Friday, March 9, 2007

Johnny's Journey


"Sorry man, it's just not very good."

Those were the words that did him in for the day. He broke down into a mess of tears right there on the parking lot pavement and whaled and moaned an awful sound you wish to never hear from a human. I was sad.

...I was with a group of Belmont University students. We had just completed a presentation to Sony/Monument Records - a marketing plan for the launch of Wade Hayes' third album. It was a fascinating group project and one of many highlights of my college experience in Nashville. Many tireless weeks of research had paid off and we knocked this one out of the park.

Interesting side note: due to our research and focus groups to determine the release of the first single, the Director of Marketing called me weeks later to tell how our group had sparked debate among the marketing department. They decided to change the first single. They would not release Wade's version of "Wichita Lineman," but instead went with "The Day That She Left Tulsa (in a Chevy)" - our recommendation all along.

Back to the parking lot...

We were celebrating, screaming, hugging, high-fiving and the like as we walked out of Sony Records that day. The weight of the world lifted off our shoulders. Our professor, Dr. Rolston, was throwing out the compliments and joining in our little micro-celebration.***

He walked up quickly. Beat-up guitar case in hand and backpack across his shoulders. It was the kind of figure you see on every street corner in Nashville. "My name is Johnny," he said smiling. "Would you like to hear me play?" We smirked at each other. We knew the routine.

You see, it's an all too common story in a place like Nashville. Country boy has a little to no talent. Country boy's family and friends think he's the best thing since sliced bread. Country boy sells all his possessions to get a bus ticket to Nashville. Country boy concocts a plan where he will play guitar for labels up and down the "row" until someone signs him by dinner time. At which point the royalties begin to immediately flow and he buys a 50 acre spread on a hill down in Franklin.


We stared blankly. Johnny threw open his case, wrapped that old Martin around his neck and began to pick the out-of-tune strings. I don't recall the song, but I do recall that he sang it with every bit of emotion he could muster.


And I do recall that it was awful.


He rested his gangly arms on the guitar body and with a broad smile looked us all in the eyes and blurted out,"What do you think? Will you sign me?" Johnny thought we worked for Sony Records. We didn't. He thought we were a ticket to fame. We weren't And neither was his talent, rather, lack there-of.


Julie stepped up towards him, "Sorry man, it's just not very good."


It was around 5PM and you could tell from his hopeless look that it had been a long day of rejection piled on top of rejection. Julie knelt down to place her hand on Johnny's back, an attempt to offer some solace to this stranger. Her eyes welling up as she looked back at the group.


Julie began to tell him who we were and that we weren't label staff, but college seniors. As his tears dried he began to ask questions. What was bad? Was he good enough to get a record deal? Who would sign him? Our answers were truthful, yet grim I suppose. Not what a young man full of hopes and dreams from Calhoun, Georgia wants to hear as the sun is setting on a long day in Nashville.


"I'm broke." We managed to come up with a few dollars between us and handed it over to Julie - the self-appointed mediator of the group. Johnny ran his fingers through his hair and across his red eyes. "Thanks." We told him of a new social program in the city where they gave steeply discounted and even free bus passes to people in Johnny's situation. This situation was so common that the city would rather give you a bus pass home than have you become a vagrant.


We said our goodbyes as Johnny walked away defeated. But I have a feeling he didn't go home that day. I don't know. Something in his eyes. Maybe it was my wishful thinking. But I suppose a large part of me wanted to see him fight it out and win. It's not talent, after all, the gets you in the door. It's a personality. A song. A favor. It's many things, but so, so rarely raw talent.






***From here on the story is completely fictional. Why did I tell it? Before I sang with the Dapper Dans at Walt Disney World I interviewed for a position with Disney's Magic Music Days. It's where they bring in guest entertainment groups to perform in the parks and other areas. I was interviewing to be a coordinator for these groups. The group of 10 or so people interviewing me asked me to tell a story. Disney likes to verify that you can be assertive, make eye contact and generally sound half-educated when you speak to people - at least for these positions. I didn't know in advance that I would be asked to tell a story. "What kind of story?" "A story of a personal experience." The presentation at Sony Records came to mind instantly. However, I felt that adding some emotion would make for a better and more memorable overall story experience.


I got the job.

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