up with in the mountains of West Virginia. Born Wilma Leigh Leary, Cooper began her career with her family's group, The Leary Family Singers. A young, dapper fiddle player, Stoney Cooper, joined the group in 1938, but it would take a few years for him to sweep the young Wilma off her feet, to the altar and then into their own family act. The Coopers spent several years working in radio markets around the country before settling down to a 10-year stint on WWVA's Wheeling Jamboree starting in 1947.
They signed with Columbia Records in 1949, right at the time when the traditional mountain sound they specialized in was being pushed aside by the new, postwar honky-tonk style, or being transformed into the new style known as bluegrass. Despite their popularity in West Virginia, their records failed to catch. After a move to the newly formed Hickory Records in 1955, and relocating to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, they achieved a string of seven hits that featured Wilma Lee's hot-as-a- mountain-fire vocals on songs like "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel."
After the hits stopped, Wilma Lee continued as the torchbearer for old-time mountain music on the Opry — even after Stoney's death in 1977. As country music moved further from its roots, Wilma Lee remained a living link to its origins with her performing career drawing to a close only after she suffered a stroke in 2001 while performing on the Opry stage.
Her health may have stopped her singing, but it couldn't stop her support for the Opry. She returned on special occasions to greet fans and even joined the Opry cast one last time for the grand reopening of the Opry House in September 2010. To the end, the girl who gave her all to mountain music received love back from her audience with every performance.
Music industry veteran
By Jack Silverman
Famous for his larger-than-life persona and almost-as-big cigars — not to mention a signature sandwich on the vaunted roster at Savarino's Cucina in Hillsboro Village — Frank Dileo worked as Michael Jackson's manager through much of the pop superstar's '80s heyday, and again during the last months of Jackson's life.
Dileo worked his way up from the bottom of the music industry, and rose quickly: By age 21, he was RCA's national singles director, and by 35 he was one of the most powerful men in the business. An ever-present stogie, gold watch and Music Row-casual attire made him look like he had just stepped out of Central Casting's Music Biz Dealmaker file. During his tenure at Epic Records, Dileo was instrumental in signing or developing the careers of Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, The Clash and, of course, the King of Pop.
Dileo's charisma earned him a couple of movie roles, most famously as Tuddy Cicero in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Not only did he play the brother to Mafia boss Paulie Cicero, but he was responsible for one of the most legendary mob hits in cinema history, putting a bullet in the back of Joe Pesci's head in the film's climactic scene.
Dileo lived in Nashville briefly in the '70s and then moved back in January 2007 to start a management business, though he spent much of the last three years in Los Angeles after returning as Jackson's manager, and then handling issues with the late pop singer's estate.
In August, Dileo died at his home in eastern Ohio at age 63, after a long illness.
Bass guitarist, manager
By Randy Fox
If you were a gambling man in 1954, betting that the odd trio known as Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two would never make a nickel off their music would have seemed like a sure thing. But it would have been a sucker bet. Cash's sonorous baritone style of singing, almost reciting, had its perfect counter point in Luther Perkins' painfully crude but sonically arresting guitar solos, built on the steady and simple beat of Marshall Grant's bass playing.
A North Carolina native, Grant settled in 1947 in Memphis, where he worked as an auto mechanic and picked up the hobby of playing guitar from his co-worker Luther Perkins. After hooking up with Cash and deciding to form a band, Grant switched to the upright bass, an instrument he barely knew how to play. During the early days he reportedly had to place tape on the fret board to know where the notes were.
Whatever his lack of ability, it proved to be musical magic as Grant supplied the "boom" in the "boom-chicka-boom" that was Cash's trademark sound. But a steady beat wasn't the only place where Grant stood rock solid. Over the 26 years he spent working with Cash, he gradually moved into the role of tour manager, with the ability to handle promoters, logistics and other business matters with style and finesse. Not to mention often having to serve as a handler and fixer when his boss's bad habits threatened to topple the House of Cash.
