by Donovan Wheeler
primary photos by Jessica Briones and Joshua Hayes
Last winter, when I sat down with both Tad Robinson and Paul Holdman, I spoke to middle-aged men who’d spent half their lives mastering their craft and responding the road signs of their destiny. If one thing united them (many characteristics unite them because they’re both excellent people) it was the peace they had made with the courses their respective life-journeys had taken. That said, I always wondered what it would have been like to sit alongside a park bench in an early ‘70’s Manhattan setting and talk to a young Tad, or to go back to the late ‘80s Indy I barely remember and chat with Paul when he and I were just out of high school. I can only speculate what I would have heard them say. Both men spoke to some degree about big dreams, touring the world, and headlining the biggest stages in the nation. And like Robinson and Holdman’s youthful counterparts, many of today’s teens leave home seeking their business or artistic Shangri-La with an almost certain sense of expectation that everything is going to work out.
When Greencastle’s Carly Rhine told me last year that she was skipping college to try her hand at the music scene in Nashville, she assured me (since I was also her English teacher and very “pro-college” she pretty much had to assure me) that, if it didn’t work out she’d sign up for school the next year and tread the proverbial “straight and narrow.” That year now in the books, and the next round of students freshly graduated, I opened with the big question: Did she regret her choice?
“Honestly, it was the best decision I could have made. There are the days when I’m standing [at The Opry Backstage Grill, where I work], rolling silverware, and I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing? I could be in school…I could be moving onto my second year and have a set career when I got out.”
“[Of course the future] is terrifying because it’s so…shaky, but at the same time it’s fun. I went to school for twelve years, and prepared myself the entire time for college and for the good job after that…test after test, and all that studying. I feel that, if I had gone straight into college, I would have cracked at some point. I’m sure I would have kept with it, but I would have been frustrated for the entire experience. I’ve had so many opportunities to meet people, write and work with them…and I’ve only been there for eight months. In that time I’ve made many connections, so of course I want to keep going.”
In Greencastle, Rhine had become a popular attraction, not only among her teenage peers, but in the hard-to-please, small town adult music scene as well. Often opening for local acts such as War Radio, or even the aforementioned Tad Robinson, Rhine’s set list quickly became an attraction which drew decent crowds, usually filling up the front section of Gail Smith’s Swizzle Stick Bar on Friday nights. But building a following in a small, Midwestern college town and trying to repeat that in the nation’s 25th largest city is vastly more than a tall order, it’s a gargantuan endeavor. And while the experience initially humbled her, Rhine returned to her home town carrying a realistic grasp of her place in the pecking order.
“I couldn’t go down there with the mindset I had when I was playing up here. When I played up here, I ‘gigged around’ with a set group of musicians, and you could even say I had a following in a sense…which is great. But, in Nashville, you can’t go down there and be the jealous type or think, ‘Well, I’m better than you.’ You need to go down there and learn from people rather than try to ‘surpass’ them, because that’s not going to happen.”
“People suggest in some way that I’m down there to become Taylor Swift, which is not the case at all. Music is my passion…what I do, so I’m down there to learn and grow. There are people who’ve been down there for something like, ten years, and they finally have things going for them, but this whole idea of going down there to ‘make it big’ is not what the move was about.”
Rhine had already been to Nashville before, on serious music business, cutting her debut album with a crew that included George Marinelli (the guitarist for Bonnie Rait), Steve Mackey (the bassist for both the Wallflowers and Trisha Yearwood), and legendary percussionist Vinnie Santoro. A strong arrangement, Mended offers a range of songs which sound like a mixture of indie coffeehouse, folk, and mellow country. While some of it does seem to fit the Nashville mood, other tracks sound as if they belong near Central Park or under the shadows of the Bay Bridge.
“I get people from all walks…from everywhere who come to Nashville and assume I’m a country artist, and I get the ‘Why Nashville?’ question all the time. First of all, Nashville is where I recorded my album. At the time, shortly after high school, moving there made sense. It’s a touristy area as well. Consequently, country isn’t the only genre you’ll hear. If you were to walk down Broadway…you’re going to hear a country band. Then, if you walk to the next place, you’re going to hear a folk artist, then you’re going to hear a rock band. Nashville is this melting pot within the melting pot.”
