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The Soul, Sound, And Story Of Nashville, Told By Tim Ghianni

Many of us who were inspired into journalism as young people identified with a certain archetype - the newspaper man, the truth-telling, ink-stained wretch who fought the good fight, loved great stories, and took no guff but had a tender heart. I was lucky to work for an editor like that, except that he has about four times the requisite portion of heart. His name’s Tim Ghianni, and after literally walking the streets and working the beats of Nashville for fifty years, he’s told his story and done so cleverly and winningly through profiles of the coolest figures in the history of Music City.

New from Backbeat Books, it’s called Pilgrims, Pickers And Honky-Tonk Heroes: My Personal Time With Music City Friends and Legends in Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B and a Whole Lot of Country. In its pages, Tim brings you along as he chats with bass player Billy Cox about his late friend and bandmate Jimi Hendrix, sits in lounge chairs watching westerns with George Jones and talking about that time Jones almost died in a car wreck, and strolls Music Row with Kris Kristofferson, surveying the sites of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Ghianni has a gift for getting people to talk, be they everyday folks who work trades and wait for the bus or superstars from a bygone time when the gulf between the one and the other wasn’t so large.

“I can't really write effectively on the technical aspects of music,” he tells me in the conversation posted here. “What I am is a lover and a scholar of human beings. And these are just human beings. They happen to be very, very talented.”

Just as Tim could only be subjective and personal in his coverage of his favorite Nashville artists in these pages, I have affectionate history with Tim’s story. In the early 2000s, for about three years, he was my boss when I was a staff music writer at The Tennessean. Our team, working from a cell of open desks with a view of Union Station and the old gulch train tracks, was impossibly large by today’s post-apocalyptic standards of daily journalism - five of us whose beats included theater, art, books, celebrity news, and music.

The core music team was myself and the exceptional Peter Cooper who died in a tragic accident last December at age 52. Tim and Peter stayed close over the years, after Tim was shunted out of his job by a corporate structure that valued clicks above heart and art. Their relationship comes up many times in Tim’s book, which may use the word “friend” more than any other, and Cooper wrote the foreword before his untimely demise. The book certainly brought back memories for me, to a time when we covered incredible stories, such as the blackballing of the (Dixie) Chicks, the rise of Napster and file-sharing, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and the deaths of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Ghianni grew up in Chicago, but when he was 20 years old and a rising senior at Iowa State’s journalism program, his family moved to Nashville, and he took to it.

“When I first came to Nashville in ‘72, I immediately fell in love with the place. I would go down to lower Broadway, which back then was only three or four bars, and kind of a rough place with prostitutes and things. But you could go to Tootsie’s when it actually only had two floors. The back floor was where the fellows would gather in between sets at the Opry,” he remembers in our interview. “I could listen to Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell and those fellas just chatting. I did not sit with them. But I would sit close enough that I could just listen to what they were talking about. And that was great.”

In the book, we follow that youthful curiosity as Ghianni starts his career covering news, first in Clarksville and eventually at the Nashville Banner, the city’s once great afternoon newspaper. His obsession with music came naturally. His interest in country music grew as he discovered the literary edge and timeless cool of Kristofferson, Cash, Shel Silverstein, and Bobby Bare, the latter two of whom he meets in one of the book’s most charming and pivotal scenes. He’s friends with Bobby Bare to this day. Tim’s first music story per se was when he volunteered to write up a Willie Nelson concert in Clarksville in about 1976, before Willie was a household name. Years later, after covering fires, cops, floods and human interest stories, he’d bring his long simmering fascination with country music people to entertainment posts in Nashville, providing the basis for the book.

Tim writes chapters about Tom T. and Dixie Hall and their estate in Franklin guarded by peacocks, about Grandpa Jones and his memories of the terrible murder of Opry musician Stringbean Akeman, about Jefferson Street blues queen Marion James, about studio guitar maestro Harold Bradley, and soul singer Jimmy Church. He profiles Jason & The Scorchers, the most important Nashville rock and roll band of the 20th century (and Peter Cooper’s favorite) largely through an affectionate portrait of their drummer Perry Baggs, who died too young of diabetes. Over and over, it’s the personal warmth of important artists that gets Ghianni animated, especially in gentle legends like Mac Wiseman and Duane Eddy.

“This intentionally is a leisurely spin through time with some great people, written through stream of consciousness and from the heart,” Tim writes in the introduction. It wouldn’t have worked for a scholarly press, and that’s not the way we’d want to hear the Nashville story from Tim Ghianni anyway. He’s sentimental about Nashville’s character and frets that too much of it is being bulldozed or forgotten. He rambles and digresses like a good raconteur and a true adopted son of the South. He filled in gaps in my knowledge of Music City history, making me wish I’d paid even closer attention over these years and inspiring me to keep that newspaperman’s relentless curiosity alive going forward.

Our conversation is the same way - a bit rambling, affectionate, and rich with memory. I hope it inspires you to pick up Tim Ghianni’s bright-eyed and fascinating take on a unique American place and story.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org