Despite an acrimonious split in 1980 that led to bitter legal battles, the two friends would later reconcile, with Grant returning to his position at bass for special occasions. The experience Grant gained in the business side of music led him to managing The Statler Brothers and other acts — earning Grant a reputation as a respected and honest man in a sometimes very dirty business.
When Grant passed away in August, it seemed appropriate that he did so while attending a festival to raise money for the restoration of Cash's childhood home. Till the very end, Marshall Grant was getting the job done and standing by an old friend — two trademarks of his life.
By Ron Wynn
Dobie Gray would not have been comfortable being labeled a pioneer or trailblazer, but he most definitely qualified as one. Especially in Music City. The prolific singer-songwriter, who died Dec. 6 after a long fight with cancer, stood tall in demanding his concerts in South Africa be integrated well before the fall of apartheid. He later became one of the few high-profile black artists who called Nashville home throughout the latter part of his career. But Gray didn't make a big deal out of either situation. He insisted there was no better place anywhere in the nation for someone who loved the art of merging literate stories and poignant perspectives with inspired music and production.
Gray had a rangy, instantly identifiable sound, a soothing yet soulful tenor well-served on several signature tunes. The first was "The In Crowd," a pop/soul salute to hipness and charisma that earned him his first national acclaim in 1965. Oddly, the tune became so identified with Gray that rumors continually suggested he really hated it — something he debunked whenever anyone asked.
Another was the exceptional "Drift Away," a number that thrilled audiences and rose atop the charts in two different decades. It was first a hit in 1973, then again in 2003 in collaboration with Uncle Kracker. The second time around, it rose to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary charts and remained there for 28 weeks. Its message about being immersed and transformed through music was something Gray fervently believed happened whenever audiences heard a great song.
The son of Texas sharecroppers whose first musical love was gospel, Gray's fondness for rich narratives and meaningful themes was constantly reaffirmed in everything he did professionally. That included exploring reggae via a nifty commercial ("Momma's Got the Magic of Clorox 2") or penning works covered by a glittering array of performers across the musical spectrum. Ray Charles, George Jones, Etta James, Nina Simone, Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette were just a few of the top stars who performed Gray compositions.
Because he didn't believe in blowing his own horn, few people outside the industry knew he did one of the earliest and finest versions of "Loving Arms," or that he enjoyed a notable career in musical theater, including a two-and-a-half-year stint in the LA version of Hair. He even had his share of memorable soundtrack contributions to films such as Uptown Saturday Night and Out of Sight.
Still, Gray was happiest around songs and songwriters, which made the move from LA to Nashville a natural one. He cut some memorable songs and albums on Music Row, especially those for Capitol/EMI America. The 1986 single "From Where I Stand" later became the centerpiece tune for the marvelous boxed set From Where I Stand — The Black Experience in Country Music. He became a cheerleader for Nashville, steadfastly insisting that race should not be a barrier to becoming successful.
"If you have the right song, it doesn't matter who or where you are," Gray told me back in the late '80s. "People everywhere respond to honesty and truth."
Country singer, actor, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee
By Randy Fox
It's appropriate that the two things Ferlin Husky may be most remembered for are his 1957 hit "Gone" — a record that is credited with being the start of the "Nashville Sound" — and his hillbilly-as-all-get-out alter ego Simon Crum. It's a dichotomy that sums up the career of one of country music's most unique performers.
Hailing from rural Missouri, Husky ended up after World War II in Bakersfield, Calif., where he first recorded under the name "Terry Preston" — an alias Husky adopted since he felt his real name sounded "too made-up." But after several singles failed to catch, Husky returned to his real name, just in time for the 1953 megahit "A Dear John Letter" with Jean Shepard.
