Nashville in 1969 was a hip, happening place. It was no longer just a showcase for back wooded, hillbilly musicians and cornpone comedians. While staying true to its country roots, the town was opening up and becoming more cosmopolitan. Bob Dylan recorded his landmark Nashville Skyline album there with the help of the town's best session players. The influential poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen was living and recording there. Others like Kris Kristofferson were flocking to Nashville soon to make their mark.
Although change was in the air, the old guard still ruled and their kingdom was based at the legendary Grand Ole Opry. Back in those days you weren't anybody until you played at the famed Ryman Auditorium—home to the Opry. The Nashville Sound recently re-released on DVD is a documentary which chronicles the 44th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry and a Nashville DJ convention. It plays out like a real-life version of Robert Altman's Nashville and in fact may have been an inspiration for that film. It features performances from over 40 country legends including Johnny Cash, a young Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tex Ritter, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, groundbreaking African American country singer Charlie Pride, Roy Acuff, and Porter Wagoner. Also featured in the documentary is an aspiring singer-songwriter named Herbie Howell.
Out of nowhere it seems, young Herbie arrives straight out of central casting. All we know is that Herbie has driven all night from Augusta, Georgia in his battered VW beetle. He tells us he's 27-years old and he's looking to "make it" in Nashville, even if it takes ten years to do it. You have to admire his resolve. Dreams do die hard. He then proceeds to show us his equipment consisting of his guitar, drum machine, and bass machine, primitive by today's standards but surely fascinating in 1969. It seems Herbie is a proverbial one man band.
After a few Grand Ole Opry performances, we cut back to Herbie who has miraculously wrangled an audition in front of legendary record producer and industry mogul Shelby Singleton. Shelby to the delight of all is throwing a big party in the front yard of his mansion. Herbie is invited to play one of his songs. He asks if he can drive up a little closer to the mansion to unload his equipment. Shelby says no, but hell when you've made it this far, a little walking and toting is nothing to get upset about. After setting up, Herbie begins to sing and play. He has a sweet, folky melodic voice not at all hardcore country. The lyrics are a little sappy, but nothing that a few years of hard living can't solve. The guy does have talent and potential.
Back to more Opry performances. The next time we see Herbie, he's in a motel room telephoning his wife. He explains that he's signed three contracts including a recording and management agreement. She thinks he's joking. The cameraman has to get on the phone and assure her that it's all true. And that my friends is where the trail ends. Now I consider myself a true-blue country music aficionado. Well let me explain myself. I don't consider the vomit that spews forth from today's Nashville recording industrial complex country music. But I am up on all the 60's performers. These people actually knew a thing or two about lost highways, mind numbing back-breaking manual labor, the search for God through the fog and the haze of alcoholism, serving time in prison, abject poverty, mental anguish, broken hearts, and chronic physical pain. Their songs sung unapologetically with an authentic country twang dripping with true emotion.
Herbie Howell somehow slipped through the cracks. Could have been he had a hit or two, maybe I somehow missed it. But an internet search yields nothing. Absolutely nothing. What happened when the cameras left? Who knows. Maybe he returned to a life of quiet desperation. Maybe he contented himself in playing local clubs in front of friends and family. Who knows for sure.
I suppose what happened to Herbie Howell happens to a lot of us who are struggling artists, musicians, writers, actors, and performers. We arrive in our broken down cars to chase down an elusive dream. We arrive in some smoky bar or rundown theater in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York, London, or Bangkok. Maybe some of us are fortunate enough to get a whiff of success in our nostrils. It's easy to inhale but hard to exhale. Long after the lights have faded, we can't get it out of our souls. Let's face it, most of us never get that big break. We live, work, and struggle in obscurity but yet the flame will not die.
So there you have it—a little known country music documentary featuring an aspiring singer-songwriter who nobody ever heard of and nobody has heard from since 1969. Here's to you Herbie. Drop me a line, tell me that dreams are indeed worth chasing and that success may be just a bit overrated.