Despite her refusal to be slotted into a type, a sentiment I’ve heard from many musicians in the last half-year, Rhine does find herself battling the industry’s need to organize and sort people…perhaps to appease the whims of the Spotify algorithms or perhaps out of some hold-over business habit still lingering from the old studio control days. Whatever the source may be, Rhine’s take on her own development sounds remarkably mature for a singer not even 20:
“I’m in a sort of ‘hipster’ mindset right now…I guess that’s the best way to describe it, and a lot of that is because I don’t know where I’d fit in terms of genre at this point. As a result I get pigeon-holed into different categories. Some people say I’m ‘Alternative Country,’ and others claim I’m ‘Folk Coffeehouse…’ I guess this defiance I’m feeling about being labeled is the ‘angsty teenager’ in me, but I just don’t know at this time what I am. I’m okay with that.”
“If I’m going to write a song, I’m going to write a song. I don’t think, ‘I’m going to write a country song.’ For example, on the day I left Nashville to come up here, I wrote a song with two other women, and [writing with them] was so different than how I go about writing. I remember one of the lines: ‘The shadows of nostalgia are dancing on the wall…’ I loved it. And the second line is: ‘Makes me think about you and when we had it all.’ Well, one of the girls said we should go with ‘Makes me think about ‘ya’ because it sounds ‘country.’ I just thought, ‘We could be doing something different with that…’ But it shows you the difference in terms of how people go about the creative process.”
“That’s really one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far, which is the way people think about writing. In Nashville, many of the people I write with think about it in a very structured fashion whereas when I would write up here with friends we wrote based on what we thought ‘sounded cool’ or ‘felt good.’”
Rhine’s mellow charisma and humbling perspective are not the products of some innate thread of genetic maturity. Her first stint in Nashville working on Mended opened more than one eye and ushered her into the more technical and nuanced world that is professional music. From learning to work the 12-string, high-low guitar, to her work with a series of percussive instruments, to her time experimenting with instrumental mixes, her studio band mates, Marinelli chief among them, exposed her to a greater depth for music theory and left her with a chapter of her life that feels both successful and also very completed.
“I like it. I’m super proud of it, and I think it’s awesome that I have that. But I’ve changed a lot already, and I’m ready to do new things and try other styles. You have to keep in mind that the songs on that first record: I played them over and over and over again in my room, getting them down, so I could play them at Starbucks or at the Swizzle Stick. Eventually, and you’ll hear this from any songwriter, we get sick of our songs so fast. Because, you write it and think it’s awesome. Then you play it to work out the kinks, so by the time you play it live in front the third person you’re ready to do something else.”
One of those new experiences is the byproduct of her work at the Backstage Grill on Broadway. Some of them are the emotional, inspirational sort of chance visits which draw a tear or give us pause and help us keep our own priorities in check:
“I’m a singing-server, so I’m a typical waitress. But, when I have time, I get up on stage and I sing to my guests. At first it was more like karaoke, and we would sing to tracks, but now the restaurant has brought in musicians. It’s a lot of fun.”
“One night I served an eight-year-old named Emma, a super-sweet girl who was part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and her wish was to be the Princess of Opryland. Everyone decked her out and ‘made’ her the Princess that night. So, when I asked her for a request, she told me she loved Imagine Dragons, and I thought, ‘Awesome, you’re my girl.’ I played ‘Radioactive’ and another song, and when I went back to her she hugged me, drew me a picture…”
“Then she said to me, ‘You know, if I had a wish it would be for you to make it.’ Tears were streaming down my face; it was one of the most adorable things that could have happened.”
And other episodes offered Rhine a wisp of future possibilities:
“It was a gloomy day, and we weren’t expected to be busy at all, and that mentally put me out of taking tables. Of course, my first table was a five-top (meaning five people). It’s much better to ease into the night with one or two people at the first table, so this plus the weather had me out of it for a bit.”
“One of the men at the table introduced himself as Mark, and turned to the guy next to him and said, ‘And this is my guitarist…’”
“We get a lot of musicians there, and most them who are any good don’t blow their own horns. So, when Mark made the point to call out his guitarist, I thought, ‘Oh great, this is how the night is going to go.’”
“However, he turned out to be pretty unpretentious and very genuine. It also turned out I’d waited on him before…I just didn’t remember. So he asked me if I was going to sing because apparently I wasn’t able when I last waited on him. I sang some Patsy Cline and Norah Jones, and he told me, ‘You have a voice that belongs in Nashville.’ I was flattered and thanked him, but most of the time people are just impressed that their server got up and sang. So I didn’t think much beyond that.”
“Later, Mark’s wife approached me, told me it was his birthday, and asked if he could get up on stage and sing with me. We get asked that all the time…people assume it actually is a sort of karaoke. When I told her that staff only were the entertainment, she said, ‘Mark is a little modest about this, but…he’s Johnny Cash’s nephew.’”