As his recording career took off, Husky made the move to Nashville and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. There, he introduced his not-very-secret identity Crum, who performed brilliant satires on current hillbilly records and stars in a voice like Webb Pierce with a snootful of helium. In particular, Crum both spoofed and nailed the rockabilly sound with smokin' hot records like 1956's "Bop Cat Bop."
But in 1957 Husky re-recorded "Gone," a song from his Terry Preston days, but this time with strings and prominent backing vocal choruses. It was an addition that paid off, with the song becoming a No. 1 country hit and crossing over into the pop Top 10.
Although the success of "Gone" may have unleashed the stampede toward strings and vocal choruses in Nashville, Husky continued to record hits that demonstrated his unique mix of city-slicker polish and hillbilly pedigree, like the solid-gold standard "Wings of a Dove." Husky also hit the big screen in drive-in classics like the Nashville-produced Ron Ormond cornball cavalcade Forty Acre Feud, which featured starring roles for both Husky and Crum.
The hits slowed in the 1970s, and heart problems cut into his touring schedule. But Husky continued to perform, becoming a popular attraction in Branson, Mo. Despite the success of "Gone" and what it spawned, his talent lay more in the way he reconciled the differences between uptown and downhome with class and goofy hillbilly charm.
Bass player extraordinaire
By Jack Silverman
In the "About" section of his Facebook page, Nashville bass player Chris Kent offered one simple idea — "The money is between the first and fifth fret." Besides being a good maxim for aspiring bassists to heed, those words say a lot about Chris Kent the man: He was known for being a strong foundation, someone far more concerned with supporting others than getting recognition himself — qualities he exemplified as both a performer and a human being.
Kent died on Oct. 19 after a 13-year a battle with cancer. He was 44 years old. A seasoned veteran of the stage and studio, Kent performed or recorded with a variety of country, rock, jazz and Christian music acts, including Lorrie Morgan, Toni Braxton, Larry Carlton, Billy Preston, Steve Winwood and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few. He was known for his enormous smile, fat and funky bass grooves and upbeat personality.
I had a chance to play a little jazz gig with him once, at Pizza Perfect on 21st Avenue. I think we were playing for free slices, if I remember correctly. I felt a little out of my league musically, but he was warm and encouraging, and he put me at ease.
His bottomless love for life and deep religious conviction sustained him through the long up-and-down struggle with cancer, and news of his passing triggered a tremendous outpouring from Nashville's music community, and from fellow Christians who'd been touched by his unshakable faith and shining example. One Facebook post, commenting on the memorial service, summed up the sentiments well:
"Oh Chris, I know you felt the love in the room. There was laughter, tears, memories and MUSIC! Dude, you hang with some SUURRRIOUS players! Heaven is gonna be sweet when we all get there. We love you, sweet friend!"
When not rocking the clubs and studios, Kent was an avid cook. His friend Bobbi Faye Miller published a cookbook featuring some of the bass player's favorite recipes: I Want To Be a Chef ... But I'm Not! You can find it at blurb.com. All proceeds benefit the Kent family, which includes his wife Lisa, daughter Kamarie and son Jensen.
Co-founder, Walk the West, The Cactus Brothers
By Ray Waddell
When noted Nashville musician Paul Kirby, who fronted popular cowpunk and country rock outfits Walk the West and the Cactus Brothers, left this world at the age of 48 on Sept. 25, he took a piece of Nashville's rock 'n' roll soul with him.
Kirby and his Hendersonville schoolmates John and Will Goleman and Richard Ice launched Walk the West in 1984, releasing the band's sole album for Capitol in 1986. But for years prior, Kirby and company rocked Sumner County keg parties and taverns like Patsy Lou's (where as underage rockers they honed their chops as Rebel Bite), building a boisterous, loyal following. They became a critical component of a sizzling Nashville rock scene that included Jason and the Scorchers and Royal Court of China.
