The Street That Music Made

by Bill Rouda

In 1993, dissatisfied with the direction of my career, I closed my commercial photography studio to pursue my true passion: documentary art photography. A visit to Nashville, Tennessee, in October of that year marked the beginning of a journey that would recharge my vision as a photographer and lead me to witness the passing of a unique time in the life of a city and a culture.

I did not go to Nashville with the intention of making this book but simply to visit a songwriter friend. At a party I attended the night I arrived I found myself among some of the finest American lyricists I had ever heard. In this informal setting they sang about the pain and pleasures of real life, love and hope, heartaches and triumphs. Inspired, I found myself wanting to photograph not the singers but the songs themselves.

This was not my first encounter with the music of my native South. When I was a teenager growing up in the foothills of the Carolinas, the folk music revival had made its way to a small group of us in the mid-1960s. We spent many summer days roaming the Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains, heading down gravel roads to the porches of pickers, to rural community centers and on Saturday nights to high school gyms for small shows, and some weekends to music festivals or fiddlers conventions, as they were called. We were searching for the music of the land. In Nashville, I picked up the trail.

In the following months I made several trips to Nashville trying to figure out how to translate my feelings into photographs. I found out how in the unlikeliest of places: the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway Avenue. Bringing with me not much more than wonderment, I moved to Nashville and started documenting the honky-tonks and musicians struggling and surviving along Lower Broad, an effort that would bring me closer to understanding some of the people caught up in the world of American music.

I approached my project with great simplicity, using only two cameras, a few lenses, and rarely any additional lighting other than street or stage lighting. I learned early on that strobes seemed to intimidate people and make them pose for the camera, so I opted for a less intrusive method that would allow me to blend in and make candid, unbiased photographs. My intention was to hide myself in the street, becoming a regular and something of a street character myself. I wanted to feel and see what my subjects felt and saw and translate that to film. I concealed my equipment in an army surplus satchel, grew a ponytail, and shot freely. As people began to accept me, they also allowed me to record their world on film.

Because of the technical difficulties presented by shooting fast action in low light, I often had to push my cameras and film to their limits. But I felt that recording the moment was more important than using slow, fine-grain film, maximum depth of field, and fast shutter speeds that would have made my subjects appear to be under studio conditions. Sometimes I even shot with no film in my cameras, just to give people a chance to get used to being photographed.

I made many friends on Lower Broadway. I became fascinated with the street's array of characters and how fast things could change, all with music constantly playing in the background. You never knew who might walk in off the street, get on stage and play, and either bring the house down or run people out. Two or three or more friends might have a little too much to drink, get rowdy and out of hand, and the next minute have their arms around one another, the best of buddies again. Or a star, a has-been, a wanna-be, a never-will-be, or a might-be might show up. What was happening one minute never seemed to give any indication as to what might happen the next. Sometimes it seemed as if I were in a movie with no script.

But it was the aspects of the street as it changed from skid row to the hippest place in town to a sanitized representation of itself that interested me, the mix of characters: record label executives in designer suits, talking on cell phones; fresh-faced college students; winos and hookers; working-class Americans; European and Japanese tourists in cowboy hats - all enjoying the music with the mystical muse of the past seeming to guide the way. All the regulars on the street worshiped the music, which so clearly touched their souls. The musical legends of the past, some of whom had gotten their start on Lower Broadway, cast long shadows over the street, where they were spoken of as family members. Probably not all the stories were true, but the passion the stories were told with made them worth listening to. I found myself wanting to believe them.

Lower Broadway was a complex world, one of the most intriguing places I had ever seen. I had the sense that just about anything could happen there, wild or wonderful. One cold gray day in November 1995, for instance, I was sitting in Tootsie's when a man came in to discuss the production details for an upcoming television show scheduled to be shot in Tootsie's and to feature Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and many regulars from the old days. We began to talk, and before he left I had been hired to do production stills. I felt as if I was living one of those stories where deals were made with a handshake and a contract written on a bar napkin. The production started a few days later at Tootsie's and ended at the Ryman Auditorium. Afterward I walked out on the Ryman's stage and stood in the center of a quiet, empty room. I had heard so many stories about the sensation experienced by performers on the stage that the Grand Ole Opry had made famous. For me, it was a little like standing on holy ground, as if legions of spirits from the past were present and watching over the mother church. I felt that I was conjoining with the muse and connecting with those spirits. Photographing these musical icons in something resembling their original setting was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that had come about by my being in the right place at the right time, but that's Broadway for you! The spirit of American music is rich. I feel fortunate to have been able to record a bit of its history while questing after the passion of the poets and pickers of Lower Broadway.

Bill Rouda