“So I played ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and some other songs—which is honestly kind of weird…sort of feels like hearing someone play your songs—and he hugged me and said, ‘You sounded just like my uncle.’”
And other times, her encounters exist as a mixture of both kinds of moments:
“I went to the Grand Ol’ Opry for the first time, and saw Mark Wills, who I’ve waited on several times at the Grill. When I saw him there, he said, ‘Why aren’t you at work?’ I said, ‘Because I’m here to support you.’”
“We went back to the restaurant and beat him there, but when he arrived he asked us to sit with him. I didn’t feel right about it. I thought it was awkward and I said, ‘I’m not going to sit with your family.’”
“I ended up sitting with them, and his daughter…who I swear I thought was sixteen, but turns out to be twelve…I’m pretty sure she’s my spirit animal [laughs]. She was awesome, and she was talking about knitting, and she’s really good at it. So she says to me, ‘I’m going to knit you a hat,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yes!’ Then she pulls up these text photos of the hat she knitted for Carrie Underwood’s baby…and I’m thinking that I’m pretty sure only two of those have been released to the public, but I’ve seen 97 of them.”
Despite the range of highs, however, Rhine must battle the low moments:
“Sometimes it hits me that I am a server. There are certainly times where it weighs on me that I’m serving food to people instead of playing downtown. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely bad. The money is good, and I’m working in an exciting and eventful town. And I also have, in terms of service work, the best gig because I can get up stage, and people who listen to me do respond well to it.”
What makes a gamble work? How do you hedge your odds, especially when they seem staggering? For Rhine, the trick is finding support in the myriad, mutual souls toiling away along Broadway, all seeking the same sort of vindication and authentication she does. And since that comes to each of them at varying levels, Rhine shifts her focus from an unhealthy obsession on results to a more fruitful focus on the journey itself. By putting her lens on the talent in front of her, she’s embraced her opportunity to improve behind the guitar and in front of the mike.
“The Grill just hired twins from West Virginia. They’ve been over every night since they’ve shown up, and we just kind of jam. We’re getting ready to write, and we’ve basically formulated a band. The thinking here is that you’re going to be taken more seriously as a group than as one person because a group sounds a lot fuller, and that sound’s going to grab peoples’ ears.”
“In a way, even though I’ve only been down there for eight months, I’ve already made it. I’m happy; I get to play music and write all the time, and I am surrounded with music every day. And no matter happens to you individually, in a place like Nashville, you get to see first-hand the bands and people who probably are really going to make it.”
One of those promising acts is Brassfield Aly: a trio comprised of two brothers from Mississippi and young lead singer from Florida.
“Honestly they’re really good, and I think any moment they’re going to take off as a country music act. Right now, they’re so close they can sense it, but I also know that they’re just as happy at this moment as any of the rest of us. More importantly—for me at least—is that I’m around them five days a week, and even though I’m not fully into country, they’re teaching me so much in terms of music theory. Bradley Brassfield is a phenomenal musician who’s taught me how to tweak pitches and chords and do things I had no idea I could do.”
“Not fully into country,” regardless of Rhine’s earlier disclaimer about the variety of styles running along Broadway, comes off as an out-of-place starting point…at best. But by surrounding herself with a genre she’s distinctly not accustomed to, Rhine has drawn from her on-the-street school of music theory. The resulting discovery not only unlocks a catalog of music she would have otherwise dismissed, but it’s reminded her that music is good for very basic reasons:
“I’m surrounded by country music every day, and I have to listen to it. The Grill plays these ‘Opry Loops’ every hour, every day, and…sometimes…they make you want to pull your eyeballs out. But every once in a while you hear something that works, something that’s really good.”
“You talk to any musician, and you’re going to see how much they appreciate music for what it is, regardless of the genre. For the good ones, the genre is secondary. And actually the only thing that makes the genre the ‘genre’ is the background music. If you were to strip down the ‘Screamo metal’ guitar riffs and heavy drums and just listen to the lyrics, you realize they can be just as deep as any indie folk song. So country is just seeing it for what is: which is music and realizing that, whoever wrote one song or another, had the same kind of passion that I do…the same drive that I have, and I respect that.”
In the end, whether Carly Rhine plays nationally in front of enormous crowds, returns home and plays the Indy scene, or settles somewhere else, what won’t matter will be whether she scored the chart-busting hit or the breakout album. It will be what it was always about from the beginning.
“I’ll still be doing what I love. That gets back to my original idea of ‘making it.’ If that’s what they love to do, and they’re happy doing it, then they’ve ‘made it.’”
Cover Photo by Joshua Hayes / Featured Image by Jessica Briones