Fearless and unruly, WTW was an incendiary live act born not only of the classic country DNA that coursed through their veins (Kirby and the Golemons were the sons of successful country songwriters Dave Kirby and Guy Golemon, respectively), but also the gutsier elements of the then-waning Southern rock scene and the punch and energy of punk. Walk the West represented Nashville's musical past and, as time has shown, future. Whether they know it or not, Nashville-based rock bands from Kings of Leon to Paramore owe a debt to WTW and other bands of the era that led to Music City's being taken seriously for something beyond Music Row.
Paul and his bandmates shared a musical vision that could have, with label support, taken the band to heights they never realized. Though he battled demons in the real world, Paul's musical instincts were solid; As both fan and friend, I distinctly remember him describing pushback from Capitol regarding the addition of a fiddler to WTW in the form of multi-instrumentalist Tramp (later of Bonepony). But Paul stuck to his guns, and WTW became a better, even more adventurous band.
WTW was dropped from Capitol amid label shakeups of the late '80s. But Kirby and company played on, packing clubs like the Cannery and 12th & Porter for what had been a side project. The Cactus Brothers were a fiery country/roots rock band featuring dulcimer wizard David Schnaufer, steel guitarist Sam Poland and drummer Dave Kennedy, along with Kirby, Tramp and the Golemons. Armed with explosive covers of such standards as "16 Tons" and "Fisher's Hornpipe" and captivating originals, the Cacti were signed by famed producer/label head Jimmy Bowen to Capitol Nashville, releasing two critically acclaimed albums and touring internationally before again being dropped from Capitol.
Possessing a huge heart and a disarming humor, Kirby remained a popular Nashville music figure. Though he stayed largely under the radar, fans, particularly those original Hendersonville hell-raisers, never forgot. A one-off set at the Exit In in 1986 sold out, marking the first time the original quartet had played as Walk the West in 16 years. Making for great rock 'n' roll theater, the fog machine not only obscured the band but flowed out the door and across the Rock Block in a legendary night.
An Oct. 9 memorial service at the Basement turned into a reunion for Paul's extended musical family and friends. It included moving performances by Mike Farris, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg (Kirby's step-sister), songwriter Wade Kirby (his brother), and rocker Bobby Bare Jr. (formerly a roadie for WTW and the Brothers). Earlier that night, the Golemons and Darby performed instrumental versions of popular WTW songs "Precious Times," "Livin' At Night" and "Backside" with an empty microphone stand where Kirby historically stood — signifying the end of an era, and the lasting impact of those precious times.
Country singer, songwriter, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee
By Randy Fox
Charlie Louvin was a stubborn and patient man. Growing up with his brother Ira in rural Alabama in the 1930s, life was hard, but early on they discovered they had a love and a talent for music. And that music was a way to escape from the cotton fields, even if there were hardships of a different kind.
When the Louvin Brothers signed with Capitol Records in 1952, they found themselves stereotyped as a gospel act. But the brothers wanted to record secular music. They loved gospel and hillbilly music and knew they could be successful at both. Finally, they convinced their producer Ken Nelson to let them record the song "When I Stop Dreaming." It became a Top 10 hit, and they never looked back.
Ira Louvin had problems. Charlie could see what the drinking was doing to his brother, but also knew there was no way to save him from himself. As the years went by, Ira would reform for short periods only to fall once again. When the split finally came, Charlie knew he would keep his career going even if it meant changing his style and building a band by himself. Music had given him a dream beyond any he could have imagined, and he'd be damned if that dream was going to end.
Charlie knew the music he recorded with Ira was special. The Louvin Brothers' records might be out of print, they might have been forgotten by a music industry that seemed to only value youth, but he knew it was up to him to preserve the legacy. And then, when a revival began — even if it was sparked by young punks who yukked it up over the cover to the Louvins' Satan is Real album — Charlie wasn't shocked or surprised. If it got them to listen to Louvin Brothers records, that's what mattered.
When Charlie found out he had cancer, he saw no reason to stop making music. Fighting to make his music heard was what he'd done his entire life. And that's what he did, right up until the very end.
