Growing up in an apartment building more stories high than my age, I would often sneak out in the middle of the night to go sit on the stairwell and listen to the sound of nothing. Nothing is actually rather loud if you tune in carefully enough – muted just so by the echo chamber of pre-war walls, there was always some sort of buzzing, an ambient hum of a stagnant elevator or 3 am footsteps, someone going back and forth to the bathroom in apartment 15D. Even though I had my own room, being alone in my personal space, filled with artifacts and books and little love letters and scraps of magazines, somehow just clouded my brain – I needed to escape to where the nothing really sounded like nothing. Or, maybe, where the nothing sounded like everything.
If I didn’t still find a way to escape in plain sight, I don’t think I could write a word. Even for five minutes a day, I need to go to where I can tune into that white-noise wavelength; to wipe the Twitter dings and email clings from that cloying echo chamber of my head and trade listicles for peaceful emptiness. Sometimes I sit on the floor of the shower and let the water run down my back for way longer than is environmentally responsible, but more often than not I drive into Shelby Park for a beat before I head to whatever coffee shop I plan to start my day in, and listen to the sound of the ducks hitting the water. If I’m in a rush, I’ll just pull my car over halfway between my house and the Post, put the thing in park, and roll down the windows, closing my eyes to the constant swish of cars – it becomes a rhythm, if you listen long enough. Even if it’s just sixty seconds, it’s enough time to reset myself; to face in to the atmosphere before the flipped hourglass of the day starts rushing down, grain by grain.
Ryan Culwell knows about the importance of hiding, which is why he chose to center his Nashville Five on the Five Best Places to Hide in Nashville. I’ve fallen in love with the bare-boned, stark compositions on his recent LP, Flatlands – they’re songs born of the insolation we feel even when we are anything but alone. Nothing about it is striving for radio perfection – his vocals as worn as the soles of his feet, the beauty resting in the places between plucks and heavy silences. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a happy record, because who needs happy when we can be honest? Ryan’s as honest as they come – singing about struggle and sadness and the mistakes we make along the way, each syllable hanging off his lips like weights on a chain gang; heavy, crushing, and often very lonely.
“The horse you’re on is gonna die real soon/I’m going to have to dig a grave for two,” he sings on “Horses,” the closing track of the record, that dissolves into nearly atmospheric territory, settling in as a sunset on the Texas panhandle, the place that inspired so much of the LP. It’s a hell of a way to close an album, a glint of light rising on a place that’s more complicated than just the a to b. It’s music that does everything but hide in plain sight, sung by someone who has no desire to do anything but fade into the flatlands for a moment and watch their outline blend in among the shadows, guitar in hand.
Catch him June 3 at Music City Roots and June 18th at the Basement East.
Nashville Five, By Ryan Culwell :::
1. El Tapatio on Nolensville Road. It’s a Mexican Restaurant on the South side near the nations largest Kurdish population. This small little shop is in a boring small yellow flat building that looks just like all the other boring small buildings, but there are no independent insurance companies or cheap mattress salesman. If you go in the afternoon you can head into the back section. Ask them to turn the tv off and leave the lights off, they’re usually off anyway. You’ll have plenty of light and no one speaks much English so you’ll have few distractions. I eat cheap nachos and work on emails. They don’t seem to care if you hang out for hours, especially if you’re a decent tipper. This is one of my sans-scenester hangouts. On second thought, don’t go there. It’s all mine.
2. Tin Dog Tavern. It’s usually full-ish of working musicians, but around 7 pm it’s dead. They’ll usually let you control the music and drink cheap during a not-so-happy happy hour. Many times its just the bartender getting ready for the night. Good place to get your head straight or keep you hanging out till it fills up with the kind of people you might want to actually hang out with. I can’t say that about a lot of local bars. The owner, Sean is a smart man. He can lead you into great conversation, but he’s pretty great at knowing when you’d rather just hang out with yourself. It’s the safest trashy bar in town. An easy neighborhood stop if you’re near Woodbine or the fairgrounds.
3. The library. I’m surprised at how our great library is ignored by musicians and artist types. The main room upstairs is not so quiet, despite the shut your freakin mouth signs. Local teens seem to gravitate there while they are skipping school and they don’t understand the purpose of the library. Just off The main study you’ll meander through some corner rooms filled with pieces of history under glass cases. Take some headphones and find an arm chair. Of course you can find plenty of books to read. Beware, there is a high chance of encountering lingering homeless men that smell like piss, but they tend to be wonderful conversationalists and are to be embraced as part of our city. If you’re new to town, welcome to Nashville – a city that has embraced their homeless population, though we have a long way to go. The city is growing and along with gentrification, many of these people are being pushed out of areas that they have called home for many years. Many of them are musicians and you will quickly see how fickle security is in an music town. They also value silence so they are good neighbors. Get to know them and yourself and don’t forget to get parking validated.
4. The ledge across the street from FedEx office on Broadway. Take a book or just your eyes and perch up for awhile. It may seem counterintuitive, but the fact that Broadway is often so crowded is what fuels my desire to go down there and get lost. There is an anonymity, ala New York. I’m not saying it’s anything like New York, so calm down Yankees. The tourists aren’t there to see you. They’ll move past you without acknowledging you except for the occasional pitying half smile. I’ve actually gone unnoticed at all for thirty minutes at a time. The mild chaos of white middle class republicans can cure you’re busy mind the same way a Sonic Youth record can shut down the inner dialogue. I like to sit there with some water and just watch the weirdos. Of course they are uber-normals and think that you are the weirdo who is checked-out on the ledge of what feels like an ancient landmark, but the jokes on them. Avoid the buskers. If they are any good they play too loud. The less skilled buskers are fine. They play quieter and repeat the same 3 out of tune mangled songs in a way that will lull you into a dream state. Feels like a muted indie film, the good kind.
5. My porch. Your porch. If you haven’t bought one of those east side box houses then you probably have a good sized yard and a small porch. Most the year round you can sit and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood and pry through the humid air with a tumbler as you sip the night in. Sounds cheesy, but I spent a decade in Amarillo Texas and you’d think it would be easy to get alone there, but the wind makes it too uncomfortable. Playing guitar on a porch there always seemed to have a pretense to it, as if you were playing to be seen. In Nashville, as you know, it’s not a protest to play Fred McDowell songs on your porch with your neighbor who is probably one of the greatest guitar players you’ve ever heard. Maybe that’s just my neighborhood. Again, Woodbine baby! Excuse my frattiness, but I feel like it’s pledge week and I’m being hazed with the silence of this old neighborhood. I’m so happy to be a part of it, I’d quickly run through my neighborhood at midnight naked to be accepted. Then again, no one would see me because Woodbine goes silent around 9pm. I suppose you’re welcome to come hang out if you can find me, but I’d rather you didn’t.