Founder, Still Working Music
By Edd Hurt
By the time Barbara Jakobs met Roy Orbison at an English club in 1968, the singer's career was in decline. In the age of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, Orbison's high-gloss psychodramas seemed part of another world entirely. It would take an unlikely series of events — aided, of course, by the convolutions of hip taste that no one can accurately predict — to put Orbison back on top, and Barbara Jakobs did much to make Roy Orbison into a modern artist. Before the Texas rock 'n' roll legend died in 1988, he was regarded as a maestro of mysterious longings and a great singer — and with his wife's help, he made what is arguably the comeback of all comebacks.
Born in Bielefeld, Germany, Jakobs married Roy Orbison in 1969. After a fallow period in the 1970s, Orbison began to attract a new generation of fans by the end of the decade. Linda Ronstadt covered "Blue Bayou" in 1977 — Orbison had co-written the song and released it in 1963. The over-the-top style Orbison had perfected remained in the popular mind, with heavy-metal band Nazareth doing an effective version of "Love Hurts," another song Orbison had recorded in his glory days.
Barbara Orbison managed her husband's career during the '80s, a decade that saw Orbison's moody music become perfectly in tune with the mood of the moment. Most famously, director David Lynch recontextulized Orbison's "In Dreams" in the 1986 film Blue Velvet. The following year, Barbara served as executive producer for In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, which brought together Orbison with contemporary production styles. She also was at the helm of 1988's acclaimed concert film Roy Orbison and Friends, a Black and White Night.
Until his death, Orbison was established as one of rock 'n' roll's biggest and most mysterious attractions, with solo records, sold-out concerts and his work with supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. Barbara oversaw the fine 2008 box set Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll, which sums up the singer's work quite thoroughly. The Nashville publishing company she founded and ran, Still Working Music, sports such titles as Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," along with such past and present writers as Liz Rose, Jedd Hughes and Tommy Lee James.
Savvy in business, Barbara Orbison helped preserve and extend Roy Orbison's legacy at a crucial time. She died on Dec. 6 at Los Angeles County Medical Center after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
By Jack Silverman
Steve Popovich was both an industry insider and outsider, working at major labels — at one time or another he was a VP at Columbia, Epic and Polygram Nashville — but also founding Cleveland International Records, where he achieved his greatest fame for putting out Meat Loaf's seminal album Bat Out of Hell.
And while Popovich was a key player in the careers of familiar names ranging from Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent to The Jackson 5 and Boston (to name a few), he was also a tireless music lover who frequently championed lesser-known artists who didn't fit any molds. David Allen Coe, Chas and Dave, the Singing Nuns and a number of luminaries from the polka world — Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk and Brave Combo — all received his attention. In 1997, Popovich was inducted into the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of fame, and from the little I know about Steve Popovich, it was probably one of his proudest moments.
About a year ago, I was at a grocery store when I saw a 60-something guy pushing a cart. He was wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, and had that unmistakable Cleveland-working-class vibe, that Rust Belt demeanor. It's hard to articulate, but if you grew up there like I did, you know it when you see it.
Curious, I asked him if he was from Cleveland, and sure enough he was. We talked about Cleveland sports a little, and after about 10 minutes of reminiscing, we introduced ourselves. "You're Steve Popovich?" I blurted out incredulously. I'd known about him for years, and I would have never guessed this unpretentious, self-effacing fellow was the man behind the legend. I was hoping I'd have the chance to interview him one day, and I'm genuinely sad I'll never get the chance.
Popovich died in his Murfreesboro apartment in June. He was 68.
By Jack Silverman
I had a chance to play with percussionist Tom Roady once or twice, so long ago that I don't even remember what band we were playing with. But I definitely remember Tom — all he brought to the gig was this funky little electronic percussion pad, and you would have thought we had Tito Puente's entire rhythm section with us. He was exceptionally talented, warm and funny — and most memorably, as enthusiastic about music as anyone I'd met.
Tom lived and breathed music — so much that he decided to forgo painful cancer treatments that would only put off the inevitable, so he could tour with Ricky Skaggs' Christmas Tour one last time. He died on the tour bus on Nov. 27, at the age of 62, as a result of heart failure.
Even by Music City standards, Tom's musical résumé was nothing short of jaw-dropping, including recording or stage work with Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Etta James, Mavis Staples, Michael McDonald, Pure Prairie League, Tom Jones, Donovan, Art Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Dr. Hook, Tony Orlando, Lynyrd Skynyrd, New Grass Revival, Larry Cordle, Ronnie Bowman, Sam Bush, Rhonda Vincent, Maura O'Connell, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood ... the list goes on, and on, and on.
On Nov. 15, Tom made a comment on the Facebook page of Chris Kent, who died in October (see above). Responding to a post imploring people to learn from the late bass player's example by having faith in God and living each moment to the fullest, Tom wrote, "How well I know this!!"
In retrospect, Tom's comment — which he made a month after he'd received a grim cancer diagnosis, and just two weeks before his death — seems all the more poignant. And as demonstrated by the manner of his departure from this earth — on a tour bus with Ricky Skaggs & Co., doing what he loved — he took the business of living each moment to the fullest very seriously.
Tom is survived by his wife, Melanie.
By Billy Block
Our dear friend Mark Wehner peacefully joined The Angel Band this year. For several years, Mark hosted Americana Tonight at Douglas Corner every Wednesday night, featuring many of the top artists in Americana, country, bluegrass and rock music. An accomplished musician and songwriter with several albums to his credit, Wehner always put the promotion of others before himself. This endeared Mark to all.
The joy on Mark Wehner's face at the first benefit concert held in his honor back at his old stompin' grounds is indelibly imprinted on my heart. Meeting his hero Rodney Crowell was a dream come true for Mark. Crowell was his typically gracious self and generously played a full band set for over an hour, to the delight of Wehner and the hundreds in attendance. Mark and his beautiful bride Mary Leland's last dance was like watching poetry in motion fueled by the pure power of love.
That first benefit was magical for Wehner and everyone who joined in the celebration of his life. He didn't live to attend the second show we'd planned the following week. But we all celebrated Mark's life well lived, and two of his favorite Americana stars, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, sang to send him home.
My fondest memory of Mark was when he took me to a Nashville Sounds game while he was conceptualizing Americana Tonight, and kindly asked for my help and support. He loved the Sounds, and it was a wonderful evening shared in conversation about the music and artists we both loved and cherished. God bless him and this wonderful music community.
Record store owner, producer, label head
By Randy Fox
Randy Wood was one of those figures in American music whose true significance has been obscured by his success. It's an ironic truth, but in many ways his founding of the Dot record label, his discovery and promotion of artists as disparate as Pat Boone, Mac Wiseman, Ken Nordine, Nervous Norvus and others, and his role in "white-ifying" rock 'n' roll are almost footnotes (albeit very profitable ones) to his greatest achievement.
A native of Morrison, Tenn., Wood settled in Gallatin after his service in the Air Corps during World War II. He opened an electrical appliance shop, initially carrying a few records to demonstrate the phonographs he sold, but he started getting requests for more records, in particular hillbilly and rhythm & blues.
Meanwhile, down the road in Nashville, a DJ named Gene Nobles had started playing R&B records on his nighttime show, booming them out across the entire Eastern U.S. on WLAC's 50,000-watt clear channel signal. When more and more people starting walking into Randy Wood's shop asking for records they had heard on WLAC, Wood saw an opportunity and signed on as a sponsor for Noble's show.
Within a few months, the electric appliances were gone and the store had been rechristened Randy's Record Shop, with a mail-order business that was shipping records to more than half the U.S. By 1954, with rock 'n' roll poised to break loose, Randy's Record Shop was selling 60,000 records a month, more than half of them by black artists, in addition to being one the primary sponsors of the all-night, every-night marathons of R&B on WLAC.
The records that WLAC played and that Wood sold were a keystone of African-American culture in the 1950s — a meeting point that would influence music, fashion and even politics. The evolution of R&B into both rock 'n' roll and soul music, and the changes in our culture that they brought may have been inevitable, but one can't help but wonder if their form might have been very different without WLAC introducing the soundtrack and Randy's Record Shop supplying the goods to the doorsteps of Americans of all races.
Country singer, songwriter, country music patriarch
By Randy Fox
Johnny Wright spent more than half his life acting as the prince consort for his wife, the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells — a role he performed with class and distinction — always willing to share the spotlight with Kitty or any of their musical family. But none of this should obscure the truly classic, genre-bending country recordings he made in the 1950s as one-half of one of country music's all-time great duos.
Born in Mt. Juliet, Wright grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry from its earliest days. By the late 1930s Wright had his own radio show on WSIX with his sister Louise and his young bride, Murial Deason, still years away from her rechristening and coronation. When a young singer named Jack Anglin married Wright's sister, he also joined the family group. In a short while, the brother-in-law duo of Johnnie & Jack were making the rounds on the hillbilly music circuit, taking up short residences at radio stations in various states.
In 1949 they signed with RCA Records. Their first hit, "Poison Love," mixed traditional close harmony singing with a rhumba beat. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but it paid off in a Top 10 hit and a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Johnnie & Jack continued mining Latin rhythms and soon picked up on the mutual ground that country close harmony shared with R&B vocal groups for a string of hits that picked up on the beat and excitement of rhythm & blues while still sounding hillbilly to the core.
Their partnership ended in 1963 with the death of Jack Anglin in a car accident. Wright continued recording as a solo artist through the 1960s, but his main role would be as patriarch over "The Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show," which included his and Wells' three children and various grandchildren over the years, right up until his and Kitty's retirement from performing in 2000.
Country singer and songwriter, and a Grammy nominee for her 1967 Top 5 hit "Mama Spank," she wrote many other hits including "I'm the Lonesome Fugitive" and "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" for Merle Haggard, and was the mother of country singer Lynn Anderson.
Bluegrass fiddler, longtime member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, and an inductee of the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Country singer, DJ and voiceover artist who had several hits in the 1960s such as "I Love Country Music" and "Catch the Wind."
JOEL "TAZ" DIGREGORIO
Keyboard player and longtime member of The Charlie Daniels Band.
Country singer, guitarist and Grand Ole Opry member best known for his 1959 hit "Gotta Travel On."
Iconic dreadlocked singer and bandleader who had been a child prodigy in the 1940s, a doo-wop vocalist in the '50s, a soul singer in the '60s and a bluesman in the '70s before founding his '80s Rock Block reggae dynamo Afrikan Dreamland.
Frontman of Nashville hard-rock acts Arch Angel, Boneyard and Forefathers of Doom.
Country singer and Grand Ole Opry member who had several hits in the '70s and '80s such as "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," "Big Ole Brew" and "Louisiana Saturday Night."
JOHNNY "COUNTRY" MATHIS
Country singer and prolific songwriter who began his career as half of the hit-making duo of Jimmy & Johnny, and whose songs were recorded by George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Price and Charley Pride.
Country singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s, best known for his hit "My Name Is Mud."
BILLY JO SPEARS
Country music singer who championed an earthy and more traditional vocal style during the "countrypolitan" era of the 1970s, best remembered for her 1975 hit "Blanket on the Ground."
DAN "BEE" SPEARS
Bass guitar player, a member of Willie Nelson's band for over 40 years, and also part of the local Nashville combo Travelin' Light.
Country songwriter and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, best known for his songs, "Saginaw, Michigan" and "Country Bumpkin."